The only really predictable outcome when you try to look into the future of cars is that you’ll make yourself look an idiot.
You might fluke it, of course - singing the praises of what turns out to be a mega new car before you’ve driven it, or spotting 2019’s F1 champ at your local kart track. But you’re more likely to produce the sort of howler that hindsight brings back to hang around your neck. Like predicting that the Alfa Romeo 156 GTA would be the stand-out performance saloon of a year (2001) that would also bring the E46 BMW M3. Yes, I did that. I really did.
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So it’s at risk of producing some derisive laughter if you’re re-reading this copy of evo in years hence that I’m going to attempt some more crystal ball-gazing. I predict that, in a few years’ time, we’ll look back on the BMW M135i as one of those game-changing cars. Not only is it one of the better products to emerge from M division in recent years, and a finalist in last year’s eCoty over the BMW M6 on the back of that, but it’s made the corporate lives of any company trying to sell a senior hot hatch nigh on impossible.
However you cut it, the M135i offers a huge amount of bang per buck. BMW launched it under the £30k barrier. And although the company has since, unsportingly, stuck another £560 on the price, that still means a three-door manual like the one you see here costs £30,555 before haggling. This for a car with a turbocharged six-cylinder engine, 316bhp, a 5.1sec 0-62mph time and the promise bestowed by that discreet ‘M’ badge. What’s not to love?
Put it another way - how hard has it become for even the most silver-tongued VW sales operative to get anyone to sign up for a Scirocco R? The top-spec version of Volkswagen’s coupe-hatch has always sold slowly in the UK, but the M135i makes it look silly. With a four-cylinder turbo four, front-wheel drive, 261bhp and a 6.0sec 0-62mph time, it loses on every Top Trumps category. Yet it costs £31,135 – or £32,535 with DSG, as on our test car.
Not that every argument can be reduced to money, of course. Which is why the M135i must also meet and beat our resident hatchback champion – the Renaultsport Mégane. A bit of spec-shuffling last year led to the ‘standard’ RS being promoted to the spec of the former Trophy model, meaning 261bhp from the familiar 2-litre turbo four. And, if you’re prepared to forego the toys and sample it in basic ‘Cup’ form, it’s yours for £25,245. Bargain.
That leaves the wildcard, the Focus ST. Or, more precisely, an ST with a difference, and not just that of a blue-and-white paint job that makes it look like a 1980s British Gas van. Ford has chosen to pitch the ST at the cheaper end of the segment, meaning it’s below these rivals on both price and power. And with Ford yet to decide whether or not to do an RS version, we’ve opted for a rival from left-field – this ‘Stage One’ tuned version from renowned Ford-fettlers Superchips. A sports exhaust and a mild remap boost it from the standard car’s 247bhp to 292; the rest of the car is unchanged. The mods cost £1414, and even added to a new ST this is still the cheapest car here, at £23,409 all in.
FOR THIS STORY, we’ve picked a very appropriate playground – the quiet corner of the map where Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire collide. A perfect mix of fast and sweeping with tight and cresty makes this one of the best places I’ve found to put a wannabe hot hatch through its paces. And, with Henry Catchpole on hand to lend his critical opinion, we know the test will be suitably testing.
I arrive in the Scirocco, unshaken but also unstirred. It’s a couple of years since I last drove an R, and I’d almost forgotten how effortlessly it manages the business of going quickly. It’s supple and refined on the motorway, the ultra-quick changes of the DSG ’box and the turbocharged engine’s linear pace helping to forge a path. But it’s never a car that shouts about its supposed status as VW’s performance hero. From the outside, only unique alloys and a deeper front grille – which Henry likens to Mark Webber’s jawline – distinguish it from the standard TSI. And from the driver’s seat, the R-ificiation is similarly restrained – blue instrument needles in place of the red ones of lesser versions is pretty much the limit.
