2019 BMW M135i review - BMW goes mainstream with its new Golf R rival

Highly effective and very quick, but lacks emotion beside the best hot hatchbacks

The major news concerning the all-new BMW 1-series is that, shock-horror, it is no longer rear-wheel drive. The driven wheels have been switched from back to front mostly in the name of packaging, says BMW, hence the new One is bigger inside than its predecessor in just about every direction, despite being not much bigger on the outside.

Traditionalists will of course claim that, with a transverse engine and front-wheel drive, it is no longer a true BMW, but the firm’s engineers argue otherwise. They reckon the new One is not only more spacious but also more composed and just better than ever to drive with its new FWD architecture. 

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> Click here for our review of the Mercedes-AMG A35

Which is all fine and believable, credible even in terms of packaging benefits, until you come to the top dog version, the new M135i xDrive. With 302bhp from its new 2-litre ‘multi-stage’ turbo engine, alongside a more significant 331lb ft, BMW’s engineers simply didn’t think they could get away with putting all this muscle through the front wheels, no matter how good the new One’s FWD platform might be. So they made it four-wheel drive instead. Or, to be a touch more accurate, part-time four-wheel drive.

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Either way, it’s hard not to be impressed by what the M135i xDrive appears to offer on paper. Big power, around 20kg less weight to lug around than the previous M140i, thunderous traction because of the 4WD, plus a new design both inside and out that includes yet another vast new kidney grille at the front but which is not without appeal in the flesh.

The M135i xDrive is also one of the most sophisticated hot hatchbacks in terms of its communications package, claims BMW, with an Alexa-style voice recognition system that enables a driver to fully interact with the car on the move (which may or may not matter to you, depending on your take on such things). Whatever the case, the £36,430 M135i xDrive does appear to represent a fair old chunk of car for the money.

Engine, performance and 0-60mph time

The 135i’s 2-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine is a brand-spanker from BMW and, predictably, it features all the tricks and then some: variable valve timing, double VANOS camshaft timing, what BMW describes as ‘Twin Power’ turbo technology – even though there’s just a single turbo – and ‘high precision injection’.

Whatever the marketing hyperbole BMW uses to describe its new engine, it is a serious piece of work, though not perhaps as much of a piece of work as the 2-litre engine of the new Mercedes-AMG A45 S, which produces over 100bhp more from the same number of cylinders and the same capacity. But what this new BMW engine is is light. BMW claims it weighs around 32kg less than the old 3-litre straight-six turbo from the 140i, yet its outputs aren’t that far behind, plus of course it’s much more economical and cleaner (41mpg combined and 155g/km).

> Click here for our review of the Volkswagen Golf R

Max power of 302bhp occurs between 4500 and 6250rpm, while max torque of 331lb ft is available from just 1700rpm, and all the way through to 5000rpm. That’s enough energy to fire the M135i xDrive to 62mph in just 4.8sec, albeit with the aid of a full launch control system and four-wheel drive. Top speed is limited to the standard 155mph.

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Technical highlights

It’s hard to know where to start here, so how about with the new Torsen limited-slip differential at the front which, in conjunction with what BMW describes as ARB technology (actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation, borrowed lock-stock from the i3), provides the M135i with monstrous traction, and that’s before you even mention what happens at the new multi-link back axle.

In normal driving the M135i xDrive is essentially front-wheel drive, but put your foot down and, within milliseconds claims BMW, the ‘intelligent control logic’ of the xDrive system engages the rear axle and can then split torque deployment up to 50:50 between the front and rear ends. It will even allow a degree of rear-end slip, reckon BMW’s engineers, if you deactivate the DSC. It’s a very clever system that works only when you need it to and, subjectively, the transition is all but seamless as it kicks in and out.

The new One’s body is also stiffer than of old across the range, but for the 135i there are extra bracing elements front and rear and bigger anti-roll bars, plus slightly quicker electric power steering than in the regular versions. The ride height is 10mm lower with the M Sport package – which the 135i comes with as standard, like it or not – and the gearbox is the eight-speed ZF auto with paddles that appears throughout most of the rest of BMW’s range. Sadly the six-speed manual that’s available on most other new 1-series models is not available for the M135i xDrive.

What’s it like to drive? 

Subjectively the M135i feels every bit as quick as the numbers suggest, but at the same time it feels oddly characterless in its delivery. All the right ingredients are there for hot hatch greatness: Keen throttle response for a turbo? Tick. Very strong mid-range performance? Tick. Fast-shifting eight-speed auto gearbox with paddles? Tick. An ability to draw the far horizon towards the windscreen faster than you’d ever expect from a hot hatch? Tick. 

Yet the overall impression, even under hard acceleration, is of an efficient, effective but ultimately quite anodyne car, certainly in terms of straight-line performance. The engine doesn’t scream round to the red line, nor does the exhaust emit anything approaching a rousing noise, not even up at 6000rpm, and there are no pops and bangs on overrun. The M135i’s performance is deeply impressive, yes, but at the same time it’s curiously forgettable as well.

Which is not an accusation you could ever level at the chassis, or the steering, or the brakes. You need to rag the 135i quite hard for it to reveal its true self, but when you do, you discover a car that really does handle properly.

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Mid-corner balance is superb, as is the turn-in response, and once you’ve got the 135i loaded and planted in a corner, the commitment it can take from the throttle towards the exit is deeply impressive. Traction appears pretty much limitless on the public road, but the 135i also has proper touchy-feely steering response, albeit quite meatily, plus of course it has a typically chunky M Sport steering wheel to cling on to. And a great pair of front seats.

Plus, crucially, it rides well, too, if you dial it out of Sport and back to Comfort. All in all, the chassis outperforms the engine by some way. In this respect it feels ripe for a touch of engine tuning to get that balance more harmonious.

Price and rivals 

At £36,430 the M135i xDrive does seem to represent a decent amount of car for the money given how well specified it is, how sophisticated its new comms package is and how much tech its new four-wheel-drive chassis contains.

The recently launched Mercedes-AMG A35 is perhaps the BMW’s closest rival, with 302bhp and four-wheel drive, and a similar price (£35,580). Then, of course, there’s the four-wheel-drive hot hatch benchmark, the Mk7.5 Volkswagen Golf R, which is priced at £36,150 but is now down at 296bhp after some engine tweaks for WLTP. Some may consider this generation of Golf a little long in the tooth, too.

Finally, if four-wheel drive isn’t essential, the 316bhp Honda Civic Type R (£31,550) can level with or better the 135i for pure performance but is in a different category of appeal in real terms.

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