Jude Morte / Ramon Sy, Jude Morte | December 02, 2008 00:00
Devilishly dieselAmong the locally available BMW 1-Series, the petrol-fed five door 120i and the 130i convertible can be considered as the brand's zenith (so far), as their rev happy engines and sharp handling/steering make them veritable benchmarks of premium entry level sport tourers.
But the 120d can make a case as good - or even better - than the aforementioned 1-Series variants (or 1ers).
One reason is the "d" in the 120d's badging, representing a diesel engine and fuel setup. It might as well stand for devilish, as the very nature of a diesel engine as a huge torque producer comes very much into play. You're constantly itching to stomp on the throttle from rest and smoke whoever's at the line beside you, even gas-powered executive sedans with bigger displacements. You enter the powerband early (1,500 rpm), and the variable geometry turbo that comes with it wakes up early (2,250-2,500 rpm) as well, snapping your head back in an instant. Prolong the right pedal exertion and you get full boost at roughly 3,250-3,500 rpm, attaining its tested 250 kph top speed without effort. Toss in a six-speed tranny with even steps, and you'll find that high velocity emergency lane changes and mountain passes are very easy to do. Best to use the Steptronic mode more than the default automatic setting, though, as the manual mode's shift points are much higher. And don't think that the 120d's performance forces fuel efficiency to take a backseat - on four days of mixed driving, the unit ran 10.26 km on a single liter of diesel.
The 1-Series has a reputation (rep) as a handling demon, and the rep is reinforced on the twisties. The front suspension (struts with split lower arms and dual lower ball joints), rear suspension (multilink layout, similar to the current 3-Series or 3er), the car's torque, pace, sharp steering and a rear wheel drive configuration combine to give cornering thrills at par with the E90 (chassis code for the current 3er). Although both front and rear suspension setups are derived from the E90, they have been recalibrated for the 1-Series. The result is impeccable grip, dispatching corners with crisp turn-in and an eager willingness to change direction without sacrificing road-worthy poise. Much like its E90 sibling, the 120d's dynamic traction control (DTC) cossets you into a little oversteer before the electronics wake up and halt the craziness. It has the potential for drifting; with DTC off, you can throw the car at a fast entry speed and maintain the power to get to the apex, then ease off a bit, then throttle out to the exit. One problem - although traction holds up to 125 kph (sans DTC), the Goodyear NCT 5 205/50R17 run flats on the test unit tend to start barking at 115 kph. Although they surprisingly give a better ride than the Bridgestone run-flats commonly shod on other 1ers (or even the E90), no doubt they sacrifice handling for comfort. At least you don't have to saw at the steering wheel on turns to get the line right; small but secure wheel movements are just what's needed to make the car follow your intended direction.
The 120d's safety and security systems are also a positive. Despite spending most of its 340 kilometers (for the duration of the test drive) on hard driving, the brakes didn't exhibit fade. The same cannot be said of the handbrake, though, as the grip got progressively worse (even up to roughly 30 degrees for decent grip) as the duration of the test drive ran further. Interestingly, the car doesn't have parking sensors and turning on the front windshield wipers requires familiarization. You tap downward on the right column stalk once to start the front windshield wipers on "intermittent," twice for "moderate," etc., and turn it off by moving the said stalk upward. But there's more good news - exterior lighting is bright (even with just the foglights and park lights on), you can only turn on the engine (via the start-stop button near the middle left aircon vent) by inserting the key fob in a slot under the start-stop button, the seatbelt warning chime is pleasing to the ear (it sounds like an airport pre-departure advisory tone), the front seats have aggressive side bolsters to keep you in place during cornering and the doors automatically lock at 30 kph.
Just because the unit goes fast on straights and turns doesn't mean it neglects its primary purpose as a people hauler. 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. It gets worse for those in the rear, too, when the front occupants are six-footers - you can only fit one fellow in the rear should that instance happen. Speaking of storage, the rear seats fold flat in a 60/40 manner to swallow lots of cargo. The OE audio entertainment is great, but needs help at the treble end.
Although its 120i and 130i Convertible siblings are good examples of the 1-Series brand, the P 2.395 million 120d's performance and hauling aspects makes it WAY better that its petrol-fed relatives.