BMW’s latest hot hatch is a good car, but no longer a unique one, and misses the mark for pure fun

Rumour has it that the majority of previous BMW 1-series customers were unaware which end of the car was being driven. Whether that applies to buyers of the old M140i or not is a different matter, and it’s probably safe to assume M2 buyers had some idea of where their tyre smoke was coming from, but the upshot is that for the latest generation of 1-series, BMW has chosen to base it on a predominantly front-wheel-drive platform.

The exception is the latest performance range-topper, the M135i xDrive, and as you can probably guess from the name, all four wheels are driven this time. Effectively, the M135i shares its powertrain with the Mini Clubman JCW, and BMW engineers reckon the new car is better to drive than ever – as well, one imagines, as being slightly cheaper to build thanks to its shared architecture.

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More promisingly, the latest car is lighter than the old M140i, and has the traction benefits of all-wheel drive, lining it up as a perfect rival for cars such as the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A35, rather than a rear-drive outlier.

Whether all this is enough to make it more appealing to evo readers is another matter, and with a large choice of circa-223kW alternatives in the hot hatch class, the M135i xDrive will have to be special indeed to warrant attention.

Engine, performance and 0-100kmh time

The M135i’s 2-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine is a brand-spanker from BMW and, predictably, it features all the tricks and then some: variable valve timing, double VANOS camshaft timing, what BMW describes as ‘TwinPower’ turbo technology – even though there’s just a single turbo – and ‘high precision injection’.

Whatever the marketing hyperbole BMW uses to describe its new engine, it is a serious piece of work. For starters, this new engine is light. BMW claims it weighs around 32kg less than the old 3-litre straight-six turbo from the 140i, yet its outputs aren’t that far behind (225kW versus 250kW from the old car), plus of course it’s much more economical and cleaner (6.9L/100km combined and 155g/km).

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Its maximum output of 225kW occurs between 4500 and 6250rpm, while max torque of 450Nm is available from just 1700rpm, and all the way through to 5000rpm. That’s enough energy to fire the M135i xDrive to 100kmh in just 4.8sec, albeit with the aid of a full launch control system and four-wheel drive. Top speed is limited to the standard 250kmh.

Technical highlights

It’s hard to know where to start here, so how about with the new Torsen limited-slip differential at the front which, in conjunction with what BMW describes as ARB technology (actuator contiguous wheel slip limitation, borrowed lock-stock from the i3), provides the M135i with monstrous traction, and that’s before you even mention what happens at the new multi-link back axle.

In normal driving the M135i xDrive is essentially front-wheel drive, but put your foot down and, within milliseconds claims BMW, the ‘intelligent control logic’ of the xDrive system engages the rear axle and can then split torque deployment up to 50:50 between the front and rear ends. It will even allow a degree of rear-end slip, reckon BMW’s engineers, if you deactivate the DSC. It’s a very clever system that works only when you need it to and, subjectively, the transition is all but seamless as it kicks in and out.

The new One’s body is also stiffer than of old across the range, but for the 135i there are extra bracing elements front and rear and bigger anti-roll bars, plus slightly quicker electric power steering than in the regular versions. The ride height is 10mm lower with the M Sport package – which the 135i comes with as standard, like it or not – and the gearbox is the eight-speed ZF auto with paddles that appears throughout most of the rest of BMW’s range. Sadly the six-speed manual that’s available on most other new 1-series models is not available for the M135i xDrive.

What’s it like to drive?

Subjectively the M135i feels every bit as quick as the numbers suggest, but at the same time it feels oddly characterless and undramatic in its delivery. All the right ingredients are there for hot hatch greatness: Keen throttle response for a turbo? Tick. Very strong mid-range performance? Tick. Fast-shifting eight-speed auto gearbox with paddles? Tick. An ability to draw the far horizon towards the windscreen faster than you’d ever expect from a hot hatch? Tick.

Yet the overall impression, even under hard acceleration, is of an efficient, effective but ultimately quite, anodyne car, certainly in terms of straight-line performance. The engine doesn’t scream round to the red line, nor does the exhaust emit anything approaching a rousing noise, not even up at 6000rpm, and there are no pops and bangs on the overrun. The M135i’s performance is deeply impressive, yes, but at the same time it’s curiously forgettable as well.

Which is not an accusation you could ever level at the chassis, or the steering, or the brakes. You need to rag the 135i quite hard for it to reveal its true self, but when you do, you discover a car that really does handle properly. The steering is very responsive off-centre, just like the Minis it’s based on, and there’s enough front-end grip to exploit it. Mid-corner balance is very good, and thanks to the all-wheel-drive traction there’s little problem exiting a given corner, either..

The steering has a typical BMW meatiness, but at road-going speeds at least this masks what feedback might be filtering through the rim. It’s easy to trust the car, but harder to enjoy it – like the engine, the chassis is if anything too refined, simply responding to commands rather than feeling properly involving. Despite being an old stager now, the outgoing Golf R is a more entertaining car, and Merc’s AMG A35 does the same job with more interaction and a sharper powertrain.

To its credit, the M135i does ride well, if you dial it out of Sport and back to Comfort, and its seats are supportive enough for quick driving and comfortable over distance. Antony Ingram

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