Road test: BMW 1-series

BMW has given its 1-series range a facelift, except that it doesn’t call it a facelift: the company phrasebook insists the new model is undergoing a Life Cycle Impulse (LCI).

The flagship M135i has changed the least out of the three models in the range, but remains the most exciting by far: a tiny hatchback that’s been breathed upon by BMW’s Motorsport division, with power from a twin-turbo six-cylinder engine.

At launch in 2013, the previous M135i was somewhat overshadowed by the rival Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. While the 1-series and A-class are rival ranges and both models were the performance-flagships of those respective ranges, in reality the two cars are very different. The M135i combined rapid six-pot character with everyday driving comfort, whereas the A45 AMG was a crackling, slightly manic four-pot with aspirations of circuit driving. It was also $15,000 more expensive than its BMW rival.

So now, with a bit more perspective, it’s time to take another look at the M135i in LCI form. You’ll know it by the adaptive LED headlights, larger kidney grille and extended tail lights, which now run across the tailgate.

BMW rear


What’s it like to drive?

Don’t confuse the description of the M135i as an everyday car with anything along the lines of modest performance. It has jaw-dropping performance, squatting down at the rear and rocketing to 100km/h in under five seconds. That would have been supercar speed a few short years ago.

Rapid acceleration is one of the M135i’s character traits. A six-cylinder soundtrack is another, more unique one. There’s something surreal about sitting in a small hatchback and hearing the throaty rasp of a turbo-six erupting from under the bonnet.

The 1-series will almost certainly switch to front-drive in its next generation (to match the 2-series Active Tourer and just-revealed X1), which could spell the end of models like this. Because you certainly need rear-drive to keep all of that power in check, and even then the engine feels like it could overwhelm the chassis given the opportunity.

There’s a hint of danger, but it’s still a beautiful thing to drive: the M135i has the kind of uncorrupted steering you can only get when the front wheels don’t have to transmit power, and you can easily change the car’s cornering attitude in small increments with the throttle. That’s just how rear-drive cars are and it feels magnificent in a pocket-rocket package like this.

The six-cylinder engine has gained 5kW in the facelift model, bringing it into line with the powerplant already fitted to the M235i coupe.

For all of that, the M135i is not a look-at-me road racer. The exterior is understated, even if it wears the M Sport kit as standard. You might spot the larger brakes with blue calipers, or perhaps the Ferric Grey side mirrors (an M Performance trademark).

The ride is remarkably compliant for a car that devours corners so enthusiastically. Note that the M Performance machine eschews the run-flat tyres of other 1-series models.

Is it easy to live with?

Again, the BMW M135i doesn’t look a whole lot different from a standard 1-series in the cabin, save the enhancements that come with the M Sport kit (which you can have on any other 1-series, by the way).

The M135i does have some distinguishing features over the 125i M Sport, although not many: full leather upholstery and some interior trim upgrades are the most obvious. There’s little doubt that the gap from the $64,990 125i M Sport to the $81,990 M135i is mostly accounted for by the mechanical package.

The 1-series is a reasonably practical machine, but we wouldn’t go so far as to call it a family hatchback. It’s always been rather snug in the cabin, especially in the rear seat, which is one of the reasons for the impending shift to front-drive: with a layout similar to rival models, the 1-series will be able to match them for cabin and luggage space. It can’t do that at the moment with the packaging constraints of rear-drive. Then again, if you’ve purchased a hyper-hatch like the M135i and you’re worried about bootspace, you might have missed the point.

Should I buy one?

The more time you spend with the BMW M135i, the more you love it. At first you wonder why such a fast car looks so understated and feels relatively soft, but then you come to appreciate its killer combination of crazy performance and handling capability with everyday usability.

Admittedly, $80k seems like a ridiculous price for something that doesn’t look a whole lot different from the entry-level 118i. You also can’t help but wonder whether the 125i M Sport – also a fast, composed hot-hatch – is substantially better value and possibly better balanced in terms of performance and handling.

But the M135i is a really special car and one that might not have a direct equivalent when the next-generation 1-series arrives in 2018. So get it while it’s hot.

Specs: BMW 135i

Base price: $81,900

3.0-litre turbo petrol six
8 speed automatic
rear drive
Combined economy
7.5 litres per 100km
0-100km/h 4.9 seconds

Vital statistics
4,324mm long, 1,411mm high
2,690mm wheelbase
luggage capacity 360 litres
fuel tank 52 litres
18 inch alloy wheels on
225/40 front and 245/35 rear tyres
What do we like?
Astonishing performance and handling, six pot soundtrack,
relative comfort
What don’t we like?
Not a lot of extra equipment for money
Too understated looking?
How does it rate?

BMW rear three


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