There may never be a full-on M version of the new BMW 1 Series hatchback, so if you like your hot hatch thrills to be M-flavoured, you need to check out the range-topping M135i xDrive. It's packed with technology and has a serious technical specification to help it earn its M stripes. Does it warrant your attention?
In the metal
Stick with the standard 18-inch alloy wheels for your M135i and odds are few will realise it's anything other than a 1 Series in M Sport trim. The 19s stand out a little more, but it's hardly an extrovertly styled car. As it's an M Performance Vehicle, it gets several exterior elements in Cerium Grey (such as the door mirror caps), plus larger exhaust outlets and a more pronounced design of roof spoiler. The definitive way to tell the M135i apart from a regular M Sport car is to look at its grille; only the M135i gets the unusual mesh design.
Inside, there are sports seats as standard, and the option to upgrade them to the one-piece items pictured here. The M135i and M Sport cars get their own take on the new backlit trim strips and a few other niceties to set them apart. As mentioned in our review of the 118d, the cabin has taken a step up in terms of technology, quality and space.
It's best to banish all thoughts of the previous generation BMW M135i and M140i from your mind as you read this test drive, as the new M135i is a very different beast. Six-cylinder fans will grumble about the noise the new four-cylinder engine makes, but it is undoubtedly a powerful unit, putting out 306hp and 450Nm of torque. There is some digital enhancement of its note going on, which is fine as it's not obvious, but I'd never describe it as melodic.
This car uses the usual BMW eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox as standard and it's hard to fault, allowing smooth changes in fully automatic guise, fully-manual shifts when you want them and a well-judged Sport setting. What's more, in manual mode, the gearbox gets a quick-shift calibration that really hammers home the gears as you change up, swapping the transmission's usual feel of smoothness for more immediacy.
As standard, the M135i builds on the lower, sportier suspension of the 1 Series M Sport with its own set-up and buyers can upgrade the damping to a two-stage adaptive system. That was fitted to our test car and there's a noticeable difference between Comfort and Sport modes. In the latter, body movements are contained a little quicker, which is great for fast roads and 'spirited' driving, but it can lead to jiggling of the whole car on some surfaces when you're just ambling along. Switching back into the Comfort setting eradicates this and body control is still good. Usefully, the ride is never unyielding or really uncomfortable - this is clearly a car designed to be used every day rather than just for early morning weekend blasts or racetrack work.
Saying that, driving on the public road (in sunny and dry conditions) offered us only a glimpse of what the xDrive four-wheel-drive system could do, and I suspect it could be seriously good fun on a circuit, even in the rain. Be realistic about your expectations, though, as the M135i's all-wheel drive isn't as variable as that in the BMW M5, for example. Sure, the system sends more of the engine output to the rear axle more of the time in Sport mode, but that's capped at 50 per cent of the torque. Hence, if you loved the rear-led feel of the old BMW M140i, you might be frustrated.
That's not to say that the rear of the new M135i can't be brought into play in the right conditions; it's just that it requires quite a bit of provocation. Most people will be impressed by the slack-free steering that keeps the driver informed about front-end grip levels (i.e. there's usually a surfeit of the stuff) and the rear end follows along obediently. The M135i has a few tricks up its sleeve to make the driving experience a little more interesting, though.
Like the BMW X2 M35i before it, there's a Torsen torque-sensing limited slip differential on the front axle. When you're approaching the limit of traction on the inside front wheel in a corner, this sends more torque to the outside wheel, meaning you can keep your foot down and feel the car pull its way through the corner - rather than pushing on in unwanted understeer. That's unique to the M135i in the 1 Series range, though all cars get BMW's clever new ARB traction control system (as pioneered on the BMW i3s) that works incredibly quickly, plus something called Performance Control, which BMW's engineers described to us as an 'agility' system. The latter is in operation even if you completely turn off the dynamic stability control, as it applies brakes to the inside wheels in a turn to help pivot the car around, making it more enjoyable to drive - and safer.
So yes, the M135i can cover ground at breath-taking pace in an unflustered manner, but it takes a little effort to make it feel like the driver is involved in the process.
What you get for your money
The BMW M135i xDrive is priced from €50,830, which significantly undercuts its closest rival, the Mercedes-AMG A 35. That makes it decent value at this heady end of the market, though we'd like the see adaptive damping and the digital instruments as standard-fit. Other than that, it's well-equipped.
While we'll forever join hands with those that lament the passing of rear-wheel drive and a six-cylinder engine in a range-topping BMW 1 Series, there's no denying that the German company has done a good job on the M135i. Its understated styling goes with the restrained chassis, making it usable on a day-to-day basis and fun for those that want to push it a little further.