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BMW first attempted to sell their souls to the Devil in the 1990s with the introduction of the 3-series Compact, a sort of half-arsed attempt at making a hatch-back version of their market-domineering executive saloon. The problem with the Compact was that it wasn't at all like the 3-series and just sort of shared its name. It wasn't as good as the full size 3-series to drive, either, and the interior was cheap and tacky.
BMW declared that it was built to target the Golf/Astra market place but by the time they'd finished trying to cut corners and costs it didn't even make it into the Ford Escort market and it sold poorly thanks to high prices.
The company eventually abandoned the Compact and went back to what they did best - building large, expensive, executive motors, before once again attempting to sell their soul to Satan by employing Chris Bangle as a designer. Bangle had an exemplary background and had been single-handedly responsible for the design of such beautiful cars as the Fiat Coupe, even coming up with the wonderful buttock-shaped light covers on that car that rumours insist are modelled on the posterior of the designer's wife. The future of the design of BMW cars looked bright, until Bangle came up with the 7-series.
It was a horrendous design that gave the car a fat belly, moping mouth and tearful eyes for headlights. Rather than appearing aggressive, expensive and stealth-like, the first incarnation of Bangle's 7-series looked wallowy and sad but BMW were on a steam-roller and the family resemblance quickly worked its way down the line until the aggressive BMW 3-series looked in danger of bearing a resemblance to the original Lexus IS200, itself a superb car but not something that a BMW should look like.
While trying to rectify the image of their super saloons, sell Rover, keep Rolls Royce and the Land Rover brand, BMW forgot all about the hatchback market, a place they really didn't have a right to be, and focused heavily on tackling Mercedes and Audi and coming up with the most complicated on-board computer ever.
But eventually somebody was bound to look at the success that Audi were having with the A3 and Mercedes were having with the A-Class and in a board meeting it was decided to tackle the small-car market once again. This time they decided to do it properly, though. There would be no cutting corners on the interior; there would be no half-hearted chopping up of an existing model to save costs. This time there would be a target market with a dedicated car, and so the 1-series was born.
The first mistake BMW made with the 1-series, in my opinion though, was to let Bangle's team back in to design it. Targeting the market-leading VW Golf and its sister the Audi A3, the 1-series is a hatchback of similar proportions. Sadly, the swathes of lines down either side provide it with the similar overweight appearance of its bigger brothers and the swooping roofline cuts the height of the rear window. The first thing you notice as you sit in the 1-series is that visibility, especially at rear-quarters and through the rear-view mirror, is extremely limited. There is seating for three in the rear, with three individual three-point seatbelt harnesses and three individual headrests, but with the middle 'rest raised it is all but impossible to see out of the rear window through the mirror. Once people are sat in the back you might as well be driving a transit van, so appalling is rearward visibility. Equally, the wing mirrors are quite small in size and I found it difficult to establish a compromise between where the blind spot would be and where I need to be looking down the high rear shoulders of the car in order to reverse park it.
After 190 miles I was still fiddling with the wing mirror and rear-view mirror positions in order to find an acceptable level of rearward visibility.
Looking forward, though, the car is very much BMW. Unlike their earlier attempt at hitting this market, the 1-series is in fact built like a Beamer should be. The interior quality is high, as you would expect, and even the entry-level 116i that I am currently driving is fitted with a good level of technology. Electric windows are available for both driver and passenger, but the rear windows are operated by the quaint old-fashioned handle method, something my six-year-old found amusing at first but has quickly grown tired of. Air conditioning is also fitted as standard, as is power-steering, a CD player and on-board computer. Six airbags are fitted on this entry model, along with Anti-lock Brakes and Dynamic Stability Control, BMW's superb traction control and automatic braking system that helps ensure the car remains stable in even the slippiest or most aggressive of circumstances. Halogen headlamps; first-aid kit; warning triangle; tyre-pressure monitoring and electronic immobiliser all make up the safety and security of the vehicle.
The seat adjusts for height and length and the steering wheel adjusts fully for reach and rake. You'd expect it to be easy to find a comfortable position to drive this car, but I just couldn't. Ever since I was old enough to understand cars I've been a fan of BMW. I've owned several 3-series, I've driven almost every car in their range and have been on their mailing lists for years, yet before I even drove it I hated the 1-series. I couldn't get comfortable, couldn't see out of the back and couldn't start it.
