Clean, and mean?
You’re probably familiar with the oldadage that if you try to be all things toall people, you’re very unlikely to succeed. Itwas this thought that crossed my mind whendriving BMW’s latest offering, the 118i. At theheart of the issue is how BMW’s ecologicallyminded Efficient Dynamics approach can bereconciled with the more prevailing ‘ultimatedriving machine’ slogan of the past. Make nomistake – this is a war of ideologies, and it’s ahigh-tech war, waged by unseen computers,commanded by an infinite number of optionsavailable within the car’s idrive menu. BMWclearly wants the best of both worlds fortheir owners: a road warrior on Sunday, andan eco machine on Monday. But does all thiselectronic management actually achieve thatlofty ambition or instead leave the car neitherone nor the other?
First impressions were a little mixed. Onthe one hand, the new 1 Series offers sharpnew styling including a heavily revised frontend, making it easier on the eye than the firstgeneration model. It has a range of hot newengines, it appears bigger than its predecessor,it’s rear wheel drive in a class of front wheeldrivers, and has almost perfect weightdistribution. And heck, it’s a BMW – what’s notto like?
On the other hand, certain features are allabout efficiency. The auto-stop function, forexample, that sees the engine cut out everytime you come to a standstill in an effort tocut fuel consumption. Admittedly, this can bedisabled, but the test car defaulted back to thismode every time you turned it off. The electricsteering – it’s more efficient, but frankly,lifeless. Likewise, the tricky new dynamiccomputer set up is strongly focused on how tomaximise the compact BMW’s fuel economy.Worthy, but it hardly shouts ‘driving dynamics.’
To get to the heart of the 1 Series character,we decided to abandon Wellington’s innersuburbs (the BMW’s natural hunting ground,in other words) and hit the Wairarapa for theday. Would this middle of the range car with aprice tag of $55,500 be more than just a handyreceptacle for the bi-annual wine buy-up? Toits credit, we were immediately impressed bythe 1 Series’ ride quality. Despite run flat tyres,the car rides supremely, soaking up the bumpsbut feeling suitably firm on the twisty stuff.It’s also a comfortable place to be. There wasspace aplenty for three, with good rear-seataccommodation, while the practicality of thehatch body shape was immediately clear. Whenit comes to connectivity, think iPod – the 1Series has everything the current generationwould expect and more, although some of thefunctions weren’t especially intuitive. All goodstuff.
But it wasn’t until late in the day, duringa spirited run home over a virtually desertedRimutaka Hill that the true character of the1 Series emerged. It may only have a 1.6 litreengine capacity but with not one but twoturbo chargers and 125kW on tap, the littleBMW can really fly when it puts its mind toit. Hugging the corners like a limpet, all eightspeeds working efficiently, the BMW showedsome genuine performance and handlingchops – enough to elevate it in my mind froman also ran, to a genuinely desirable hot hatch.
The bottom line then? The BMW succeeds asboth a bahn-stormer and a polite, fuel-efficienthatch – given this, its combined fuel economycycle of just 5.8 litres per 100km is impressive.I like too the fact that technology plays a bigpart in achieving this. I am especially relievedthat the essence of the BMW has beenretained and this is a car you can be genuinelyproud of. Let’s hope prospective buyers havea Rimutaka Hill equivalent in their backyard or,like me initially, they just might not appreciatewhat they’ve got.