Being the subject of plenty of debate, criticism and even ridicule has not stopped the BMW 1 Series from being an immediate sales success. The allure of the BMW badge on an entertaining, rear-wheel drive hatchback has simply been too strong for many to resist. But we’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that we had yet to experience the best of the 1 Series. Examine the clues… As a traditional five-door hatchback alternative, the 1 Series simply doesn’t make sense. It is simply too compromised in its rear accommodation. At the same time, the engines on offer thus far have not exactly been able to exploit what is undoubtedly a fine chassis. That’s where this BMW 130i Sport derivative comes in. Perhaps the 1 Series will make most sense when viewed as a hot hatch alternative?
Get the Sport kitLet’s not beat about the bush, the 1 Series is not exactly a “looker”. Somehow, however, the Sport kit fitted to this BMW 130i has transformed the design in a very positive way, adding some muscle and balance to the shape. Due to its so-called “flame-surfacing” design, which consists of a complex combination of concave and convex curves, the 1 Series can look a bit awkward from some angles. By lowering the suspension and adding bigger wheels (17-inch items), the shape appears to be better balanced, more dynamic and somehow “tauter”. There are a few other nice touches, too, including a neatly integrated rear diffuser.
Slide into the low-mounted driver’s seat and you may for a moment be misled into thinking that you’ve boarded a proper M-division machine, judging by the number of M badges scattered around. The front seats are fabulously supportive sports items that grip in all the right places, without being too aggressively bolstered. And the steering wheel is one of those excellent M-division items too, boasting a thick, leather-trimmed rim that is lovely to hold. Using the somewhat awkward manual seat lifting mechanism, and the rake/reach adjustment of the steering wheel, most driver’s will be able to secure a spot-on driving position.
The rest of the cabin is much the same as other 1 Series models. Build quality is good, but some of the trim materials are hard and disappointing in their tactile quality. And spare a thought for those banished to the frankly useless rear seats. Not only is ingress/egress difficult thought the narrow door apertures (especially around the feet), but once seated there is very limited legroom. The boot, however, is well-sized and shaped.
Considering the BMW 130i Sport’s relatively high price, the standard specification is rather meagre. It does have climate control, cruise control, leather upholstery and a good quality radio/CD system, but you pay extra for auto lights/wipers, park assist, satellite navigation and xenon headlamps.
Thrilling drivetrainUnder the bonnet is one of those singing sixes that BMW is so renowned for. This particular 3,0-litre powerplant delivers a whopping 195 kW and 315 Nm of torque and is mated to a superb six-speed manual transmission that will really delight driving enthusiasts with its slickness and speed. It is a very refined drivetrain, too, with the engine being quiet at idle, but emitting a lovely rasp at higher speeds. And it revs so freely and smoothly…
The performance certainly lives up to expectations. The BMW 130i Sport is not the heaviest car around, so it makes good use of all that power, with the benchmark 0-100 km/h dash completed in 6,1 seconds. Get your standing-start right – this can be tricky, due to a clutch that “takes” very suddenly – and you may embarrass many a true sportscar in a traffic light grand prix. Oh, and this little charger will run all the way to 250 km/h. In typical BMW fashion, it is not only the measurable performance that impresses – flex your right ankle at any time and the response is fantastic, ensuring great overtaking acceleration and the type of immediacy that is usually the preserve of proper sports machines.
Pin-sharp dynamicsWe already knew, from having sampled the 120i and 120d models, that the 1 Series chassis could easily cope with more power. But even so BMW has made a few tweaks for this BMW 130i Sport derivative. It has also uprated the brakes to 300 mm ventilated discs all round, and man do they have bite! The package also includes an ESP system with dynamic traction control that can be deactivated in two stages. Given the relatively short wheelbase and huge power, deactivating it completely should only be done by experienced drivers, and when there’s plenty of run-off…
Starting off, the BMW 130i feels very much like any other 1 Series. The low speed ride is firm, and the steering is on the heavy side. It’s only really when you boot the throttle, get pinned into your seat and hear that throaty roar, when the true 130i steps forward. The steering is superb for such a sporty car, being very direct, precise and nicely weighted (on the go). The sporty suspension set-up and low-profile tyres do mean it can get a bit bouncy on poor surfaces, but generally speaking the ride remains composed enough for the BMW 130i to be considered a comfortable daily driver. But it’s most definitely at its best when grabbed by the scruff of the neck and worked hard through a series of bends. Grip levels are high, and it feels as if the car pivots around its centre, so you really have to be ham-fisted to provoke early understeer.
BMW 130i Sport - VerdictPackaging issues aside, the BMW 130i is a cracking hot hatch. In fact, perhaps it should rather be viewed as a quirky, “shooting brake” type of mini estate with explosive power, much like the old Z3-based M Coupe? Either way, buyers of this car can take great joy in the knowledge that the BMW 130i must rate as one of the most thrilling cars you can have for under R500k. Doesn’t look half so bad now, does it?
- Great performance
- Excellent handling
- Engine sound
- Tight rear space
- Easy to stall
Engine: 3,0-litre, six-cylinder, petrol
Power: 195 kW @ 6 600 rpm
Torque: 315 Nm @ 2 500 rpm
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Wheels: 17-inch alloy
Top speed: 250 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6,1 seconds
Fuel economy: 9,2 litres/100 km
- Audi A3 3,2 Quattro: Similarly powerful and priced, the Audi is the BMW 130i most serious rival. It is offered in three-door shape only, but once seated rear space and comfort are actually impressive. Quattro all-wheel drive gives limpet-like grip.
- Mercedes-Benz C230 Sports Coupe: A popular choice in South Africa and still a strikingly styled competitor with massive badge appeal. Priced at the same level, but is down on power and entertainment ability.
- Alfa Romeo 147 3,2 V6 GTA: Yes, the Alfa badge comes with a stigma of poor quality, but the 147 GTA has future classic written all over it. The performance is on par, the sound lovely, and the handling certainly entertaining. A left-field choice, but an alluring one.