It’s a gloomy Melbourne day with a forecast of torrential rain. Your mission (should you choose to accept it): make it to six house inspections in two hours.
As an added challenge, all of the inspections are taking place in tiny, one-way inner-city streets with limited parking. Oh, and the traffic is terrible.
A logistical nightmare, yes, but also the perfect proving ground for BMW’s new-generation 118i – the more affordable member of the 1 Series family and the smallest hatch on offer from the German carmaker.
The 2020 iteration of the 1 Series marks the first time BMW has embraced front-wheel drive on its smallest hatchback; something it apparently used to adamantly swear it would never do.
But hey, I used to say I’d never wear trackpants in public, and yet, here we are.
The new 118i is shorter and wider than its predecessor, with a few more features bumping the price up by around $4000 on previous models.
I struggle to get my head around BMW’s convoluted naming conventions at the best of times (and yes, Mercedes and Audi are just as bad), so for others like me, the 118i is the little sister of the M135i, which is the hotter hatch and the artist formerly known as the M140i.
The M Sport package now comes as standard across the range, meaning the base-level 2020 BMW 118i looks and feels racier and has more equipment.
But while I’m a self-confessed brand snob, my main preoccupation in writing this review was whether BMW has done enough to charm me away from the plethora of more affordable hatchbacks available.
And what better way to answer that question than by subjecting the car to some of the most frustrating driving conditions available? Enter apocalyptic weather, terrible traffic, and lots of places to be in a limited timeframe. Let’s do this.
Price and competitors
If you’re shopping for a 1 Series, chances are you’re also contemplating cars like the hatchback versions of the Mercedes-Benz A-Class (from around $43,900 before on-road costs), the Audi A3 (from $36,600 plus ORCs) or the Volkswagen Golf (from $25,390 plus ORCs).
The 118i starts at $42,990 plus on-road costs, meaning it’s the second-most expensive of this group after the Merc, while the M135i is substantially pricier at a starting point of $63,990 plus on-road costs.
Thus, the 118i is officially the most affordable BMW on offer, so if you’ve got champagne taste on a beer budget, this could be your ticket to the luxe life.
In terms of a buyer profile for the 118i, you’re possibly looking at BMW lovers who have long wanted a FWD hatch and aren’t too fussed with the performance extras and added power on offer from the M135i.
Under the bonnet
The 118i apparently shares a lot of its genes with the Mini Cooper, including the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged engine under its hood, which produces a demure 103kW of power and 220Nm of torque.
It’s got a top speed of 213km/h and can go 0–100km/h in 8.5 seconds – taco night at my house can elicit a similar response time.
Power is sent to the front wheels via the seven-speed twin-clutch auto transmission, and if you’ve stopped reading at this point because of all the numbers, I honestly don’t blame you. Stay with me.
Behind the wheel
To me, the BMW 118i felt zippy but fidgety at lower speeds, with the three-cylinder engine trembling lightly on idle and the transmission a bit jolty when it came to parking or driving in stop-start traffic.
This would be manageable if it weren’t for the inclusion of the idle-stop system which, under the wrong circumstances (i.e. crowded, narrow side streets and wet-weather-riddled city roads), can make the overall driving experience a tad spasmodic.
After an hour of driving from inspection to inspection, my passenger remarked that he felt a creeping urge to throw up out the side window (don’t worry, he didn’t). I also found the combination of lower ride height, jolty idle-stop and bumpy ride to be a bit nausea-inducing after long periods.
This wasn’t helped by the standard M Sport suspension, which lowers the car by 10mm and means you’re going to feel that bad concrete-laying job in your spinal cord. And that’s even with all the drive settings switched to ‘Comfort’.
I checked to see if run-flat tyres could be contributing to this rough sensation, but BMW informed me the 118i was on regular tyres.
Traction is improved by special wheel-slip technology that supposedly makes the 118i smooth and stable around corners, but even it struggled in a Melbourne downpour and I found the tyres occasionally battled to get hold in the wet.
The M Sport steering option (which adds an extra $308) certainly felt as though it made a difference, as the car’s steering was one of my highlights, and able to take sharp corners without much input.
As is to be expected, the safety inclusions on the 118i cover all bases and work flawlessly, although adaptive LED headlights with high-beam assist will cost you an extra $731.
Parking sensors are on the overzealous side, meaning a tiny street in the inner-east had me yelling, “Oh just SHUT UP already!”, while the anxious seatbelt alarm will annoy you into buckling up immediately (clever tactic, BMW).
As standard there’s a head-up display, speed limiter, rear-view camera, lane-change warning, lane-departure warning, approach-control warning with city-braking intervention, rear cross-traffic warning, rear-collision prevention and speed limit info.
Active cruise control (with the ability to bring the car to a complete stop) is a $528 option.
