At least three years ago, BMW decided that its next 1 Series hatchback would ride on a front-wheel-drive platform – a refreshed version of the chassis that sits underneath this brand’s smallest SUVs and underneath the Mini range. For the traditionally rear-drive 1 Series – and especially for the hot hatch variant of the 1 Series lineup, this decision was absolutely consequential to the heart and soul of the car on test here – the 2020 BMW M135i.
Now, the previous-shape 1 Series had its downsides. As a rear-drive hatch it was the last of an endangered species that is now extinct. Sending torque from a longitudinally laid-out six-cylinder engine to the rear wheels relegated the ‘F29’ 1er to barely four-seater status and ate up some of the boot.
The new car, with its compact transverse four-pot, liberates considerable back seat room and enlarges the boot. It has an impressive interior, more tech, and, as we’ll see, the highly effective all-wheel-drive system makes it enjoyable to drive.
But the new car is enjoyable to drive in quite a different way to the outgoing car, and we’d be doing you a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge that there have been costs to BMW’s decision to move the 1 Series to a front-drive platform. The previous car had a great big soul with a silky six up front, a short wheelbase and all the impractical entertainment of rear-drive. That is lost.
BMW’s new hot hatch, the 2020 M135i, is great for all the reasons we love effectively front-drive hot hatches. Yes, BMW insist the M135i is all-wheel-drive but the xDrive system is responsive to grip loss at the front – at which point it sends a maximum of 50% of torque to the rears. No, most of the time this is a brutally effective front-drive hot hatch that devours country roads.
The new car also loses its halo six-cylinder, but the four-cylinder that replaces it is among the best of the four-pot breed. It needed to be. Hard-charging and revvy for a four, we’ve also seen this 225kW/450Nm two-litre in the X2 M35i SUV but in the lighter – though only 85kg lighter – 1.5-tonne M135i, the ‘B48’ donk is able to do its best work. It dispatches a 0-100km/h sprint in a claimed 4.9 seconds. That’s 0.3 seconds adrift of the claim of the six-cylinder, 250kW/500Nm M140i that the new variant supersedes.
On the engaging, winding roads in Victoria’s picturesque Yarra Valley, the M135i really felt faster than we fondly remember the M140i being. With less weight over the front wheels turn-in is better; on corner exit, where stomping the throttle would trigger fishtailing in the previous car, you now just get progress. Though it can only tap into half the M135i’s torque, the driven rear axle bites quickly and hard. The ability to slingshot out of corners feels like it will now match a Golf R or Audi S3.
Excellent body control adds to the impression that the new M135i is a swift, buttoned-down hot hatch far divorced from the larrikin-like M140i. The ride is very firm – firmer than some will desire – but it is not crashy. Vertical body motions are sinched in rapidly and pockmarked country roads are tidied up by the sorted, well-damped suspension. Oddly, adaptive dampers are only available if you choose an obscure option that downsizes the 19-inch wheels to 18-inches…for a $400 upcharge.
Basically, BMW have pitched the new M135i in with a busy crowd of high-achieving front-drive or all-wheel-drive hot hatches. Where the previous car had unique attributes, the warmest of the new 1 Series has a big fight on its hands. Our first impression was that the now seven-year-old Volkswagen Golf R will be well-matched to it. A comparison will make that clear.
Therein lies a bit of a value problem for the new M135i, which is priced at $63,990, which surpasses the old M140i that was discontinued at the $59,990 price point. BMW rightly makes the point that the new 1 Series has a far greater level of technology – on both the safety and convenience front. Inside, the new M135i is a veritable tech-fest.
As in the new 3 Series, twin 10.25-inch displays face a 1 Series driver – even in the base 118i. The central screen is touch-capacitive – though our preference of the rotary iDrive controller remains – while the driver’s dedicated screen shows an elementary demonstration of a map alongside opposing dials for the tachometer and speedo. Audio, in the M135i, is by way of a pumping Harmon Kardon unit, which also serves up some artificial noise from the engine bay.
The seats are beautifully-trimmed sporty buckets that can be had in a jaffa-orange Magma colour, in a plainer black, or in an Alcantara non-leather arrangement that many will prefer for its grippy nature. Electrically adjustable and heated, the seats are among the best in this class. In the back, too, the room is notably improved over the previous generation car. Genuine rear-seat usability is one of this F40-generation’s biggest claims to improvement over the old.
Material quality is good, too, with most surfaces fitted with soft touch plastics, metal, or leather. Despite the firm suspension no rattles or shifting materials were evident; every car on launch seemed highly consistent. If only BMW – and its other German luxury peer manufacturers – would extend that sort of confidence to the warranty, which runs to only three years.
While it will take a round of comparisons to demonstrate the new M135i’s place in the taxonomy of hot hatches, it’s quickly clear that we are dealing with a focussed, fast vehicle in this new 2020 model. It’s nothing like the old car – which to us, represents a true loss – but for what it is, it impresses. Will that convince buyers, who for so long have tapped into the 1 Series’s genuinely unique character? Time will tell.
Key specs (as tested)
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