For the longest time, the Indian car buyer’s entry point to a luxury badge like Audi, BMW, Volvo or Mercedes was a saloon that cost upwards of R30 lakh. But then, BMW took the risk of introducing the X1 compact luxury SUV as its most affordable offering, and it paid off—allowing the company to rise to the top of the luxury sales charts. However, since then, a new, even more affordable segment of luxury hatchbacks has emerged, and the attractive Mercedes A-class and Volvo V40 Cross Country were the first to tap it.
Not one to sit around, BMW has wasted little time in bringing its 1-series hatchback here. As with any BMW, it is totally driver focused and is the only luxury hatchback to come with a thoroughbred rear-wheel-drive layout. So, is it as much fun to drive as a 3-series, is it sufficiently well equipped and does it have enough legroom in the back? These and other questions answered in our exclusive drive of BMW’s baby.
The way a car looks is your first impression of it, and the new 1-series is a bit of a mixed bag. Yes, the details and headlights are well executed and some bits on the car look stunning, 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.
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 there is a large hump (called the transmission tunnel) running through the centre of this rear-wheel-drive car that 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. 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 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 focused 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 is priced from R20.90-29.90 lakh. Yes, its left-field 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.