A hot-hatchback that sends power only to the rear wheels is a rare beast these days and should be cheered – yet the 2017 BMW 125i slips quietly under the radar.
It has been an almost meek performer within a circa-$50K sporty-hatchback cohort that includes such loud-shouting models as the Drift Mode-equipped Ford Focus RS and powered-up Volkswagen Golf GTI 40 Years.
Quietly, however, the $48,900 (plus on-road costs) 125i has also become the top seller in the BMW 1 Series range, now stealing one-third of all sales despite costing $12K more than the entry-level model grade.
Its maker calls it a hidden gem, and with the combination of a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder in a five-door hatchback driving the back wheels, they could be right.
Vehicle Style: Hot-hatchback
Price: $48,900 (plus on-roads)
Engine/trans: 165kW/310Nm 2.0 4cyl turbo petrol | 8sp automatic
Fuel Economy Claimed: 5.9 l/100km | tested: 9.6 l/100km
BMW last year lowered the price of the 125i by $2100 while simultaneously raising equipment – and clearly punters have been responding to the measures.
An M Sport bodykit with 18-inch wheels, LED headlights and LED foglights aim to create a sportier look on the outside, while cloth/Alcantara sports seats lift the interior and M Sport brakes plus ‘sport’ steering slip beneath the surface.
For the 2017 model year the 125i gets no extra equipment and no price rise. However, an upgraded version of the turbo-four raises power by 5kW (to 165kW) while torque remains an unchanged 310Nm.
Claimed 6.1-second 0-100km/h performance is now a tenth quicker, while combined cycle fuel consumption of 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres drops 0.6l/100km. An eight-speed automatic is standard, but a six-speed manual is a no-cost option.
- Standard Equipment: cruise control, power windows and mirrors, multi-function trip computer, dual-zone climate control air conditioning, cloth/Alcantara seat trim, automatic on/off headlights and wipers and automatic dimming rear-view mirror
- Infotainment: 6.5-inch colour screen with USB/AUX inputs, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and satellite navigation with real-time traffic information
- Options Fitted: Comfort Package ($2100 – including keyless auto-entry and electrically adjustable front seats with heating), Adaptive M Suspension ($1092) and electric sunroof ($2000)
- Cargo Volume: 360 litres minimum, 1200l maximum
Some of that driver-focused rear-wheel drive engineering affects the cabin packaging and space of the BMW 1 Series. Moving engine power from under the bonnet through the middle of the car to the back wheels creates a bulky centre tunnel and raised boot floor that front-wheel drive rivals manage to avoid.
In the context of the 125i (and its more performance-oriented M140i flagship sibling) crimped rear legroom is arguably a small price to pay given the dividends repaid in terms of driver involvement when a wheel is turned. And at least the boot is roomy.
This BMW doesn’t possess the cabin quality and storage space to rival an Audi A3/S3 or even the Mercedes-Benz A-Class, but the 125i in particular struggles more than its M140i stablemate inside due to its lack of kit.
The addition of sports styling bits and safety technology – including forward collision alert with low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and lane departure warning – have been prioritised over convenience features.
Despite costing almost $50K, the 125i lacks keyless auto-entry, scores only manually adjustable front seats with cloth/Alcantara trim, and a small 6.5-inch screen with basic connectivity. It feels spartan inside, which along with the lack of rear legroom and storage – including a shallow centre console box – presents questionable value.
To be able to pay $479 extra for Apple CarPlay smartphone mirroring technology, buyers first need to pay $2790 to upgrade to BMW’s superb 8.8-inch screen with digital radio and enhanced navigation, as part of an Innovations Package bundled with adaptive cruise control and automatic park assistance. The latter feature is standard on its closest rival, the $53,500 (plus orc) Mercedes-Benz A250 Sport.
While starting from a higher price than the BMW, the Benz also gets a standard panoramic sunroof (a normal sunroof is a $2000 option here) and keyless auto-entry (part of a $2100 Comfort Package bundled with electrically adjustable and heated front seats). Both were fitted to our test 125i, but the Innovations Package was not.
Suddenly, a well-equipped 125i asks $56,269 (plus orc) with the above kit. Further add adaptive suspension (a $1092 option) that is standard on the far more powerful M140i, and the 125i starts to look especially pricey. Meanwhile, big brother still adds leather trim and most of the above features to feel far more premium inside.
