Wednesday, 7 May 2014

A Very Sensible Hatchback

'Fast' is a very relative term. On a horse, 25mph is exhilarating while 500mph in a 747-400 all the away to Australia is literally soporific. Nearer the ground, I'm looking forward to being re-united with my Porsche 964 soon, its brawny 3.6litre engine punches out 250bhp, quicker than most cars on the road and capable of pushing the 911 to 160mph. But I was reminded how things have moved on since 1990 by a recent try in a 5 door hatchback.

I have a vague recollection of handing over my details to a cutie on BMW's magnificent edifice at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last July and asking about their 135i. There has been something of a buzz about the M-Light version of their visually challenged hatchback and I was curious enough to want to try one. Ever since then a persistent salesman from my nearest dealer has been on my case. He called me again recently and announced that he was able to offer me a car at a "silly price" so I thought I'd go along and waste some of his time.

I dug out some decent clothes and turned up at the dealership promptly at the agreed 11am. The forecast was for a bit of precipitation so I took the Golf, not the bike. At least that meant I was able to put some light go-faster shoes on - all the better for stepping lightly on an over-servoed brake pedal. 

There were a couple of new 1-Series sitting in the showroom when I arrived, so while the salesman was girding his loins for our encounter and the pleasant receptionist was rustling up a cappuccino, I had a good look around. I suspect this most recent iteration of BMW's smallest is a bit bigger than the 130i I looked at buying a few years ago. Unlike that car (which I remember as being an almost completely pointless four doored two seater) this has near Golf space in the rear with the front seat in 'my' position - and I'm a lanky six foot one-and-a-bit on a good day. As expected the boot is shallow - what with a diff and multi-link rear suspension set up under the floor 'n'all, but the five doors would be a practical plus over the somewhat limiting three of my own Golf. At least that upside banana 'character line' under the doors has been banished - I always thought it made the car look as if its spine had been fractured - but even without that obvious flaw the 1-series remains slab sided and moonfaced.

Inside, the steering wheel is a big chunky for my tastes, while the dash architecture is generic BMW - functional, classy and with some nice details. As some compensation the road wheels are relatively sensible 18's. BMW have even finally binned the inadequate sliding calliper brakes of 'M' cars in the past for a decent 4-pot set up in a fetching shade of blue. 

The two cars in the showroom were laden with options; both had the 8 speed autobox that Chris Harris likes, a £2k nav system and a load of 'convenience' doo-dahs for people who are unable to operate their own wipers & lights or park(or change gear...). However, in contrast to BMWs of old the standard level of kit is generous and includes such niceties as Xenon lights, a large screen+mouse interface, a DAB radio and dual zone climate control. 

Sadly, this generosity extends to the nasty Dakota leather that also comes as standard - presumably this reflects UK buyers' misguided preference for dead cow skin under their backsides. 

There is no cloth option.

After a half decent cup of coffee (it wasn't as nice as the one Porsche Portsmouth give me when I pop in to buy four quids worth of parts) the determined salesman and I went out in their demonstrator, a black 5 door with that 8-speed autobox. Mr Persistent went first, demonstrating a nicely refined BMW approved driving style; 45mph through the village's 30 limit, binary pedal technique, seat nice and high, and a good arm's stretch to the steering wheel for the 'full Stirling' driving position.

At the handover I levered the seat to the floor, pulled the fat wheel into my lap and raked the seat's back up. Much better.

First impressions were dominated by the variable assisted steering rack; turning out of the handover car-park and the steering lock was noticeably not directly related to my input -  the car adding exponentially more lock the further I turned the wheel. Not really very re-assuring and I ended up zigging and zagging down the road until I got dialled in. The assistance is of the electrical variety, and like some many of these systems it really only appeals to drivers who think 
steering 'feel' means how the your fingertips like the cheap leather covering the rim. Any connection with the road surface that allows to you judge grip and balance is almost entirely missing. 

The first few miles were busy 'A' road and second impressions were of a controlled but acceptable ride - even on the standard 18inch run flats - and a refined, even hushed lack of noise. In Comfort mode (alternatives are Eco and Sport - more later) the changes were smooth and plentiful as the box hunted for the highest possible gear. However, unlike my Golf's DSG system, it was willing to drop a gear or two (or three or four..) at a slight prod of the gas pedal.

After a while we turned onto the fast sweepers of the dualed A24 north of Worthing, and as the road opened up I pushed my right foot to the stop.

Feck me.

BMW claim 320bhp, but my seat of the pants dyno tells me they're telling porkies. There's a lot of accelerator pedal travel, but get it anywhere near the floor and it feels almost as quick as the 991 I 'owned' for a week last year. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the thing grunts out well over 350bhp, meaning it would be knocking on the door of 170mph without the limiter. I wasn't about to confirm this on the A24 but 3 figure speeds were horribly easy to achieve, all accompanied by a delicious yowl from the straight six that's only partly synthesised through the car's ICE system. This is some sensible family hatchback.

It was also pretty easy to waft along at normal motorway speeds, but after a few miles I left the open spaces of the A24 and joined a familiar A road heading back south towards Angmering. In 'Sport' mode the ECU delivers sharper throttle response and quicker changes,  responding rapidly to commands from the paddles either side of the wheel. In fact I suspect BMW have engineered a little 'thump' into the system just like the faux racers from Maranello. 

The steering still felt a little numb, definitely the weakest part of the dynamic equation. I suspect traction in anything but perfect conditions would also be a challenge; even in the dry, more aggressive use of the available torque produced flickers from the ASC light on the dash as the car went light over brows and lumps in the road. In fact, the chassis seemed not quite up to the standards of the drive-train. It lacked an ability to flow over a road like the best fast cars; as the pace increased the body moved around more than felt comfortable, affecting my confidence to push very hard. Poorly specified damping? Lack of suspension travel? Mind you, even at 8/10ths we were travelling at speeds I wouldn't like to have to justify to a member of Sussex's finest. 

On the upside it was lovely to feel the balance of a rwd chassis again; get all the braking done before the corner, turn in and pour on the power and there's no sign of the Gti's perennial understeer - in fact  the little Beemer seemed to pivot gently through neutral into a slight oversteer attitude before the blinking light cut the power - I suspect any attempt to turn the electronic stabilisers off might have been greeted with some resistance by my now strangely subdued company.

A bit more of this and we were back at the dealership. I'd nearly forgotten the pushy salesman  but as I popped to the loo (its an old man thing) I overheard him discussing our little test drive which appeared to have left something of an impression. I sympathise, I'm a poor passenger and I'd hate to be at the mercy of any test pilot who came into my showroom - especially one who fancied themselves as a wheelman/woman. I did apologise, and he claimed to have experienced much worse - in fact he was charmingly complimentary.

Sadly I then had to put up with a lot of sales bullsh*t over the price. The stock cars are not the strippers I'd specify at £30k, but fully dressed £38k jobs. A lot of money for a 5-door hatch, even one that's borderline ballistic. Even at the 10% discount he inferred might be do-able - without much prompting on my part. While I *might* just have a word with myself at £27k, at a lot more than that I'll hang fire and buy one on a couple of years.

On the other hand, if any of you want Cayman performance with hatchback practicality and understated looks I give you a shortlist of one. Oh, and I'd tick the box that removed the M135i badge and replaced it with a 116i one.


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