Diesel is the One you want

In case you missed European Editor Peter Robinson’s first drive of a 120i in last week’s Autocar, here’s a succinct summary: he liked it. A lot. For Peter, the 1-series reaffirms the purity of rear-wheel drive in a hatchback.

I’m tempted to agree, as my 120d snicks with almost casual assurance through another open S-bend at ridiculous velocity. But the truth is that for a younger generation (sorry Peter) the concept of a small hatchback sending power to the rear wheels is as alien as anything in modern motoring.

There’s just no modern precedent for this car, and that alone – plus the fact that it actually delivers on the promise of its mechanical layout – makes it very beguiling.

Right now, until BMW starts inserting big-capacity sixes or high-revving motor sport ‘fours’ into unsuspecting Ones, the 120d is the quickest variant you can buy. With a strong 163bhp and a massively sturdy 251lb ft, there’s nothing that a 120i can do, however desperate, to get away from a chasing 120d.

That the performance is always impressive is hardly a surprise. BMW claims the 0-60mph sprint takes just 7.9sec and it feels easily that quick. That it’s coupled with refinement that makes some other diesels in the hatchback class sound and feel like fairground generators is the real news.

From muted idle to fluid upper rev-range, noise levels are fantastically low, as are vibration and harshness. Only a faint murmur felt through the clutch pedal at the top of its travel mars the picture slightly.

A smooth turbo boost curve aids a finely judged power delivery that avoids the ‘nodding dog’ all-or-nothing characteristic yet provides enough of a shove in the back to remain exciting. And you don’t have to suffer a clunky old gearbox to handle all that torque: the 120d’s ’box is a typically sweet, snappily shifting BMW device.

With near-50mpg economy, it’s only the fact that BMW’s petrol sixes are so smooth, engaging and sonically stimulating that puts any real dent in the diesel’s case for purchase.

There is also a slight deterioration in the ultimate handling ability of the diesel car compared to the petrol 1-series, at least against the current four-cylinder cars. The added weight in the nose of the 120d robs just a small fraction of the inherent agility and turn-in found in the petrol variant.

Other than that it’s all good news: outright grip, balance and body control are all excellent. Best of all, the steering is wonderfully free from any driveshaft sourced contamination and beats a 3-series for weighting, feel, confidence-inspiring accuracy and straight-line stability. The ride – on smooth German roads at least – is firm but quiet and composed.

And styling? A debate that’s sure to rage on. But in that split second when eye spies object but brain lags behind in retrieving any prejudice, I liked it. From the photos you might expect something resembling an old Austin, but the 1-series works so much better in the metal. 

It might not be perfect in its details, but understand why the basic proportions are like they are and, as an example of applying a brand’s unique identity to a new market sector, it works very well indeed. It’s the kind of car you need to see for yourself to form an opinion.

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At £20,800 before any essential options you’ll pay dearly for a hatchback that offers considerably less rear-seat practicality than a Golf. But in a world where a Golf TDi can cost £24,410 – admittedly with options – the 1 series feels like one self-consciously premium product that really is worth the extra cash.

Adam Towler

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