Slot the electronic key in and punch the separate starter button – the jury is still out on that one. When the novelty wears off, you’re stuck with a two-task start-up procedure where one was sufficient, if slightly less James Bond-ish.
After that familiar BMW starter-motor giggle, the little four settles to a smooth idle of the ‘is-it-on?’ variety. An exploratory rev reveals pure BMW responses, a gentle hum hardening and sharpening as the revs rise.
Slot the five-speed gearbox into first, easy off the clutch and we’re away. First impression as we trawl through a French suburb en route to some gloriously quick and twisting roads is of a car that responds languorously if you’ve got much less than 3500rpm on the clock. So we rapidly get used to the thwack of throttle pedal on firewall as the roads open up and traffic thins.
Maximum power is developed at 6000rpm, meaning that during rapid progress the 116i tends to spend most of its time between 4000 and 6500rpm.
It’s got the shortest gearing in the 1-series range to make the most of its power and torque, so at an 85mph cruise, you’ll be revving at nearly 4000rpm in top. That makes for more engine noise than you’ll get in any other 1-series, the rest of which get a six-speed gearbox and a much more relaxed motorway manner. Still, the 116i’s engine note at a fast cruise isn’t annoyingly intrusive.
The five-speed gearbox action feels just as precise and mechanically satisfying as the six-speeder’s, and as we turn onto some tight country roads with plenty of 30-40mph corners, the fun quotient rises significantly. With pedals well placed for heel-and-toe, which you need to do a lot of to keep the 116i on the right side of its powerband, it’s possible to get the car into a swift and rewarding rhythm.
What you can’t do is adjust the car’s attitude on the throttle, even with the Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic (DSC) Traction Control (DTC) switched off. There’s just not enough power to overcome the car’s impressive levels of grip, even on its standard 185/50 R16 tyres.
But keep the engine working and you can still have a real hoot of a drive. The car is just so supremely eager to change direction and the relative light weight of the engine helps its agility even more. In fact, at 1205kgs, the 116i is significantly lighter than its siblings.
The combination of very direct and feelsome steering and chassis balance so neutral that the default setting around a fast corner is four-wheel drift means that you’ll forgive the lack of power. Well, most of the time.
BMW asks £15,690 for the least expensive 116i, and for the money, you’ll get a CD player, electric windows, 16-inch steel wheels with (convincing) covers, run-flat tyres and six airbags, including the latest single-curtain airbag that stretches all the way to the rear compartment.
Crucially, what you don’t get is air-conditioning. At the moment, BMW’s automatic air-con is the only cool-air option on offer, and will set you back about £1000. The company is, though, looking at offering a manual system which could cost as little as £600. It really should be standard-fit, and BMW won’t win any fans for this financial shell-game. And don’t think of going without, as a 1-series with no air-con will be much harder to sell, and that’s not to mention that the mercury hit 28C last week.
In spite of it having the smallest displacement engine in the 1-series range, the 116i is the thirstiest of the lot. The two diesels are obviously going to be more frugal, but so is the much more powerful 2.0-litre petrol 120i.