BMW 120d (2005) Driving Impression

BMW 120d 2005

A quick spin in the 120i petrol version of BMW’s controversial new hatchback will do much to convince anyone that the chassis is begging for more power. There is a delicacy – perhaps a better word is “crispness” – to its responses and a steering purity that no front-wheel drive hatchback can come close to matching. But, while the 120i is not without its charms, it doesn’t quite have the grunt to exploit its undoubtedly fine underpinnings. Can the BMW 120d diesel derivative address this shortcoming?

Growing appeal

Let’s be honest - when BMW first revealed the 1 Series, reactions were not exactly positive. Since then, however, many of those onlookers who were not convinced at the start have changed their minds about BMW’s little ‘un. It has much to do with familiarity, of course, but it also has to be said that the 1 Series appears to be remarkably colour sensitive – darker hues suit it particularly well, perhaps hiding some of the extremities of the so-called “flame surfacing” design. What also helps are bigger wheels – while 16-inch alloys are standard, these don’t quite fill the wheelarches with sufficient purpose, so you may want to consider the optional bigger wheels.

As with the 120i, the design – or more accurately speaking the choice of a rear-wheel drivetrain – has impacted the vehicle’s practicality. Yes, it may offer five doors but the door apertures at the rear are awkwardly shaped, so ingress/egress is compromised, and once inside, you’ll also find that space is lacking – severely so, in fact. This is purely the result of BMW not being willing to compromise on its traditional virtues of near 50/50 weight distribution and rear-wheel drive. As admirable as that may be, it certainly means that those looking for a family hatchback may have to look elsewhere. Of course, for smaller kids rear space will be sufficient, and the boot is certainly of an acceptable size.

Those seated in front are much better catered for. The leather-upholstered seats may only feature manual adjustment, but are superbly comfortable and very supportive. BMW usually does very well when it comes to driving positions and the BMW 120d is no different – there is a good range of rake/reach adjustment from the steering wheel. Build quality is certainly very good, with very impressive fit all-round, but some of the plastics are not quite up to BMW’s usual high standards.

Standard equipment fro the BMW 120d includes; air-conditioning, radio/CD, keyless go, electric windows and mirrors and fog lamps front and rear. You pay extra for such niceties as a multifunction steering wheel (a bit naughty), cruise control and satellite navigation. But, in terms of safety equipment at least, the BMW 120d is a top-notch effort, boasting six airbags, ABS/EBD, CBC (cornering brake control) and ESP (electronic stability control).

Impressive diesel engine

BMW’s familiar and impressive 2,0-litre turbodiesel four-cylinder engine powers this model, and it does a brilliant job. It delivers 115 kW and a strong 330 Nm of torque from 2 000 rpm, powering the BMW 120d to 100 km/h in 9,1 seconds (significantly faster than the 120i) while also returning excellent fuel economy (8,9 L/100 km). Refinement levels are high, too, even at idle, but it does lack torque low down. Combined with a tricky clutch that engages rather suddenly, this lack of low-down power can result in frequent stalling. Of course, one gets used to this trait with familiarity.

On the go the engine delivers lovely thrust and great overtaking power. It is a pleasure shifting through the six-speed manual gearbox, too. It really isn’t much hardship to keep it in its “power band” between 2 000 and 4 000 rpm. In fact, compared with the slightly flat-footed 120i, this diesel model feels even more powerful and responsive than the power figures may suggest.

Sportscar dynamics

It would’ve been rather disappointing if BMW had gone to all the trouble of endowing the 1 Series with its trademark rear-wheel drivetrain, only for there to be no dynamic benefit. Luckily this is not the case. The BMW 120d boasts superb balance, the near 50/50 weight distribution lending the car enviable cornering neutrality, with little of the overbearing understeer bias so typical of its front-wheel drive rivals to be found. This is not to say that the BMW 120d is an “oversteery” hooligan’s car, but simply that the balance is spot-on. The steering boasts hydraulic assistance and is quite heavy at low speed, but on the go the weighting is finely judged and the accuracy class-leading. Because the front wheels only steer and don’t transmit power, there is also none of the ugly torque steer that sometimes plague powerful front-wheel drive cars.

Overall, then, the BMW 120d is a delight to drive, and you don’t have to push it to its limits to enjoy the subtleties of its superb dynamic set-up. The suspension is firm at low speed, but never jars, and delivers great bump absorption qualities, even at high cruising speeds.

BMW 120d - Verdict

The 1 Series is far more convincing in diesel form. The engine’s power puts the focus on the undoubtedly fine chassis, resulting in a car that is a delight to drive fast. But as a family hatchback the 1 Series remains something of a non-starter – rear access is tricky and the space is limited. For the upwardly mobile or empty nester that craves performance/economy and a premium badge, it is however a very tempting proposition.

We like:

  • Great performance
  • Fuel economy
  • Handling balance
  • Quality
We don’t like:
  • Tight rear space
  • Meagre standard specification
  • Easy to stall
Fast facts

Engine: 2,0-litre, four-cylinder, turbodiesel

Power: 115 kW @ 4 000 rpm

Torque: 330 Nm @ 2 000 rpm

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Wheels: 16-inch alloy

Top speed: 218 km/h

0-100 km/h: 9,1 seconds

Fuel economy: 8,9 litres/100 km


Also consider:

  • Audi A3 2,0 TDI Ambition: Similarly priced, the Audi is a very strong rival, but lacks the practicality of a five-door body. The 2,0 TDI engine delivers competitive power and performance, and is even more economical. Not as much fun to drive, though.
  • Volkswagen Golf 2,0 TDI Sport: Essentially a five-door version of the Audi A3... In its latest guise the Golf has matured to a near-premium level, and it certainly beats the BMW 120d for practicality and comfort.
  • Renault Megane 1,9 dCi Dynamique+: Quite a popular car in South Africa and one that delivers a comfortable driving experience. The interior is well-screwed together and loaded with features. But it’s down on power and snob appeal.