The inside and outside test
Inside, the BMW 120i Limited (the test unit provided to this writer) totes a black/Gomera black colorway, with aluminum trim along the dashboard, the steering wheel, the door handles and the six-speed automatic transmission (a/t) shift knob. Plop unto the sport seats and you'll find that everything is within front occupants' easy reach. For the driver, a big menu screen in the gauge cluster's middle monitors engine, transmission, BMW Professional audio entertainment and outside inputs, helped largely by a bevy of controls on the left hand turn signal stalk. For the front passenger, the audio system and climate controls, the two cupholders between the front seats, the lock/unlock button (between the middle airconditioning vents) and the MP3 player auxiliary jack (within the center console) help the driver attend to the road. Unfortunately rear occupants get a bench seat, no cupholders, tether mounting points (for child seats or booster seats) and storage along the doors and within the front seat backrests.
Speaking of storage, the 120i's rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 manner to swallow lots of cargo (1140 liters, to be exact), provided the only passengers are those in front. During a recent trip to Nabua (Camarines Sur), its rear section (with rear seats folded flat) handled three large travel bags, three small travel bags, an umbrella, a folding cot and a toolbox the size of a computer bag - all within easy reach of the front occupants. Storing bric-a-brac is also good within the 120i - especially the center console and door storage - but the door handles tend to be intrusive when looking for small items, and the glovebox is small. Also great but not exceptional is the 120i's audio entertainment, which is great but needs help at the treble end.
The exterior is one of controversial designer Chris Bangle's products, and whether one likes it or not, it grabs attention wherever it goes. During the said Nabua trip, this writer observed scores of motorists going close to pointblank range to take camera phone pictures of the 120i (especially its front end).
The performance test
Start the Php 2.35 million 120i and you'll find a simple ignition sequence - insert the key fob into the slot to the right of the steering column, step on the brake, press the start/stop button, and listen to the distinct rumble-then-burble of a BMW two-liter. Drive it through the city and you'll discover that low end response is flat, linear and rather torquey, providing quick off-the-line acceleration.
Gearing is fairly even, and even in "D(rive)" mode acceleration is fast from rest. Using the six-speed a/t's manual mode or the "DS (Drive Sport)" mode makes acceleration quicker due to higher shift points and the a/t is willing to downshift at one-half to three-fourths throttle effort. The product after this writer's drive was a tested 219kph top speed, but a disappointing 9.5 kilometers per liter consumption rate in a week of half city, half highway driving. The latter figure must be due to the newness of the unit; when this writer got the 120i it logged just 17 kilometers. Perhaps with a little more odometer movement the consumption rate will improve.
Handling is as if the car corners on rails, with the Bridgestone Potenza 205/50R17 run-flat tires breaking grip at 140kph with the dynamic traction control (DTC) off. Much like its 3-Series sibling, the 120i's DTC allows a degree of oversteer before the DTC takes over and increases braking output. Steering is heavy but responsive and extremely sharp, and the brakes grip exceptionally well. Interior and exterior lighting is bright, and the headlights work great even without turning on the foglights. The other performance downsides? The ride is a bit harsh (due to the reinforced sidewalls of the run-flat tires), there are no backup sensors, the parking brake has weak grip and using the windshield wiper stalk requires a few trips to the owner's manual.
There was a time when the thought of a premium car company reaching out to the motoring masses wasn't a good thing. But with the 1-Series, BMW provides a select many - such as yuppies, A/B/Upper C college students and young couples - with the opportunity to experience 24/7/365 the benchmark of luxury for the masses.