Yet you can’t help but be impressed by the way the VW keeps its composure when asked to deliver pace. Even with Henry nibbling at its back bumper in the Mégane, the VW is making unruffled progress in a way that makes me wonder if these serrated local roads have been resurfaced since I was last here; with the dampers in their firmest ‘Sport’ setting there is no floating and no crashing.
But this is not a car that draws you in to the business of driving it quickly. The steering is low-geared, the assistance is light and messages from the front are muted. Grip levels are huge - faster corners are just dispatched, and even in slower ones the chassis finds impressive grip considering its lack of a limited-slip differential. VW’s ‘XDS’ traction control system redistributes torque laterally as the front end runs out of grip, and it actually kills understeer pretty well. But as with the rest of the car, the end result is a digitally synthesised driving experience. You find yourself almost longing for some good old-fashioned torque steer.
It’s time to stretch legs and swap cars, and Henry is already raving about the Mégane. Again. ‘Getting on the throttle mid-corner and feeling the diff pull you round is like witchcraft,’ he says. ‘It’s utterly addictive.’
Perhaps so, but I’m saving the Mégane until later. Instead I opt to swap into the Focus that evo’s newest signing, designer Will Beaumont, has been driving. ‘It’s, um, interesting,’ reckons Will, from behind an uncharacteristically pallid complexion. And within a couple of hundred yards I’ve found out why.
I’ve already driven the ST from Superchips’ HQ to the office, and on wide A-roads it felt amusingly rapid, with a noticeable increase in performance over that of the standard car, but keeping the Ford’s fundamental character intact. But on this rougher tarmac – which the Scirocco’s magic dampers had smoothed out, rather than Oxfordshire’s roads department – keeping the ST on track is a constant battle.
On the plus side, it’s seriously quicker than the standard ST, with enough boost to keep the traction control light flashing in third and sometimes even fourth gear on the bumpy tarmac. If we had a straight line to head down it would be epic – but linear vectors are in fairly short supply on the B4507, and on the bobbling surface the ST’s front end is scrapping with every bump and battling every contour, the steering tugging this way and that as the power searches for grip. On the narrow roads that skirt the famous White Horse, where safe progress requires inch-perfect accuracy, it feels wide and unwieldy at speed. It’s certainly exciting – like walking an energetic dog at the top of a cliff.
When we stop so that snapper Howell can set up the next shot, we discover another possible reason for the Focus’s never-ending battle for traction: some fairly comical rubber on those equally comical blue alloys. Autogrip P308s, apparently. The suspicion is that it may be less of a handful on its standard Goodyear Eagles.
Henry is equally unmoved by the Scirocco. ‘It’s just a bit dull, isn’t it? All the ingredients are there and they all work well together, but it doesn’t make me want to drive it.’
With that, he gets into the M135i, and I climb into the Mégane, bringing us to the crux of the test, and once on the move, it’s quickly evident that we are definitely in Mégane country. They should put up a sign. Within a couple of miles it’s clear that you’d be hard-pressed to find any car, regardless of budget, that feels more at home on these roads. Or one capable of carrying such pace over them.
At first, the Mégane feels over-firm. Renaultsport likes firm suspension settings and the 265 is no exception, engaging rougher surfaces in close-quarters combat as the Cup springs and shocks work together to defuse the bumps in real time. Unlike the Scirocco, there’s no give to it and no attempt to roll with the road’s punches. But although the overall effect is a vigorous spinal massage, the steering remains uncorrupted and traction uninterrupted.
And that makes the 265 a spectacularly easy car to place on the road; pick a line and the Mégane does its best to stick to it. Even better, when grip starts to fade – a message relayed unambiguously through the fat rim of the steering wheel – there’s that diff to help you out, pulling the front end deeper into the corner when most cars would be giving up. With the ESP deactivated you can bring the back end into play, too, easing the throttle, or overlapping braking with turn-in, to feel the mass shifting and the car tightening its line.
