I was only popping downstairs for a sandwich. A quick bite to eat before returning to the office to carry on with some work. But then I caught sight of the BMW M135i through the bedroom window. It was parked on the lane in the usual place, but for some reason I felt the sudden urge to go for a drive. My custody of BMW’s range-topping 1 Series was coming to an end and I knew there was half a tank of premium unleaded sat in the tank.
There was nothing for it – the sandwich could wait. I grabbed the keys from the sideboard, put on my shades and headed out to the car. The destination – the Warren House Inn – reputedly England’s third highest pub and arguably one of the loneliest. It stands high up on the road between Postbridge and Moretonhampstead some 1425ft above sea level. When the Dartmoor winds are howling and rain lashing down in torrents it’s an unforgiving and desolate place. But on warm and sunny days like these it’s a magical and beautiful place to be.
I had been eager to try the M135i for some time. After a very, very brief flirtation with it last year I was left wanting more. To M enthusiasts I acknowledge the mere thought of an ‘M Performance’ BMW is enough to make the blood boil. Say it quietly, but the M135i is turbocharged. Shhh. But as much I love the true M products, I have no real allegiance to the badge. I was therefore free to experience the car with an open mind.
And when the BMW Press Office suggests you drive one back from the SMMT Day at Millbrook, you can’t exactly refuse, can you?
The first thing that struck me about the M135i is just how ‘normal’ it looks. To the untrained eye it looks just like a common-or-garden 1 Series – especially in the more practical 5-door body shell. The Glacier Silver metallic paint just about completes the subtle junior executive look of the car.
At first I was disappointed. I’d want my snarling overpowered BMW to shout rather than whisper. Estoril Blue or Valencia Orange perhaps? But the more I lived with the car, the more I grew to love the understated approach. You have to admire the person who chooses to spend upwards of £30k on a 5-door hatchback when to most people on the morning commute it could simply be another £18,000 114i ES.
The clues to the car’s true potential are there though. Like the 18-inch M light alloy wheels wrapped in ultra-grippy and wonderful looking Michelin Pilot Super Sports tyres. Or the huge M Sport brake discs complete with blue calipers. Not to mention the twin exhausts, M aerodynamic bodykit and discreet M135i badge on the boot lid. I’d say it doesn’t shout, but then I’d be lying. Something that becomes abundantly clear as soon as you press the start button…
The 3.0-litre engine immediately roars into life before settling down into a light and characterful burble as it ticks over. The needles on the dials do a merry dance, helping to deliver some theatre to the whole experience. Any thoughts that this is merely a brisk 5-door hatchback go out of the window. Nipping out for a quick pint (of Coke) never felt more apt.
Select drive (this car was fitted with the optional 8-speed sport automatic transmission), release the handbrake (thankfully not some electronic contraption) and the M135i moves smoothly away. In standard automatic mode and with the Drive Performance Control set to Comfort, the M135i feels almost normal. Tap the throttle and there’s a hint of the explosive power on tap, but BMW should be applauded for enabling the M135i to retain its natural character.
It’s a well worn cliche, but the M135i truly is a car for the junior executive who wants to let his or her hair down at the weekends. You could live with the car on a daily basis and never once feel like you’re attempting to control a wild animal straining at the leash. Heck, with efficient driving and a huge amount of willpower, the M135i fitted with an automatic ’box could return 37.7mpg on a combined cycle. Thirty-seven-point-seven-mpg – from a 3.0-litre straight-six petrol-engined performance car. Good lord.
Take it from me though, you will not see figures anywhere near that. And that’s because the M135i is an absolute riot to drive. Forget the Eco Pro and Comfort settings and switch the car to Sport. Select manual transmission and become acquainted with the flappy paddles mounted behind the steering wheel. Left to change down, right to change up.
