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Model: BMW 120i
Price as tested: $52,300 (metallic paint $1300, navigation system 'Professional' $3500, electric sunroof $2200, leather trim $2000)
Also consider: Alfa Romeo 147 (more here), Audi A3 Sportback 1.8 TSFI, VW Golf GTi (more here)
Overall rating: 4.0/5.0 About our ratings
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 4.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
There is simply no direct competitor for the BMW 120i which might explain why it is one of this year's standout drives. BMW is the only company left in the world that delivers a small five-door hatch with rear-wheel drive. Compared to other European imports with similar mechanicals and equipment but with front drive, rear drive adds at least $10,000 to the 120i price. This test ultimately must assess whether such a premium is worth it.
Over 5400 BMW 1 Series have sold locally since the model's 2004 release which BMW claims makes it Australia's best-selling premium small car. It has extra appeal for Australians downsizing from local rear-drive models.
Building a rear-drive car costs money. To keep weight comparable, a rear-drive manufacturer also has to use more exotic and expensive materials in the suspension, structure and powertrain, something that BMW excels at.
The BMW 120i goes one step further by placing its engine under the scuttle behind the front axle line. Along with its relatively long wheelbase and short overhangs, the 120i achieves the perfect 50:50 weight distribution of expensive sportscars. This generates an unusual look where the gap between the front wheelarch and front door is much longer than in a front-drive hatch. It leaves the 120i with a long nose-short tail look without a big front overhang.
Think of it as a Z4 (which shares its mechanical layout) with a dog box on the back and the price and layout of the BMW 120i start to make more sense. The rear-drive layout and short rear overhang also leaves little room for a spare tyre so the 120i in particular benefits from BMW's latest runflat tyre technology.
The BMW 120i drives more like a Mazda MX-5 than a Mazda3 delivering intangibles that no front-drive hatch can match. BMW has MINI to separate the two approaches to small cars. Tellingly, BMW's badge rival, Mercedes-Benz, pitches a front-drive A-Class in this price range.
It was too obvious with the previous 120i that there wasn't enough left in the kitty for classy detailing; an issue addressed in 2007 with improved cabin materials and extra brightwork. Outside, a bigger grille, revised headlights, a wider front intake, different tail lights and rear bumper make it look more expensive.
With the feel-good factor raised by a good 20 per cent inside and out before you start the engine, can the driving justify the extra loot?
The 1995cc engine with Double-VANOS and Valvetronic delivers 115kW/200Nm: neither earth shattering figures, but it pulls strongly and cleanly from rest with a rich timbre pleasing to the ears.
A creditable 1300kg mass means it is not working as hard as it could be, turning in reasonable acceleration figures and an outstanding 7.5lt/100km for most of the 500km test. Consumption crept up to 8.4lt/100km during some short runs but BMW's urban figure of 10.8lt/100km and a highway figure of 5.7lt/100km are indicative of the range you can expect, albeit on 98 RON Premium Unleaded.
Immediately obvious is the dramatic improvement in the ride, even with the 17-inch runflats. At last count, it's taken BMW four shots to get it right. This transforms the enjoyment of this latest 120i.
Where previously the crash-through and ride sharpness left a 1 or 3 Series feeling like a $12,990 Korean (with some bump steer thrown in for good measure), the latest 120i delivers the composure and grip buyers expect of the BMW badge. If this 120i is an indicator, it's time for those BMW owners who left over this loss of sophistication to check out the latest.
The metallic shift quality of the six-speed manual is simply one of the best in the business and with the accurate steering and top flight geometry in the front and rear suspension, the 120i is an uncannily quick car point-to-point and makes up for any shortfall in grunt. It simply steers, holds then tightens its line under power without squirm or steering adjustment, ready to launch out of the corner for the next one. Where a Golf GTi is entertaining, the 120i is satisfying.
Despite the increasing presence of plastics under the bonnet, the 120i feels exceptionally tight -- a product of some exotic metals in the structure. There is no sense of weight imbalance, front or rear, as neither the front nor rear outside tyres feel under duress in tight corners.
The only drawback in this equation, and it's a slight one, is that occasionally the throttle is caught out when it doesn't always respond as quickly as you want, especially after backing off then accelerating. It's a product of the latest emissions requirements and the crispness of the six-speed manual which encourages the driver to use the gearbox more than usual. It is about as good as it can be in this context.
For a keen driver, the loss of a temperature gauge matters more when it prevents an immediate diagnosis of a failed thermostat; an affliction that affects European cars more than most. Vision is good, as is the turning circle, making it close to perfect for dual-purpose inner city-open road applications.
Back to earth, there is still not enough storage around the cabin with one cupholder, slim door pockets and nowhere to store sunglasses -- a shortfall exacerbated by the optional navigation system. Talking of which is outstanding when it calculated different routes over a 260km return trip to allow for the fact that there was no break in the median strip for a right turn back to the starting point. As for iDrive, in the 1 Series virtually every function is now replicated by a dash control so the choice is yours.
Rear seat comfort is good enough for two adults over long distance (Ed: as long as the front seat occupants aren't tall, JK!) and luggage space is deeper than expected, thanks to the missing spare. However, the performance does taper off as soon as you load it.
The standard headlights while good, are not up to the elite levels defined elsewhere in the 120i. If it was a choice between the test car's sunroof and the optional Bi-Xenon headlights with daylight rings and turning function, take the headlights any day.
The leather option is probably essential for resale and if you don't want red, white or black, you will cop a stiff $1300 for metallic paint.
Ordering it with just the headlights, leather trim and metallic paint, you will be paying $48,705 for the manual plus on roads, which is stretching credibility for what is still a 2.0-litre hatchback. Where the detailing and ride of the previous model were some way short of such a big spend, the 2007 update should ease the pain.
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