BMW's Mini Cooper is microsmall, and the 3-series gets bigger with each new iteration. This leaves a nice meaty spot in the market for the BMW 1-series, which has been plying European roads since 2004. With the baby Bimmer's early-2008 U.S. arrival date nearing, we headed to the U.K. to get a taste of what's in store.
We drove the top-spec version, the 130i M Sport. It's motivated by a slightly more powerful version of the 3.0-liter in-line six from the now-departed 330i, although the1-series weighs some 250 pounds less than the bigger sedan. This combination makes for a very quick car: its 0-to-60-mph time sits on the good side of six seconds, and BMW had to fit a speed limiter to keep the 130i from powering past 155 mph. Even more impressive is the steering--it's accurate and linear, and it communicates exactly what the little BMW is doing at all times. The only letdown is the lack of a limited-slip differential.
Like most BMWs, the 1-series is an impressive driver's car, but how well does it work day to day? Its stiff suspension and run-flat tires make the 130i very fidgety, and it rides roughly on anything other than ultrasmooth surfaces. It doesn't win a gold star for packaging, either, what with a longitudinal straight six and rear-wheel drive in a car the size of a Volkswagen Rabbit. As a result, rear-seat room and luggage space are severely pinched--and that's in the four-door hatchback. The upcoming coupe and convertible, the only two body styles coming our way, will obviously suffer even worse in this respect.
Practical issues aside, after driving the 130i M Sport, we'd say the coupe version will help BMW recapture buyers looking for an affordable, six-cylinder, rear-wheel-drive performance car--something the ever larger, heavier, and pricier 3-series has not been for quite some time.