What is it?
Currently BMW’s warmest compact hatch, and one built around a rare layout – front engine, rear drive. This brings dynamic benefits, which we’ll get to in a second, but does take a toll on packaging and cabin space as the transmission tunnel divides the rear into two compartments, limiting its usefulness as a rear three-seater.
What’s new about it?
The M135i had its most recent update in June 2015, with cosmetic changes in the form of new bumpers, grille, tail-lights and LED headlights. A classy Alcantara roof lining was made standard, and the navigation system was upgraded to the previously optional Pro version with 8.8in multimedia screen.
Extra connectivity and functionality were also added to the multimedia system, bringing functions like real-time traffic info and intelligent emergency call – this is when the car knows it’s been in an accident and can call for assistance. There were also tweaks to the engine management software that coaxed a token 5kW more from the turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder, lifting the total to 240kW. Torque remained unchanged at 450Nm, and the 0-100km/h claim similarly stayed a rapid 4.9sec.
What’s it like to drive fast?
Extracting serious straight-line speed is easy – the boosted engine delivers plenty of torque from low revs, so it digs in and bolts from anything beyond jogging pace. The eight-speed automatic serves up gears as quickly as the engine can consume them, and there’s a sweet layer of smoothness and mechanical polish that comes from a six-cylinder engine with its pots in a line rather than a V. Keep it pinned and it revs hard for a turbo engine; that 4.9sec 0-100km/h claim feels entirely credible.
Few drivers will have a bad word to say about the way the M135i gets through corners, as it has plenty of grip from its 19-inch rubber and resolute body control, while adhering to front-engine/rear-drive layout has advantages in terms of balance and feedback.
Only really extreme cornering on the road – more likely at a track day – will reveal a weakness in the BMW’s dynamic make-up. It doesn’t come standard with a clever differential to send torque to the wheel with the most grip (known as a limited-slip diff or LSD), so the unloaded inside wheel is prone to spinning, which detracts from the handling balance in the hands of a skilled driver. Only by paying your BMW dealer $4400 – plus installation! – can owners upgrade to the LSD from the M-Performance accessory catalogue.
Brakes are upgraded over lesser models and withstand hard road driving but again, a track day will make them wilt.
What about the commute home?
No issues here, at least in terms of ride comfort, cabin accommodation and the engine and transmission’s ability to mooch along in traffic.
The seats are excellent, with adjustable under-thigh support that makes long hauls a breeze. The fat-rimmed sports steering wheel can make you feel as if you’re grasping a kransky but it does point the nose of the car quickly and faithfully.
What’s lacking inside is any real sense of occasion or ‘premiumness’. The dash and door trims are a bit dour and it all feels a bit dated compared not only to rivals but also some more recently refreshed BMWs. You also miss out on great audio unless you stump up for the premium system. But sure, the ergonomic fundamentals are sound, road and wind noise are well supressed, and there are no transmission lurches or mechanical issues to get on your nerves. It’s just that you expect a bit more aesthetic attention from a brand like a BMW, and from a car at this price point.
What’s it cost? And is it worth the coin?
Given the facelift and increased equipment came with a small price drop – $62,900 from $63,800 – you could mount a case that the M135i is trying to be good value. But really, for that money we’d expect a higher level of attention to interior details such as the unlined door bins – even a base Golf provides lined bins, and better finishes generally. In terms of cabin presentation, Audi’s S3 trounces it, even if that car’s 210kW and 380Nm outputs are appreciably down on the BMW.
Click here to find out more about the BMW M135i.