What is it?
The BMW M135i, a premium hot hatchback and one of BMW’s newly emerging range of M Performance products rather than a direct replacement for the hardcore, pumped up BMW 1M Coupe. It’s only 19bhp shy of that car, though, which was one of our favourites of 2011. And priced at a smidge over £30,000, the M135i looks like startling value for money.
Try to think of a car that reprises the E30 M3’s dynamic template – compact, light, nimble, rear-drive – but propelled by a sublime 3-litre turbocharged straight six that (acoustically engineered or not) sounds as good, if not better, than any naturally aspirated six the M Division has made in 40 years.
Its 316bhp and 332lb ft give it a 0-62mph time of 4.9sec when teamed with ZF’s frankly astonishing eight-speed automatic gearbox. You can have a six-speed Getrag manual (which adds a couple of tenths to the sprint time) but the ZF item is so fast, responsive and smooth, it makes a better case for auto-with-paddles than most double-clutch transmissions. Adding the auto is a £1685 option, while upgrading your M135i from a three- to a five-door hatchback commands a £530 premium.
What’s it like to drive?
The BMW M135i is almost Q-car subtle, which made for an amusing 20 minutes on the Autobahn as, time after time, the car rushed to its 155mph speed limiter once other fast-moving (but somewhat bemused) traffic had been persuaded to move over.
The best thing about the M135i, though, is the grin it puts on your face on a twisty road. Dripping with feel the electro-hydraulic steering is not but, at two turns between locks, it’s direct and accurate and acquires a helpful meatiness with speed. With stiffer springs, dampers and bushes and a lower ride height than other new three-door 1-series models, the M tweaks work a little magic in league with the uniquely styled double five-spoke 18-inch wheels shod with 225/40 and 245/35 tyres to imbue the chassis with alert responses and fine grip without taking too much off the ride.
A bit of exploration and circuit, and through the corners it feels like a relatively tall, narrow car, with the tail wanting to play as soon as you get on the power, which makes it feel like a fun handful. However, although it’s wonderfully interactive and adjustable, the lack of a proper limited-slip differential means it’s a hard car to hold stable in what should be the chassis-balance sweet spot of marginal oversteer that’s fast without being showy. Ironically it’s a chassis that’s actually much happier doing big-angled skids with the boot out in the breeze like a jack-knifed lorry.
The lack of a proper diff can be fixed, however, with an aftermarket option from British BMW tuner Birds in the shape of the Quaife ATB LSD (£1681 fitted). If you’re concerned that the addition of an LSD might morph the M135i into some sort of graunching, stuttering recalcitrant during low-speed manoeuvring (like a Nissan GT‑R), there’s no need to worry. You simply don’t notice the new addition to the rear axle during normal pottering.
Where you do notice a difference is with the DSC stability control off. On a tight, wet uphill bend where the standard car would have just felt untidy and a bit frustrating, this car simply spins up its rear wheels in unison and arcs round in an easily gatherable slide. Even better, the transition to oversteer isn’t snappy, and with a healthy amount of lock in the steering you can let it go to fairly big angles without worrying. It would be interesting to see how the diff copes with longer slides on track, but on the road it’s brilliant.
How does it compare?
The BMW’s toughest foes come from its German homeland, the new Audi S3 quattro fighting it very closely with a 296bhp turbo four engine and £30,640 price tag, while the Mercedes A45 AMG is more potent (355bhp) and expensive (£37,845) though less fun and engaging. Perhaps the biggest challenge comes from the supremely talented new mk7 VW Golf GTI; prices start at £25,845 but you can have the full strength 227bhp Performance Pack version with lots of desirable extras for less than a basic M135i. The lure of an extra 90bhp and rear-wheel drive may swing proper enthusiasts towards a BMW dealer still, however…
An very alluring alternative to a BMW M135i with options boxes ticked is a second-hand 1M Coupe. With asking prices little short of their brand new showroom sticker, the UK’s 450 limited-edition 1Ms look a sound investment, as well as being one of BMW’s modern-day greats.
Anything else I need to know?
Thanks to Efficient Dynamics tech, the M135i posts a claimed 35.3mpg (37.7mpg with the auto) and 188g/km (175g/km). You’d expect nothing less, and of all the new performance cars on sale, this is a fuel economy figure you’ll have a realistic chance of matching.