There may be a better driving road in the world that the stretch of the A87 from Invergarry to Kyle of Localsh onto the Isle of Skye in the Western Highlands of Scotland but I haven’t yet found it. Curves to make Betty Page blush; vistas to stun even the most jaded CGI devotee; tarmac of a quality rarely seen in the States. With one caveat: The road is about the width of an average American suburban bathroom. (And I won’t mention the caravans.) It’s a drive that begs for a spirited car, one at once nimble yet contained, sprightly yet composed, and…well, manageable for Americans, in the sense of that whole right-hand drive thing, you know. And while I look at the local fella blasting along in his Aston Martin Vanquish with both envy and amazement (envy because Aston and Bond and sound and beauty; amazement because the car is as wide as a school bus), for those of us not from around these parts something a bit more compact is in order. And before you wisenheimers go shouting “Lotus Lotus Lotus!,” I hasten to point out the conveyance needed to swallow 12-days’ worth of luggage for both me and Dreamy Wife, as well as the inevitable spoils of commerce a vacation collects. What to drive?
Fortunately, Avis in Glasgow had just the ticket: A brand-new petrol-powered BMW 118i, which had the attractions of being quick (enough), handling brilliantly, practical to swallow our stuff, familiar in a familial way (we’re BMW fans), with the added benefit of being forbidden fruit to those of us from the Colonies (and thus novelty). It is, to be sure, what BMW classifies as “basic transportation,” but it’s basic transportation in the entry-level-luxury-aspirational sense, with the genes of the folks who make the M3 Coupe parked in my garage (and my soon-to-be M4 Coupe currently on a ship somewhere in the Atlantic). As one of the last lightweight, rear-wheel-drive BMW 1-series cars (they’re soon to go front-wheel-drive) , the 118i seemed the perfect companion for the trip. Thanks, Avis, I’ll take it!
A hard and fast rule I attempt to follow when I’m renting a car outside the US is to pick one that’s not available at home, either a brand (like Citroen or Peugeot or Seat) or a model (like the little BMW here). The BMW 1-series is one such “forbidden fruit” for us in the States. While the market for small, premium cars holds its own (thanks, Mini!), BMW and others haven’t allowed us SUV-loving Americans to have many of the cool little hatchbacks common in Europe. Thus, the 1-series, Audi A3 hatchback, and their kin have been off limits aside from in the pages of car enthusiast magazines. The opportunity to sample one of these little devils was golden.
I’m not entirely sure that the 1-series is the best looking for cars. From certain angles it looks a bit squished, without the muscular haunches of an Audi A3 or even a Volkswagen GTI. But the BMW manages to be a tad more elegant than others, and the bluish silver hue added to the liquid ripples of the body’s surface design elements. The rear view is probably the best for the car as a whole, but it’s a fully realized design and shares all modern BMWs traits of being angular and also fluid. The design largely works.
To be sure, the 118i is no rocket ship, especially in non-diesel form. The car uses a 134hp version of BMW’s 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder turbocharged engine and does the 0-60 run if a bit more than 8 seconds. Maximum torque of 184 lb-ft is made at 4400rpm, and I can attest the sweet spot of the engine is north of 3000rpm. The 6-speed transmission was accurate and forgiving, though the throw from 4th to 5th was one I missed constantly. Whether this was due to the inaccuracy of the shifter or my relative lack of practice shifting gears with my left hand is debatable. But the little jackrabbit was always willing to play in the upper rev ranges, and passed slower traffic with comfort (if not outright authority) whenever asked.
We hopped in and my wife, a navigator par excellence, immediately grabbed the iDrive controller and conjured up our destination in the Nav systems. She was positively gleeful with familiarity, as the system was a skinnied-down version of that in her stately X5 at home. (As an aside, she’s a master of the BMW iDrive Navigation System and routinely outperforms me in every possible navigation test. If there is ever a BMW-sponsored user contest, put your money down on my wife.)
The car is at once large enough to be useful but small enough to be manageable on the aforementioned skinny UK roads. It swallowed two medium sized bags, two stuffed soft-shell bags, and a hard shell case I brought to pack home the bottles of precious whisky I planned to collect upon the way (mission accomplished); all of this in the “boot” without having to recline the rear seats. Getting in was a different story. No matter how high I set the steering wheel, my knees always banged on the bottom of the dash sill and at 6” I’m not exactly an NBA player. No matter; once behind the wheel, the 118i felt like pretty much every other BMW I’ve been in, and quite similar to the M235i I drove a few weeks back. Fit and finish were superb.
Our two-weeks with the car were a joy. With just a little coxing, the 118i passed slower traffic with abandon. It’s Comfort setting smoothed over questionable tarmac with pillow-like absorption, and the Sport and Sport+ modes tightened up everything from throttle response to suspension compliance. Power delivery was a bit old-school turbo. I’ve driven a bunch of modern BMWs with turbocharged engines, and this little guy probably suffered from as much turbo-lag as I’ve experienced with a contemporary BMW engine. No matter; the manual transmission encouraged not letting the revs drop below 3000, which seemed to be where boost was at its best. It had been awhile since I’d had to concentrate on driving a turbocharged car like, well, a turbocharged car from ten or fifteen years ago, but at least for a vacation car it was fun.
Handling was neutral, if a little prone to understeer, but easily controlled with some aggressive, er, creative braking. The car drives like a little BMW, and the joys of RWD should never be underestimated. And with the roads wet most of the time, a little playful oversteer was easily conjured up, much to my wife’s chagrin.
After roughly 800 miles in 12 days, the 118i was a delightful companion. (Aside from at the fuel station, where the cost of petrol compared to diesel took a painful bite.) I’m convinced BMW would sell a ton of these things in the US if only they’d give us a chance, and I’d easily drive a 1-series (especially in M135i guise) over a similarly process X1. Alas it seems not to be. But as a vacation companion, I’m pleased to have added the 1-series to my lexicon of modern BMWs. Fun stuff. I highly recommend the choice for your European visits.