After my brief tango with the Mercedes C220d at the start of June, I found myself in need of another car for August, to move my things from London to Wales in preparation for their ultimate shipment from the UK to the US.
I rebooked with Sixt, choosing as I did before the Mercedes A-Class ‘Prestige’ option, for just north of £200. That gave me the car from mid-morning Thursday to early morning the following Monday, with full insurance cover.
I was pleased when I found out that they had a BMW 1 Series for me, instead of a Merc A-Class. I was less pleased when I saw, written on the receipt, what model I was being given.
Whereas last time I was upgraded to the pretty-swish and pretty-loaded C220d, this time I was being given a 116d SE. Or, pretty much, the bottom of the range.
There were a few options installed – a quick check of the BMW configurator reveals that the car currently sat on the driveway would cost just a shade over £28,000 to buy outright – but the initial impressions were pretty disappointing. After owning an M135i, and having spent the weekend riding in and photographing an M140i, this was a big step back.
Or so I thought.
Having had one of these cars (in much fancier guise) a few months earlier, as well as being a BMW aficionado, it was easy to get myself comfortable in the car. Despite the relative low spec, the car was still equipped with leather seats, air conditioning (no climate control), and the basic iDrive system with sat-nav, USB and Bluetooth connectivity for the phone. Dialling my home address in was easy, and I was underway within a couple of minutes.
Huh. It was surprisingly rapid. I expected the car to behave like my M135i in Eco Pro mode – basically like driving through treacle – but it responded to my inputs with positivity and a surprising amount of low-down grunt. The car has 116bhp – not a huge amount – but the torque was plentiful, and made the car feel more powerful than it ultimately was.
I found that putting it in Sport mode was the sweet spot for the car – tightening up the steering and making the throttle more responsive.
When driving in London you barely get above 30mph, and this car was perfect for the short blasts from traffic light to traffic light. In fact, in these situations I’d question whether there’s any sense in having more power.
After getting back to my house and loading the car up with all of my earthly belongings (an all-too depressingly-common occurrence in my life these past years) I began the long schlep to Wales. The first hour and a half of this journey is nothing but rat runs through London (albeit very fancy rat runs once you get to West London) so the car performed admirably. Quick and nimble, and actually more easily chuckable than the M-Lite, given the skinnier tyres (and therefore less grip).
The shortcomings of the cheaper car started to become more apparent as I stretched its legs onto the M4 and settled into a motorway-speed cruise.
Let’s deal with the engine first. It’s a bit rattly as per diesel engines in general, though on the whole it’s quite a refined lump. You certainly don’t feel like you’re driving a tractor on startup – my old 320cd was much noisier in this respect.
Whilst town driving hides its power deficit wonderfully, there’s no denying that it’s short on puff at motorway speeds. The behaviour of the car when putting your foot hard down felt familiar, but in the way that a dream is familiar. You feel the initial churn of revs climbing as the auto box changes down, but that’s where things differ.
The M-Lite rewarded your judicious throttle response by kicking you firmly in the back with it’s big, cushioned, leather Doc Martens and teleporting you down the road before you knew what was happening.
The 116d … doesn’t. Instead of the addictive, endorphin-dumping aural treat that accompanies a rapid blurring of the scenery, you instead get a measured, thoughtful response; “I see you’ve asked to go faster, but just in case you change your mind I’m going to take it slow”.
The ride quality is very good. The car is on 16″ wheels and as a result have high-sidewalled tyres that make for a good base. Around town and on higher-speed roads the car rides fluidly and comfortably, soaking up imperfections with aplomb. It’s a BMW, so will always be geared towards ‘sporty’ driving; when you want to hustle (within the bounds of its engine) it is more than happy to do so, but it’s equally comfortable on a cruise.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for the seats.
Every BMW I’ve owned has had the optional M-Sport seats; beautifully supportive things with every adjustment under the sun, allowing you to find and perfect the optimal seating position. Standard BMW seats just aren’t up to the job. The base is flatter, without the raised bolsters either side of your thighs, which means you shift around more in the seat. There’s no tilt function either, so rather than being able to point your thighs slightly upwards – resulting in a cosseted, secure feeling – there’s the unshakeable feeling that if you braked really hard, you might slide out of your seat (I know you wouldn’t, but the feeling is there).
The seats in this model are leather, so they look and feel very nice but, as I tell anybody who’s buying a BMW – get the Sports Seats. Once you’ve sat in them it’s an absolute no-brainer; I can’t understand the amount of BMWs I see on Autotrader going for sale with standard seats.
The rest of the interior is a mixed bag. The 1 Series is BMW’s entry level car and consequently has one of the cheaper-feeling interiors in the whole range. That’s understandable. The dash upper material has always felt a bit plasticky – as true in my M135i as it is in this 116d – but the trick is to lift the whole experience by putting in premium touch points.
The steering wheel feels cheap, and has a thin rim. It looks pretty cheap too. Compared to the sumptuous soft leather and thick rim of the M-Sport models, it’s a real step down. I know that there needs to be some differentiation between the models given what you pay, but I can’t help but feel that BMW could do better than this. The switchgear, for the most part, is similar throughout the range, so that all feels good. The gear selector – automatic on this model – is also different to the M135i.
As far as I know they all use the same ZF 8 Speed gearbox, so why the lower models have to make do with the older part-metal, part-plastic option when the higher ones get the lovely all-metal part is a mystery. It doesn’t look or feel that great.
The iDrive is the base model – I had the Professional model in the M135i – but despite that, it’s still very good. This 116d appears to run the same iDrive 4.0 as my car so I’m very familiar with it. The base model makes do with a smaller screen – which is still beautifully legible – and offers all of the features. Unfortunately, it’s slow. I now realise that one of the differences between the two is that the Pro Unit has a faster computer running the show. Changing route types in the navigation takes an age to re-calculate (not exactly great when you’re on the move at speed) and overall it feels a little slow.
To those that have never run the Pro nav, it might be unnoticeable – and they may have rectified this on the newer models with iDrive 5.0 – but I can definitely tell the difference.
The basic iDrive also ‘makes do’ with the smaller control wheel that doesn’t have the touchpad integrated. I can’t say I miss it. The smaller controller is just as capable as the bigger one, and sometimes is actually a bit more ergonomic.
Last up, the stereo. My car had the gorgeous Harmon Kardon speaker system, with extra speakers and subwoofers all over the place. It sounded amazing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that – to my ear – the basic stereo is still perfectly adequate. You have to push it loud to get the best out of it, which means there’s not a huge amount of volume range and you might shorten the life of the speakers, but it’s perfectly good. The HK system is another option I’d strongly advise buyers to tick, but if you really can’t afford it you won’t feel like you have to drive around with earbuds in, shunning the stock system entirely.
So where to sum up?
I feel like I’ve been quite harsh in places on this car, but that’s because I’ve driven its nicer, faster big brother and that is such an accomplished car. It’s amazing really that on the same platform, BMW are able to swap components in and out and transform things so vastly.
The 116d is an excellent car, and it’s at the bottom of the range. Yes, it has some option boxes ticked, and I would dissuade anyone from buying an absolutely bog-standard one with no options at all, but this is far, far from being a bad car just because it lacks a few trinkets or a bigger engine.
It drives well, it’s surprisingly brisk, and it’s very economical (~51MPG in real world driving). Though lacking the visual clout of the sportier models it looks handsome enough – especially in the colour I have – and is measurably better in almost every way than its in-class peers such as the Ford Focus. A little more expensive? Sure. But you can see and feel where the extra money has been spent.
Do BMW actually make a bad car? On the strength of driving one of their cheapest models, I’d have to say no.