But they’ve tended to be medium-sized – with the exception of the 3-Series Compact which in its latest incarnation delivers driving pleasure in spades.
So does BMW’s first small car, the 1-Series, keep the driver’s car promise.
Definitely, if the car we drove on its media launch is an accurate reflection of the whole range.
It was an early-production 120i with the six-speed automatic gearbox, and it behaved very competently indeed.
But it wasn’t a standard-spec car. It had sports suspension and 17-inch diameter alloy wheels with low profile tyres.
We sampled the car first on the Pukekohe Park motor racing circuit.
The on-track run consisted of both laps of the track in the normal way (though a chicane was placed just after the kink on the back straight to prevent over-enthusiastic braking attempts for the ultra-tight hairpin from terminal velocity); and in a slalom and hazard-avoidance course marked out with witches’ hats.
International racing driver Geoff Brabham was on hand to drive the convoy-leading car at a pace that would keep the assembled motoring hacks as under control as possible.
But he was still going quickly enough to allow drivers a reasonable chance to stretch the 1-Series’ legs.
I’m never sure whether laps of a racetrack tell you much about a road car; are you testing the car or yourself? Assessing the car’s handling merits or indulging fantasies of personal glory?
Among the things I discovered about the 1-Series were that its brakes were exceptionally good. There was no sign of fade from four sets of six laps in which there were three hard-braking points per lap – at the left-hander into the Esses after the pit straight, at the BMW-installed chicane and at the hairpin.
The turn-in was crisp and the car easy to place. It was agile through the very tight chicane. There was some understeer in the corner on to the back straight and in the hairpin. And the balance felt perfect – BMW, commendably, has resisted the impulse to go front-wheel drive and instead has opted for rear-drive and a 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.
Convoy driving is dictated by the pace of the car in front of you, even on a racetrack; and sometimes you get behind a driver who is just not moving as quickly as you’d like to (not Brabham; if he’d decided to really drive the 1-Series, he would have left us all looking like we were driving 1600cc cars).
But in my final six-lap stint I stopped and let my co-driver out at the chicane so he could take photographs.
That left a major gap between the pack and me, and the chance for some unfettered lapping. I discovered the 1-Series was nudging 160/165km/h at the turn-in point for the sweeper off the pit straight; and that I still hadn’t got under control my tendency to go too hot into slow corners with consequent understeer.
Later, the slalom/hazard avoidance test highlighted the car’s agility again. The final stop in the imaginary garage gave the brakes another solid work-out which they passed with flying colours.
On the open road, the 1-Series proved very entertaining.
On some surfaces there was some tramlining from the wide, low profile tyres.
The ride was firm but not uncomfortably so, and didn’t seem to have the harshness that some European testers have complained about.
The steering was accurate if occasionally a little lacking in feel.
On a particularly demanding section of constantly turning, constantly rising and falling road, the 1-Series was a driver’s delight.
The Tiptronic manual shift for the six-speed automatic gearbox worked swiftly and smoothly and the 110kW/200Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine provided plenty of punch.
This was my sort of road with corners that caused the occasional whoop of joy.
And it was the sort of road that made you happy BMW had optioned the car with sports seats.
Even from the driver’s seat the tightly-hugging side bolstering was welcome; for the front seat passenger, this type of seat is essential if the driver is pressing-on. The 1-Series is capable of generating cornering g-forces that would make it uncomfortable to ride in if there wasn’t enough lateral support in the seats.
The answer to the original question of whether the 1-Series keeps the driver’s car promise is an unqualified yes. We can’t wait to sample the more powerful and far torquier 120d diesel-engined version.
¥ BMW 120i petrol-engined SE-spec prices start in the mid-$50,000 bracket.
– story by Mike Stock.