Maximum badge for minimum cash. Chicken rice aside, is there anything more Singaporean than that? Welcome to the newest edition of a German bling-bling brand’s smallest engine in its smallest car.
This is a concept I approach with some trepidation, PTSD-stricken as I still am by the rapidly expanding lorry in the rear-view mirror of a mid-1990s 316i, the entry-level car’s motor wheezing in desperation and futility.
There are ways to get around low power, of course, one of which has been demonstrated to sublime effect by the sybaritic Mercedes-Benz C160.
That is the automotive manifestation of a someone in a silk bath robe gliding around in Versace lounge slippers. Gentle progress is embraced as a way of life. A virtue.
No self-respecting little Bimmer, especially one with those nostrils, can get away with that schtick, however.
In a sea of ultra-snazzy volume brand sedans, fellow plush hatchbacks, and encroaching compact crossovers, the self-professed Ultimate Driving Machine needs to be exactly that to stand out.
I need not have worried.
BMW 116i: PERKY POWERTRAIN
We have come a long way from the dark days of torque poverty. Baby BMW, meet the turbocharger: internal combustion’s great equaliser. Thus endowed, the 116i’s seemingly paltry on paper specs are rendered all but irrelevant.
Forget the leisurely century sprint time (10.6 seconds), or the disconcertingly small 107bhp number. This car shifts with gusto and without obvious strain.
With a quick-witted 7-speed dual-clutch transmission and an alert turbo, the BMW 116i puts up a good stoplight fight, overtakes lumbering garbage trucks with ease, and neatly avoids the godawful “nobody’s home” feeling on throttle application that so afflicted its entry-level ancestors.
The motor even emits a low-pitched, distant thrum that is entirely inoffensive. Sure, in extremis, its audio signature fails to be commensurate with the resultant acceleration.
Thanks to a generous slug of torque in the mid-range, however, this only happens if you wring it out beyond 5000rpm.
Beneath that threshold, which is more than enough to energetically sail you to the national speed limit and beyond, a response of perceptible forward motion to prods of the accelerator is happily present.
In this de-tuned form, the 3-cylinder engine is at ease and unstressed. It shows. The powerplant feels happy in its own skin.
Say what you want about the under-bonnet abilities of entry-level BMWs from preceding decades, but Munich has never skimped in the handling department.
AGILITY AND RESPONSIVENESS
You might not have out-run yesteryear’s Camrys, but you sure as heck out-danced them. All the while, your palms and butt gripped and were gripped by a chassis that always felt solid, substantial, and reassuringly expensive.
The same is true today. The heft of the BMW 116i’s steering allies to its accuracy in a manner that makes piloting the car delightful and satisfying.
All control surfaces from the tiller to the brakes have that well-proportioned viscosity to them that is the BMW signature. At these power levels and at these speeds, rear or front wheel drive matters little. It only matters that that all-important Bavarian textural flavour is present and correct.
Directing the car precisely through imaginary lines on the asphalt on your morning drive to work, or taking an on-ramp just a little bit more quickly than you might be tempted to in an A-Class, are therefore pleasurable acts that the car’s confident gait eggs you to enjoy.
The 116i takes the place of the 118i M-Sport at the foot of the BMW pricelist. Here is a shining example less-is-more.
Perhaps M-Sport springs do yield some advantage on a track, and it is true than in previous generations that specification did confer valuable body control over base suspension set ups that allowed a bit too much sway for a BMW.
This new 1 Series, however, is already thoroughly blessed with excellent and progressive body control in its unfettered form.
Without the additional M-Sport rocks in its socks, the car can breathe with the surface underfoot and take the shockingly rutted and uneven Balestier Road in its stride.
Recent memory of the 118i M-Sport’s unnecessary flintiness puts the succeeding 116i’s better-judged ride and handling balance into even sharper relief.
Take some time to enjoy your surroundings, and you would never guess you were in an entry level machine. Gone are the days of blank buttons and cartoonish Garmin units tacked onto a vast expanse of nothingness.
BMW’s current generation of interior architecture has just the right blend of geometric purposefulness and luxurious depth. Mood lighting bleeds through the dash inserts, and buttons click with heft.
Nor are you denied technological goodies of the car’s more expensive siblings.
A large digital display does infotainment duty and supports wireless phone mirroring, while the wireless charging pads keep your devices juiced, even if I could not get Android Auto to play nice with my Huawei P30 Pro.
I have lamented before about the ergonomic mess that is the digital instrument cluster’s oppositional rev and speed counters, but one cannot deny the unit’s graphical richness.
Praise be and a big fat thumbs up to the interior designers who resisted Tesla’s influence and retained physical buttons and a rotary knob for controlling the air-con and iDrive.
Here’s hoping they run into their counterparts from other brands (I’m looking at you, Volvo and Volkswagen) and slap them hard.
BMW’s shift to front-wheel-drive reaps dividends in interior space, an Achilles heel of the 1 Series’ two preceding generations.
Passengers in the back can finally enjoy not needing above-knee amputations, and their luggage can loll around in 380 litres of boot space. Plump for the “luxury” trim, and you get a powered tailgate and real leather. Those are well worth having.
There was a time when an entry level BMW meant emptiness and groaning. Those days are gone, and the 116i looks, runs, moves, and pampers like a true luxury sporting hatchback should.
BMW 116i Luxury 1.5 (A)
ENGINE 1499cc, inline-3, 12-valves, turbocharged
MAX POWER 107bhp at 4300-6500rpm
MAX TORQUE 190Nm at 1380-3800rpm
GEARBOX 7-speed dual-clutch with manual select
0-100KM/H 10.6 seconds
TOP SPEED 200km/h
CONSUMPTION 18.2km/L (combined)
PRICE INCL. COE From $158,888 (no VES rebate/surcharge)
AGENT Performance Motors
Head here for our BMW 118i review
The BMW 118i takes on the Mercedes-Benz A200 in this Group Test
Read our BMW M135i review here
Click here for our Mercedes-Benz A200 review
Or check out our review of the Mk 8 Volkswagen Golf