I’ll never not be impressed by BMW’s self-park technology, which came in handy on a particularly nightmarish one-way street. It's standard on the 118i.
I was especially awed by the ‘Reversing Assistant’, which made its debut in the 1 Series segment this year. The function remembers the particular combination of manoeuvres you made in order to get into a tricky parking spot, and replicates them in reverse to get you back out again. Clever.
Equally as unsurprising as the 118i's solid safety features are its good looks.
BMW has managed to avoid a front-heavy FWD car, and the car’s badge, sleek lines and instantly recognisable grille add some X-factor to what would otherwise be merely a more-attractive-than-your-average hatchback.
The M Division’s signature red-and-blue three-stripe design features on the doors, seats and mats, and is carried through to the key, demonstrating an attention to detail I greatly appreciated.
The two 10.25-inch digital displays make quite an impact and really remind you you’re in a premium car, although I’d like to submit my vote for the ‘wheel of fortune’ control dial in the centre console to be removed, as it feels dated.
The 118i I drove was also fitted with a striking panoramic glass sunroof (the first time one’s been available on the 1 Series), but given it’s a $2000 addition, it’s perhaps not the most economical eye candy.
The 118i brings the goods on the tech front, thanks to fully customisable instrument and dash displays, plus essentials like a wireless charging port, speed limiter and keyless start.
The only obvious omission is Android Auto, with BMW planning to integrate it into the BMW Connected Package Professional as standard after July 2020, without a subscription fee or time limit.
While Android Auto is out, it's possible to unlock the car using the BMW Digital Key on certain Android phones (technology that is not yet available for Apple smartphones), so you win some, you lose some.
Happily, Apple CarPlay is available and no longer a limited-time subscription, after BMW wisely decided to waive the $479 three-year subscription fee.
The satellite navigation system has specific details on bad traffic areas as well as parking lots, rest stops, petrol stations and landmarks, but I found the crowded visual display often made it difficult to see your route clearly.
The BMW intelligent personal assistant is also worth a call-out – it’s like Siri’s upmarket older sister, able to learn your routines and habits (like your route home or your preferred temperature) and apply them to make life easier.
Space and comfort
According to BMW, the new-gen 118i, “offers more space [than its predecessor] within a footprint that is almost identical”.
For those playing at home, it’s 34mm wider and 13mm higher than the last 118i, with an additional 33mm of knee room in the rear and an extra 19mm of head room. Those numbers translate to a roomy front seat and an impressively deep back seat with solid leg room.
Where the car falls short is rear head room – taller passengers will be left nursing a crooked neck, and there are no rear air vents to add insult to (literal) injury.
Plenty of people appreciate a sporty seat, but I had more than a few passengers remark on the 118i’s "fat-shaming" front seats that “hug your kidneys” with their snug sides. I didn’t notice the kidney-caressing, but broader drivers might feel swaddled.
There’s also no seat heating function as standard (it's a $577 option) and the seats are manual, but the single-zone air conditioning is speedy at cooling down the car’s cabin and warming it up (I used both functions in my day of inspections because, Melbourne).
Boot space in the 118i has been upped by 20L, bringing it to 380L in total, which is pretty much the standard in its segment and more than enough for a car of its size. The rear seats fold down almost flat for a total of 1200L of room.
However, the boot door doesn’t raise or lower for you (it’s an option), and what's the point of splashing that extra cash on a premium car if not for cushy touches like that?
Value for money
Kitted out with a sunroof, steering, metallic paintwork and LED headlights, the 118i I drove was $47,337 all up.
Given none of these things were essential (though the steering was certainly welcome), you could absolutely opt for the entry-level $42,990 price and be satisfied with the level of equipment.
While BMW claims a combined fuel consumption figure of 5.9L/100km, my week of driving came in at 8.0L/100km. Given BMW recommends 95RON premium unleaded petrol, this can add up.
The warranty is three years/unlimited kilometres (standard for prestige brands, but the mass brands offer longer warranties) and a basic five-year/80,000km pre-paid capped-price servicing package starts at $1550, which is actually pretty reasonable.
All in all, for a car that’s not meant for a racetrack, I found the 118i a bit too hard for my liking.
Given it’s essentially a city hatch, I would have liked a bit more focus on comfort over X-factor, because driving it around for my morning of house inspections left me feeling queasy and keen for a break.
I’d struggle to live with the buck-wild idle-stop system, but given fuel consumption can edge a bit higher, you probably need it if you want to keep costs down.
So who’s buying this car? I’d suggest it’s too pricey for a first car, obviously too small for a family or those planning to start one, and a little too rough and ready for boomer downsizers.
It’s really optimised for younger buyers looking to spend some of that disposable income, BMW loyalists seeking a second runaround car, or aspiring luxury lovers investing in baby’s first BMW.