Since car makers haven't brought all their delights to the U.S., we have to hunt down these machines in their natural habitat. Welcome to Jalopnik's European Review series. After the BMW 320d M Sport Touring, we continue with the 1-Series that's practical: the five-door hatchback.
(Full Disclosure: BMW Hungary didn't have a press car available at time I needed one, but since I couldn't go to Lake Como with my Autobianchi, they were nice and gave me a brand new 1 Series anyway. I took good care of it.)
The 1 Series is your entry-level option for getting a new BMW keyfob, and the tested 116i with its short list of extras was a great car to see what you get for your money as standard.
When I jumped in, it had around 450 miles on the clock. We covered another 1,500 on our way to the Concorso d'Eleganza Villa d'Este, during which it has seen heavy rain, lots of highway duty at slightly illegal speeds and narrow mountain roads in the Alps.
It was quite a journey.
The 1 Series was never the pretty one of the family. In fact, the first generation was more on the ugly side. With the second generation, BMW tried to give their compact offering a more serious front using the usual widening recipe which makes it look just as big as a 3 Series. The oversized headlamps dominate the character.
Yes, it's an improvement, but I still prefer to look at it from the back. I find the rear to be a much more minimalistic, honest design with the hatch and the square lights giving a touch of sportiness to it.
Overall, you don't feel ashamed picking it up from the parking lot.
It you sat in a modern BMW, you've seen it all. But a rather low-spec 1 Series quickly reminds you that it cost you less to get into the Bayerische club. All the usual features are there, but the software is different behind the buttons, there's less luxury, and the tall doors make the cabin feel smaller on the inside. Still, for two adults and maybe small children at the back, there's plenty of space.
Once again, build quality is exceptional. BMWs feel as solid as concrete on the road, and the 1-Series is no exception. The seats give great support, and the red stitching on the steering wheel is a nice touch just like the painted red line running through the dash and the keys. The instruments are informative and very clear to read even after a long drive at night.
The 116i is not a fast car by any standard, but it can be quite sporty thanks to the chassis itself and some clever software management. With 136 horsepower on the tap from a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine, you need to shift between those six gears often to find the torque. Still, putting it in sport mode will make the turbo work harder and make the 1-Series quite a bit more responsive.
To be honest, I didn't touch the sport button too often as my priority was good fuel economy on the trip, and with maximum performance engaged, the 116i instantly becomes pretty thirsty as well. The sharper steering is lovely though.
Once again, the 1-Series comes from the same drawing board as larger BMWs, meaning both the brakes and the tires make you feel very safe in any condition.
We've done many miles on tight Italian roads in the mountains, and the discs were almost brand new, which doesn't help performance, but there was no sign of fading or lack of stopping power.
If anything, the pedal was a bit too sensitive for my taste, but I guess that prevents fender benders in the city, just like understeer is supposed to help you in the curves. The traction control did it's job flawlessly as well when pushed harder in the passes of the Alps.
The same story as with the brakes. Because of how solid the car feels and thanks to the clever suspension setup, there's really not much noise or vibration reaching the cabin. On the highway, the 116i is almost silent, you're very much isolated from what's going on out there. The steering is your connection, and that's all you need on a long frive.
On country roads, the tires send you messages about the current situation, but that's only to keep you in control, not to bother you. It's almost disturbing how quiet it is, but at least it won't make you tired on the way.
Because we were well behind our schedule both at the start and at the end of the trip, we didn't have time to waste. The 116i understood the situation, and we drove for ten hours on the highway at 85 mph. When we ran into a very heavy summer storm in Slovenia and visibility became an issue, we cut back a bit, but were still going fast enough to turn the whole package into a massive wreck of steel and various body parts.
Now, to keep going fast under those conditions, you need a car you can trust. And the 1 Series is one you can. It rides and handles in a way that gives you great confidence on the road, no matter what you throw at it.
Imagine that you're driving a car that you're not familiar with. Still, you're in a rush. Would you keep pushing it if there was even a shadow of doubt about its stability? Probably not. But the 116i is amazingly stable, and thanks to the rear-wheel drive, if you want to go faster on country roads, you can play around with the tail when the traction control turned off.
But even if you manage to brake the end loose (which is not easy), it remains easy to control and you're back on track in a second. BMW is really good at this.
Our test car came with a six-speed manual, which is something I was really happy about. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with BMW's automatics, but they are boring as hell, and a compact should come with a manual anyway. Especially a rear-wheel drive one.
Probably because the car was new, the box had quite a resistance at first, but it's a very accurate and solid shifter which takes about five minutes to get used to. The clutch is also very forgiving at low revs, and the car knows when you want to start uphill, giving you a bit of help without even telling you.
The sixth gear is pretty much a highway overdrive, you really don't need more than five in the city.
It's very easy to see that BMW wanted to make the 116i as quiet as possible. There can be two reasons for that. One is that it isn't a performance oriented model, it's more of a city car for wealthy customers therefore comfort takes priority.
The other is that the engine doesn't sound particularly good, so that's one way of fixing that. The turbo's wastegate is really the only exciting thing you get from under the hood, otherwise, it's plain boring.
And the standard audio system, you ask? It's bad. Lots of bass, lots of treble, no middle whatever settings you use. It's rubbish.
Funny fact: the USB port is located in a way that the BMW doesn't take the MINI key shaped flash drive I got from the two years ago. Had to use a Lamborghini one.
As I said earlier, this 116i didn't have many. The park assist told me when I was about to hit something, which comes handy in a car with such a poor visibility as the 1 Series. The C-pillar is the size of Texas, so good luck with the blind spots.
But the toy I want to talk about is actually the Eco Pro mode. That will keep you occupied.
I don't know if you can make it out in the picture above, but that "+0.0km" is the exact amount of extra distance we got on our way back on the highway. My experience was that above 74 mph, the Eco Pro mode just doesn't save you anything. Fair enough.
What's more disappointing though is that when you're going slower in order to save fuel and follow the cars stupid instructions to short shift going uphill, it actually tells you that the savings mean 60 extra miles on one tank. That puts a big smile on your face until you realize that the 116i did 32 mpg on that trip with all the Eco Pro and a very light foot.
That's not a good result, and makes you wonder about how much it would need in Sport Mode. A lot more is a fair guess, which doesn't make it economical at all.
Ok, so you can't buy the hatchback in the 'States. Shame, but such is life. But is the 116i a good deal at around $34,000 in this configuration (based on the UK price)? If it were sold in the U.S it might be cheaper.
Depends, as always. Do you want a new BMW? If yes, this is one of the cheapest you want because, trust me, you don't want a 114i. That's a very slow car even compered to this.
Does it drive like a BMW should? Apart from the lack of real power, it does. The chassis is very good, it's nicely balanced, and don't forget that this is the only rear-wheel drive compact car on the market!
On the other hand, why would you buy a base BMW when you can get very well built cars with more power for equal or less money? Is the badge worth it?
One thing is for sure. The 116i is a good car overall, even if it's not the strongest character of the family. It feels very safe and the performance should be enough on a daily basis. A bit boring though.
Would I choose the hatchback over the coupe? Yes. It makes much more sense, and I don't know why don't they sell it to you. Send angry letters or cut your wurst intake as a protest.
Engine: 1.6L Turbocharged I4 petrol
Power: 136 HP at 4400 RPM/ 162 LB-FT at 1350 RPM
Transmission: Six-speed manual
0-62 MPH: 8.5 s
Top Speed: 130 mph
Drivetrain: Rear-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 3,031 LBS
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 32/50 MPG City/Highway
Photo credit: Máté Petrány