» Get the best price on a new BMW 130i
Price as tested: $68,100 (auto trans $2800; metallic paint $1600)
Crash rating: 5 star EuroNCAP
Fuel: 98 RON, Petrol
Claimed fuel economy (L/100km): 9.4
CO2 emissions (g/km): 226
Also consider: Alfa Romeo 147 GTA (more here), Audi S3 (more here)
Overall rating: 3.5/5.0
Price, Packaging and Practicality: 3.0/5.0
Behind the wheel: 4.0/5.0
About our ratings
When Mercedes-Benz ventured down to the lower end of the automotive food chain with the A-Class, it came up with a concept that was radically different to anything it had ever done before. The reaction -- moose test debacle aside -- was mixed. For archrival BMW, however, its 1 Series is purer to BMW tradition. It might be the smallest car in the current lineup to wear a propeller badge and it might be a five-door hatch, but it is still rear-drive and eminently sporty from its kidney grille to its taillights.
And nowhere is that sports performance more in evidence than in the top-of-the-range hatch, the 130i. Until the twin-turbo 3.0-litre six arrives under the bonnet of the 135i coupe version in 2008, it remains the most powerful small Beemer and one that can quite legitimately be called a hot hatch.
The five-door baby BMW was first launched in 2004. Early in '07 it received a mild upgrade that delivered improved fuel efficiency, more power, refined aesthetics and extra equipment (more here). For the automatic six-speed 130i that Carsales Network tested for a week, those changes were limited to the visual updates and a minor improvement in fuel economy, with the six-cylinder engine carried over unchanged.
Under the bonnet, the powerful 195kW/315Nm 3.0-litre straight six is the same as used in the bigger Beemers. What that means is that the sports equation is simple -- big engine/small car. There are no tricky turbos or superchargers here, just plain old cubic capacity.
The 130i we get here wears M-sport clothes as standard but despite the skirts and spoilers, its exterior is purposeful without being overly aggressive. Compared to the rest of the range, it is lowered by 15mm and sits on a sports suspension and the big low profile 17-inch alloys fill the wheelarches. Dual tailpipes and a lower more open-mouthed front air intake also hint at the potential that lies beneath.
Slip into the big bolstered leather-trimmed sports seats and grip the thick three-spoke steering wheel and you immediately feel at home. The driver's seat is electrically adjustable to ensure you get a good driving position.
Up front there is plenty of space but the rear is definitely a kids-only zone with restricted legroom. It's probably better put to use expanding the luggage space via the 60/40-split fold rear seat back.
As the range-topping model, there is no shortage of kit with full leather, climate control, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, and a superb CD audio system. For those of the iPod generation, it also has probably the best MP3 solution of any car on the market with a handy adjustable Velcro holder located on the underside of the centre armrest with the input jack located immediately below.
While the 130i is a small practical hatch, it is a car that was designed to be driven and the engine is an absolutely delightful powerplant. The engine provides solid and very refined progression from rest on even moderate throttle openings and the automatic transmission is smooth and intuitive.
Give the right foot a firm stomp and the car takes off with very rapid enthusiasm, pulling all the way to the 7000rpm redline before shifting up. Shifts are more noticeable but the power delivery is superbly linear and smooth. Pushing through the higher reaches of the rev band, the engine develops a delicious growl to accompany the rapidly increasing speed.
Heading off onto a country backroad, you can lock down the transmission to second or third courtesy of the steering column-mounted paddle shifts and use the spread of torque to push hard and fast. The big meaty brakes do a very good job of pulling the car up quickly and effectively, time after time.
The steering, which at urban speeds feels almost laboriously heavy, lightens up nicely at speed offering a direct line to the front wheels and the ability to develop a nicely fluid line through the twisty bits.
There is no doubt that the 130i is very firmly sprung and damped, providing a squat, flat and solid attitude when pedalling hard through corners. And while there is enough compliance that it doesn't get too upset by short sharp mid-corner ruts, larger undulations and patchwork roads give the car a slight twitchiness that keeps you on your toes. In the dry there is good grip from the broad rubber, but it doesn't take too much moisture to have the stability and traction nannies lighting up regularly.
This very firm suspension gives the car plenty of dynamic ability and if you are in a sports frame of mind, all is well and good. But the flipside (and the majority of the time spent in the car) is that when you are simply traversing urban roads or cruising the highway the ride is less than cosseting. It's not exactly uncomfortable but you are continually 'informed' of every nuance in the surface of the tarmac. That said there's little harshness (except over larger potholes) and the seats do a good job of masking the worst of it, but it can become a bit tiring over longer journeys.
Call the 130i a hot hatch (even if BMW will not) and it fits the bill to a tee, helped by being the only rear-drive car in its class. As a daily driver, however, this tester would need a little more comfort...
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» Get the best price on a new BMW 130i