The 1-series is unmistakably a BMW with its kidney-shaped grille, long bonnet and twin-barrel headlamps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best looking around. In fact, its ungainly proportions – short, tall and backward leaning – make it look a touch awkward. It simply doesn’t make the brilliant first impression that the A-class manages so easily. There is some nice detailing, like the strong shoulder line and the accents in the headlight units (base models don’t get projector headlamps) and the classic Hofmeister kink, but overall, it’s quite a bland design.
The 1-series is compact, even for its class; both the A-class and the V40 are bigger. But importantly, the 1-series’ wheelbase is relatively generous, in the interests of cabin space and to compensate for the longitudinal engine, RWD layout, which isn’t the most space efficient.
To achieve BMW’s trademark 50:50 weight distribution, the engine had to be pushed back to almost behind the front axle line and the battery moved to the boot floor where the spare wheel is normally placed. And there isn’t a spare wheel; BMW, being BMW, has stubbornly stuck to run-flat tyres despite the growing dissonance from Indian customers who want the security of a spare.
The 1-series’ suspension has been completely revamped from the previous generation (E21), which drew criticism for its not-so-involving handling. The new car gets a five-link rear axle and MacPherson struts up front, complemented by a double-joint, cross-strut front axle. The track is also pretty wide and this gives the 1-series a planted stance, but it’s not as hunkered down as it could be thanks to the raised suspension for the Indian-spec models. The Indian 1-series gets BMW’s ‘rough-road’ suspension that offers better damping on bad roads and ground clearance that’s been jacked up from 140mm to 157mm – very useful when tackling speed breakers.
There’s also a new electro-mechanical steering system, which alters its weight and feel depending on the mode chosen on the Driving Experience Control system.
In fact, all variants of the 1-series come with the system, which also alters gearbox and engine responses.
To make amends, BMW has packed the top-end 118d Sportline Plus with all the goodies, like all-leather electric sports seats, auto xenon lamps, rain-sensing wipers and a sunroof. But there’s an expensive catch. The difference between the on-road prices of the base 116i and 118d Sportline Plus is over Rs 10 lakh!
The dashboard design is familiar BMW territory. It’s uncluttered, has the centre console canted towards the driver and an instrument cluster that houses large and clear dials. There are nice touches like the metal finish on the pedals and chunky door handles, but the switches all feel a bit too small and aren’t great to operate. The cabin’s quality and ambience are well judged for an entry-level BMW, but it’s short on pizzazz and doesn’t have the drama of the A-class. The front seats on the Sportline Plus are incredibly supportive, with adjustable thigh support and strong side bolsters to keep you in place whilst cornering hard.
At the rear, the 1-series isn’t as cramped as its cabin suggests. BMW engineers have managed to carve out space where it matters and headroom (the roof liner is scooped out) and legroom are decent. The squab too is quite generous, but what marks comfort down is the lack of lower back support and a backrest that’s a touch too upright. Also, the high transmission tunnel makes it difficult for a middle passenger to sit, and hence, the 1-series is strictly a four-seater. The boot is quite big for a hatchback
A pair of four-cylinder engines power this smallest of BMWs, one petrol and one diesel. The 1,995cc ‘N47’ diesel is a familiar one; we’ve already seen it in ‘20d’ guise in the 3-series, 5-series, X1 and X3, as well as in the 525d. However, here, in the 118d, it makes 141bhp and 32.6kgm. These figures still compare favourably with the diesel engines of its closest rivals, the A-class and the V40 Cross Country.
A pleasant surprise is that it is quite refined; almost more so than a 3-series. The NVH levels are impressively low, both at idle and on the go, and it gets harsh only near the top of the rev range. This milder state of tune suggests less aggressive turbo-charging, which means less noise.
The power delivery is smooth. This engine is incredibly linear for a diesel, and while you enjoy the almost petrol-like journey up the power band, you do miss that characteristic surge of torque that you get in the mid-range with most diesel engines.
So, is the mid-range weak? No – it’s just a bit flatter than you’d expect, and if you’re worried about being able to pull off an overtake on a whim, the gearbox is there to help. The eight-speed ZF automatic, also shared with the bigger Bimmers, works brilliantly in the 1-series. With the ‘Driving Experience Control’ switch set in the default Comfort mode, the shifts are soft and seamless, and the gearbox is still decently quick to react to pedal inputs. In Eco Pro mode, the ’box can’t wait to upshift, and even if you’re cruising at 60-70kph, that’s good enough for eighth gear
Put it in Sport or Sport+, however, and you’d better have a clear stretch of road, because the engine responses quicken and the transmission just darts through the gears. Keep your foot in, and it won’t shift up until its 4,800rpm redline. Overall, the power delivery gets in its stride at about 1,500rpm, and builds strongly till about 4,000rpm. The 118d hits 100kph in 9.02sec, just 0.4sec after the V40 and much ahead of the diesel A-class.
The petrol is a 1,598cc, direct-injection, turbocharged motor that makes a healthy 134bhp and 24.47kgm of torque on overboost. Like the diesel, it is only available with the ZF automatic and that’s a good thing. Unlike the earlier, naturally aspirated BMW petrols that loved to be revved but had weak mid-ranges, this turbo-petrol has a meaty and wide torque curve. The ZF ’box masks whatever minimal turbo lag there is and the engine will spin happily to 6,500rpm, accompanied by a nice exhaust snarl and a muted turbo whistle.
It’s quite an enthusiastic motor overall, and though it won’t set pulses racing like Skoda’s 1.8 TSI, its broad powerband makes it effortless to drive. It’s no slouch, with a reasonably quick 8.8sec 0-100kph time and a top speed of 210kph.
While purists may wax eloquent about BMW’s 50:50 weight balance and rear-wheel-drive configuration, it doesn’t require an expert to notice the benefits either. Driver involvement begins with the steering, which is light, bristling with feel and superbly weighted. If there’s one thing that’s missing, it’s the zero slack around the straight-ahead position that previous BMWs were known for. However, with this latest-generation electromechanical steering, BMW has cracked it.
The 1-series turns into corners quite enthusiastically, and though there is some body roll, there’s superb grip all round, which tempts you to press on harder. At the limit, the 1-series strongly understeers, which maybe a disappointment for enthusiasts, but with the DSC completely switched off (recommended only on a deserted road), it’s possible to balance the car with the throttle and even indulge in power oversteer antics.
The biggest revelation though is the ride quality, which, even on Mumbai’s worst roads, is surprisingly pliant. The fact that BMW achieved a comfortable ride on the usually ride-corrupting run-flat tyres makes it all the more impressive. Sharp edges and shallow potholes are nicely rounded off and its only deep craters that crash with the suspension using up all of its limited travel.
At high speeds, the 1-series feels rock steady, but on bumpy roads, the ride isn’t very flat. And because of the softly sprung suspension, there’s a fair bit of vertical movement too. However, it’s never uncomfortable or disconcerting and you always feel fully in command.