Back to Basics - Project BMW 1 Series 'Anti Crossover Crossover'
Well, it has been a while since I last posted a feature here: not since the end of February to be specific! Don’t worry: I haven’t abandoned ship, nor running into a lack of content to write features on. Not even close.
In fact, we have been busy behind the scenes working on a whole set of features spanning across a whole month. All centered around a particular theme and we’re aiming to do away with my usual bi-weekly schedule. We'll be releasing them all back to back; with a new feature expected every week. However, I didn’t expect the time by which we would be waiting to get this special project ready and running, would take this long. Hence, the unexpected hiatus and silence from my end for the past month or so. As of now, we're still working on getting the first parts ready for release; so bear with us as we work towards launching this series I am looking forward to unveil.
With the elephant in the room addressed, let’s get up to speed with what's new from me!
Having written a lengthy update about it last time, it’s obvious that I am in love with my Mercedes A Class. The itasha livery makes it one unique headturner, and my primary motivation to work through the week, so I can take it out for a drive.
But as much as I love taking it out for every occasion, the need to garage or ‘baby it’ has been on my mind lately. Sure, I love seeing the reactions from people’s faces as I drive by, observing the response to one of the most popular models of Mercedes Benz in Hong Kong - adorned with a grinning anime girl on both sides - but I couldn't help but be paranoid a careless driver might damage the wrap while it was out in the city, considering the standard of local taxi drivers, chauffeured Alphards, and generally every mad C200 driver on the highway.
In addition, I finally got a covered parking space for the Mercedes: no more parking outside in the open sun, rain, wind, or loose gravel, and worrying over whether my valuable wrap would be damaged out in the elements. The Merc would be safe from the outside environment for the majority of the time it remains parked anyway, coming out only on weekends or the odd holiday.
But above all: since this was the only car within our possession, and as I would be taking over as the primary user, my dad would need a new daily driver that would serve him throughout the week. He also, as he got closer to retirement and retiring from driving altogether, wanted to let his hair down a bit;’ and find something fun to drive. So, the search was on once more: the search for another car.
An initial search for something from Volkswagen or Audi stopped dead after we couldn’t find any well-kept, reasonably-priced ones. We did explore mini CUVs/Crossovers: having inspected a lightly modified first-generation Mini Countryman S (with AP Racing brakes and SSR wheels: my dream combination), and even considered returning to familiar territory with a grey-import(Japan-Market spec) Juke Nismo through one of the city’s speciality dealerships. But the latter dropped out of consideration quickly: the Mini requiring a lot of work to put right again (with a well-worn interior, scratches on the bumper, transmission squeaks and a PSA-derived turbocharged engine likely on its way out), the Juke Nismo’s dealer not budging on the price, and regular Jukes in their HK-market powertrain being too underpowered for our liking (non-turbo HR15DE [same engine found in a base Sentra/Versa] paired with a CVT gearbox; it would struggle on the highway).
Then a contact of ours forwarded photos of a car that just happened to pass through his garage. It was such a clean and finely-kept example, within the same week we had it taken for a test drive and inspected it, we made a decision the same day on whether it was the one.
What we ended up getting surprised even myself, considering I never thought we would end up getting one of these kind of cars as the daily driver. Like the A-Class, not all readers here might be aware of its existence. But some may be aware of its counterparts popular in most markets; along with the fact it is Bavarian.
Meet the new family runabout: a 2011 BMW 1 Series (E87) hatchback. Specifically: a late-model 116iA five-door, in Alpine White. Being a 2011 model, it is a LCI (Life Cycle Impulse), BMW-terminology for 'facelift', and one of the last models in the generation's production run before its replacement two years later: the second-generation F20.
A little introduction: just like the A-Class serves as the cheapest way to get into Mercedes ownership (usually for young professionals and fresh graduates, just like me), the 1 Series has been BMW’s entry level model offering, replacing the 3 Series Compact as the cheapest BMW you could buy. Whereas the Americas only got the coupe/convertible (that would go on to form the separate 2 Series model), everywhere else; Hong Kong included, also got the 1 Series available as in 3 & 5 door hatchback body styles.
