The new 1-series is BMW's way of offering punters an even cheaper way of sliding into the lap of German luxury. As such, the 1-series undercuts BMW's own X1 and goes straight for rivals like the recently launched Mercedes-Benz A-class and the Volvo V40. At Rs 20.9-29.9 lakh, it joins its rivals in a niche segment, one that offers all the trappings of a European luxury car in a much smaller, more manageable size. And, given that the A-class and the V40 have proven to be quite good at doing just that, the 1-series has to be exceptional to stand out.
Is it? Our exclusive drive in India of BMW's new baby reveals all.
It looks like a regular hatchback, but under that skin is the classic front-engined, rear-wheel drive enthusiast layout and that's where the 1-series differs from its front wheel drive competition. It's clear that this is a premium hatchback is for the enthusiast driver, but more on that later.
The first thing you need to get around is the 1-series odd looks. Yes, the details and headlights are well executed but the long bonnet and a very upright cabin give it odd proportions, and the rear looks a little plain. So overall, on the styling front, the A-class and V40 Cross Country do a bit better than the 1-series.
No such complaints about the interiors though. It's only natural to expect interiors that befit the German luxury tag. No problems here -- the material quality and fit and finish on the inside are, save for a few bits here and there, top-notch. The layout of the dashboard looks a lot like that of its elder sibling, the 3-series, and it is very logical and functional. In fact, climb inside and you soon forget what you are driving, it feels so much like a 3-series in here. The large windows, low dashboard and slim pillars mean it’s very easy to see out of, and the driver’s seating position is just perfect.
The top trims of the 1-series get sports seats that are electrically adjustable. They are very comfortable, with thick bolstering that is very supportive; you can even extend the seat squab for added thigh support. The cushioning is a tad firm, but all the extra support helps when this car is driven hard.
The rear seat is best for two people only. This is because the rear wheel drive setup and it's large transmission tunnel running through the centre of the car comes in the way of legroom for a third passenger. Still, the overall legroom is decent and the headroom is surprisingly good, thanks to a scooped out roof section. The seat, however, is a bit low, so comfort is not as good as it could have been thanks to a strangely scooped out seat back. What’s important is that neither of its competitors fares much better; visibility from the back seat of the A-class is poor, and the V40 has very poor headroom.
This car has been engineered with the driver in focus and this is quite apparent as soon as you get behind the wheel. There’s a beautiful heft to the steering, despite it being an electric unit, and it instantly feels just right. Light enough not to be a chore, but feel-some enough to relay messages up from the front wheels, the steering keeps you abreast of goings on between the road and the tyre. And this gives the driver tremendous confidence.
There’s plenty of grip too. Wide 225/45 R17 tyres keep the car planted on the road and this allows the driver to carry lots of speed into corners. Of course, the fact that the car doesn’t roll too much helps a lot too, as this allows you to carry even more speed from corner to corner. What makes all the difference, of course, is the rear-wheel-drive setup. Whereas a front-wheel-drive car has to both put power down to the road and steer the car via its front wheels, rear-wheel-drive cars like the 1-series split up these responsibilities. Here, the rear wheels transmit power and the front wheels steer the car.
The 118d diesel we’re driving here uses a slightly de-tuned version of the 2.0-litre diesel motor we find in the 3-series and the 5-series. The 141bhp it makes compares well with the A-class’s 107bhp and even the Volvo’s 148bhp. What helps it eke out an advantage, however, is the eight-speed automatic gearbox. While the motor isn’t as spiky or punchy initially as, say, the Volvo, it pulls and pulls all the way to 4,700rpm. So, performance is pretty effective as the engine is always pulling hard. Whichever way you look at it, there’s little doubt that the driving experience is up there with the larger cars from BMW.
The new 1-series is also pretty refined. The diesel seems to be smoother than the one under the hood of the 3-series and the insulation of the cabin was pretty impressive too. We did get a bit of road noise over coarse road surfaces though, but not too much. The big surprise, however, is the ride quality. Bumps are ridden over silently, the whacks from the suspension don’t filter though and comfort levels in the cabin are very good. BMW says it’s all down to improvements gained from the run-flat tyres and the fact that the suspension has been slightly softened and raised for Indian conditions. Whatever the case may be, this could be one of the best riding BMWs yet.
Another thing luxury car buyers want is technology and equipment, and the 1-series does not disappoint here. The petrol 116i is only available in the base trim, while the diesel 118d is additionally available in Sport Line and Sport Plus trims. We’re driving the top 118d Sport Plus, and it gets all the bells and whistles. There’s keyless go, two-zone automatic climate control, rear air-con vents, electric front seats with memory, BMW’s iDrive onboard computer, a sunroof, audio and phone controls on the steering wheel and Bluetooth, aux-in and USB connectivity. To help improve fuel economy, there’s a system that shuts off the engine when the car is stationary, and you can select from four different driving modes – Comfort, Sport, Sport+ and Eco Pro – which alter the way the engine, gearbox and steering behave. Finally, on the safety front, there are six airbags, ABS and electronic stability control. But you still don’t get a spare tyre.
BMW missed out on the first-mover advantage with the 1-series. Still, it has an advantage here –the 1-series is focussed on the driver; important in a segment where every owner is likely to drive their own car. You are likely to be shopping for something like a Honda Accord or a Skoda Superb rather than a compact luxury car if you want to be chauffeured around, after all. And it’s a real driver’s car, this one. Reasonably quick, beautifully balanced and an absolute joy from behind the wheel, the 1-series gives you the full BMW experience in a compact and relatively affordable package. It should be fuel efficient (BMW claims an ARAI tested 20.5kpl for the 118d), it rides superbly despite the car’s sharp handling and stiff run-flat tyres, and it should be good value too. BMW is assembling the 1-series in India and the lower duties mean the base petrol 116i starts at Rs 20.9 lakh, the base diesel 118d is for Rs 22.9 lakh, the intermediate 118d Sportline for Rs 25.9 lakh and goes on to Rs 29.9 lakh for this top-of-the line 118d Sportline Plus. Yes, the 1-series looks are unlikely to appeal to everyone and other competitors may have a bit more space in the rear, but in areas that count, the new 1-series is super competitive. You’d be crazy not to test drive one if you are shopping for a compact luxury car; you wouldn’t know what you’re missing.