The M-badge is BMW’s expression of performance car motoring, epitomised by the iconic M3 and M5 nameplates. But the M-designation also tends to find its ways onto cars that aren’t true products of the testosterone-fuelled M- Division. The new M135i is a good case in point. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
For petrolheads with an appetite for small but powerful BMWs, the 2011 1-Series M Coupe was a dream come true, albeit an expensive one.
Imagine a 135i Coupe after some close attention from the boffins at BMW’s M Division and you have a car that some called a junior M3 – except that the 1M got pretty close to the M3 in terms of sheer driving pleasure. Only 71 examples made it to our shores, and if you find a used example, you’ll have to pay a drift king’s ransom to make it yours.
Meanwhile, BMW has launched an all-new 1-Series hatchback, and topping the three-door range is a model dubbed the M135i. No, this is not the 1M reincarnated, but the M135i does offer some of that special M magic!
The new 1-Series hatch has grown in every direction, except in height, and the result is a larger car with a longer wheelbase. In the process, the three-door has lost some of the original’s visual aggression, and it can even look awkward from some angles. The extended wheelbase has stretched the car’s dimensions just that little bit too far, introducing an ungainliness that doesn’t match the three-door’s dynamic intentions.
Admittedly, the hatch does gain extra muscle in M135i guise, thanks to a bolder front with hungrier air intakes, extended sills, and a deeper rear apron. The blunt, pugnacious nose looks more bull terrier than greyhound, restrained by a bevelled kidney grille that’s conceptually shared with all new-generation Beemers.
The headlights on either side appear almost too big for the available real estate, their bleary-eyed presence emphasised here by the LED eyebrows and light rings of the daytime running lights. It’s certainly striking, but hardly attractive, despite M135i’s hungrier air intakes and more aggressive air dam detailing.
By comparison, the rear view offers a more sculpted, balanced design, garnished with a gloss-black apron that hosts large-bore, dulled exhaust tailpipes on either side. The angular lines add poise and geometric appeal, while the muscular haunches and handsome 18-inch alloy wheels emphasise the M135i’s athletic, planted stance.
The news is much more positive once you’ve opened the generously proportioned driver’s door (necessary to ease the entry and exit of rear occupants) and settled into the form-hugging bucket seat. Trimmed in optional leather (a R12,100 extra), the seats are electrically adjustable and allow all shapes and sizes to find an optimal driving position.
The all-new cabin is a big improvement on yesteryear’s 1-Series. The finishes are classy without resorting to ostentation and the switchgear and controls are intuitively located – there’s no need for a degree in rocket science to understand what’s on offer.
BMW’s cockpits are usually driver-focussed places, and that’s also true of the new 1-Series. The ergonomics favour close interaction between car and driver, and the latest iDrive system, combined with a bright and clear display, works a treat.
The test car also featured BMW’s latest connectivity package, providing for seamless integration of iPhone telephony via Bluetooth and USB-based iPhone audio control, as well as Internet connection and functionality. Bundled with navigation, it adds a further R27,000 to the price tag, but it’s hard to do without once you’ve become accustomed to how well it works!
The longer wheelbase means there’s more space front and rear, although it has to be said that the two-door configuration remains inherently inconvenient, making the five-door variant by far the more practical option. The boot offers a generous 360-litre luggage capacity.
But here’s the part I really like. BMW’s twin-scroll turbocharged, straight-six engine is one of the best in the business, especially when it only needs to propel 1,440 kg of metal, as is the case here. The lusty three-litre delivers 235 kW of muscle and 450 Nm of torque, harnessed by an eight-speed auto gearbox and delivered to the rear wheels in the best BMW tradition.
The chassis acknowledges the presence of all that muscle, and comes equipped with some M-derived trickery. Included are an M-tweaked suspension that tautens up the hatch’s road manners and a variable-ratio steering system supposed to offer both slow-speed manoeuvrability and high-speed feel.
I say supposed, because at low speeds, the steering feels over-assisted and lacking in feedback, a bit more like a PlayStation wheel than the real thing. Things get a lot better at speed, though: there’s real weight and feel on offer, and cutting fine arcs from apex to apex becomes instinctive.
With a near-perfect 50/50 weight distribution, combined with loads of power, the 135i is a nimble handler. The suspension, throttle mapping and stability control can be adjusted via an adaptive drive system operated by a switch on the centre console.
It offers a spectrum of driving modes, ranging from Eco Pro (which tries to turn the M135i into a fuel miser) and the default Comfort setting to the more pertinent Sport and Sport Plus modes. Both of the latter sharpen overall responses, but the electronic nanny relaxes her grasp just enough to allow some mild over-steer when giving it stick out of the tight in Sport Plus mode.
The M135i does lack the ultimate edge of a real M-car like the 1M Coupé. The safety margins are broad, and the hatch remains more forgiving than arresting. You have to really provoke the car to get it to misbehave – and where’s the finesse in that?
In straight-line terms, the M135i is rapid, even by thoroughbred sports car standards. The auto version under scrutiny here is actually quicker than the six-speed manual, thanks to the sport transmission’s rapid and seamless shifts.
The result is a zero to 100 km/h sprint time of 4.9 seconds. Top speed is limited to 250 km/h, but frankly, who cares – it’s the meaty tractability of the car that matters most.
Overtaking is only a gentle squeeze of the throttle away, while booting it will elicit the kind of instant, startling response that can punish the unwary with a painful case of whiplash. There’s enough midrange grunt to make gearing down unnecessary in most cases, but hell, it’s worth it just to hear the blip of the throttle and the rising roar of the engine.
Beefy brakes and larger discs are also part of the M135i’s armoury, ensuring that retardation scope matches performance potential. The four-pot front and two-pot rear callipers are finished in a racy blue, just to confirm the BMW’s dynamic intentions.
A final word on pricing. The standard M135i AT retails for R465,600 – a fair amount for a three-door hatchback, even a performance-orientated premium one. As tested here, the extras bump that price tag to almost R600,000 – a figure that even the well-heeled will find difficult to equate to the car in absolute value terms.
For my money, elements such as the Sport Auto transmission, the adaptive M running gear and Bluetooth connectivity for telephones and iPods, should be standard fare for a car in this category and not an expensive option on an already expensive car.
Even so, lots to like about the BMW M135i. It delivers storming performance, engaging road manners and a talent for agility that makes spending time behind the wheel a pleasure. The cabin is roomier, and despite all that muscle, it’s docile enough around town.
If anything, it’s perhaps too polished. But then, it’s not a real, dyed-in-the-wool M-car – even if it does provide a tantalising glimpse of what that M-magic is all about.
"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall