From £28,7508
Fastest BMW 1 Series is quick and accomplished but lacks the character of the old M140i

What is it?

Essentially, it’s the fast flagship of the new BMW 1 Series line-up - and it’s arguably even more controversial than its lower-powered front-wheel-drive siblings. Why? Well, whereas many owners of lesser 1 Series are unlikely to notice whether they are being pushed or pulled, those who bought the old M140i (the sort of customers who are no doubt expected to loyally trade-up) certainly will.

To counter this, BMW has fitted the new M135i with a turbocharged 302bhp engine (its most powerful production four-cylinder motor yet) and an enhanced version of its xDrive four-wheel-drive transmission.

Read the BMW 1 Series 118d first drive review

There’s also bespoke M Sport suspension that has been stiffened and lowered by 10mm, a quicker steering rack and more powerful brakes. All good stuff, then. Let’s start with the engine, which not only delivers 302bhp but also serves up a thumping 332lb ft of torque at just 1750rpm. A development of the brand’s existing 2.0-litre four-pot, it packs a stronger crank and pistons, plus higher-flow fuel injectors. On paper, it pretty much matches the Mercedes-AMG A35 for power and comfortably out-muscles it for torque.

Yet arguably it’s that four-wheel-drive transmission that deserves the most attention. At the front, it features a Torsen limited-slip differential, while the back axle is of the hang-on clutch type, allowing power to be sent rearwards in just 250 milliseconds. However, the maximum torque split is 50/50 and most of the time the M135i runs in front-wheel drive, unlike larger xDrive models that work the other way around. Hmmmm. Mated to this system is the familiar eight-speed Steptronic automatic gearbox.

The 1 Series is also the first internal-combustion-engined model to benefit from the BMW i3’s ARB traction control. Monitored by the engine’s ECU, it reacts 10 times faster than normal ESP-based set-ups, more precisely controlling the motor’s torque to just keep the wheels from spinning and so reducing the need for time-wasting brake intervention.

Suspension changes are limited to a stiffer set-up, with a 10mm-lower ride height (two-stage adaptive dampers are optional and fitted to our test car), while at the front, the subframe gets an extra couple of bracing bars for increased steering accuracy. Speaking of which, the electrically assisted rack features a quicker ratio of 14:1, as opposed to the standard car’s 15:1. Finally, the brake master cylinder is larger for better response and more consistent pedal pressure when the going gets quick.

Externally, the M135i is marked out but its subtle bodykit (different bumpers, side skirts and tailgate spoiler), 18in forged alloy wheels and twin exhaust tailpipes. Inside, it’s the usual M Sport treatment of a thicker-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel, high-backed front seats, a smattering of M Sport logos and some natty blue and red stripes stitched into the seatbelts.

2 Bmw 1 series m135i 2019 fd hero rear

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What's it like?

Now, here’s the thing. As a fast and capable four-wheel-drive hot hatch, the M135i is rather good. Certainly, it’s a match for the Mercedes-AMG A35. Yet there’s no denying that the character of the highest-performance 1 Series has changed, to the point that buyers of the old M140i are likely to be in for a bit of a shock.

At the start, it all feels relatively familiar. Sure, the view ahead looks a little odd, the higher scuttle and shorter bonnet betraying the new car’s front-wheel-drive roots, but you sit low behind that chunky steering wheel, with the traditional wrap-around dashboard ahead of you. Hit the starter button and the engine burbles into life in a similar fashion to the old straight six. Get moving and there’s the same tautness to the ride, while the steering has that trademark brightness and lack of friction. It feels very much like a BMW.

It’s fast, too. With all the torque available from not much more than idle, the M135i pulls with an elastic energy that delivers the sort of big-hearted, effortless urge you expect from a far larger engine. Inclines, overtaking and straights are dealt with in fairly imperious fashion. BMW claims the 0-62mph takes 4.8sec and, if anything, that’s a conservative figure. It’s matched well with the eight-speed gearbox, which rifles smoothly through the cogs when left to its own devices and reacts crisply to the steering-wheel-mounted paddles, which are now faster acting.

However, work the engine hard and the encouraging gurgle from the exhaust at lower crank speeds is replaced by a rather anodyne, synthesised mechanical growl as the revs climb past 4000rpm. It’s even more noticeably augmented in Sport mode. It’s not an unpleasant sound as such, just one that’s fairly inauthentic. And it’s certainly not a patch on the howling straight six.

Accelerating hard also reveals another quirk that will be alien to owners of the old 1 Series: torque steer. It’s not much, just a subtle tightening of the wheel as the Torsen diff does i’s bit, but there’s enough corruption to let you know that this is a very different kind of BMW. Moreover, it’s not a problem that afflicts the A35 or Volkswagen Golf R. That said, traction is exceptional, the combination of the four-wheel drive and the faster-acting traction control catapulting the M135i out of corners with the sense that not a single horsepower is wasted.

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On the way in to corners, there’s terrific front-end bite, too, the BMW’s nose reacting instantly to the quick steering, which delivers decent feedback, and staying resolutely locked to your chosen line. Lift off the throttle and the M135i tucks even further into the apex, with the multi-link rear axle giving enough rotation for genuine off-throttle adjustability.

