BMW M135i review

Until just a few days before your reading it, the start of this story was quite different. It was built on the premise that this - the littlest performance BMW - had turned the brand’s performance hierarchy on its head, because it was faster than an M3. Except of course, that it’s not. For some reason, we’d managed to reference the previous generation M3 (0-60 time, 5 seconds) and had built an argument around the fact that the M135i you’re looking at, top of page, can crack the same benchmark in 4.9 seconds.

But the current (e92) M3 coupe actually cracks the 60-miles-an-hour dash in 4.7 seconds. So the BMW performance order is still present and correct. Drivers of M3s can rest easy when they see the littlest performance Beemer rock up behind them at the lights.

The holy grail of performance cars?

Yet, to those who have heard of the M135i, the initial mistake might not come as a great surprise. Since its launch in 2012, the newest and smallest of BMW’s M Performance line has been causing quite a stir in the automotive world. So feted and awarded has this car been, that one would be forgiven for thinking it is the holy grail of performance cars.

In non-optioned form it starts at a few hundred quid over £30k. When it’s easy to spend that much on an Astra VXR with a couple of choice options, that looks impressive value, particularly for something wearing a badge so many people are keen to have on their driveway.

Its second killer move is its performance. No, it’s not quicker than the M3 in key benchmarks. Yet its turbo-charged delivery means that in many subjective road situations it does feel faster than the BMW M-daddy, which needs many revs on board to really fly.

If you feel the need to go subjectively faster on the road than the M135i, you’re going to need to jump into a full-on sports/supercar. That isn’t an exaggeration, it just genuinely feels that fast.

Responsible for this indecent turn of speed is a BMW signature – the straight-six engine. Although turbocharged in this form, it loves to rev (turbos often don't) and sounds absolutely brilliant. Cultured, nasal and with a crackling, snarling exhaust note to boot, the engine sound is actually piped into the cabin for your listening pleasure - something that’s becoming more common on cars these days. Some purists take issue with this. We’d rather listen to the piped sounds of a straight six than the uncultured drone of a four-cylinder engine every day of the week, thanks.

Redefining the hot hatch?

But hot hatches have never been about outright performance. A good hot hatch is practical enough for the daily drag, but excels on a good British B-road, where it’ll make you an integral part of the experience and allow you to cover ground as fast as anything else on the road. So does the M135i redefine the breed?

It’s normal and practical for everyday life, you can take it to the supermarket without fear of someone keying it or that you won’t be able to get out because the doors open at a weird angle. It’s also fast, fun to drive and in the wider context of cars today, reasonably affordable. Job one, done.

But it’s more discreet than most hot hatches. Wings, scoops, arch extensions and big wheels are the hot hatch norm. Not so with the M135i – which fits the "speak quietly and carry a big stick" mould.

Yes there’s the badge, blue brake calipers, unique alloys and a deeper chin spoiler. But you’re going to need to be a real geek to pick it out over a 120d M Sport. Is it good looking? Twitter, Facebook and forum chat response suggests many think not. The rear wheel drive proportions mean it does look different from most hatchbacks - better, to our eyes. But the real bone of contention for most people seems to be the face – with its squinting, “Angry Birds” headlamp “eyes”.

Overall though, the restrained look marks it out as something that’s a little more mature and sophisticated than the average hot hatch. We suspect this aesthetic won’t appeal to someone who wears a car-branded sports jacket and has their cap on backwards - the kind of people that typically drive cars like a Focus RS and are always trying to drag race you at the lights.

A new type of performance BMW

However, while it might sound like an illogical argument, the biggest question mark over the M135is hot hatch status is to do with it’s speed - and the way it goes about it.

Put simply, it’s too fast to be a "hot hatch". It’s a full-on performance car, yet it’s also incredibly refined. Which means that while it eclipses every hot hatch we can name in a straight line, up on the moors we enter into a strange world where to feel like you are really getting everything out of this small BMW, you’re travelling at such a speed that you’re going to be - at best - standing in front of a judge should anyone catch you at it.

 

This means a core aspect of the traditional hot hatch’s appeal is missing. It’s not a car you can drive flat out in the first three gears, simultaneously having the drive of your life and not living in fear of losing your licence. From this perspective, something from RenaultSport or a Toyota GT86 is arguably more rewarding on that "special" road.

The M135i counters this with its rear wheel drive set-up where most hot hatches are front wheel drive. This means you can play about with it, make it go sideways and generally give yourself sweaty palms when it’s wet, where we’d suggest you leave the stability control on unless you’re channelling your best Sebastian Vettel reflexes. Still, it’s good fun in a different way and offers a broader talent spectrum (and greater "challenge" to drive) than the average hot hatch.

And while the brilliant engine, drivetrain and general speed of the thing dominate proceedings, elsewhere the 1-Series is so good at fitting into everyday life that it’s hard to imagine needing any other car in your life.

It’s as practical as a Golf, it’s comfortable and – for a German premium brand car - it comes well equipped. You might be tempted to dive into the options list, but with leather seats, cruise control and DAB radio all standard, our optional extras would be limited to BMW’s brilliant professional Media Nav system and that 8-speed gearbox which you can let do the work for you or drive via a set of steering wheel paddles.

Not only does this gearbox make the car faster, it also drops the CO2 figure compared to the manual version and - by contrast, to when you’re hammering it - means it will return 40mpg at a motorway cruise.

Verdict

Considered how feted this car has been, we’re surprised to find ourselves writing that for that early morning drive, alone across the moorland road, you can find lower-speed, more accessible thrills than the M135i offers.

But having lived with it for a week, it’s clear that’s it working to an entirely different – much broader agenda – than your average hot hatch. For those of us not living on a remote moorside in North Yorkshire or Scotland, the M135i will be the better car, 360 days of the year. BMW really does give you the best of both worlds here – there’s a no compromise approach to the premium experience, refinement and liveability. Yes it’s stupidly fast and generally great to drive – but it’s not shoving that "experience" in your face every time you get behind the wheel. Nor shouting about it on the outside with big wings and go-faster stripes.

That it is capable of doing 40mpg when you want it, yet turning into a supercar-eater (well, almost) just makes it a little mind-boggling. And at a fistful of tenners over 30k, it’s arguably the performance bargain of the century to boot. What we have here therefore, is a new and more sophisticated type of performance hatch. It’s one that repositions the breed for 2013. It might not be a hot hatch in the way we’ve come to understand them, but that’s because BMW has just rewritten the rulebook.