One for the road: Driving the BMW F20 116d

It’s been some time since we last slid behind the wheel of the F20 1 Series. Close to 4 years in fact, but its Life-Cycle-Impulse (BMW-speak for mid-life facelift) couldn’t have come at a better time. On one hand, the 1’s divisive styling was doing it no favours, and on the other, Mercedes’ A-Class is giving BMW an extremely hard time in the premium compact segment especially by sliding comfortably into the revised Category-A COE market.

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With their cars no longer eligible in the small-car COE categorisation. BMW suffered quite a bit in sales of their 1-Series. Something had to be done, and that something is what you see here. The introduction of the 116d into our local markets. The 116d also happens to be the most affordable(ish) BMW on offer. First, let’s take a look at the visual aspects of the new 1.

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The most notable revision here is of course, the restyling of those headlights. Finally ditching the “Angry Bird” face of the outgoing model has done wonders for the car and we sort of wonder why BMW didn’t just go with this slightly more conventional but much better looking set of (DRL-equipped) lights in the first place.

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Slightly less noticeable, but still significant, are the revised Kidneys and front bumper, both helping to give the LCI a much more appealing front-end. Our test car’s white paint also does look alot better than the “Angry Bird” accentuating red 118i we tested back in 2011.

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Along the sides, much remains the same, with classic BMW proportions highlighting its RWD platform. Towards the back, a set of wider revised tail-lamps help to give the 116d a broader and wider appearance than its predecessor.

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Our test car came with 16-inch rims which although do seem rather small, have also been redesigned and now don’t look as out of place as 16s on the outgoing model. They also come with the added benefit of a much better ride.

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Interestingly while exterior dimensions remain pretty much identical, boot space has increased slightly on the new car. With the back seats in place, there is an increase of 30-litres on the old version to 360 litres. With the rear seats folded down, the load bay expands to an impressive 1,200 litres of space.

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Inside, much remains the same but that is no bad thing considering BMW’s penchant for designing rather driver-focussed dashboards and interiors. In the 116d, that is no different, controls are all within reach of the driver and for those used to BMW ergonomics, will have no trouble getting comfortable in an instant.

Some new niceties added to the LCI include keyless entry and engine starting, a multifunction steering wheel and electric adjustments for the front seats. These might sound minute in the grand scheme of things but they really do help give the car a more premium overall feel.

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There is a somewhat glaring omission though, which you will see once the iDrive starts up. Where is the Sat-Nav? In this day and age, i do think Sat-Nav should really be built in, especially for a car marketed in the (albeit compact) “premium” segment. Hopefully a chat with your friendly sales-person will help alleviate this little problem.

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Of course being a BMW, there’s always the question of how it drives. But before that, let’s dwell into what powers this little BMW Beemer. To have a car eligible for Singapore’s category A coe segment, a car must have an engine with a displacement no bigger than 1600cc outputting no more than about 130 horses. Our little 116d meets both those restrictions easily, with its 1.5litre engine putting a coincidentally model-number matched 116 horses. While those numbers are really nothing to get too excited about just yet, what was not-mentioned in the category A restrictions is how much torque is allowed, which is where our little 1.5 turbo diesel excels.

With 270Nm of torque available from 1,750 to 2,250rpm, getting on the move from rest while not exactly face-tearing fast, does feel much quicker than the 10.3 seconds stated on the spec sheet. Back in E90 3-Series days, you’d need a 3 litre to come up with those torque figures. Such is the World of diesel advancement. (Shh… no talking about VW!)

On highways and city streets, getting around is easy and the light electric steering feels totally at home in this car. Ride is compliant and comfortable over most roads and while BMW’s underlying firmness does transmit through the chassis at times, it does not become harsh or unsettle the car.

There is a “Sport” mode button just beside the shifter but i mostly left the car in “Normal/Comfort”. I’m sure there is a way to reconfigure the settings for “Sport” but in its default setting, i felt the increase in weight for the steering to be a tad artificial and does not give additional “feel”. The sharpened throttle is a bonus but overall, i felt progress was smoother in “Comfort”. Up until this point, there is also the question of the power unit being an oil-burner. Yes when you are standing outside, there is some chatter, but once seated in the cabin, progress is smooth and while some burble does come in under hard acceleration, the thought of this being a diesel powered vehicle will probably not even cross most people’s minds. Even the tach reads up to 6k.

While the power-unit is no fire-cracker, the 116d shines when it’s time to change directions on the road. Turn-ins are accurate and with its short-wheel base and minimal overhang, the 116d just revels when driven along a series of bends. A more comfort-biased setup on the suspension and tyre choice might show up more roll than what BMW drivers are used to but this does help the one feel his way around the car much better and with the 1.5’s modest output coupled with ZF’s excellent 8-speeder, putting the power down mid-corner does not unsettle the car and gives a rather linear feel going out of bends. In short, it handles like how a proper BMW should. Really rather well.

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With a price point undercutting the base A-Class, the 116d does make a rather good proposition. Both cars have their pros and cons of course with neither coming equipped with Sat-Nav, and while i will have to admit that Mercedes’ bold styling on the A-Class does win it on the aesthetics front, the way the 116d drives and the fact that this 1-Series is (from what we hear) slated to be the last of the rear-wheel drive 1s, will be what we’d pick if it was our money (This is also what we would go for instead of a 2-Series Active Tourer). Bargain-basement here might not exactly mean cheap, but it does feel cheerful.

In fact, we like it so much that is there any chance someone from Performance Motors is able to give us an extra sweet special deal on 1? We might have an early 1st generation 1-Series up for replacement.

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