Thursday, December 15, 2011

First Drive: 2012 BMW 116i Urban and 118d Sport

Photos by Ulysses Ang
It's as if everything conspired to make the day's drive difficult: the heavens opened up and the traffic was horrendous. Yet, for all the troubles we faced that day, by the end of it, there was a general consensus that the all-new BMW 1 Series is one exceptional automobile. Rarely does a car prove itself while stuck in traffic, but that's exactly what this premium hatchback did. For a minute, you can forget that the BMW 1 Series's "dual personality" stood for the Urban and Sport line and instead, label it as equally capable whether at speed or at rest.

Gazing upon the BMW 1 Series parked at the drive's starting point, you can't help but pinpoint the several corporate design cues present on this car. From the 7 Series-like arrow shaped headlamps to the large, upright kidney grille from the Z4, there's no mistaking that the 1 Series is a BMW through and through. Some may say that the sheet metal is polarizing to the eye, but whatever you think of it, it's certainly more beautiful in person than in photographs; you cannot appreciate the almost non-existent overhangs, the subtle play of curves, the razor-thin side mirror indicators (the first for BMW) and even the highly complex lamp clusters. Indeed, the BMW 1 Series is a detail-obsessed macho machine any which way you put it.

The head-turning looks of the 1 Series is juxtaposed by the availability of two distinct model lines which transform the personality of the car by playing on detail changes, some of which are subtle to all but the very observant. On one hand is the Urban: the more mature, more luxurious of the two lines which features more brightwork (but not chrome) inside and out from the grille to the bumpers to even the dashboard itself. On the other hand is the Sport: the spunkier, more dynamic sibling which trades the matte aluminum trim pieces for high-gloss black ones and rides on larger alloy wheels.

The 1 Series's interplay of curves and lines make it look more compact than it really is. In reality, it's actually a full 85 millimeters longer and 17 millimeters wider than the model it replaces. These may seem minuscule, but considering that a full 30 millimeters went to the wheelbase (21 millimeters to rear section alone), the all-new 1 Series answers the only criticism leveled at its predecessor: the lack of interior room. The 1 Series still isn't a 5 Series inside but at least there's more than ample room for everyone even for those long distance drives (including this one to Tagaytay).

Starting off from the backseat (there were three people to a car), the most noticeable difference with the all-new 1 Series is how there's much more leg room than before. Even the rear seats are highly supportive and there are even aircon vents this time around. Pretty impressive stuff. As the convoy moved along, the next thing you notice is how well it rides. The previous 1 Series was a great handler, but it sacrificed everything else; not so with this one. The jitteriness is gone and it's been replaced by a serene ride that's perfectly balanced and fully deserving of the blue-and-white propeller badge. It is pretty quiet too: conversations above 130 km/h didn't have to be shouting matches.

As the group of 1 Series reached the first pit stop, it was time to try the front passenger seat and the new iDrive system. Having sampled the single-wheel, four-directional iDrive from before, it's clear how the new interface feels much more user-friendly. The free-standing screen is a joy to look at and even more joyful to use. You can channel your inner Captain Kirk easily with the new iDrive's array of shortcuts and favorite buttons. There's little need to fumble through the menus and controls as everything feels well designed and intuitive. And despite being an entry-level Bimmer, the audio system is nothing to sneeze at either. The BMW Professional system is a high-fidelity audio fan's dream plus it can now play your favorite tunes in a wide range of formats from compact discs to USB and even iPod.

After spending two-thirds of the drive riding shotgun or in the backseat, it's finally time to touch on the most important seat of all: the driver's. Settling into the body-hugging seat, the 1 Series offers a wide range of adjustments for the perfect driving position. And despite the dizzying number of adjustment permutations, you can find the perfect driving position in less time than it takes for you to tie your shoes.

The first driving stint was done behind the wheel of the 118d Sport. Despite the "d" suffix, it's no slouch. This next-generation diesel features BMW's new TwinPower turbo technology and magnetic-valve direct injection. All in all, it has 143 horsepower and 320 Nm of torque, making short work of the climb up Tagaytay. BMW quotes a 0-100 km/h time of 8.9 seconds, but it felt faster than that. Coupled with the segment's first and only 8-speed automatic, the 118d was able to maximize its wide power band and make overtaking easy.

The new 1 Series's chassis is also one of the industry's best. The body itself is made from high-tensile steel for excellent rigidity and a lighter curb weight. And then wrapped around this body is a multitude of systems that push the handling envelope even further. First is the electromechanical power steering that provides precise and linear feedback of the road. And then, add to that a perfect 50/50 weight distribution as well as all-around independent suspension and you end up with a fun-to-drive car. Even with the torrential rains, it is fairly easy to push the 1 Series because of the multitude of standard driving aids such as Dynamic Stability Control, Dynamic Traction Control and Corner Brake Assist.

After a hefty lunch and some lifestyle activities, it is then time to try out the entry-level 116i. Only available in Urban guise, the 116i gives up some horsepower and torque (136 horsepower, 220 Nm) to the 118d, but it's still a great drive. Again, like the 118d, TwinPower turbo equipped engine feels faster than it's 9.1 second 0-100 km/h suggests. There's initial turbo lag but once the turbo does kick in, it accelerates like a rocket. Like the 118d, the 116i is equipped with an 8-speed automatic.

Before you come to the conclusion that the 1 Series is a one-trick pocket rocket, it's as efficient as it's fun and fast. Both engine variants are equipped with BMW's EfficientDynamics technology. This technology package includes brake energy regeneration, an automatic engine start/stop function (quite discomforting in the 118d) and a switchable driving mode that facilitates an economical driving style. This mode, dubbed ECO PRO can reduce fuel consumption by up to 20 percent. It does so by optimizing everything from pedal response to gear shift pattern to even the air conditioning system. The bonus kilometers are even shown on the multiple-function display for posterity's sake.

After the day's drive, it's clear that the all-new BMW 1 Series isn't for everyone. With a starting price of P 2.290-million for the 116i Urban to P2.690-million for the 118d Sport, the 1 Series isn't affordable. But for those in a market that desires a car that creates that perfect balance between sporty and sophistication, fast and frugality, compact yet roomy, the BMW 1 Series is the perfect choice. Whatever you choose, be Urban or Sport, the 1 Series is a testament to a very personal, very informed choice making it one of best decisions you'll make in a lifetime.

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