A strange thing happened in the process of deciding a verdict on the new 2015 BMW 125i: I discovered its inner 3 Series.
Not the contemporary mid-sized family. Nor, while we’re at it, any properly M car. I mean the older stuff, such as the ’90s-generation E36, relatively straightforward, well-resolved, rear-driven cars for the everyman with a kind of soul that underpinned BMW’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ credo.
It’s more than just that today’s ‘one’ is roughly the same size and weight as these older ‘threes’. It’s that if you want a driving experience as faithful to the halcyon day-3 Series as possible within today’s BMW fleet, the 1 Series hatch – or, of course, its mechanical 2 Series coupe twin – is your guy.
Moreover, with the next-generation 1 Series set to follow the rest of cardom down the front-wheel-driven rabbit hole into the safety of motoring gentrification, this 2015 LCI update may well be the last opportunity to indulge in a small car from Munich with north-south engine placement, wider rear tyres and a characteristically rear-driven soul.
The whole 1 Series range benefits from sharper pricing, improved standard equipment levels and the more palatable, Aussie-designed exterior face-lift.
Of course, not all ‘ones’ are created equal, and of the five-variant-strong facelifted 1 Series LCI generation it’s the mid-spec 125i that strikes the ‘classic’ 3 Series touch points most faithfully. Despite its fairly innocuous position in BMW’s model hierarchy, the 125i brims with The Right Stuff and deserves a big blip on car-loving romanticists’ radar, though it’s the kind of ‘stuff’ not readily apparent by specification list alone.
From the kick-off, the 125i lands at $48,900 before on-roads and options. It’s not only $2100 more affordable than the old-look, but loads in a host of formerly optional M Sport equipment including M Sport Package suite (lowered and retuned suspension, ‘M light’ 18-inch wheels, sports seats and steering wheel, styling accoutrements) and M Sport brakes, some $4000 of extra value.
At 160kW and 310Nm, its 2.0-litre turbocharged four may be the second-most-powerful engine in the 1 Series family, but it’s a sizeable 80kW and 140Nm shy of the 135i’s three-litre turbo six. And it comes up short, too, on the 180kW and 350Nm offer in the 228i coupe.
For context, you can get a 162kW/350Nm 2.0 Volkswagen Golf GTI with DSG auto for $43,490. The premium for the 'Bimmer' badge actually isn't massive.
What the 125i lacks in heroic numbers, it compensates for in sweetness and flexibility. It’s very responsive off idle with no lag, and from peak torque’s arrival at 1350rpm through to the 6000rpm redline – well beyond peak power’s 5000rpm entry point – it provides smooth and seamless energy. There are no peaks, no troughs, and there's no falling off the boil at any point. And that’s in default comfort mode where many rivals’ two-litre units are left wanting for response and drivability.
The form guide might stop purists in their tracks at ‘automatic transmission’, but the eight-speed, paddleshifted sport-tuned unit is a well-polished gem. There’s no low-speed ‘dual-clutch’ jerkiness or histrionics and it self-shifts intuitively and seamlessly. Better yet, when left in comfort drive mode, it adapts superbly to dramatic changes in throttle input and driving style, remaining unflappable when suddenly called to arms.
This powertrain completely sidesteps the compromised too-lazy/too-aggressive foibles suffered by dual-clutch rivals – even better, without so much as touching the drive mode switch. This impacts favourably on the 125i’s pleasant, fuss-free around town persona, particularly in low-speed manoeuvring and during stop-start driving. There are, though, four drive modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ – to choose from, each presenting a satisfying change in corresponding character.
Nor does the automatic drop the ball in manual mode, responding superbly to driving inputs. And this BMW breed is among an ever-shrinking crop of cars offering both (wheel-mounted) paddles and a (backwards-for-upshift) console shifter correctly oriented for performance driving.