OK, so it’s not quite perfect. The Renault’s engine is effective but lacks character beyond its induction roar under full throttle. The light gearchange makes it easy to swap between ratios quickly enough to keep everything boiling, but I’ve always felt it lacks a bit of weight. Oh, and for some reason Renault persists in having an odd ‘kick down’ click at the bottom of the throttle travel (it allows you to override the driver-selectable speed limiter, apparently). But these are niggles.
Henry is almost as impressed by the BMW. ‘It’s challenging the Mégane for top honours,’ he suggests. ‘The steering doesn’t quite tell you as much so you have to take a leap of faith where the Renault tells you everything. And it would benefit from a proper LSD.’
It does have two more cylinders than the other challengers, though. It’s also the most powerful car here, and it drives the opposite set of wheels to the other three. Yet, for all the difference in approach, it’s impressive how close the Mégane and the M135i end up in terms of the speed they can carry across difficult country.
The BMW’s engine is the star powerplant here, no question. It’s smooth, snarly, lag-free and happy to rev. It’s as responsive at 1500rpm as it is when the tacho needle homes in on the 7000rpm red line. This is the first time I’ve sampled the manual, and I instantly prefer it to the frenetic eight-speed auto. The six-speed leaves you feeling more in control and gives the big engine a chance to fill its lungs.
The chassis is great, too. The Adaptive M Sport suspension, with its range of associated settings, is a £515 option, but unlike in some of the 135’s fully fledged M-car sisters, the tech doesn’t take over the driving experience; you never feel like you’re out of the loop in the M135i in the way you sometimes do in an M5 or M6. The dampers struggle with today’s road surfaces in Comfort mode, but selecting Sport or Sport Plus imposes discipline.
The steering isn’t as direct or responsive as the Mégane’s, but there’s genuine feedback behind the electric assistance – and an ability to play the front and back ends off against each other. Like lesser 1-series, the M135i doesn’t feel rear-driven unless you want it to – the seemingly foolproof stability control means you can hoon it like a front-drive hatch without worrying about the back making an unwanted bid for freedom. And in Sport Plus the system allows enough slip to make things interesting, without being alarming.
Yet despite its extra power and on-paper acceleration advantage, the Beemer can’t quite match the Mégane’s pace over today’s roads. In part that’s because of the steering, but it’s also due to that lack of a proper limited-slip diff. When it does get to the edge of adhesion, the electronics struggle to replicate the locking effect that gives the Mégane its ultimate edge; the Beemer will go sideways if you want, but it won’t find more grip doing so.
Following the Renault gives a fascinating chance to see it flex its muscles. On straights the BMW has the edge under power, and the two are perfectly matched on braking. But in a fast right-left-right sequence, the 265 finds another couple of yards at every apex.
LIGHT IS FADING and brakes are ticking as we regroup for tea and medals. There’s no dispute that the Ford finishes last – the Superchips conversion is a worthwhile upgrade, but it will take more than just power to get the Focus on a par with these rivals. ‘I hope that’s not as close as we get to an RS version,’ says Henry. Quite.
Nor is anyone voting for the Scirocco. There’s no doubt that it’s a great way to cover ground without breaking sweat, but it’s not a car to fill you with the thrill of driving.
Separating the Mégane and the M135i is where it gets harder – borderline impossible, in fact. For all the overlap, these are cars from different galaxies; your preference really is going to depend on what you value the higher.
‘If you’re looking for the most sophisticated, best quality hatch then the BMW wins hands down,’ is Henry’s considered verdict. ‘The Mégane is rawer and would be more tiring to live with – but it’s the best drivers’ car here.’
He’s right. Both of these cars are brilliant at what they do. The Mégane is indeed still the class of the field, and it’s six grand cheaper. But the BMW remains a real performance bargain and is barely less talented than the 1M Coupe that’s still five grand more expensive used. Any other manufacturer putting a similar rival into the market – Mercedes with its forthcoming A45 AMG, for example – is going to have to produce something exceptional.