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2008-05-28 09:55

Lance Branquinho

BMW 1 Series

BMW's 1 Series is now available in convertible guise in South Africa

Winter is approaching and although the days are getting shorter, you can make the most of those last few sunny ones with the new BMW 1 Series convertible.  

The fourth 1 Series derivative to be launched locally in the last ten months, the Leipzig-built soft-top is hardly a volume proposition - BMW is expecting to move around 30 a month.  

It does herald an interesting new market niche, providing diminutive open top, rear-wheel drive performance motoring.

Top down styling

Aesthetically you either like the daring 1 Series design or loathe it, although the coupe and convertible versions with their tapered rears are objectively a more endearing proposition than the hatchbacks.  

Top down the 1 Series styling is dominated by the flared shoulder line which runs parallel to the road. The rear styling - especially the light-arrangement - appears slightly out of proportion.  For the rest its 1 Series coupe cues everywhere and the elongated nose and strong flanks yield a dynamic, yet diminutive presence.

You can initiate the soft-top folding mechanics at up to 40km/h - one can hardly fathom why you would want to though.  The electro-hydraulic mechanics takes a leisurely 22 seconds to fold and stow the soft-top. In mitigation it does lower completely into the boot, yielding a flush finish and greatly enhancing the topless experience.  

Tight inside

BMW cast the 1 Series convertible as a premium compact four-seater, which is a bit of an oxymoron as anything as compact as it can hardly seat four adults. I have driven the BMW 650i convertible - a vastly larger car - and even it struggles to accommodate four adults with aplomb.  
The rear seats of the 1 Series are stowage space friendly only, you can forget about cruising along the Camps Bay beachfront in summer four-up in one.  

Boot space is claimed at 300-litres (260-litres top down), and there is a clever transit bag option too, which integrates the rear seats and boot into a single cargo space able to carry two golf bags.  

Concerning the rest of the interior it's standard BMW fare. Superb seats with ample adjustment, quality materials and sombre, black overtones in the trim design. And they have left plenty of room inside for optional kit to tip your wallet into.  

If you order the entry level 120i sports seats will add R5 400 (they are standard on the 125i and 135i), while the crucial wind deflector tallies up another R25 700 (standard again, on the 125i and 135i).   Keen audiophiles will be heartened with the presence of an AUX-In as well as optional USB and Bluetooth interfaces for seamless integration of an iPod, MP3 player or memory stick.  

Active steering is not even an option on the 120i, but will set you back R115 900 on the 125i and 135i. If you're not too keen on adjusting your own seats BMW will do it electrically for you with the greatest pleasure too, at R85 700.  

The top line automatic models - 125i and 135i - have optional sports steering wheels with paddle-shift functionality - a must-have for performance orientated drivers - at R25 100.  

Dynamically able engines

Diminutive it might be, yet the 1 Series eschews all the characteristic BMW rear-wheel drive dynamic virtues. Sporting trademark near 50/50 perfect weight distribution and sophisticated aluminium double-joint tie bar suspension front, with a five-arm multi-link rear axle it does the badge justice.  

The renowned 3-litre twin-turbo straight six heads the range, unfortunately the first models are expected to land locally in mid-June, subsequently on the 120i and 125i were available for testing on launch.

All engines drive the rear wheels via either manual or automatic six-speed gearboxes. Entry level power comes from a 2-litre, in-line four cylinder producing 1155 kW at 65 4005 r/min and 2005 Nm at 35 6005 r/min.  

Middle of the range is the 330i derived 3-litre straight-six, which produces a slightly reprofiled 1605 kW at 65 1005 r/min and 2705 Nm between 25 5005 r/min and 45 8505 r/min.  
Although these figures are 405 kW and 455 Nm down on comparable capacity 330i and 530i models, the lighter 1 Series and flatter, reprofiled torque curve ensure commensurate trade-offs, enabling comparable performance.  

On the road, wind not quite in the hair

The 1 Series test route meandered around the Boland, sampling the awesome Gordon's Bay to Rooi Els road and Franschhoek pass, which between them bestow innumerable dynamic handling challenges.  

Although the traditional small convertible image might be as far removed from serious driving as possible, the 1 Series is a fully resolved rear-wheel drive car with all the sharp turn in consequences the configuration incurs.

The steering is still a mite nervous and vague in at speed in a straight line. Push on though and it is renders such accurate tactile detailing of road-surface and front-wheel steering angle you quickly forgive it.  

The chassis is deftly balanced - you would expect no less of a BMW with such a short wheelbase -  and 50/50 weight distribution ensures even when thing get tail-happy, a quick flick of corrective opposite lock quells any unruliness with little drama.  

Losing roof rigidity will have purists casting doubt on the last tenth of the handling realm being unresolved, but honestly, who drives a convertible at ten-tenths week in and week out?

The engine and gearbox combinations provide ample motivation for the compact 1 Series, which although small, is no lightweight at around one and a half tons. Surprisingly the 120i four cylinder was pleasantly flexible in fourth-gear, despite only having 200Nm on tap.  

Smooth, sonorous and combined with a very responsive automatic gearbox, the 125i enabled seamless overtaking. Held in third gear up the Franschhoek pass the reprofiled torque curve extolled its virtues.  
It hauled out of the tightest hairpins with alacrity, yet retained enough engine elasticity and gear ratio length to run cleanly through the straighter sections too, all in third gear.  

Even more surprising was the lack of wind buffeting and cabin turbulence across all models. With the windows up and rear wind deflector deployed conversation was entirely civil at up to 160km/h.  

Pay your money, make your choice

Hardly cheap, with a diffuse options list sure to test your discretionary income discipline, the 1 Series convertible is a very capable two-seater cabriolet. It blends all the traditional rear-wheel drive handling virtues with contemporary styling verve.  

The price might be high, the cabin a bit snug for more than two, yet the engineering remains flawless.  
- 120i: R308 500 (R323 000*)
- 125i: R354 500 (R371 100*)
- 135i: R432 500 (R450 200*)
*Prices in brackets denote automatic transmission models


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