Very fast super-hatch, but not quite the pure entertainer we had hoped for

It’s a tasty-looking recipe. Take the smallest BMW – rear-wheel drive, naturally – and squeeze in the latest 3.0-litre straight-six engine producing 258bhp. Then stand back and let some of the most talented automotive engineers in the world serve at a suitably hot temperature.We’ve been very excited about this car in the Autocar office, not least because the 130i is perhaps the closest BMW has come to replicating the small-car big-performance ethos of the legendary E30-series M3 of 1986. Yet here I am, contemplating the experience from within a 130i that just moments earlier had its speedo needle climb past 160mph and off the dial, and I’m not really enjoying it. Strange, but true.You can see why we’ve been excited. The 1-series has been praised for its handling since launch as much as it has been criticised for its uncompromising ride quality and want of rear space. And the new 3.0-litre engine – with 258bhp at 6600rpm and 232lb ft of torque developed between 2500rpm and 4000rpm – has drawn superlatives when caged within the new 3-series.There are three different specifications of car at this launch – a fact that has a major bearing on matters, as we shall see: two of varying SE spec and an M Sport car. Both SEs have been supplied with the £200 sports suspension option, but one boasts variable-ratio Active Steering – the first time this technology has been featured on a 1-series. The M Sport car gets sports suspension as standard, along with larger 18-inch alloy wheels and a particularly sharp bodykit of deep front airdam and rear valance. The SE models are much more subtle. In fact, apart from the small chrome 130i badge on the back, you’d never guess that this hatchback packs nearly as much power as the M3 did a decade ago.It’s an Active Steering-equipped SE that we kick off with, but to be honest it isn’t immediately obvious. The BMW engineers have substantially altered the technology, and the effects are much more subtle. No longer do you dart right and left as you leave your parking space if you’re not used to the system. The car feels taught and agile, and impressively refined at speed as we start the test route.The new engine is an absolute delight, pulling with vigour from as low as 1500rpm and then smoothly morphing between deep growling, braying and howling phases as the power builds to an impressive crescendo. Make no mistake, this is a quick car: it spears up to 120mph with ease, and then makes a final lunge for the end of the speedometer.The gearchange is quick and satisfying, but the relationship between engine, clutch and gearbox takes no prisoners: it demands perfect timing if you’re not to lurch embarrassingly down the road. Off the autobahn and onto more challenging roads, an Active Steering-equipped 1-series feels aloof. There’s minimal feedback through the wheel and little build-up of loading to reassure once you’ve turned into a corner. It’s harder to place in a corner, too, because the directness of the standard rack is replaced by a woolly sensation around the straight-ahead, and as the steering ratio changes it’s hard to guess your inputs in advance. In effect, a serious link between driver and car has been broken, and at a cost of £925.Like any One with sports suspension, the ride quality is at best uncompromising, with aggressive rebound damping and little absorbency: it leaves occupants jiggled over poorer surfaces.Jumping into a 130i with standard steering isn’t initially a welcome relief because you have to grapple with a ludicrously heavy helm at parking speeds. But as soon as the speed rises above 30mph the feeling of connectedness is worth everything. This is the 1-series we know: a hatchback that’s fun and involving to drive, except now with serious pace.The M Sport car adds the bigger wheels into the mix (along with the standard sports suspension, plus sports seats and steering wheel). There’s more grip and less body roll, although sadly all the launch cars had Active Steering, this time with extra weight. But more concerning was the ride, which on the smooth roads around Munich still fidgeted and hopped over even minor irregularities. We’ll have to leave judgement until we drive a car in the UK, but the signs aren’t promising. At £24,745 (£26,515 for the M Sport) the 130i isn’t cheap, either, but then you are getting class-leading pace and engine quality.This is a seriously capable super-hatch – when ordered in the right specification – but it’s almost too smooth to be genuinely exciting. That E30 M3 doesn’t have a successor yet. Maybe the turbocharged 135T will be genuinely thrilling.Adam Towler

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