BMW’s smallest model had just had its mid-life refresh and now comes with only one engine. We find out if this Cat A fighter can punch above its weight.
Photos by Joel Tam
BMW’s styling direction has been a bit of a hit-or-miss affair for me of late. Though for the most part bland and inoffensive, some of its models have been fairly sharp lookers (4-series Gran Coupe/2-series), while others have the capacity to make little children scream in horror (5-series GT/X6). Sadly, with its stubby trapezium-shaped headlights and protruding grille, the pre-facelift F20 generation 1-series’ looks were closer to the latter end of that spectrum – resembling one of the evil pigs from the Angry Birds mobile game.
Thankfully, this most glaring (literally) of flaws has been rectified with this refreshed 1-series. The headlights are now slimmer, sharper units similar to the ones on the 2-series, and the lower air intakes have also been enlarged for a more purposeful look. The rear end too has received some treatment, with wider taillights that feature a wavy LED light signature similar to a Japanese Kabuki mask. All in all they combine to make the 1-series look wider and less gawky than before.
Under the skin, other changes have been made too. Where the 1-series came in a choice of two 1.6L variants before (116i and 118i), the facelifted model can only be had as a 116d. Yup, that’s right – the ’d’ stands for diesel. A small 1.5-litre 3-cylinder unit in fact, borrowed from the MINI Cooper D. Why this peculiar engine choice though, in a country not accustomed to filling up at the black coloured fuel pumps? Well, you have our glorious LTA to thank for that.
You see, in early 2014, an extra restriction was put in place for a car to qualify for a Cat A COE: In addition to having an engine smaller than 1.6L in size, Cat A cars also need to have no more than 130bhp. LTA won’t openly admit it, but this was likely a direct response to the tremendous sales success of premium models within Cat A, and an attempt to kick out cars like the turbocharged 1.6L BMW 116i and 316i back into Cat B ’where they belong’. As a result, the 116d is the only variant available here, as it’s the only one ”weak” enough to qualify for Cat A.
Not that that is in itself a bad thing. Though the engine only produces 116bhp (which makes for a not-particularly-sporty 0-100km/h time of 10.3 seconds), its peak torque figure is a stout 270Nm, making highway cruising and overtaking a doddle. Simply flexing your ankle for a couple of seconds is sufficient to see you slot into any gap that opens up in traffic. It’s certainly aided by the presence of ZF’s excellent 8-speed automatic gearbox, which allows the engine to cruise quietly at under 2000rpm, yet will kick down multiple gears quickly and smoothly when extra grunt is needed.
For a diesel, the engine is pretty refined too. Alright, there’s no escaping the unmistakeable metallic clatter from outside the car, but inside, noise and vibration are hardly noticeable. It even sounds alright if you rev it out to its relatively high redline of 5400rpm; you can certainly detect a hint of that almost-a-Porsche-911-flat-six thrum that is so characteristic of three-pot motors.
Although BMW has done the unthinkable and committed ritualistic heresy by creating a front wheel drive model (the 2-series Active Tourer), the 1-series remains resolutely rear wheel drive for now (although the next 1er could switch to FWD as well). For one thing, this means that you can have a bit of fun and indulge in some tail-out antics should the mood take you (not that we’d ever condone doing such a thing on public roads. Oh no.), but mostly it simply rewards you with a crisp turn-in and a pleasingly neutral and adjustable handling balance. The 116d may only be the base model, but the traditionally involving BMW dynamics are still present and correct.
As has been well-documented in countless other BMW reviews though, that drivetrain layout which gives the 1-series its entertaining handling also leads to its biggest shortfall: interior space. Now, the new 1-series is not a cramped car. Unlike the first generation model, this new car is actually adequately spacious; the relatively large rear windows let in enough light to repel any claustrophobic feelings, and legroom is just about sufficient for two six-footers to sit in tandem. But compared to practically all its front-drive rivals, the 1-series doesn’t offer any surplus room to stretch out, and the transmission tunnel that runs down the middle of the car robs rear passengers of even more foot space.
Up in front, the cabin is logical and well laid out, if rather drab and uninspiring. Personally, I’m ok with this as I value function over form, but all the same I’m pretty sure there are people out there who would prefer the added flair and modernity of something like the Audi A3. The quality of the materials used in the cabin could be improved too; the coarseness of the plastics and grain of the leather are constant reminders that the 116d is the bottom rung of the BMW range. Beneath the surface however, the car does have a decent equipment list, with keyless go, electric driver’s seat (with memory function), dual zone climate control and Bluetooth connectivity as standard.
Although in design terms the BMW 1-series does lag behind rivals, it’s probably fair to say that in this case, beauty is more than skin deep. There is an honest simplicity to the way the car presents itself to the driver. The frills are few and far between, but the 1-series offers the driver enough tools to really perfect the fundamental driving experience. The seating position is spot-on, outward visibility is good, and the weight of the controls like pedals and steering have a smooth linearity that makes the act of driving a joy. Although BMWs these days are no longer as driver-centric as before, the truth is that, even with the cheapest models, BMWs are still the best at offering sheer driving pleasure.
The BMW 116d is available for $138,800 (at press time), with a $15,000 CEVS rebate.