Great, rear-drive dynamics and a snarling, powerful six-cylinder engine. BMW becomes a force to be reckoned with in the hot-hatch segment.
BMW M135i will be an unfamiliar badge as it joins the German car maker’s current line-up. Its origins, however, date back to the late 1970s.
The first time BMW used a sequence of the capital M and three numbers was the M535i of 1979, which was the first proper, road-focused offering from the company’s M performance division (following the M1 that was more of a race car) – and the precursor to the now-famous M5.
The BMW M135i isn’t a fully fledged M model. Instead it’s the first passenger car from BMW’s newly formed M Performance range, following the M50d X5 and X6 SUVs released earlier this year.
It’s the new range-topping version of the BMW 1 Series hatchback range, and will provide some consolation to those buyers who missed out on the 1 Series M Coupe that’s now discontinued.
If that 1M Coupe made the M badge more attainable than ever before at $99,900, then enthusiasts with more limited budgets are likely to be excited about the $68,400 price tag for the BMW M135i.
Or $72,400 if you want to swap the six-speed manual gearbox for the eight-speed auto version we sampled on the car's local launch.
BMW is initially pitching the M135i against the Volkswagen Golf R, although the 188kW all-wheel-drive five-door is significantly cheaper at $49,990. In terms of price, more natural rivals will be both the upcoming – but still a fair way off – Audi S3 Sportback and Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG.
And with BMW stating there may never be a successor to the 1M, this hatch is set to be the only way to have some form of M badge on a 1 Series.
Yet while the M135i is more of a top-spec 1 Series hatchback rather than a proper M car like the 1M that essentially sat on M3 underpinnings, the new M Performance model isn’t far off the latter car's power.
The BMW M135i’s single turbo 3.0-litre six-cylinder develops 235kW at 5800 revs, making it just 15kW shy of the twin-turbo six 1M Coupe. It's also a match for maximum torque with 450Nm.
It’s also just as fast – providing you have the auto that was never an option on the 1M.
The BMW M135i will accelerate from 0-100km/h in just 4.9 seconds, taking a couple of tenths longer with the six-speed manual.
You won’t disbelieve those figures from the driver’s seat, either, because Munich’s five-door feels properly quick. With those 450 Newton metres riding along a plateau that runs from 1250 to 5000rpm, the M135i surges through the gears – with a touch of extra driver satisfaction if you use the paddle levers rather than leaving the auto to do its own thing.
The six-cylinder turbo loves to rev and is a joy to take to about 6000rpm before it’s worth changing up to garner more momentum. Acceleration is accompanied by a snarling soundtrack that is a treat to the ears, even if part of it is artificially produced to help it sound like the old non-turbo BMW sixes now sadly departed.
Speaking of which, throttle response isn’t quite as crisp or linear as the best versions of those atom six-cylinder BMWs, though the M135i is still almost (but not entirely) lag free.
Flicking the console switch from Comfort to Sport Plus brings the sharpest accelerator pedal and most aggressive shift mapping. You can also choose Eco Pro that dulls everything for the sake of fuel efficiency – which is 7.5L/100km officially in auto form and 8.0L/100km in manual - but is not for anyone who savours driving.
And this is a car for motorists who actively search for winding roads.
Cruise along in the BMW M135i and the supple ride is reminiscent of a Golf GTI, and this initially raises concerns that the car maker has gone to the other extreme of its hard-riding M cars despite its lowered, M-tuned suspension.
But fears are quickly alleviated when a sequence of corners arrives, because the M135i is terrifically poised and highly capable.
And its advantages as the only rear-wheel-drive hatchback in the world come to the fore.
Head into a corner at speed, and just as you think you may be reaching the point of understeer, the M135i remains beautifully balanced on its outer rear wheel, encouraging the driver to squeeze the accelerator harder to push out and on to the next bend.
There’s no torque steer to worry about, either, of course, and instead you're afforded steering that is praiseworthy for its precision and weighting even if there isn’t the same level of feedback through the fingertips that you got from the previous 1 Series.
The M Sport brakes are endearingly progressive and you’ll also barely hear a protest from the 18-inch tyres – 2cm wider at the rear – which generate monumental amounts of grip.
Some driving enthusiasts might actually prefer a bit more movement from the M135i’s rear end – and there’s no M differential like the 1M – though drive the M135i hard and, even with the racey Sport Plus mode selected, the orange dash light of the stability control system is kept busy.
The BMW M135i may not be an M car but it’s certainly a Q-car – one of those classic wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing performance vehicles.
There’s certainly none of the visual theatre found on the mini-muscle-car 1M Coupe. Just unique alloy wheels, a 10mm-lower ride height and dual outer exhaust pipes the key differentiators from a 125i hatch.
Inside there’s an M badge on the steering wheel but little else to make the BMW M135i cabin look noticeably different to a regular 1 Series hatch.
That also means the same smart-looking presentation and usefully sized boot, though also the presence of some hard plastics that lower the overall perception of quality and the back seat that doesn’t offer as much legroom as the average front-wheel-drive hatch.
The BMW M135i is a bit cheeky to ask $4000 for an auto gearbox and $3500 for satellite navigation but is otherwise well specified – in addition to the M touches – with the likes of engine stop-start, bi-xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, leather upholstery, rear parking sensors, climate control, Bluetooth connectivity and a 6.5-inch colour screen.
When BMW announced it was introducing a new M Performance range, it was easy to be sceptical that the company was simply looking to cash-in on its fabled go-fast division with the potential to dilute the sub-brand.
But as proof that the existence of a halfway point between a regular BMW model and a full M-car is worthwhile, the BMW M135i is perfect.