BMW 120d Review & Road Test

Rating: 8.0
$37,300 Mrlp
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BMW 120d: the economic hot-hatch

Model Tested:

  • 2009 BMW E87 120d; 2.0-litre, four-cylinder, turbo-diesel; six-speed manual; five-door hatch - $46,790*

Options Available:

  • See bottom of page.

CarAdvice Rating:

by Matt Brogan & Alborz Fallah

Marrying sharp driving dynamics and strong performance credentials with drip-sipping fuel consumption figures and a low carbon footprint sounds like a match that, if not already deep in couple’s therapy, is well en route to a bitter divorce.

In fact most so-called green vehicles are about as exciting to drive a fun park go-kart - you know, the ones that couldn’t fight their way out of the proverbial wet paper bag – a stigma I’m certain no self-discerning driving enthusiast would dare want gracing their garage.

BMW’s Efficient Dynamics program has set about changing the ‘green means gutless’ philosophy with a range of cars that finally melds the best of both worlds expectation that, until now, has been sorely lacking.

Case in point the newest member of the Bavarian brotherhood, the compact 120d.

Combining on-road substance with environmental responsibility the 120d features a powerful yet lean 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine mated to a slick shifting six-speed manual gearbox and intelligent stop-start technology.

The result is an eager performing five-door hatch capable of accelerating from rest to 100km/h in 7.6 seconds whilst simultaneously delivering a hybrid-esque fuel consumption figure of just 5.2L/100km (combined, as tested).

It might seem tantamount to mechanical voodoo, but the smooth, confident power delivery and impressively low figures of the 120d’s fuel consumption figures prove otherwise.

This 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit develops a sinewy 130kW of power and, from just 1750 rpm, a brawny 350Nm of torque that sees this green go getter perform in a manner not far off "hot hatch" times just a few years back. An intelligent and quick thinking stop-start system is also on hand to save precious fuel while idling, as is a gear shift indicator to provide hints as to when best shift gear for maximum efficiency.

It's all well and good to stick a giant Efficient Dynamics sign on the side of a car and claim fuel efficiency, it's a totally different matter if you can actually deliver results. BMW's Efficient Dynamics program is essentially the idea that there are enough technologies available today to make fuel efficient cars without the need for hybrids.

This is not to say BMW is not going into hybrid cars, far from it, the German company is currently developing hybrid cars for the future, so if you can appreciate how frugal these Efficient Dynamic models are now, just imagine how good they will be with a hybrid system. Plus knowing how well BMW build engines, its future hybrid systems will certainly revolutionise hybrid cars.

The key features of BMW's Efficient Dynamic models include highly optimised engines, an auto start stop function which turns the car off when not moving, brake energy regeneration technology that harnesses and captures the vehicle’s kinetic energy (as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator or you brake) into electricity to charge up the battery.

There is even an electric power steering system that uses an electric motor to assist the steering. As oppose to a hydraulic system, BMW's electric steering assist only activates only during actual steering manoeuvres. Combined with the other technologies in the car that help generate electricity, it all means more bang for your buck at the bowser.

Getting a little more technical here, BMW has developed a simple but genius (as often the case) system that can close the vents in front of the radiator when cooling in not needed, helping reduce air resistance and hence fuel consumption. When the engine requires it, the vents are open and air flows in.

Special reduced rolling resistance tyres are also employed for all BMW's Efficient Dynamic models. Using special materials in the tread and side sections of the tyre means less flexing and hence better fuel economy.

All these ideas separately probably won't make much difference, but put them all together and employ a brilliant diesel engine and what you get is a car that is not only efficient but also fun to drive.

During my time with the 120d I had the pleasure of being stuck in Melbourne traffic for two hours and 14 minutes (yes, I had a stop watch). This meant moving five metres, stopping for two minutes and moving for another five metres. The sort of traffic that would drive Mother Theresa mad.

Initially I thought, oh dear, mix this with a manual transmission and it's going to be hell, but as the 120d is so easy to drive it was a non-issue. In fact with the auto-start system it meant the car continued to turn itself on and off for each one of those two minute periods.

Interestingly if the climate control is on and you've been sitting in idle for a little too long with the engine off, it may start to get a little hot in the car. Thankfully the Be-em-veh is smart enough to work this out and turns the engine back on for your comfort. Heavy traffic is probably the only environment in which a Prius would have it over the 120d, having that battery to power the cars electrics and drive the car completely on electricity is what the Prius does best.

What the 120d does that current hybrids can only dream about is proper acceleration. Unlike other green cars, the 120d actually goes and when I mean goes, I mean it really goes.

Put your foot down in second at about 30km/h and the turbo will kick in and you'll be pushed back into your seat. My partner said during the drive "how is this efficient, it's too quick to be saving fuel". I suppose that should give you an idea of how BMW intends to change perceptions. 250+ kilometres of traffic and lead-foot driving and we were only just starting to go under the 3/4 mark.

It will get you from 0-100km/h faster than a basic Commodore or Falcon and that's saying a lot for a car which is focused on being fuel efficient.

Efficient Dynamics apart, the driving dynamics are typical BMW; precise, sporty and extremely fun. Driven via the rear-wheels (like all BMWs ) the 120d will grip into corners (despite the special tyres) and can act like a sports car when needed. There is nothing "green" and slow about the way this car gets about.

On the highway road noise is kept at a minimum thanks to BMW's obsession with quality window seals, meanwhile the stereo even in this basic 120d will put many rivals to shame.

It's a similar story throughout the cabin with all features being of excellent quality while also simple and intuitive in function.

While the rear seat may be a little cramped if you're facing taller front seat passengers, the 120d is indeed spacious enough for its intended purpose and boasts a decent 330 litre boot that can be expanded to 1150 litres with the 60:40 split fold seats out of the way.

Safety features include ABS with cornering brake control, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist. A full house of airbags, traction and stability control also contribute to the 120d's five-star ANCAP crash test rating.

The 120d is the current entry point in to BMW's Efficient Dynamics range, and with a price point of just $46,790*, is the best value, best of both world's premium hatch on the market.

The 120d will be joined by a less performance orientated version, the 118d, early in the new year.


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Options Available:

  • Metallic Paint $1308; Seat Heaters $561; Sunroof $2246; Headlamp Washers $576; Leather Upholstery $2000; Lumbar Support $493; Ski Bag $300; Voice Recognition System $700; Satellite Navigation $2500; Premium Audio Package $1600; M Sport Suspension $600; Electrically Operated Seats (with memory) $2239; Comfort Access System $1154; Active Steering $2200; M Sport Package $4000; Park Distance Control $550; Bluetooth Connectivity $790; Bi-Xenon Headlamps $1577; Anti-dazzle Mirrors $539; iPod Interface $500; Alarm $769; High Beam Assist $246; Adaptive Headlamps $723