Bonding with a BMW 1 Series

My BMW 120d M Sport Coupé

A temporary company car replacement proves to be a surprisingly compelling package.

My remuneration package from work includes a company car, which recently came up for renewal.  Choosing a company car requires a rather different mindset than choosing a car to buy with my own money. Firstly the list is rather limited; we can pick from a list of approved manufacturers, currently BMW, Mercedes, Peugeot, Citroen, Vauxhall and Mini in the case of my company.  From this list the chief objective is to get the most car for the least taxable benefit within the given lease allowance. This makes it a rather more rational choice than the man maths employed when choosing a car to buy with my own money! Performance is a consideration but as the company has mandated a maximum of 140 g/km of CO2 on its company cars, none are absolute road burners. More on that later.

My previous company car was an Alfa Romeo Mito. This worked well for me because at the time I was living in London and a nippy little city car was ideal for commuting to work and easy to park in the crowded city. However as I moved to the country last year, the Mito’s awful ride and gutless engine became something of a pain on the M25 commute and I needed something bigger and more powerful for my next car.

The lease on the Mito ended in September and for reasons too boring to explain here there was a delay in ordering new company cars. Rather than let the company suffer the cost of continuing the Mito’s lease I enquired with the fleet manager as to whether there were any unallocated cars currently on lease, as happens occasionally when people leave the business and the vacancy is not filled straight away. It turned out there were three such cars and the fleet manager was more than happy for me to take one of them while I waited to order my new car. The car I choose was a late 2011 BMW 120d M Sport coupé.

BMW’s smallest model has met with mixed reviews ever since it was launched in 2004. Most of the criticism revolved around the looks of the hatchback version, the cramped interior and high prices.  The coupé (especially in M Sport trim) avoids the first of those and looks rather good in my opinion.  For a two door it's quite practical with a boot that is bigger than the Mito’s, although the aperture is quite small which can make fitting outsized items into the car a bit tricky. Regarding purchase costs, as a company car the list price is only a consideration when calculating the tax benefit in kind and this is partially offset by the car's lowish 124 g/km CO2. BMW’s generally reasonable residuals keep the monthly lease charge down for the company and allow more expensive BMWs into the same group as cheaper but more heavily depreciating Citroens and Vauxhalls.

In terms of spec, the previous keeper did quite well. In addition to the M Sport accoutrements, the car is finished in black with red leather interior. I probably would have specified the rear parking sensors myself but I would have passed on the rear privacy glass that does look a bit naff. Having said that, the tinted rear window does a good job of minimising glare from the low winter sun even it if does render the automatically dimming rear view mirror a bit pointless.

I will admit that I’ve not really kept up with the ever increasing power outputs of modern turbo diesels, and I was more than a little surprised to discover that the 120d has 177bhp, more than the 2.5 litre straight six petrol engine in the E36 323i cabriolet I owned some years ago.  The 2.0 litre turbo diesel is far from the most characterful engine I have ever used, but it is effective, pushing the 120d to 60mph in a little over 7 seconds and onto a top speed of 142mph. It has plenty of torque in the mid-range too, which makes overtaking relatively straightforward.

It’s fair to say that I have really bonded with this little BMW over the last couple of months. It's an ideal commuter car: comfortable, very economical (I’m getting just under 50mpg as an average) and surprisingly fun to drive. The rear wheel drive chassis is very good and the steering is so much nicer than the similarly-sized front wheel drive cars I've experienced. BMW say that most owners don’t know the 1 series is rear wheel drive, but I suspect they're wrong - it's more likely that owners know that the car is rear wheel drive but just don’t care, which as a car enthusiast I find a shame. On the downside, the ride isn't brilliant, with a tendency to get crashy over potholes but after the Mito it is almost Citroën-like in its smoothness.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about this 1 Series is that it's made me reassess the sort of cars I would consider buying with my own money. Historically, and perhaps unsurprisingly,  I’ve always found the range-topping cars the most desirable and I’ve been reading the rave reviews that the high performance M135i and M235i have been receiving. I’m sure they are great cars and if you live somewhere where you can really stretch their legs, they'll be a lot of fun.  However, for everyday driving I doubt the M135i will get you to your destination any quicker than the 120d will. Given the two cars look almost identical and the smaller engine diesel will save you a lot of money in fuel bills as well as initial purchase price, it makes a compelling case to put aside the extra cachet the M135i badge carries and go for the more economical car.

The company car list is now open again for ordering new cars but a policy change mandating four passenger door cars on new orders means I cannot go for the 120d’s new equivalent, the 220d. There's nothing else on the list that really appeals as I don’t need the extra space of a 3 Series, I don't like the looks of the 5 door F10 1 Series and for some reason the new Mercedes CLA is not yet on the list. As a result, I've elected to keep the coupé for the two years that are left to run on its lease, which means I'll probably be taking the long way to work quite often over the next couple of years!