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MOTORNET: 1 Series Heats Up Hot Hatch Wars

1 Series Heats Up Hot Hatch Wars

SCOOP MOTORNET with Karl Ferguson
Images by Neil Mackenzie -

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It was a beautifully sunny late December morning and traffic was unusually light on the Rimutaka Hill Road out of Wellington. The Holden Monaro coupe was taking full advantage of the situation, hunkered down in the bends as the big bore V8 worked hard to accelerate out of the tight and twisty corners.

I can’t be certain, but I suspect that the Holden driver got quite a fright to see the grille of the BMW 1 Series in his rear view mirror. In fact, I think he was surprised to see anything in his mirror let alone a hot hatch BMW. The interesting thing is, as the Holden huffed and puffed its way up the hill, all bulges and spoilers, the BMW clung resolutely – even limpet like – to the Holden’s tail with no drama, no fuss, just incredible road-holding ability and agility that brought a smile to my face. In case you thought BMW couldn’t do a good small car, make no mistake, the new 1 Series rocks.

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As impressive as the drive was, it would be remiss of me not to mention my first encounter with the 1 Series during BMW New Zealand’s Auckland launch last September. The comprehensive drive included some testing B roads, but what was most memorable was the half day we spent doing numerous laps at the Pukekohe race track. The little BMWs cut quite a profile as they zipped round the circuit, leaving no one in any doubt that BMW have made a serious car, just one that is a little smaller than usual.

The fact that BMW have brought the 1 to market is really no surprise, considering the success that arch rivals Audi and VW have had with the A3 and Golf respectively. BMW clearly want a slice of the hot hatch action, and not to be outdone, they have made the 1 Series somewhat unique compared to its immediate competitors. Like all BMWs, the new 1 is rear wheel drive (the only vehicle in this class available in New Zealand), and it sports 50:50 weight distribution.

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But, like many BMW’s of late, the most controversial aspect of this car is its styling. If you haven’t seen one of the street already, let me just say, it definitely looks better in the ‘flesh’ than it does in photographs. It’s a striking design in many respects, incorporating the flame surfacing that BMW is becoming infamous for, while looking compact yet substantial at the same time. Not surprisingly though it still features traditional BMW traits such as the double kidney grille. It may not have the indisputable style of the Alfa Romeo 147, but it certainly has presence… not something that can be said for some of the more derivative hatch designs that currently grace us with their presence.

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Currently, BMW only offer four-cylinder variants but judging by the size of the engine bay, it wouldn’t take a fortune teller to predict that six-cylinder models are likely in the future. Meantime, punters can chose from the 116i, with a 1.6 litre dual Vanos engine developing 85kW, the 118i, or current top dog model the 120i in either petrol, or diesel guise, developing 110kW and 120kW respectively. While some may scoff at the relative low power and standard spec of the 116i, its price tag of $38,900 is highly likely to attract buyers that previously would have been priced out of the BMW market – something BMW knows only too well. The fully loaded SE spec only 120’s top out at $57,900 in auto form.

Performance from the 120i petrol is good if not exceptional. While it never once lacked for power during the week I drove it, there is no doubt that a more powerful version would have easily been able to overtake the Monaro I encountered on the Rimutaka Hill rather than merely tailing. Even so, NZ Autocar magazine recorded 9.55 seconds for the 0-100 km/h sprint which was slightly quicker than times recorded by equivalent Golf and Audi models. Power freaks will need to opt for the diesel 120 or wait in hope for an M version if standard performance figures fail to impress.

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The interior of the 1 Series is a cosy but comfortable place to spend some time. Adorned with the usual high quality BMW instruments and fit and finish, the cockpit is ergonomically sound and has some nice touches to boot – in particular, the stop/start button on the dash, familiar to drivers of the 7-Series model. The standard level of equipment varies across the model range but items such as on board computer and CD equipped stereo feature on all models. Leather upholstery and auto-air conditioning feature on models further up the range. A high level of safety equipment, including traction control and multiple airbags are also standard. Some of the plastics don’t quite feel of the same quality as more expensive BMW vehicles, but not glaringly so. Head room, both front and rear, is good but rear passengers may suffer from a lack of legroom. Run flat tyres – standard across the range – means more boot space, but no spare.

While the BMW 1 Series has many attributes to attract punters to showrooms, it is the driving dynamics that will see them driving out the door. Excellently weighted steering, a superb six-speed automatic gearbox combined with firm but manageable ride quality and superb handling, make the little BMW a dead cert. True, many will buy it more for the badge than for how it drives, but at least they can take comfort in having bought a vehicle that for once lives up to the marketing hype. Take one for a spin – you won’t regret it.

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