Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Driven #52: E87 BMW 116i Sport

A car arrived here the other day that was far more significant for me them for any of my
colleagues. A BMW 116i Sport, in quartz blue metallic. An identical car in almost all
respects to the first car I was ever issued as a salesman. My first company car

I was only 24 the time and being handed the keys to my first BMW was quite a stirring
experience. I had parked my old Rover just half an hour ago and was about to drive home in a car worth about 200 times its value. Remember this the time when the 1 series had only just been launched. It was a rare sight, not clogging every fast lane and ubiquitous in every city centre advertising the local estate agent. Do you remember that time? Does anybody?

I concede it as hard to imagine such a time ever existing, but it certainly did. In my first
week behind the wheel of the 1 Series, two things happened. First thing was as I sat
outside Frintons' Lock and Barrel pub, waiting to see if a good friend of mine would be
joining me. I could see the patrons of the establishment enjoying themselves, it was late
evening and dark outside, but the lighting in the pub exposed everything through the plateglass windows. And in my peripheral vision i could see them all gradually migrating to the glass, pointing in my direction and mouthing things like "new small BMW" to each other.
It next happened as I was driving through a small village local to me, on a balmy

weekend. As I drove, gently, observing the speed limit and wary of any errant horses or
stray livestock, a confident young giggle of teenage girls appeared. The most strident of
the flock suddenly shouted in my direction "nice car m8!" at volume enough to penetrate
my sealed windows and quiet radio. This hasn't happened to me ever again in a car since that

As I say, the 1 series has become absolutely ubiquitous, despite a slightly weak start,
thanks in no small part to its less than stellar review on top gear. There are also question
marks over its styling, which works better in some ways than in others. There's a feature
line along the hips that runs from bow to stern that's pure BMW 2002 and adds an air of
distinction that is simply absent from the Volkswagen Golf and Audi A3 of the time.

On the other hand, the headlamp and grille treatment is a little on the garish side,
exacerbated on cars with the optional xenon headlamps which are especially fussy looking. As is the awkward pillar spacing on 5 door models. But overall, with the benefit of the doubt being applied in healthy measures, at least with the E87 BMW took the effort to do something interesting. Chris Bangle may have been a controversial figure, but you couldn't accuse him of laziness.

The same applies inside, but it's a little more conventional and somewhat easier to take
in. There's nothing wildly imaginative going on, but still a strong sense of identity thanks
to the semi-floating dashboard design that sets itself apart from the usual dark-edifice-
full-of-technology. It's very simple, very clean, almost stark. Yet there are no obviously
missing features.

The instrument cluster is a particular delight, small and densely packed, it feels sporty.
Un-prosaic. The front seats, on the sport model, are terrific; with their extendable thigh
support and huge range of tilt adjustment they fitted me like a tailored shirt. Shame, then that they're as good as the rear seats are hopeless, especially so when I'm installed up front and the marginal legroom becomes non-existent. In fact, the car is almost a 2+2,
fatally wounding it in the battle for family-car practicality, unless your kids have removable legs. Combine this with a "compact" boot, versatility is definitely this cars Achilles heel.

But, of course, as a red blooded, heavily testosterone packed chap, none of that
mattered even slightly to me. All I cared about was what happened after you slotted that
lozenge-shaped key into the slot and thumbed the start button. This week, those initial
impressions came rushing back.

First thing I noticed the first time I drove my first BMW was how slow it was. The
Rover 820e I had driven to the dealership in on that morning in 2005 could never have been revered for its dynamics, yet compared to this it seemed so much more willing and effortless. Driven today the 116i is still slowish, but growing older and wiser has pointed out the virtues that I had missed first time around. it really is a thrillingly revvy little engine, issuing a pleasant howl as you stretch every single gear as far as you possibly can. In truth, when driven with verve it isn't as slow as you first think and the gear ratios are well chosen; but only up to the point where you run out of them.

On the motorway you quickly realise that 80mph is somewhere north of 4000RPM, and that jewel-like mill is spinning away wildly and being none too economical while doing so. The later cars, with their overdrive sixth, were a huge improvement in this respect. But then again, it's flaws like these that somehow add to the appeal of 1-Series.

Turn off onto a backroad and all the loose ends are pulled together into a brilliantly cohesive whole. The 1-Series, any 1-Series, is an absolute hoot to drive in an enthusiastic manner. Compared to a Golf or an A3 it probably doesn't ultimately cover the ground any quicker, it's also potentially far more dangerous than the other Germans, thanks to a drivetrain and weight distribution that errs strongly on the side of oversteer. It just feels, well, edgier. It puts me in mind of a heavier Alfasud. It drives far more like the old E30 3-Series than the E90 ever did. 

I've driven pretty well every flavour of 1-Series, and so easy is the the humble 116i to enjoy, it's my favourite of the lot - even including the 130i. The E87 1-Series comes from that early period of BMW's brave new era where the company was toying with new, uncharted market segments for the very first time.  

This was BMW's first attempt at a C-Segment car, and there are several dozen things wrong with it: Economy, styling, price, practicality, ride comfort to name the very broadest of suboptimal categories, each of which could easily be broken down further to find thousands of individually niggling inadequacies.

But this or a Golf 1.6 of the same age? Give me a hopeless interesting car over a tedious superb one any day of the week.