Motoring | Test Drives

Why the BMW M135i isn’t a full-blown M car

wheels' Shane O’ Donoghue wonders if this five-door hatch is actually worthy of the celebrated badge.

  • By Shane O’ Donoghue, Special to wheels
  • Published: 18:11 July 26, 2012
  • Wheels

The BMW M135i
  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • The BMW M135i has just a single turbocharger for starters and 20 less horses running rampant at 320bhp.
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It is generally accepted that modern performance cars have huge dry-weather grip from their wide, low-profile tyres. We still deign to comment on it every now and then, but really, it’s a given.

That grip allows chassis engineers to focus on other aspects of the driving experience, such as body control, steering feel, comfort, stability and, of course, safety. But most of the time the requirements of said performance cars make them less than ideal partners when the weather conditions turn sour as they did at the launch of the BMW M135i in Germany.

One minute we’re doing 260kph with ease along a quiet, dry stretch of Autobahn (yes, the car is supposed to be limited to 250kph) and next the heavens open, releasing a deluge of water. Not only do we find ourselves travelling at more than twice the speed limit (German limits change with the weather), but there’s the small matter of slowing down in the We needn’t have worried.

Tentative, yet firm application of the reassuringly solid brake pedal soon brings things under control, with zero drama in the way of squirm from car and passenger alike. I prod the ‘Drive Performance Control’ (DPC) toggle switch to Comfort, reset the gearbox to full automatic control, hit cruise control and relax.

The engine is quiet and indeed the only hint at the car’s performance is perhaps a little tyre
whoosh as we splash through the puddles. Even when we leave the highway for more interesting roads, the car retains its in-control demeanour.

What appear to be slippery curves and standing water are despatched with disdain and we soon get up the courage to select some of the sportier settings once more, despite the conditions. For now we choose Sport and leave Sport+ alone — as that disengages
traction control completely.

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Surely it would be foolish to do that in a powerful BMW with rear-wheel drive? Immediately the steering weights up with less power assistance. It’s a variable ratio system, offering the benefit of smooth, slow inputs at speed on the highway around the straight ahead, plus keener reactions when you have some lock on and you’re turning into a tight corner.
All this it does well, with an emphasis on directness and smile-inducing turn-in.

If you’re used to a back-to-basics sportscar like the Lotus Elise, you’ll be disappointed
by the filtered communication coming through the system, but for the fast premium hatchback segment it’s talkative enough and, crucially, real fun.

Overshadowing the steering somewhat is the engine. BMW has been turbocharging its straight-six for several years now, but the unit in the M135i isn’t the same as that in the 1 Series M Coupé. It has just a single turbocharger for starters and 20 less horses running rampant at 320bhp.

However, it outplays the Coupé with 50Nm more torque (at 450Nm) and hence it should be no surprise that it returns identical straight line performance figures — including 0-100kph in 4.9 seconds.

That’s not the only impressive part: this engine sounds simply glorious, whether you’re rumbling around at low speed or experiencing how smooth it is right at the redline. Thankfully it’s not attention grabbing in its default settings (unless you use all the rev counter, of course), but Sport mode allows more sound through, giving the driver that unmistakable straight-six rasp.

A six-speed manual gearbox is offered, though most buyers in the Middle East will opt for the automatic. Purists may baulk at the fact that BMW has fitted a relatively conventional automatic transmission with a torque converter (instead of say the M DCT dual-clutch gearbox), but it’s utterly brilliant.

It is ZF’s latest eight-speed transmission with a few adjustments to suit the 1 Series. There’s a Sport mode of course (selectable independently of the DPC settings) and tactile gear-change paddles behind the steering wheel if you want to take control for yourself. Do so and you’ll be greeted by crisp shifts up and down, seamless no matter where the engine is in the rev range. Naturally there are automatic throttle blips accompanying the down-shifts to enhance the experience.

Before long we’ve completely forgotten that the road is wet and we’re crossing the countryside at an indecent speed. The M135i is confidence inspiring. It soaks up whatever the driver or the road throws at it with aplomb, even managing to retain its composure over mid-corner bumps.

The adaptive damping, no doubt, helps with that. In the interests of research we eventually turn off the traction control and attack a few tight, well-sighted curves. The inevitable rear slide is surprisingly progressive and well telegraphed to the driver. Admittedly this is no drift machine, as a limited slip differential isn’t fitted, but it has plenty to offer thrill seekers.

That said, it’s quite a safe set-up and shouldn’t scare the uninitiated. Its stability under braking and in wet conditions really stand out. Indeed, this everyday usability is at the core of the M135i’s development. Despite the M at the front of the name (and liberally sprinkled around the exterior and interior), this model is not a full M car in the vein of the M3, M5 and M6.

It has been developed by the relatively new M Performance Division and is in fact the first petrol-powered model from that department. Signifying that is a unique, but not quite M-aggressive body kit. It looks for all the world like a tweaked M Sport version of the 1 Series.

Those in the know will spot the bespoke 18in wheels and tyres, behind which nestle larger brakes and distinctive blue brake callipers.

There are no fog lights in the deeper front bumper and the dualexit exhaust pipes sit in what appears to be a diffuser. The M135i squats lower than other versions of the 1, but it doesn’t visually scream about its performance as much as most M cars do. Inside, it’s more of the same, though blue highlights brighten up the cabin.

The non-leather seats are probably the most distinctive, as they feature Alcantara and a blue hexagon design. They also hold you in place when you need it. Topping it all off are unique instruments, pedals and kick plates on the door sills. Buyers can even specify a more practical five-door body.

For what it’s worth, the revealing of the M135i marks the introduction of the threedoor
1 Series as well, with longer doors than before and more space in the back seats. The rear backrest folds down, too, if you need more room for luggage. Not that you buy this car if such things are high up your list of priorities.

In complete contrast to the protracted roll-out of the 1 Series M Coupé (which lived up to the hype, in fairness), BMW, and the media world, have been remarkably reserved about the introduction of the M135i. While it can, indeed, be a civilised hatchback to drive every day, it also has the talent to be 95 per cent as exciting as it is illustrious. Many will appreciate that it’s not quite as extreme all the time — especially when it rains.


 

Specs and ratings

Model: M135i

Engine: 3.0-litre six-cyl turbo

Transmission: Eight-speed auto, RWD

Max power: 320bhp @ 5,800rpm

Max torque: 450Nm @ 1,250rpm

Top speed: 250kph

0-100kph: 4.9sec

Price: TBC

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