Overall rating: 4.5/5
Following the justified hype that surrounded the BMW 1 Series M Coupé nobody really expected the M135i - an 'M Performance' car rather than a proper M car - to really stand out as something special. First impressions suggest it's a corker, with a fantastic engine, great specification, restrained looks and polished chassis adding up to a highly desirable car.
In the Metal:
While we're not the biggest fans of the nose of the latest 1 Series, we do approve of the visual updates that the M Performance division have added. Indeed, they're different even to the M Sport trim level updates. Up front is a deep new bumper with large air intakes including restyled outer items with no fog lights. 'Ferric' grey is used in the trim and echoed on the door mirrors. The side sills are chunkier too, offsetting the lovely grey 18-inch alloys. Behind them nestle bigger brakes with eye-catching blue callipers and the stance is enhanced with a 10mm lower ride height. At the rear the deeper bumper is darker near the bottom to give it the look of a diffuser and it houses the two large diameter exhaust pipes.
A surprising amount has been done to the interior, as emphasised by the tasty sports seats trimmed in Alcantara and a distinctive blue hexagon cloth. The multi-function steering wheel is quite large, but trimmed in leather and finished with blue stitching. A similar treatment is given to the handbrake and manual gear gaiter (though we only drove the automatic). Other bespoke touches include the instruments, pedals and door sill kick plates.
The first thing that you'll notice about the M135i is the noise it makes; it's simply glorious. A deep, bass-like rumble is always present and its volume and timbre are increased if you choose Sport mode. Extend the engine and it gets better, revving out incredibly smoothly to 7,000rpm without a hint of vibration. Not that you need to thrash this engine to go quickly - as hinted by the torque availability across the speed range. And speed this car does - it's as quick as the now iconic 1 Series M Coupé in a straight line and though we look forward to trying it with a six-speed manual gearbox, the eight-speed automatic works surprisingly well, thanks of course to the various modes of operation and the tactile gearchange paddles mounted behind the steering wheel.
Where the M135i clearly differs from its illustrious forbear is in the way it conducts itself on the road. This is not as extreme a car, which may mean a reduction in lap times around your local circuit, but it makes for a far more polished on-road performer. There's plenty enough grunt to un-stick the rear tyres if you feel so inclined (though the quick-witted traction control will keep it all neat and tidy if you leave it turned on), but even driven sensibly it rewards with great body control and real eagerness to turn in and be steered on the throttle. Variable ratio steering is standard and though not brimming with feel it does give the car real bite in the corners, without resulting in instability at high speed. We saw an indicated 260km/h on the Autobahn and the M135i was rock steady. Even the ride quality seems quite acceptable given the sporting remit - perhaps the lack of run-flat tyres helped.
Admittedly German road surfaces are generally better than our own so we'll reserve final judgement until we're tried the M135i on Irish back roads, but one thing's for certain: we're really looking forward to that. This car has the surprise making of one of the performance machines of the year.
What you get for your Money:
One major difference between an M Performance model and a full-on M car seems to be more variety in the line-up. For instance, the M135i will be available in both three- and five-door guises, starting at €49,270. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard, and the eight-speed automatic tested is optional. Along with all that there'll be the option of xDrive four-wheel drive before the end of the year.
Irish market cars will be even more generously equipped than those we tested in Germany, as Dakota leather will be standard.
Though the fact was lost in the excitement at driving the M135i, this event was the official launch of the new three-door 1 Series as well. Cue lots of buzzwords such as 'sporty' and 'youthful'. The three-door model looks a little sportier thanks to longer doors and frameless windows. BMW has improved access to the back seats though and given rear passengers more space. There'll be a choice of two or three seats for the back as well.
At the opposite end of the scale to the M135i is the new 114i model, featuring a turbocharged 1.6-litre petrol engine putting out 102hp and 180Nm of torque, while returning 50mpg (5.7 litres/100km) and emitting 132g/km of CO2. Sadly we didn't get a chance to drive that car on this occasion.
We really didn't expect the M135i to be as polished a performer as it seems to be. A streaming wet mountain road will be the ultimate test later this year, but until then it appears that BMW has created a highly desirable sports hatch, which, despite considerable performance and ability, manages to be civil enough to use every day.