rear-drive

BMW make a great 1-series – it just isn’t this one

BMW has made the 1-series brilliant on B-roads, but not so great everywhere else

BARBECUE envy is a bad thing to suffer from at this time of year.

Essentially it involves dragging your rusty old bit of al fresco cooking equipment – inevitably bought at a supermarket for about £30 five years ago – in preparation for a lovely evening with your friends and family. It’s only then you find you’ve been upstaged by an irritating mate/relative/colleague with three grand’s worth of Napoleon Prestige in their garden. You can’t help but marvel at all the polished stainless steel, backlit controls and ceramic plating – but it’s all a bit over-engineered for burning burgers on Britain’s ten hot days each year.

It’s not unlike the BMW 1-series I’ve just spent a weekend with, because it manages to be just a tiny bit too brilliant for its own good. Can a car be too, er, good for its own good? If the 116D is anything to go by, the answer’s an emphatic yes.

If you’ve never driven a 1-series then you won’t appreciate that for all its slightly awkward hatchback proportions it is a proper BMW of the old school, focusing on engineering above all else. So it has a delightfully smooth engine (even for a diesel) up front, all the power heading to the back, and perfect weight distribution in the middle. As a result it’s a real joy to drive, with beautifully balanced steering, a low driving position and a slick gearchange. No bad thing if you’re up in North Yorkshire, where I was working over the weekend.

But once you peel off the B-roads and back into the real world it’s not so impressive. The reason why the rest of the world stopped making rear-drive hatchbacks once the Vauxhall Chevette disappeared is because you have to send all the power down a propshaft to the back wheels, which in a low-slung car like the 1-series robs space. As a result the footwell is cramped, there isn’t much rear legroom and the boot isn’t exactly commodious.

The sharp suspension that proves such a joy on country lanes translates into a firm ride once you’re on the motorway, and I now understand why 1-series drivers never indicate. The flickers seem incapable of self-cancelling, so why bother using them?

This is normally the point where I’d recommend buying a cheaper, roomier Golf that’s very nearly as fun, but I can’t because I know deep down that the 1-series is a truly capable bit of kit that just needs more BMWness to work. It deserves to be ordered in full fat M140i form rather than the apologetic fully skimmed offering you get with the 116D.

I can fully approve of a car where going for the turbocharged one with 335bhp represents the sensible option. Let’s face it, you were only going to spend three grand on a barbecue anyway.

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