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Fastest BMW 1 Series is quick and accomplished but lacks the character of the old M140i

Our Verdict

BMW 1 Series 118d 2019 road test review - hero front

Front-driven 1 Series may not drive like a traditional BMW but otherwise delivers on upmarket family hatch values

16 July 2019
BMW 1 Series M135i 2019

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.

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The 1 Series is also the first internal-combustion-engined model to benefit from the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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Comments
28

17 July 2019

Given the writer is correct about present M140i owners being one of the target markets for this version, could BMW simply have left RWD in place for this one model, saved on weight and therefore cost of the new car...surely a more enticing proposition for any prospective buyer?.

 

17 July 2019

Not really possible, as the drivetrain layout is entirely different. The platform is now FWD based with a transverse engine.

Its basically the same car as the Mini Clubman/Countryman and BMW X1/2

17 July 2019
A really horrible and depressing car.

Summed up by the replacement of a truly great sounding engine with fake synthesized noise.

Cheapskate. And no way 4 stars.

17 July 2019

Expect the .2 version of this car to have a much smaller kidney grille. They just don't suit this car.  They make it look like the 'mummy wagon' 2 series. Hardly 'aspirational'.

17 July 2019

Is it me or does the new 1er look a bit too much like a compact MPV? It looks more like the Ultimate Carting the Kids to School Machine than a hatchback.

Anyway, enthusiasts should stick with the 2 series coupe as BMW aren't going to mess with the six up front and power to the back formula.

17 July 2019

With the previous M135i/M140i always having not just a 3.0 litre, but also a turbocharged, engine it was always going to be a bit of an issue when it came to replacing it, whether it was RWD or FWD orientated, even if BMW went to the expense of creating a new V6 to slot in transversely. The performance gap and engine spec between the M135i/M140i and the M2 wasn't huge and neither would it have been against the new M340i either which also has a 3.0 litre engine turbo unit. While it gave the M135i/M140i so much character and punch continuining with a large lazy, torquey engine in a 1 Series just wouldn't have sat comfortably in BMW's M/M Performance line-up. Though I'm sure BMW could have eeked more power from the 2.0 engine for this new M135i to make up for the lack of cylinders, character and reduction in pace compared to its predecessor.

 

But what does it for me is the look of thing because I too think this new 1 Series looks more MPV (and SUV too) than a hatch and at some angles it looks and has the proportions of the 2 Series Active Tourer and X1, and for a hot hatch it just doesn't quite work.

17 July 2019

I'd be interested to know more about where BMW see buyers coming from.  I doubt (on no other basis than instinct, to be honest) that they really don't see current 140 owners as future owners of the new 135.  I think they'd see them - older, more encumbered with offspring and pets, perhaps - trading up to a 3 or something X-ey.

On the styling, I do agree on the MPV like nature of it, which I believe is the current X styling filtering its way down...resulting in this, the MPV-a-fying of a hatch.  Korean at the rear, A-Class at the sides, and Oh Dear at the front.

Hey!  Maybe, after all, they did design it for the "oh no, I've got kids what do I do now?!?" 140 trader upper.

Anyway, either way it'll be a roaring success and come February there'll be loads of, MOA, nearly new, sub-£30k examples on the BMW Approved website, just as there typically are 140s, which makes them great value hoots.

17 July 2019
The Colonel wrote:

I'd be interested to know more about where BMW see buyers coming from.  I doubt (on no other basis than instinct, to be honest) that they really don't see current 140 owners as future owners of the new 135.  I think they'd see them - older, more encumbered with offspring and pets, perhaps - trading up to a 3 or something X-ey.

On the styling, I do agree on the MPV like nature of it, which I believe is the current X styling filtering its way down...resulting in this, the MPV-a-fying of a hatch.  Korean at the rear, A-Class at the sides, and Oh Dear at the front.

Hey!  Maybe, after all, they did design it for the "oh no, I've got kids what do I do now?!?" 140 trader upper.

Anyway, either way it'll be a roaring success and come February there'll be loads of, MOA, nearly new, sub-£30k examples on the BMW Approved website, just as there typically are 140s, which makes them great value hoots.

I doubt that BMW really DO see current 140 owners moving into the new 135.

mfe

17 July 2019
My son a current m140i owner is looking at m3/c63 as his next car.

17 July 2019
mfe wrote:

My son a current m140i owner is looking at m3/c63 as his next car.

C63 ALL day long. Far cooler with a lot more character and doesn't have the whiff of a BMW driver. Tell him from me that's the weapon of choice! A lot more respect and admiration will come his way as a result of his decision!

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