But compared to other compact offerings from rival European brands, the 1 Series stood out in one aspect from the rest: specifically, its drivetrain. Whereas most hatchbacks sent power through the front wheels (to make them fuel efficient, more spacious, and cheaper), BMW offered the 1 Series in rear-wheel-drive: like its bigger sedan/coupe siblings. Rear wheel drive was, until recent years, BMW’s signature amongst its entire lineup. It didn’t matter what model carried the badge, it came as a FR (front-engine, rear wheel drive) layout as standard.
So the 1 Series stood out from the rest of the European hatchback offerings, by serving as one of the cheapest ways you could get into ‘the Ultimate Driving Machine’ and RWD nonetheless. If how revolutionary this was doesn't register to you, put it this way: the last time a mass-production FR hatchback was available, was during the 1980s. A time when the likes of the Chrysler Sunbeam, and its 'hot' Lotus counterpart, were around.
The emphasis on ensuring the cheapest BMW could drive as good as the rest of its family continued under the hood: the engine longitudinally-mounted inboard, and even the battery was placed in the rear to maintain 50:50 perfect weight distribution.
Of course, being rear wheel drive, did mean the 1 Series hatch was not as practical as its rivals: the rear transaxle does reduce the overall cargo capacity in the trunk, and rear seat legroom is a big tight in some places, so those who are quite tall or have - shall we say, 'thick' legs will find getting into the rear seats, a bit too compact. Critics also complained about the build quality of early model interiors (being built to a price and not what came to expect from BMW-quality wise), and some of the entry-model engines lacking enough power to move the entire car.
Plus, being a BMW model designed during Chris Bangle's tenure as chief vehicle designer, there was a lot to be said about the Bangle design language on a compact car. The early, pre-facelift models were even nicknamed 'bread-vans' due to the large rear real-estate, and rear tailights.
But in hindsight, critics might have been a little too harsh on Bangle's approach. After all, it is not like he is designing BMWs to now feature abnormally wide and extensive kidney grilles.
While this is one of the cheapest trim levels for the E87, 116i models that received the LCI update, came with a new N43 engine. This replaced the ancient N45/46 units; able to deliver as much power as the model above it, the 118i. In other words (and this is where it can get a bit confusing), as part of the generation's last production run, the 116i''s 1.6 litre four-cylinder engine was updated to include direct injection. Result: the N43 in both 1.6 and 2.0 litre form, made between 2009-2011, both produced 121 hp, though the latter, with more displacement, had more torque. Torque difference aside, in a city as dense as Hong Kong where you're not going too fast most of the time, the 116i's small N43 motor is more than enough.
And contrary to stereotypes of BMWs being unreliable, this 1 Series is a long way from suffering any issues that come with German engineering. With just 31,544 km on the odometer, just three previous owners; the last one owning this for occasional weekend use, this is a very clean and trouble-free example.
Keeping in mind when reading up things to look out when inspecting a E87 included timing chain failure, it should be a good while before any of those concerns mechanically come up. It also helps that the N43 is not directly related to the N13, aka the 'Prince' engines BMW produced in partnership with Citroen-Peugeot (PSA), which are notorious for their unreliability and mechanical faults. For a German product, the N43 is one solid motor.
Considering too that the current generation of the 1 Series, has forgone BMW tradition and gone to a FF layout (on underpinnings shared with some of the MINI range - BMW owned), this generation should become a future classic in the long run too. Entry level FRs platforms that are not Japanese: they are a rare breed.
It should also go without saying that here in Hong Kong, whereas European/American markets might view them as high-end, executive options; these BMW hatchbacks are some of the most popular cars on the roads; as common as a Toyota Corolla. To the point these entry level models, especially the 'cheapest of the cheapest', have served as mere disposable tools; in the same manner a Civic springs to mind when you are looking for simple ‘A to B’ transportation.
In fact, a lot of pre-owned models from this generation were snapped up by local families or individuals last year. People who didn’t necessarily pay too much attention to cars nor really cared about what car they got; provided it was reliable, has great gas mileage, and great value. Why? The first few months of the pandemic had many trying to avoid the cramped spaces of public transportation systems (especially the MTR during rush hours) as much as possible. But many wanted to have some private space with zero-virus transmission: to camp in or to dine in as means to ‘get outside’ during the first round of stay at home orders, complete grocery store runs and other essential tasks. So many immediately went to the used car market to source the cheapest set of four wheels and doors they could afford: mainly to serve as their ‘safe bubble’ away from possible transmission of the virus.
