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Tim O'Brien | Aug 25, 2009 | 0 Comments

2009 BMW 120d EfficientDynamics Challenge, First Drive Review

ACCORDING TO BMW, its EfficientDynamics concept is for “sporting drivers with a green heart”. What that means for BMW is designing and engineering greener cars without sacrificing performance.

After a day in the saddle of the new BMW 120d, including the opportunity to put it through its paces on the track, it is clear that - for this car - being ‘green’ does not mean being bland.

The 120d is a super drive, full stop. The fact that it returns 4.8 l/100km and emits just 126g of CO2 per kilometre, is little short of astonishing given the verve it offers at the wheel.

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Available and on sale now for $46,790 (plus on-roads), it is the first of a range of new efficient BMW diesels to be offered with manual transmission and the first BMW across the range to come with Auto Stop/Start.

To give that price and fuel consumption some perspective, Toyota’s Prius retails for $39,900 (plus on-roads) in base model form, $53,500 (plus) for the i-Tech, and returns 3.9 l/100km. Now, that’s interesting.

At that price, and with those green credentials, BMW has a genuine eco-contender on its hands, but one that drives like a hot-hatch.

Sure, the lines of BMW’s 1 Series hatch are not for everyone. But the 120d is a very good car and very sensible buying. Here’s why.

 

Styling

The hatch, upright-looking and a tad bus-like, polarises views about its styling more than the 1 Series Coupe.

Fact is though, its lines are unmistakable and individual and, for some, that counts for a lot (count me in there, I’ve grown to quite like them). There is also no denying they work from a practical perspective.

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For such a small car externally, it offers good space inside, excellent rear headroom and ample legroom. It also offers reasonable space behind the rear seats under the hatch.

For a small family or for younger drivers who might otherwise have been drawn to a larger car or small SUV, the 120d is worth a look on interior space and five-door access alone.

The first, second and third time they drive past a service station without having to fill the tank, they may then wonder why they ever considered a small SUV or medium wagon.

 

The interior

It is very hard to fault a BMW interior. ‘Ours’, with leather seats and door inserts, black soft-feel vinyl dash and trims, and – to these eyes – flawless fit and finish, felt very ‘up-market’ for a sub-luxury class car.

BMW has beautifully-styled interiors. There are no lines that jar, no materials that mismatch, and everything where it should be.

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The multi-function wheel, adjustable for reach and tilt, is the right size, feels good and is deliciously connected and ‘weighted’ to the road. For picking a line, it has the accuracy of a precision instrument.

The sports seats, perhaps a little flat in the squab, are nevertheless supportive in press-on driving (or throwing the 120d through a slalom) and proved comfortable in two hour stints at the wheel.

Access to the rear is good, and the rear seats split fold if more carrying capacity is needed.

I must say I prefer the interior of the hatch to the coupe. The high-gloss black highlights work better (and look smarter) than the mottled alloy in the coupe. At the wheel though, there is nothing between them.

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The layout of the instruments and controls is first rate: all trip read-outs and functions sit behind a simple-to-use menu button, with a second clear display between the twin dials of the cowled instrument binnacle.

The six-speed gear shift; stubby and with a firm sporting feel, falls neatly to the hand and is fun to use though perhaps not as precise as, say, the throw on the Honda Type R ( it doesn’t ‘centre’ quite as strongly as I’d like at third and fourth).

 

Equipment and features

A key part of the success of BMW’s EfficientDynamics is the clever use of incremental gains – achieved through a number of intelligent features - to simultaneously reduce fuel consumption while maintaining or boosting performance.

“EfficientDynamics is not just one technology, but a suite of technologies,” BMW Australia Product Communications Manager Tim James told TMR.

Like air-vent control for instance. The vents in front of the radiator are automatically opened when extra cooling is required, remaining closed at other times to assist aerodynamics. This small measure produces a 0.7 percent fuel saving.

BMW research has shown that gear shifting in the right place – balancing load, revs and road speed - is one of the best ways of reducing consumption. So, the 120d comes with an ‘optimum shift indicator’ on the instrument display to prompt the driver.

It also features electric power steering that is lighter and smaller than hydraulic units.

But the 120d’s party trick, and its most noticeable emissions-reducing technology, is its stop/start function: come to a stop, select neutral and release the clutch, and the engine stops.

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The moment the clutch is depressed again (to select first gear), the engine starts and immediately ‘settles’, ready for drive-off. In traffic, because it springs to life so quickly, it works a treat – not once was the 120d caught napping on restart.

Also reducing load is an intelligent energy management system with brake energy regeneration as its central feature. This reduces load on the engine by using braking and deceleration energy to charge the battery.

There are other elements to its operation depending upon driving conditions and electrical load. Overall, the system not only reduces fuel consumption but also boosts performance.

But there is more to the 120d than these clever functions.