Get back on the power and the front diff helps resist understeer, but with an open rear diff and a maximum 50/50 torque split, the BMW simply fires straight and true out of the corner, the only drama being that slight torque-reaction tightening of the steering. It’s fast and very effective across the ground and that mobile multi-link rear axle delivers a real sense of agility, but it doesn’t feel very BMW-like. The relative purity of the old car has been replaced by a feeling that the M135i and its various systems are trying just a little too hard to please.

What about the rest of the car? We’ll leave you to make your own mind up about the styling (it looks a little MPV-like to our eyes), but in all other respects, the 1 Series is a better car than its predecessor. Despite essentially sharing the same footprint as its predecessor (it’s actually 5mm shorter) it’s a roomier machine, with more head and leg room (up by 33mm) in the back and a bigger and class-competitive 380-litre boot.

The interior looks and feels more upmarket, too, the sweeping dashboard design, knurled metal-effect ventilation controls and wall-to-wall soft-touch plastics helping make it more than a match for the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. Another area where it matches its rival is in the tech stakes. It lacks the Merc’s slick, full-TFT dashboard, but the BMW’s standard 8.8in touchscreen infotainment system is easier to operate, thanks mostly to the fact that it continues to use the firm’s intuitive iDrive rotary controller and hot keys. It’s also packed with all the latest connectivity and live services, plus its own version of the ‘Hey, Mercedes’ voice control. Oh, and you can also unlock and start the car using your smartphone - no key required.

Refinement has been vastly improved, with less wind and engine noise in the cabin. Our car was fitted with the optional two-stage adaptive dampers (Comfort and Sport), which have an underlying firmness even in their softest setting but do a decent job of isolating you from bumps, on Germany’s smoothly surfaced roads at least. Potholes and sharper imperfections are less ably dealt with, the suspension thudding awkwardly and stiffly over these more jagged obstacles.

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6 Bmw 1 series m135i 2019 fd dashboard

Should I buy one?

Now this is where it gets a bit tricky. Ignore the badge and the rear-wheel-drive heritage and the M135i makes a strong case for itself as a fast and engaging four-wheel-drive hot hatch that’s also refined, well finished, practical and only a few hundred quid more than a Volkswagen Golf R. We’re not entirely sold on the looks, but the better-packaged, roomier interior is arguably a price worth paying for the slightly ungainly styling.

As a driver’s car, it’s more playful and agile than a Mercedes-AMG and, for most of the time, than the old M140i. Yet good though it is, it doesn’t feel like we’ve come to expect fast BMWs should. The purity of the old car’s layout and its natural balance are replaced by a sense of artificially heightened agility that, you suspect, has been created to distract from the fundamental change in philosophy under the skin.

This isn’t really such an issue in the cooking versions, but as a car aimed at enthusiasts, it’s more of a challenge. And while you can understand the business case for what BMW has done, you can’t escape a certain sadness that without rear drive and, in the case of the M140i, a creamy six-cylinder motor, the 1 Series is no longer the unique offering it was. Overall, the M135i is a better car for most of the time than its predecessor, but it’s not a better fast BMW.

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BMW M135i specification

Where Munich, Germany Price £36,430 On sale September Engine 4 cyls, 1998cc,  turbo, petrol Power 302bhp at 4500-6250rpm Torque 332lb ft at 1750-5000rpm Gearbox 8-spd automatic Kerb weight 1525kg Top speed 155mph 0-62mph 4.8sec Fuel economy 34.4-35.3mpg CO2 155-157g/km Rivals Audi S3 Sportback, Mercedes-AMG A35, Volkswagen Golf R

005 Bmw m135i

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

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justpassingthrough 6 October 2019

I'm moving on from a 3 series

I'm moving on from a 3 series xdrive 6 cyclinder 3ltr twin turbo and can honestly say I'm won over after the drive in this m135i. The cornering is exceptional as is the power from 2ltr power plant. The finish inside is a HUGE step forward from the predecessor. I never had the chance to drive a m140i, but can appreciate the purists opinion.."it's not RWD"..."it's not 6cyl".."it's not quite got the same burble".....It's a different car I'd say! In my opinion, it's far better car to own across all categories. It does resemble some other manufacturers cars of this size, but still a looker with the optional 19" alloys. Ride is no where near as jarring as expected with the car lowered 10mm and to be honest no different from my 3 series. With it being roomier inside now and more so in the back, it makes for a good option for me. M135i is rather good and I choose it over the Golf r which has a good haldex system.

Nickktod 21 September 2019

M140i driver here

I currently drive an M140i and before that I had a Golf R (mk7) so in many ways I suppose I’m the target market for this, but it just seems so very dreary. From the styling to the nose led handling, from the 4 cylinder motor to the auto only gearbox, I just can’t seem summon an ounce of enthusiasm for this - the lease deals will need to be irresistible!

Peter Cavellini 22 July 2019

The sweet spot...?

 Never mind the top spec car, isn’t the 2Litre sport going to be the ideal car?, plenty fast enough in most areas, cheaper too........?