Within an instant of selecting Sport mode, the M135i comes alive. It’s as though the car shudders with excitement as its true potential is realised. On so many cars the difference between Sport-this and Comfort-that is so subtle it’s hardly worth the effort of making the switch. Not in the M135i – the difference is absolute. For me, the button should be obsolete. Put some tape over it or cover it in Super Glue. Sport is the only way to go.
The entire set-up of the car feels even more driver focused. The adaptive M Sport suspension feels firmer, the steering feels meatier and the throttle response is so instantaneous you barely have to time to catch your breath before the M135i propels itself forward. Whatever speed you’re doing and whatever gear you’re in, your body is pressed back into the excellent sports seats.
And yet it all feels so refined – the drama and excitement is entirely down to the immense 450Nm of torque and the overwhelming force of acceleration. There’s never a sense that the M135i is about to kill you. Instead you find yourself grinning from ear-to-ear as you pilot the 5-door hatchback through the lanes. A 1 Series doesn’t have the right to feel this good. But bloody hell it’s good.
Which is why I’m prepared to break from tradition here by suggesting the automatic transmission should be the default choice on the M135i. Not only is the auto quicker and more efficient than the manual, the gear changes are lightning quick – no mere mortal could match them. Press hard on the throttle and a change up delivers a symphonic change in soundtrack and a subtle thud as you’re pressed back into your seat. The downshifts are equally effective, especially when powering into a bend.
That’s also thanks to the immense stopping power delivered by the M Sport brakes. In short, this thing is insanely quick, has bucket loads of grip, has the smoothest automatic ’box I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing and has a set of anchors to shame a superyacht.
And that’s before I explain how beautifully balanced the car is. For sure the steering is a little numb, but it’s so well weighted and the turn-in is so sharp, it rarely becomes an issue. In fact, for all of the car’s explosive performance, it’s the balance and steering that shone through the most. These two factors help to make the M135i an immensely satisfying car to drive.
The Warren House Inn loomed into view in record time and even with a glut of tourists enjoying some rare Dartmoor sunshine, I was able to park the M135i right outside the door.
As I sat there enjoying my drink I got to thinking about the car and the other rear-wheel drive hero I experienced earlier in the year. Suddenly it dawned on me just how much I miss the thrill of driving a rear-wheel drive car. The BMW M135i and the Toyota GT86 share a great deal in common. Both are driver-focused, rear-wheel drive sports cars which I could see myself living with on a daily basis.
Of course the BMW is the more practical proposition – a big boot, two extra doors and proper rear seats make that abundantly clear. But in the same way I admire anyone who chooses a GT86 over a hot hatch, I also admire anyone who buys an M135i.
Is £30,555 (for the 3-door manual) a lot to pay for a 1 Series? Probably. But then it shouldn’t really be seen as ‘just another 1 Series’ – it’s much more than that. It will naturally go head-to-head with thew new Audi S3 Sportback when that arrives later in the year. The four-wheel drive 2.0-litre turbocharged Audi will offer similar levels of performance and efficiency for a little more cash.
But forget the Audi for a moment. Instead, think of the M135i as a practical alternative to the Porsche Cayman. As daft as that may sound, the figures create quite a compelling case for the BMW when pitched against a PDK-enhanced Cayman. The BMW offers more power – 320hp versus 275hp. More torque – 450Nm versus 290Nm. It’s quicker to 62mph – 4.9 secs plays 5.6 secs. And at 37.7mpg it’s a whole 1mpg more economical than the Porsche.
And even taking into account the kitchen-sink levels of options fitted to my test car, it’s still substantially cheaper than the £41,616 Cayman. Makes you think, doesn’t it? What the M135i lacks in purity and authenticity, it more than makes up for in terms of drama, practicality and Q-car status.
I downed my pint of Coke in record time and made my way back to the office. As lunch hours go, this was one of the better ones. I remained hungry for the entire afternoon, but I don’t think the adrenaline stopped flowing until tea time.
Think about that next time the clock approaches one. You could stay at your desk watching inane drivel on YouTube or you could spend an hour playing with a rear-wheel drive hero. I know what I would do.