Looking for a hot hatchback that delivers classic, rear wheel-drive thrills? Then the BMW M135i is the machine for you, writes The Wheel Deal
What is it?
The BMW M135i is the hottest member of the current 1-Series hatchback clan. It also happens to be a headlining ambassador of the firm’s new M-Performance range – a portfolio of sports-orientated vehicles designed to plug that gap between common-garden BMW varietals and their much more expensive M-Division cousins like the M3. Many Blue Propeller traditionalists might think this is something of a copout, a triumph of marketing bollocks over mechanical substance. But they would be wrong.
You see this unassuming hatchback packs a formidable performance punch. Pop that bonnet and you’ll find, in the finest BMW tradition, a scorching straight-six engine. Although in this instance it’s force-fed with a twin-scroll turbocharger for added oomph. Practically lag-free and complemented by direct fuel injection as well as BMW’s famed Double VANOS camshaft timing system, it produces exactly 235 rubber-roasting kilowatts. These are sent to the rear wheels via your choice of six-speed manual or eight-speed Steptronic gearbox.
On the latter, which was fitted to my test car, you will find that, just like in a real racing car, pushing the sequential gearlever forward will drop you down a cog while pushing it backward will see you shift up. In almost any other car this pattern is usually inverted, which is far from ideal.
Being aware that raw power alone does not a great hot hatch make, the M-Performance engineers also grafted in a couple of chassis tweaks. Throw the M135i behind a giant X-Ray machine and you’ll notice firmer springs and dampers plus a slightly more direct Variable Sport Steering system. More obvious enhancements take the form of those handsome 18-inch alloy wheels shod with Michelin Pilot Sport tyres (non-run flat).
How does it look?
If an Opel Astra OPC can be compared to a Red Bull aerobatics plane then this BMW is a stealth fighter. Available in both three- and five-door derivatives, there’s not a lot to distinguish the M135i from its lesser brethren. Five-spoke anthracite alloy wheels, twin exhaust tailpipes finished in matte black paint, a more aggressive front apron (sans fog lights) and silver side mirror casings are just about all you get extra for the privilege of that M-Performance oomph. My friends all thought that this under-the-radar image wasn’t befitting of such a sporty machine but I dug it. Firstly because it repels any unwanted attention and, secondly, because it makes the M135i something of a sleeper, a real wolf in sheep’s clothing.
What is it like to drive?
Straight out of the blocks the M135i surprised me with its amazing turn of pace. Seriously, this is one blisteringly quick motorcar – especially when you have the standard issue Driving Experience Control system set to Sport or Sport Plus mode. On paper BMW quotes a claimed zero-to-one-hundred sprint time of 4.9-seconds (Steptronic) and in reality this figure seems just about bang on the money.
Impressive off-the-mark ferocity is matched by awesome midrange tractability that makes overtaking in higher gears nothing short of a pleasure. From a pure, unadulterated speed point of view, Munich’s RWD über-hatch never disappoints. Neither does that optional eight-speed Steptronic gearbox. Silky smooth when set in manual or full automatic mode, it offers real-world shift times that don’t lag that far behind the more advanced dual-clutch M-DCT transmission you find inside the E90/92 BMW M3.
Being a BMW handling is nothing short of epic, with the M135i capable of devouring corners with the best of them. Even with that big six-cylinder engine sitting up front, turn-in remains ultra quick thanks to the unseen presence of 50:50 weight distribution. You can definitely feel the firmer suspension setup working its magic too. On the limit there’s considerably less body-roll present than in lesser 1-Series models. Strangely a Renault Mégane RS still feels slightly more focused, if I’m honest, but the M135i is infinitely more useable across a broader spectrum of driving conditions. It’s also endowed with a killer soundtrack: a flat-six wail that’s interjected with lots of turbocharged whooshing. Delicious.
Of course the biggest party trick that this BMW manages to pull out the bag is its almost limitless ability to go sideways. Turn the traction control off, nail the throttle and you can indulge in all sorts of vehicular hooniganism. This adds character to the M135i and makes it a far more exciting driving proposition than most of its front wheel-drive rivals.
Complemented by a surprisingly comfortable rides (I’m putting this down to the absence of run flat tyres) and a fantastic seating position, the only real niggle I had with this car from a dynamic point of view was its Variable Sport Steering system. Sure it’s amazingly quick and direct but it just lacks some of the road feel I’ve experienced in other BMW models. This is compounded by a thick, soft-rimmed steering wheel. Pity.
Also, the brakes sometimes felt a bit flustered when attacking tight, winding back roads; almost as if they couldn’t quite cope with all that turbocharged horsepower. This is something – the purists would be quick to point out – that would not happen inside a ‘proper’ M-Division car.
Any special features?
Because it’s German the M135i ships with minimal extras. Climb inside that somber but well-built cabin and you’ll notice that there’s not all that much to get excited about other than air-conditioning, a rain sensor and multifunction steering wheel. Well in the standard car anyway. Being a press unit mine was loaded with just about every single toy you can think of. Bluetooth. USB Port. Lane Departure Warning. Satellite Navigation. Adaptive headlights. Electric seats. Park Assist. Internet preparation. Very nice, granted, but also very expensive. All of this and much, much more added an extra R147 752 onto this BMW’s already hefty base price. If you’re thinking of buying the M135i, tick that options list with caution.
Should you buy one?
I would definitely recommend it. Although the BMW M135i is slightly dearer than its rivals – will the Opel Astra OPC and Renault Mégane RS please stand up – it does offer considerable more badge cachet plus the added bonus of that pukka rear wheel-drive layout. And the latter, in my book anyway, will always make a car more exciting to drive.
Interestingly the BMW is also the most comfortable of the current niche group high-powered hot hatchbacks. I drove mine down to Clarens while I had it on test and arrived feeling happy and refreshed. Last year I drove the same route in a Renault Mégane RS Trophy and arrived feeling grumpy and in desperate need of a spine transplant. Never again.
Sure the Renault will undoubtedly feel more focused around a racetrack but as an all-rounder, a performance offering you can use every single day without feeling battered and bruised, this understated BMW gets my nod of approval. Good work, Munich.
The Facts: BMW M135i Steptronic
Engine: 2979cc six-cylinder turbo
Power: 235kW at 5800rpm
Torque: 450Nm from 1250 to 5000rpm
0-100km/h: 4.9-seconds (claimed)
Top Speed: 250km/h (governed)
Fuel Consumption: 8.7l/100km (achieved combined)
CO2: 188g/km (claimed)
Price: From R445 500 (R593 252 as tested)
Very, very quick
It’s a RWD hot hatch
Long and expensive options list
Under-the-radar styling won’t please everybody
Steering could use a bit more feel