If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ll be no stranger to the controversy surrounding BMW shifting its latest 1 Series from a rear-wheel drive platform to a front-wheel drive platform – a contentious move in regards to driving dynamics, but a smart one when it comes to hatchback packaging.
As I found out after spending some time with the base 118i variant earlier in the year, however, while there’s no more sideways-sliding action to be had, it still very much feels like a Beemer as far as the rest of its dynamic abilities are concerned, and as a practical hatchback, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessors when it comes to things that matter such as boot space and rear legroom.
But while the 118i will hold up the bulk of sales in Australia, there is one other 1 Series variant available, and it’s one that couldn’t be more different if it tried. That is, of course, the hardcore M135i xDrive.
On the surface, at least, the changes are fairly subtle. Outside, a front splitter, more aggressive side skirts and rear spoiler, dual exhausts, matte grey highlights including the mirror caps and badges, and bigger matte grey wheels do provide some subtle but discerningly sporty changes, especially from the back, but it’s not all that different overall – especially as my tester was finished in the same fantastic Storm Bay Metallic paintwork as the 118i I drove.
Inside, too, it’s all much of a muchness. Yes, there are some fantastically supportive and comfortable bucket seats up front that now feature power adjustment and memory for the driver, along with some fetching Magma Red leather upholstery in this particular car, but it’s otherwise largely the same as the ‘regular’ 1 Series.
That means you get the same digital instrument cluster albeit with a sportier font, the same fantastic iDrive infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay, and the same spacious overall interior design and big new two-tiered boot. Only the Harman Kardon stereo and powered tailgate stand out as real points of difference – and even then, the latter is an optional extra.
Peel back the skin though and, mechanically, the M135i is a totally different beast. Gone is the three-cylinder engine and dual-clutch transmission of the 118i, and in it’s place there’s a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot and an eight-speed torque converter automatic made by Aisin.
That punchy engine is the real star of the show here – making 225kW and 450Nm, not only does it produce make more than double the power of the 118i, but it is, in fact, the most powerful four-cylinder engine BMW has ever fitted to a production car.
With double the power, you’ll obviously need double the traction, and that’s where the xDrive bit of its full name comes in – the M135i adds all-wheel drive into the mix, although it is only a part-time system and never sends more than 50 percent of the power rearwards.
It’s surprisingly tricky to get off the line quickly, reminding of a late 90s all-wheel drive turbo car with the way it bogs down and displays an initial hint of lag, especially if you try to brake-stand it, but once the boost loads and the all-wheel drive system figures out what it needs to do, it is, to nick the words of another journo I was discussing it with, “seriously rapid.”
It truly does try to send you from the front seat to the rear as it hauls itself from 0-100km/h in just 4.8 seconds, with it pulling strongly right across the rev range all the way to redline thanks to the elasticity of its torque. It makes a great noise as well – deep and throaty, and accompanied by the odd upshift belch and pop or crackle to liven things up further.
In the dry, it knows exactly what to do with all that power as well, with it allowing you to get on the power early on the exit from corners, and you can feel it shuffling the power around to exactly where it needs to. It remains shockingly flat through the corners, too, displaying incredible balance while also exhibiting positive front-end grip – find yourself on a particularly twisty road and hammer it at ten-tenths, and you’ll certainly feel it in your chest just how powerfully this things changes direction.
But you will note, however, that I say it knows how to manage itself in the dry. In the wet, the M135i feels like a completely different car – one that lacks all the polish that’s clearly been so thinly applied to it in terms of performance.
Try driving it even remotely aggressively and it’s a right handful – no longer can you turn in as hard as the grip from the front end dissipates quickly, leading the nose-heavy hatch to tend towards understeer, and try to get on the power as early on the exit as you would in the dry and it torque steers like a derailed train, the once-quick all-wheel drive system now all of a sudden feeling dim-witted and flustered.
Some of the attempts to make it feel discerningly sporty I find to detract from the overall experience, too. For one, while the torque converter auto remains wonderfully smooth in traffic and shifts fairly promptly – if not quite as quickly as the ZF auto in BMW’s longitudinal platform cars – but when you bury the loud pedal into the carpet, the upshifts at redline feel as though they’ve been engineered to be incredibly rough. It shunts the whole car every time it bangs into the next ratio when you drive it like this, and feels more unpleasant than exciting, if anything.
The steering in Sport mode, too, feels far too artificially heavy to the point at which any semblance of a connection between it and the front wheels disappears. Thankfully, in Comfort, the steering feels far more like you’d expect – and far more like in the 118i, where the optional M Sport steering feels about as BMW-ish as you’d like – and you can configure the Sport Individual mode to keep the steering lighter and everything else in its most aggressive settings, which is absolutely the right way to do things, but I can’t help wishing it felt better configured out of the box.
I can’t say the firmer ride quality particularly bothered me, though – it’s something I’ve seen quite a few other journos complain about, but in my eyes, if you’re buying a hardcore hot hatch, firmer suspension is simply going to be part of the equation. Given how comfortable the bucket seats are, they absorb all but the biggest of hits for you instead of your spine doing so, anyway, and given how flat it keeps it through the bends, it never really got on my nerves aside from on the very worst tree-lined roads the Adelaide Hills had to serve up. For those of you in countries with decent roads, however, I wouldn’t worry over the ride.
For a brief moment of sensibility, I should also note the M135i’s fuel consumption, too, as over the course of 675km behind the wheel, I saw it drink at a rate of 10.3L/100km – not great in comparison to the optimistic 7.5L/100km, but I think acceptable enough for the most powerful four-pot the Bavarians have produced being driven by a lead-foot like myself, and not bad in comparison to even some front-drive hot hatches like the Hyundai i30 N and Renault Megane R.S. that I’ve seen thirsty returns from in the past.
On the right road, on the right day, with the right conditions, the M135i is a real weapon – there’s no doubt about that – but as soon as the conditions start to go downhill it does disappointingly lack the composure you’d expect for something so proudly proclaiming of its all-wheel drive system.
As such, while the lesser-powered 118i didn’t exacerbate the shortcomings of a front-drive platform, at times, they are displayed here, making the lack of the older rear-drive models’ character only more apparent.
I also can’t help feeling that while the $63,990 list price looks somewhat reasonable given its impressive performance, the as-tested price of nearly seventy large before on-roads despite only having a handful of minor options added makes it seem far less justifiable.
It’s certainly not all bad – the engine is a gem, the interior is great, I personally dig the looks, and I love how it tries to tear your face off with the grip it shows through tight and most importantly dry bends – but I can’t help thinking it could do with some more fettling and fine-tuning.
Think of it this way, though – this is BMW’s first attempt at an all-wheel drive Trinidad Scorpion-level hot hatch, so with the positives there will, naturally, be a few drawbacks, but given how well it does some things, the next incarnation will no doubt better the abilities of this first crack across the board.
2020 BMW M135i xDrive List Price: $63,990 | As Tested: $69,360
Pros: Seriously quick in a straight line, impressive grip and tractability in the dry, spacious and well-trimmed interior, excellent interior tech
Cons: Disappointing wet weather performance, disconnected Sport mode steering feel, starts to get expensive quickly with options and on-road costs
In a nutshell: The M135i certainly needs some fine-tuning to really rival the best hot hatches out there, but as a first attempt at a car like this from BMW goes, it’s far from all being bad.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by BMW Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel expenses were covered by the author.