Rear­ward think­ing

Be­fore front-wheel drive cars take over the world, savour BMW’s hatch and re­mem­ber what fun it can be

Herald Sun - Motoring - - ROAD TEST - BILL McKIN­NON bill.mckin­non@news.com.au

BMW’s 1 Se­ries is the last small hatch on the mar­ket with rear­wheel drive. Does this mat­ter? As far as most new car buy­ers are con­cerned, not at all.

Car com­pa­nies like fron­twheel drives be­cause they’re cheaper to make, sim­pler, lighter and more space-ef­fi­cient than rear-driv­ers. That’s why they’re tak­ing over. Even the 2018 Com­modore will put its power down via the pointy end.

The next 1 Se­ries, due in 2018, will re­port­edly be a fron­twheel driver, based on the Mini chas­sis, with all-wheel drive hero vari­ants. We asked BMW Aus­tralia to con­firm this, but “Of­fi­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions have not yet be­gun” was all we could get out of them.

A well-sorted rear-wheel drive is still a beau­ti­ful thing on the road, though, and the cur­rent BMW 125i, up­dated for 2017, is among the best.

DE­SIGN

Priced at $48,900, the 125i is the Goldilocks model in the 1 Se­ries range. Sales were up 125 per cent in 2016.

Its 2.0-litre turbo en­gine now pro­duces 165kW of power — 5kW more than the 2016 model — with torque still peak­ing at 310Nm from 1400rpm-5000rpm, a torque flat rather than a torque curve.

The 125i can hit 100km/h from rest in a pretty handy 6.1 sec­onds.

An eight-speed au­to­matic is stan­dard; a six-speed man­ual is a no-cost op­tion.

Sports seats, wrapped in cloth and Al­can­tara, are firm, snug and sup­port­ive. A chunky, leather-wrapped M steer­ing wheel is also part of the stan­dard M Sport in­te­rior pack­age that in­cludes cool alu­minium trim with blue high­light­ing.

Rear pas­sen­gers en­dure tight

ac­cess and lim­ited legroom, dic­tated by rear-drive hard­ware (prop shaft, dif­fer­en­tial and axles) un­der the floor.

Boot space is ad­e­quate rather than gen­er­ous for the same rea­son, even with­out pack­ing a spare.

AROUND TOWN

The driv­e­train is smooth, punchy, quiet and fru­gal. An em­phatic surge of ac­cel­er­a­tion is never more than a gen­tle squeeze of the go pedal away.

In Eco and Com­fort modes, our 125i eas­ily re­turned sin­gle fig­ure fuel econ­omy in Syd­ney traf­fic. On the high­way, it used 5L-6L/100km — that’s al­most diesel thrift.

If you want proof that a re­mote con­trol-op­er­ated in­fo­tain­ment set-up, backed up by voice con­trol that speaks your lan­guage, is safer and eas­ier to use than a touch­screen, BMW’s iDrive is it.

The 125i, though, gets the poverty pack small screen and lim­ited smart­phone in­te­gra­tion. In­stru­ments are de­cid­edly olde-worlde and the wands feel cheap and flimsy.

You also miss out on gear that’s use­ful in guerilla traf­fic con­di­tions and should be there at the price, no­tably blind spot mon­i­tor­ing, rear cross traf­fic alert and rear cam­era guide­lines.

Around town, the ride is firm and fussy, typ­i­cal of low-pro­file, run-flat tyres. The stiff­ened M Sport sus­pen­sion, stan­dard on the 125i, also low­ers the car by 10mm for flat­ter cor­ner­ing, which does the ride no favours ei­ther.

Adap­tive M sus­pen­sion ($1092), with ad­justable dampers, is an op­tion worth tick­ing on any BMW be­cause it gives you the best of both worlds.

ON THE ROAD

So what’s the big deal with rear­wheel drive? None, re­ally, un­less you en­joy driv­ing. In the daily bump and grind, a front­driver will do the job just as well.

How­ever when you point a rear-wheel drive at a few tight cor­ners, there’s a big dif­fer­ence. It’s usu­ally less nose-heavy and bet­ter bal­anced be­cause its weight is more evenly dis­trib­uted.

The steer­ing is more ac­cu­rate, con­sis­tent and com­mu­nica­tive, be­cause pre­ci­sion and feed­back are not cor­rupted by the en­gine’s torque, which pro­duces a tug­ging sen­sa­tion at the wheel that can in ex­treme cases com­pro­mise di­rec­tional sta­bil­ity, even in a straight line.

Un­der power, the car will point into the cor­ner, rather than want­ing to run wide, and it will squat a lit­tle at the rear, max­imis­ing grip.

All of this, the BMW does to grin-in­duc­ing ef­fect in Sport and Sport+ modes, which ac­ti­vate the full fat driv­e­train and sharpen up the vari­able ra­tio sport steer­ing. Sport+ also ex­tends the thresh­old of trac­tion con­trol in­ter­ven­tion.

Ride com­fort im­proves at speed, the M Sport brakes are pow­er­ful and pro­gres­sive and with lots of rub­ber at the rear for a small car — 245/35 Bridge­stone Poten­zas — there’s no short­age of grip, ei­ther. So you can tap ev­ery kilo­watt you’ve paid for.

And what a plea­sure that is. The 2.0-litre is a re­spon­sive, will­ing en­gine, with min­i­mal lag and a much more en­thu­si­as­tic, free-spin­ning top end than many tur­bos.

You get crisp, smooth, timely shifts in Sport mode, plus man­ual mode and pad­dleshifters if you pre­fer to change gears your­self.

VER­DICT

If driv­ing is no more ex­cit­ing or joy­ful than clean­ing your teeth, you’re wast­ing your money on the 125i. Buy a more spa­cious,

com­fort­able Subaru Im­preza or Mazda3 in­stead and pocket $20,000 change.

How­ever if you think such ve­hi­cles are a bit bor­ing, and you’d rather walk than get around in one of Mr Google’s

“Waymo” self-driv­ing rub­bish bins that will soon take over the world, then you should take a 125i for a drive. En­joy it while it lasts. One day, we will re­mem­ber how much fun cars like this once were.

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