That's because BMW have opted for the new-fangled option of starting cars with a button rather than a key. Call me old-fashioned but if something ain't broke, why fix it? Rather than inserting your key into the ignition and turning it to start the engine, with the 1-series you put a card-like key into a slot on the 'left' of the steering column and then push a button above it to start it. I kept 'losing' the key in the dashboard. As a safety feature for the American market, you can't start the manual version of this car without your foot on the clutch, and it took me some time to realise this. Eventually I got the engine started and then discovered I couldn't switch off the indicators or the wipers.
This is because BMW have taken the Vauxhall approach to their indicator and wiper stalks. When you push the indicator stalk up, it doesn't stay up - it simply returns to its centre point. To cancel, you push the stalk down, as if you were turning left, but instead it turns off the indicator - and so on. It sounds simple, but when you're not used to it you spend all your time looking at the stalk and the dashboard to try and make sure the indicators are properly off, and it's not too dissimilar with the wipers. You can't see which setting you have got them in: off or intermittent, until the wipers themselves no longer swoop over the arched windscreen.
The car drives like a BMW though. Like all Beamers, the 1-series is rear-wheel drive with near 50:50 weight distribution for improved handling, something unique in the 'hot' hatch market place. It provides for more push rather than pull and gives a more entertaining approach to cornering. The car is short so you aren't affected too heavily by oversteer unless you really push too hard, but the rear-wheel drive approach takes away torque steer and makes the car easier to point in whichever direction you want it to go. The steering is instant and responsive although the power steering is a little heavy at slow speeds for such a small car.
The 1.6 litre engine fitted to this entry-level car isn't bad, but I wouldn't put it better than 'adequate'. It's certainly powerful enough to move the small body around, but drive isn't stunning and you have to work it hard if you need to overtake. Despite this, 60mph comes up in just 10 seconds from a standing start and, coupled with the five-speed manual gearbox that comes as standard, it'll take you on to a top speed of 124mph. The 195/55 R16 tyres are large for this type of vehicle, which is probably what makes the steering feel so heavy, but they help give the car good traction in the corners. It's quite heavy, at 1.3 tonnes, for this type of car but all of this combined still gives a good average fuel consumption figure of 34mpg; not bad for a 1.6 litre engine in a slightly overweight car with wide tyres that's been given a bit of a beating by its driver.
What is surprising, however, is how poor the car performs for the Company Car market. It might be well-priced, with this entry model coming in at £15'995 as standard, but the small engine gives out a whopping CO2 emissions figure of 181g/km, putting it in the 23% tax bracket for company drivers. That's high for such a small engine. There's a plethora of alternative vehicles in the same price bracket with roughly the same specification list for a lot less on your income tax bill so if you are considering the 1-series I'd heavily recommend that you look at the 118d; it might cost £1800 more to buy but it'll save that on your tax bill over the duration of your ownership. The 0-60 and top-speed figures are slightly better than the 116's, too, plus the fuel economy figures are better as well, which overall means the 118d would provide you with a lower tax-bill and better fuel costs than the 116i I'm reporting on here.
Personally, though, if I was in the market for a hatchback I'd steer clear of the 1-series and buy the VW Golf. The range is better, the quality is at least equal to the BMW's, if not better, and there's a reason it's been the market leader for so long. You could opt for the A3, but it'll cost you more money and, at the end of the day, it's basically a Golf with an Audi badge on the front. If the VW doesn't appeal, there's the beautiful Alfa 147 or the futuristic new Honda Civic.
To put the final nail in the 1-series' coffin, would you believe it is actually easier to reverse a brand new Land Rover Discovery 3 into my garage than it is to reverse the 116i into the same space?
Really, it is.
I can't wait for the dealership to come and get this car back off me.
I agree - having test driven this car I'd rather have a Golf in many ways. Although I used to have a 3 series that was fabulous to drive, and thought I'd like the 1, but nope. I also just can't get over the styling of the thing, it reminds me of the Wacky Racers Ant Hill Mob car! Great review, thanks. Sal x
lostsworld 06.07.2006 16:47
very good car review, wish everyone did them like this, so fedup of reading and not rating short ones.
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