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We drive BMW's hot 130i

2006-01-24 08:53

Hot wheels!

John Oxley

There are moments in time that stick in your mind.

Riding in a horsedrawn cart while dad and Uncle Jack pile it high with new-mown hay.

Dad pushing you on a swing and you shouting "higher, higher", and his deep bass laughter filling your ears.

Your driving test - that long moment when you almost fluff the hill start, followed by a tense milli-second until the examiner smiles and says, "do it again", and this time you do it perfectly.

It's easy to go on and on, for life piles these moments high on top of the other as you get older.

I had a moment in time yesterday. It was a long winding road, rolling and bumpy, way out in the country. I pushed and pushed, and the car started to kick and jerk through the steering, and the DSC light was flashing 50 times a second.

Speed limiter

The speedo needle hurtled around the clock. 230, 240, 250 - the engine started to flutter as the electronic speed control kicked in. We had hit the limiter, but the BMW 130i wanted more?

It's that sort of car.

With 195 kW of 3-litre straight six under the bonnet dishing out a wonderfully sweet sound, with rear-wheel drive and fat takkies giving the sort of grip, balance and road feel only rear-wheel drive can, and an open road with not a soul in sight, it was nirvana.

I've always been a rear-wheel drive guy. I like to feel the tail kick out on a 180 degree corner, I love it when the back hops when you hit a bump at speed and you feel it happening, and flick it into line.

I adore the way the car turns when you want it to turn, without having to fight understeer, or torque steer, or wheels scrabbling for grip.

In short, I love to be INVOLVED with the car I'm driving.

But alas, in these days of space optimisation the drive is more and more sent through the front wheels, where often it results in lack of feel through the steering as the front wheels fight for the dual role of pulling the car along and steering at the same time.

So a four-seater four-door hatch with rear-wheel drive and more power than any hatch has had before is worth a second look.

New engine

The starting point for the BMW 130i is the bodyshell of the 120i, already a hot contender in the hatchback wars.

The 2-litre engine is ditched, and in its place the 3-litre unit found in the 330i and 530i, but 5 kW more powerful thanks to a better exhaust system and changes to the engine management system.

But it's not just about power - it's about torque, too, with a maximum of 315 Nm from as low as 2 500 r/min right through to 4 000 r/min. That's why you always seem to be in the right gear even if you're not, for the massive torque carries you through.

And because the new engine is so light - it weighs only 161 kg - the 130i retains a front/rear weight distribution of 50/50, another key to superb handling, balance and driver involvement.

The 130i - did I mention it's available in two versions, "standard" and Sport, the latter with firmer suspension, a deeper front air intake, new racy side sills and a sportier interior - gets all the bells and whistles available in bigger BMW models, too.

That means the latest second generation DSC+, ( the only 1 Series model to get it) with new settings that allow the driver greater flexibility before stepping in to stop the car getting out of line.


Plus the option of active steering and adaptive headlights, as well as set-off assistant, which holds the brakes for a couple of second to make it easier to pull away on a hill, and soft stop, which "softens" a hard stop and makes life more comfy for your passengers.

There's also fade compensation, for when you're driving really hard, brake standby, for faster brake operation, and dry braking, which skims water off the discs in wet weather.

Naturally there's ABS braking with electronic brake distribution and brake assistance which puts more power into your foot.

What else do you get?

Well, on top of the 120i specification you also get 17-inch V-spoke wheels (with 18-inch optional), front foglights, cloth or leather upholstery, a sports leather steering wheel, chrome door sills, satin chrome trim, a chromed exhaust, chrome bars in the kidney grille, and body colour exterior trim.

The Sport gets the aforementioned body kit and suspension changes, plus sports seats, an M leather rimmed steering wheel, a short shift gear lever, and 17 inch M alloy wheels.

Suspension is still all alloy struts front, lightweight steel multi-link rear, but a larger differential is fitted to cope with the extra power and torque.

Behind the wheel

It's easy to get comfortable and find a good driving position thanks to height adjustment on the driver's seat (and the passenger's) as well as steering which adjusts for both tilt and height.

The engine starts with a pushbutton after loading in the special electronic key, and the handbrake is between the seats, a standard pull-up affair like it should be.

Start the engine, and there's a roar from the big six, a sense of urgency. Pull away, and there's a short takeup on the clutch, instant power from the engine that makes your first pullaway a bit jerky until you get used to it.

Then it's off. The six-speed manual gearbox is light, smooth, and very positive (there's an auto 'box coming in March) and you rocket forward as the power just climbs and climbs.

The 130i comes with runflats as standard, and I do feel this has some effect on ride quality, though runflats have definitely improved in this regard.

On country roads the ride is a trifle jiggly, and you feel bigger bumps quite fiercely when you're travelling quickly.

That's the downside of a car designed around the driver; the upside, as mentioned, is the superb handling and roadholding.


Of course the performance is excellent. BMW claims 0-100 km/h in just 6.1 seconds - better than its two main competitors, the Audi A3 Sportback 3.2 and the Alfa Romeo 147 GTA 3.2 - while overall fuel consumption is a superb 9.2 litres/100 km.

Space in front is ample for two, with the seats getting enough adjustment for the tallest drivers, but rear seat space is limited.

With average drivers you can still get two adults in the back, but it's not always easy to get in and out through the smallish rear doors.

Fixtures and fittings, as to be expected, are super, and our car had carbon fibre-look trim, while the Sport gets aluminium trim strips.

There's aircon, elelctric windows and mirrors, a nice front-loader CD/radio, and it gained 5 stars in Euro NCAP crash tests.

BMW iDrive is automatically included whenever the customer orders a navigation system.


  • BMW 130I R278 500
  • BMW 130i Sport R312 500


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