Alongside cheap VW Golfs and Corollas, many BMW 116is: abundantly available and at low prices (on average: $40-50k HKD, some even for just $20k HKD), especially pre-LCI models, were some of the most popular options snapped up by many households. It's small wonder why we were able to get this car for such a good price, in such a good condition inside and out, and, needn't I say it again: rear-wheel drive too.
Being the entry level model, has also given me an opportunity to reflect on how much more equipment we take for granted these days: from smartphone connectivity to intelligent headlights that we come to expect as standard features. Stepping between this and the Merc is like stepping into two different time zones. Whereas I am used to comforts such as cruise control, adjustable throttle/steering/gearbox settings and a digital cluster that reads everything from speed to fuel economy, the 1 series in this spec, comes with just a basic LED readout in the cluster, a basic AM/FM radio unit with Bluetooth telephony (but no streaming audio), and no drive mode selector switch. Less automated tech, more physical levers and buttons.
But upside is, less things to potentially break in the future. And considering the E gen were the last in line before all of the BMW range went fully-loaded on in-car technologies following refinement of their controversial interface, 'iDrive', this is the generation to keep an eye on, should you want a BMW that will not give you as many headaches. Aside from VANOS failure.
With the keys officially in our hands, now remains the question: what lies in store for it? What is planned to make this relatively vanilla hatchback, something special?
Initially, considering my father would be primarily using this car on a more regular basis; while I use the Benz more, I felt content if the car remained stock. It’s not like every car needs to be modified or changed significantly, especially for a sedate daily.
But ultimately, my dad does like to leave his little touches here and there, mainly to increase the value of said car so he can turn a profit once its time to sell it off. I don’t see eye to eye on viewing cars like that, being the enthusiast in the family; but its common ground for the two of us. Better than nothing, I guess?
It also helps that the aftermarket support for the 1 Series, E87 included is quite big, even nowadays. Plenty of cosmetic enhancements can be sourced for this platform: from Brixton Forged splitters to carbon bits and pieces, and other things in between.
And thinking over the possibilities of what we could do with this car and blue sky thinking, gave me some ideas. For one: considering this was a new daily family car, and what do most go for their family car of choice? An SUV, or crossover. They’ve become ever more popular these days: with the market shifting entirely to cashing in entirely on these ‘urban activity vehicles’. Much like the position BMW was in to justify releasing the 1 Series back when every manufacturer was offering a hatchback in their lineup, every marque now has to offer some form of crossover to appease the growing appetite of the average car buyer. But along the way: marques have forgotten the other members of their model range. It’s small wonder why estates, minivans, and even hatches themselves are not being given as much attention, or being killed off entirely to prioritise crossover models.
So that’s where the goal, and aim for this project came from: I’m setting out to prove that this family hatchback, can be just as capable and fulfill everything your typical crossover - which is more or less a hatchback anyway, but slightly bigger, can do. ‘The Anti-Crossover-Crossover’. You can fill it in yourself on where I got the inspiration for that.
With one of first modifications, combined with swapping out the stock 17 inch wheels, being the very prominent roof racks, this car's journey to be more utilitarian and multi-purpose everyday, has just begun.
And for those interested, I have also set up an account for this car on Instagram: journaling the BMW’s changes, photo opportunities, and general use the times I decide to mix things up and not take the ‘weebified’ car out on Sunday. You’ll also be able to find out the name I have given the Anti-Crossover project: “Shirobako”.
(Yes, it is a clever reference to the anime series about the anime industry. But it also literally means: ‘White Box’, so its entirely fitting in my opinion.)
If you have been following my primary Instagram account throughout the unexpected hiatus, no doubt you will have seen some of the big changes that have already been made to this car. But for now, I just wanted to introduce this new addition that I will be spending some time with, other than the Benz project.
I'll go over those details in the next feature on this car, especially the upgrades done to the in-car tech, and evidently, the overall appearance. They are really worth talking about, from installing them, to how they've made the car better than stock.
Stay tuned for the next feature on Project 'Anti-Crossover Crossover'.