Activate Launch Control, as standard, and the seat of the pants acceleration feels to match the 125i’s official 6.2-second 0-100km/h claim. While it’s not the quickest sub-$50K device on the block, its flexible drivability presents ample on-tap potency when lunging for gaps in the urban cut and thrust and it doesn’t hang about on the open road. Select Eco Pro and, at speeds above 50km/h, there’s a handy ‘sailing mode’ that decouples drive off throttle, and you need it to get anywhere near BMW’s combined 6.5L/100km fuel consumption claim. Instead, our testing returned a far thirstier 8.5-litre figure.
Surprising is how much grip was available from the Bridgestone run-flats – 225mm 18s up front, fatter 245mms in the rear – during a road loop that transitioned between dry and monsoon-ally wet running. With some sleight of active hand from the electronic diff lock, the drive from the rear tyres was tremendous even through standing water. The traction control allows a generous amount of wheel slip before it reels in the engine torque.
Hook it through some back road curves and Dynamic Stability and Traction Control systems loosen their reins further, allowing the superb chassis balance and poise to shine brightly. Like its 2 Series brethren, the 1 Series is a tough act to beat for small car driver enjoyment, in lieu of being able to be driven ‘on the throttle’ in a way so many front- and all-wheel-drive rivals can’t.
Another point on the long list of standard equipment is Variable Sport Steering with Servotronic, it’s ratio-altering trickery reasonably subtle, leaving the steering feeling quite natural and transparent. It’s nice and light at low speed and though not brimming with feel provides a convincing connection between driver and road.
If there’s an extras box we rate as a mandatory tick it’s the Adaptive M Suspension. It’s a modest $1092 option that, again in Comfort drive mode, provides damping that tempers road imperfections small or large and provides accomplished ride comfort without leaving body control flaccid. While the firmer Sport/Sport+ suspension setting may pay dynamic dividends on track, the trusty default mode strikes such a polished blend of ride comfort and handling that you might rarely find yourself reaching for the so-called ‘driving experience’ selector.
This additional feature is indicative of the sporty M addenda featured throughout, all of which feels integrated – as opposite to simply added – to the overall 125i package. And it is indicative of the treatment of this latest 2015 facelift: incremental improvements everywhere, leaving the whole package feeling well integrated and thoroughly resolved.
The interior is typical BMW fare: strong nods to traditional styling, workmanlike fit-and-finish, few surprises and nothing like the flash of some rival premium small cars. It could be the long cabin, deep foot wells, low-slung seating or prominent transmission tunnel, but it feels like a proper rear-driver from the first row. The size of the cabin, its proportions, the simple analogue instrumentation design…there’s that old-school 3 Series vibe again.
The same classic essence applies to the M Sport Package seats, with their large, firm and narrow set shoulder and hip bolsters that pin you upright. The Dakota leather – a $1690 premium over the standard cloth/Alcantara trim – is suitably upmarket, though you need to cough up a further $2100 for seat heating and electric adjustment. The small-spoked, leather-trimmed M steering wheel presents well, though the chunky leather rim won’t suit all tastes.
The infotainment system remains one of the best in the biz, the iDrive interface intuitive and easy to use, the Navigation System Business reasonably slick and its real-time traffic flow design (called RTTI) a notch above over rival’s traffic warning systems in everyday usefulness. Notable markdowns are the absence of a digital speedo – a real licence saver – and that some buyers won’t warm to the stoic styling.
Second-row room and comfort is adequate rather than exceptional, though the 360-litre luggage space – converting to 1200 litres with the rear seats stowed – is, in practice, more useable than rivals such as the A-Class.
To break the 125i down to practicality and equipment credentials misses the point of its biggest drawcard. Instead, it provides a straightforward, rear-driven, well-resolved and engaging driving experience without excesses of power and pricing. And this new facelift polishes an already enticing package to a more enticing glow, right down to the exterior styling.
If that all sounds like a bit of you, get in while you can. Because future plans to keep up with the front-driven Joneses mean this classic take on pint-sized German driving enjoyment is, sadly, very much on borrowed time.