Not all of the above kit needs to be standard, but some should be. A $46,490 (plus orc) Golf GTI Performance includes CarPlay, keyless auto-entry, adaptive suspension as well as larger 19-inch wheels, more power and greater torque.
ON THE ROAD
- Engine: 165kW/310Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
- Transmission: eight-speed automatic, RWD
- Suspension: aluminium double-joint strut front, five-link independent rear
- Brake: ventilated front and solid rear disc brakes
- Steering: electrically assisted mechanical steering
BMW uses its 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine across a wide range of models in different states of tune. The 125i makes 165kW between 5200rpm and 6500rpm, and 310Nm of torque over a broad 1400rpm to 5000rpm spread.
They are halfway-house outputs between the 135kW/270Nm version in the $41,900 (plus orc) 120i and its $51,300 (plus orc) 220i coupe cousin, and the 185kW/350Nm unit in the $71,900 (plus orc) 230i coupe.
The question is: why BMW doesn’t offer a 130i with the latter outputs?
On paper the reason for the decision appears sound. Even with lower outputs, this hot-hatchback claims 6.1-second 0-100km/h performance that bests most rivals.
A Golf GTI Performance claims 6.4sec to the same speed, despite producing a meatier 169kW/350Nm, while an A250 Sport claims 6.3sec with 160kW/350Nm.
Both the former front-wheel drive model and the latter all-wheel drive model have 2.0-litre turbo engines and six- and seven-speed dual-clutch automatics respectively. The 125i’s eight-speed automatic must take some credit for eclipsing both foes.
In the real world the 125i can feel strained. Particularly in Comfort mode – which the vehicle infuriatingly defaults to each time on start-up – the throttle response is soft and the otherwise flawless auto can hesitate before grabbing a lower gear.
In Sport mode, with sharper throttle and a battle-primed auto, this BMW can feel quick. But having experienced a 230i immediately after this 125i, the difference between the two is dramatic – the 230i feels free and responsive, and quick compared with a Golf GTI Performance or A250 Sport; the 125i trails both.
The variable-ratio steering needs Sport mode selected to feel tight and connected, but either way it’s a sharp set-up. The benefits of rear-drive start with a superbly tight turning circle and end with wonderfully engaging dynamics.
The adaptive suspension offers a nuanced balance between compliance in Comfort and control in Sport, as is typical of BMW’s multi-mode system. But it is optional for our test car, replacing the standard fixed sports suspension.
Particularly with the terrifically liberal Sport+ stability control mode engaged, the 125i offers sizeable dynamic delight. No other hatch delivers the same feeling of a light front end reaching maximum grip in a corner before handling the reins to a backside that, when provoked under throttle, tightens its line and balances itself immaculately.
For drivers who want to live in that special handling moment regularly, the BMW’s compromises will likely fade to insignificance.
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars - the BMW 1 Series range scored 36.33 out of 37 possible points when tested by Euro NCAP in 2011.
Safety features: Six airbags including dual-front, front-side and rear-side protection, ABS, ESC, pre-collision and pedestrian warning, lane departure warning, low-speed autonomous emergency braking, front and rear parking sensors, rear-view camera.
WARRANTY AND SERVICING
Warranty: Three years/unlimited km
Servicing: Condition-based servicing (CBS) costs $1218 over five years or 80,000km, which is ultra-competitive in the premium small convertible segment
RIVALS TO CONSIDER
The A250 Sport is brash, aggressive but quick and cool. The Golf GTI Performance offers speed, style and comfort, but without the 125i’s touchy-feely dynamics.
TMR VERDICT | OVERALL
When driving the BMW 125i enthusiastically down a mountain pass and through sweeping country corners, it completely makes sense and delivers a wonderfully engaging experience. That said, however, it still feels deliberately held back from its performance potential – which, having driven the 230i, we know it is.
The 125i either needs extra power and torque, greater equipment levels, a lower pricetag or a roomier and higher-quality cabin, the latter of which won’t come until the next-generation model that will likely, sadly switch to front-wheel drive.
For the record, we hope the 1 Series doesn’t switch to front-drive, partially because BMW’s current 2 Series Active Tourer drives only the forward wheels and offers a sub-Volkswagen level of ride and handling, but mostly because this current model distinguishes itself from every rival with its benchmark chassis dynamics.
The 125i just needs one or two aspects tweaked to fulfil its true potential and further polish the gem that hides within.