BMW’s smallest warrior comes with stability control, rear park distance control, 17-inch alloys with run-flat tyres, leather steering wheel, automatic climate control with micro-filter, trip computer, anti-dazzle interior mirror, outside temperature display, lights package and high-quality audio system with CD (with USB, Bluetooth interface and aux-in function as options).

There are also front, side and curtain airbags, ABS, stability control, cornering brake control, traction control and a brace of other dynamic stability systems.

Sat nav, M-Sport package, adaptive bi-Xenon headlights and a range of other dress-up and performance accessories are available as options.


 

Mechanical package

The 120d has BMW’s conventional front engine, rear-drive layout. Where it departs from convention is in the amazing efficiency of its diesel engine.

At 1995cc, the force-fed diesel produces 130kW @ 4000rpm and 350Nm @ 1750Nm. That’s getting into ‘serious mumbo’ territory, and the 120d’s performance against the clock reflects it.

Uncharacteristically for a diesel, the engine is an oversquare unit with a 90mm bore and 84mm stroke - likely accounting for its willingness to rev.

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Drive is fed to the back wheels through a six-speed ZF 6HP 19 gearbox. It is a robust-feeling unit, with nicely matched ratios complementing the characteristics of the free-spinning diesel.

Helping to keep things pinned down and under control are double-jointed thrust-rod spring struts up front, with independent five-arm axle at the rear. Steering is rack and pinion.

Brakes are ventilated discs all round, 292mm x 24mm up front, 300mm x 20mm at the rear, while wheels are 17-inch alloys shod with 205/50 R17 run-flat tyres.

 

The Drive

Forget its amazing fuel consumption for one moment because the 120d has buckets of on-road appeal.

The instant you nestle in behind the wheel you are aware you are in a driver’s car. The stubby shift, direct feel to the steering and snug driving position have been designed by people who understand what driving is all about.

It is not meant to be a chore, it is to be enjoyed. And this is the 120d.

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Press the start button and the diesel clatter is familiar, but not… with each new generation it gets quieter and settles more quickly into a rounded and not-unpleasant drone.

On the move, especially under load, the sound of the 120d changes to an urgent mid-range growl. It doesn’t yet have the appeal of a brattish multi-valve petrol four, but it’s getting close.

For our drive, the first two hours were spent in an economy run; beginning in the city, taking in some winding climbs through West Gippsland, then down to the Phillip Island Race Track.

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The best consumption average we could manage, watching the fuel read-out like glue, and adjusting accelerator pressures accordingly, was 4.6 l/100km. Some though managed as low as 4.0 l/100km while maintaining an average speed for the trip above 75km/h.

Over the slalom and motorkhana challenges at Phillip Island however, the performance credentials of the little 120d emerged.

With those 130kW and 350Nm under the toe, and an unladen weight of 1380kg, this car is no slouch. It will muscle its way to 100km/h in just 7.6 seconds.

From the wheel, it feels quick. It will rev its head off (in a most undiesel-like way), and with brilliant sure-footed handling, razor sharp turn-in and precision steering control, is a hoot when given the stick.

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The traction control is also little short of brilliant. It allows you to use the power to slide the tail, but intervening if things start getting messy. (It’s the sort of thing that can make an average driver look pretty good.)

The brakes and pedal feel are also spot on, pulling up the 120d time and again, arrow true and fade free.

Through the wheel, road feel is superb. The 120d is brilliantly damped; its breeding evident in the way it connects to the contours of the road. While some may find it a little sharp over secondary surfaces, it provides a comfortable and long-legged highway ride.

Like its bigger BMW siblings, it is right at home on a winding pass and sticks to the tarmac like it’s been nailed there.

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It is also quiet at highway speeds with little wind and road noise intruding into the cabin. For a small car with a relatively short wheel-base, it offers a larger-car level of refinement at the wheel.

For its ‘get-outa-there’ power and handling, and amazing fuel efficiency, the 120d satisfies on a whole lot of levels.

The verdict

While the EfficientDynamics technologies do not come at a cost to the customer (they are engineered into the car), the 120d is perhaps priced just out of reach of the young families who may otherwise be most drawn to it.

It’s a shame really; a car like this makes sense. The 120d has charm by the bucketful, offers youthful vigour and genuine driving enjoyment at the wheel, and it does, really, run on the smell of an oily rag.

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It also has four doors, a beautifully finished interior and quite reasonable leg and head-room. If a wave of common sense suddenly descended on us all, we would see more of these pulled up outside schools at bell-hours, and less rock-crushing 4WDs.

For its superb diesel, razor-edge handling, slick six-speed, and planet-saving fuel consumption and low, low CO2 emissions, the 120d has a lot to commend it.

It’s pricey, but put this one on the list. Better still, take it for a test drive and surprise yourself.

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