Friday, September 12, 2008

BMW 118

DATE - 11.09.2008

Should we praise BMW for staying true to its ideal by building a rear-wheel-drive small car, or criticise it for the inevitable compromises that have resulted? Depends on whether you enjoy driving cars or just regard them as transport. It's an important distinction because it's in the driving where the 118i shines, with its rear-wheel-drive foundations. It's the ultimate driving machine in a pint-sized package.

That's understandable, considering much of what underpins the 1-Series hatchback's distinctive body draws either directly from the 3 and 5 series, or at least draws inspiration from these two handling heroes. The extensive use of aluminium in the suspension and 50:50 weight distribution are obvious examples.

Unfortunately, the 118i, the new sibling of the 120i, does have some shortcomings when you drive clear of the winding roads and back into the real world.

But in one important way the 118i is worse-off, under that long bonnet. It is powered by the same twin-camshaft, four-cylinder engine as the 120i, it's just that BMW has chosen to detune it by 15kW to 95kW and by 20Nm to 180Nm for the sake of marketing separation.

That means the 118i produces the same sort of power and torque as a Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla, for substantially more money. From $37,900, it's the second cheapest BMW you can buy in Australia, undercut by the $34,900 1600cc 116i.

Of course, the comparison for 118i stacks up better against its real prestige competitors such as the Audi A3 and Mercedes A-Class, in which the allure of the badge helps balance the scales against more rational factors such as performance and value.

Ah, value, now that's a tricky one when it comes to BMW. On the surface, the 118i's starting price is competitive. For $37,900 you get most of the basics except for cruise control and a spare tyre, six airbags, anti-lock brakes and stability control.

But our 118i was so heavily loaded with extras, it would have required a full geological expedition to find the core car. It had metallic paint, 17-inch alloy wheels with low-profile rubber, leather interior, heated and foldable exterior mirrors, sports suspension, sunroof, front sports seat, park distance control, rain sensor and automatic headlight control, xenon headlights, cruise control, an extra lighting package, one of two optional sound systems, satellite navigation (including iDrive) and "titanium matt" interior trim.

The grand total of your entry-level 118i has now ballooned out to $53,980 - more than a 318i sedan.

The problem with testing cars so heavily loaded with extras is they can camouflage the basic vehicle's true feel.

For instance, wider Pirelli run-flat tyres ($1250 with the alloy wheels) and the sports suspension (which for $500 lowers the ride height by 15 mm) both highlighted the 118i's undoubtedly class leading dynamic balance and responsive steering, but at the expense of the car's ride.

It was pretty awful, just too harsh for most people to live with.

The car could be knocked off line by sizeable corruptions under brakes or when cornering and too many jolts and jars were transferred back into the cabin. The set-up was more like a race car than a road car.

The engine was smooth and flexible, well beyond 6000 rpm, thanks to variable camshaft and valve control, but there was little substance.

The 118i will keep up with the traffic as long as you are willing to work the accurate but notchy five-speed manual gearbox hard.

BMW claims a 0-100kmh time of 9.4 seconds on premium unleaded, which sounds optimistic.

If you're sitting up front in the driver's seat then, like many BMWs, the 118i is a nice place to be.

Back seat passengers are not well looked after. Seating two adult passengers in the rear over any sort of distance would be a torture such is the lack of leg-room.

At least there is some adequate boot space and the added versatility of a 60:40 slit-fold rear seat to load larger items.

It's in the back-seat where you pay for the driving pleasure rear-drive delivers.

Front-drive aids packaging by (usually) turning the engine and gearbox sideways in the engine bay, therefore extending the cabin size.

That avoids the need for a driveshaft and the tunnel that runs under the car to fit it.

No avoiding those penalties in a rear-wheel drive small car, as the 118i clearly demonstrates. But the packaging compromises are crucial in delivering a true taste of the BMW driving experience.

But if you just need small car transport, try somewhere else.

What's it got?

. Climate control air-conditioning

. Power windows

. Single in-dash CD player

. DataDot anti-theft technology

. Cloth and silver-look interior trim

. Multi-function leather steering wheel

. Trip computer

What's missing?

. Spare tyre

. Cruise control

. Powered driver's seat

. Leather seats

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