Oh god, it’s a camouflaged car. Please say something exciting lies beneath…
Yep, it’s an almost finished, brand new hot hatch. It’s the new BMW M135i, and it really is new. Because it’s now four-wheel drive, paddleshift only and with a completely fresh engine under its slightly more prominent snout.
M135i, not M140i?
Good spot. This all-new, third-generation 1 Series arrives with big news. It’s no longer a rear-driven car, its architecture front-wheel drive at its core, with a 4WD system – called xDrive – added to higher-powered 1s like this. Which no longer have a big six-cylinder engine, either, something the ‘40’ badge is reserved for.
It’s around this time we should probably fire off the adenoidal-sounding ‘petrolhead disgust’ klaxon, but in truth we’ve had more than long enough to get used to this, given the BMW X1, X2 and 2 Series Active Tourer gave us more than fair warning it’d happen. And hey, they’re pretty good to drive for their ilk.
This is a hot hatch, not a crossover thing…
BMW knows that, and it’s been developing some extra technology to give the M135i – and the whole 1 Series range – some extra credibility. They all get a new piece of technology called ARB, which is essentially an anti-slip system on the front axle that never turns off, even when you disable all of the stability control. In short, no understeer up front, but oversteer if you want it at the back. Its abilities in the wet borderline on witchcraft.
The M135i also gets a mechanical limited-slip differential on the front axle, while the engine is a new tune of 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo that produces 306bhp and 450Nm. Figures that are spookily close to the Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes-AMG A35 this M135i feels absolutely laser-focused at dispatching, no matter how much BMW insists it lives in its own part of the market.
So does it drive like them?
Our first go in this M135i is on track, in a camouflaged prototype. But it conversely provides a vivid demonstration of just how good a road car this is likely to be. That’s because it feels outrageously easy to drive quickly. That was very much its design brief, according to BMW dynamics boss Peter Langen, and the result is a car that feels a world away from its muscular predecessor.
There’s still muscle, mind; BMW is yet to finalise acceleration figures but the bombastic pace of the Golf R and AMG A35 is at least matched here, if not bettered. Sub five seconds to 100kph and a 250kph top speed are certain.
The engine operates solely through an eight-speed automatic gearbox – manuals will only appear on the least powerful versions of the third-gen 1 Series – but then that’s no different to the VW or Merc nowadays. And it’s a very good transmission with hasty reactions whether you’re using the paddles or not.
So what’s different to before?
Its attitude in corners. With a big-hearted (but short wheelbase) rear-drive car, cornering can be a tentative process, especially in the wet. Inputs have to be measured and careful if you want to avoid scaring yourself half to death, the flipside being you’re often only ever a childish prod of the throttle pedal away from a silly skid.
Switching to 4WD turns that on its head, and this is now a car you can leap in and drive at almost full commitment with very little concern. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on what you seek from a performance car; some will adore its unflappable pace in likely all weathers.
Driving it on track reveals that with such little effort required to drive it briskly, the rewards aren’t as high. This is a car with M Division branding that neatly shares the cornering effort between its axles and won’t be anything near as immaturely fun to drive as some of the great tricolour badged cars of old.
Its xDrive system is similar to the Haldex 4WD of the Golf, and can only send as much as 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels. Drive it sedately and it’ll remain front-driven, with power shuffled back and forth as the car sees fit.
... this is now a car you can leap in and drive at almost full commitment with very little concern.
So it won’t slide?
The rear axle will move around, the M135i just needs treating like a front-driven hot hatch to provoke it, lobbing it in on a closed throttle or braking aggressively into a turn. It feels more alert and assertive than its rivals, mind, and can actually be a huge amount of fun. The engineer sat beside me in this prototype (perhaps to make sure I behaved) vehemently stated “it has to be playful – it’s a BMW”.
But once the rear is mobile and your instinct sends your foot to the throttle pedal, this’ll simply pull the car straight and curtail the slide. A 4WD system able to send the majority of power to the back would help remedy that, even if it wasn’t the full 100 per cent share. If it sounds like we’re being pedantic, it’s merely because the fast 1 Series has given up its unique (if niche) place in the modern hot hatch market.
This is where the new-age M135i steps in as a potentially brilliant road car, though. It won’t act the oaf on track anything like its predecessors, but as a car in which to make extremely hasty progress in the real world – with the potential for smiles and spikes of adrenaline in the right corners – it feels primed and ready to show up the Golf and A35 as a little po-faced in their set-up.
The old car had strong reviews. Why’ve they changed it?
BMW realised that most people who buy a 1 Series are happy with the smallest engines, and don’t actually know (nor care) which wheels provide the propulsion. Want to feel deflated? The M140i accounted for a piffling three per cent of 1 Series sales, and a huge proportion of those were with the 4WD system that was optional outside of the UK.
Going front-drive (and with a maximum of four-cylinders) opens up much more interior space, too, which is naturally a priority in the affordable hatchback market. The vast swathes of 1 Series buyers will welcome a roomier car without ever noticing the sacrifice made to achieve it.
But what about the handful of us who want a quick one?
If you’re still upset about the lack of RWD or straight-six engines, then BMW reassures us the next 2 Series coupe will retain both of those things. Its demographic is entirely different to the 1 Series, with the vast majority sold being the M240i. This, BMW’s engineers suggest, is where enthusiasts put off by the new M135i’s layout will go.
- Stephen Dobie