2017 BMW 1 Series Review: M140i and 125i

Rating: 8.5
$48,900 $64,900 Mrlp
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The updated BMW 1 Series range is headlined by the brilliant new M140i and Golf GTI-baiting 125i.
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The updated BMW 1 Series range has launched in Australia, with the Bavarian company placing a typical emphasis on the performance end of the spectrum.

Headlining the 2017 model update is the new M140i, an anachronistic rear-wheel drive, turbocharged six-cylinder hot hatch that can be had with a six-speed manual gearbox (in place of the eight-speed ZF automatic 90 per cent of buyers order).

This replacement for the M135i gets a redesigned 3.0-litre TwinPower turbocharged straight-six — confusingly, it’s a single-turbo engine with variable valve and camshaft control and high-precision injection — with 10kW/50Nm more than before.

This means outputs of 250kW of power at 5500rpm and 500Nm of torque across a wide swathe of engine speeds (between 1520 and 4500rpm), sending outputs to the rear wheels — a great point of difference over the AWD Audi S3 and Volkswagen Golf R.

If you buy the standard eight-speed automatic version with paddles and launch control, you can theoretically do a 4.6 second 0-100km/h sprint, which is three-tenths faster than before and neatly bisects the Audi S3 and RS3.

But what really raises the eyebrows is the price. At $64,900 plus on-road costs, it’s $2000 more expensive than the M135i, but more notably it still undercuts the RS3 and Mercedes-AMG A45 (which has less torque) by about $15,000. It’s a lot of pace for the money.

The 3.0-litre six is a sensational engine, with vast reservoirs of torque from down low, right through the rev range out towards the 7000rpm redline, amplified by the linear and almost instantaneous delivery once you plant your right foot.

The eight-speed auto isn’t a double-clutch configuration like most performance hatches, but it remains preternaturally adept at choosing the right ratio, and shows no hesitancy in daily urban driving. In the car’s sportiest modes, you get more aggressive downshifts, plus the car holds lower gears longer, and amplifies the raspy exhaust note.

But the real star is the six-speed manual which you can order as a no-cost option from the German factory. It’s a crisp and accurate shifter with good clutch weighting, and boosts the engagement factor three-fold. A rear-drive, six-pot manual hatch? Is this really 2016?

The M140i gets standard variable sport electro-assisted steering (and the gorgeous M Sport wheel) with speed-sensitive assistance that ups the resistance at higher speeds, Adaptive M suspension with variable dampers (softer in comfort mode, stiffer in sport) and adjustable stability control settings.

The ride is hard to complain about too much, because even when the dampers are set to offer the highest amount of resistance on the compression and rebound the car still rounds off sharper hits well. Body control/handling is typically good, complemented by eager turn-in and the ability to flick the tail out with some throttle modulation.

This is the trade off against the AWD enemies — the still-heavyish 1475kg BMW is more squirrelly and requires more corrections in wet conditions, and has less traction off the line, but it also feels more alive and characterful. That’s not to impugn its brilliant Focus RS/RS3/A45 AMG rivals.

Standard-fit are M Sport brakes with signature blue callipers behind 18-inch M wheels, which offer good stopping power, but which did begin to show some fade after about eight laps of Winton Raceway. But a longer cool-down sector would have nipped this in the bud.

Finally, a mechanical limited-slip differential for the M140i is available via dealer order (it’s an accessory fitted here, rather than an option ex-factory) and is currently priced at $5390 fully fitted. If you do track time or want the very best, you need this.

What else is new? BMW has added equipment over the M135i, including keyless Comfort Access, 12-speaker 360W Harmon/Kardon sound system, and heating/electric adjustment for the leather bucket seats.

There’s also the new Professional Navigation system shown on a 8.8-inch landscape screen with iDrive 5 (a rejigged rotary dial), DAB+ and new software trickled down from the 7 Series. The app-style interface looks the goods and is even slicker than before, though the simple menus are familiar — a good thing. The voice control jacks Siri, so it works.

The only gripe we had with was BMW’s ridiculous decision to charge about $500 to purchase wireless Apple CarPlay — which can at least be retrofitted to any existing BMW with a SIM slot. Still, if it can be had standard (albeit needing a charging cable) on a Skoda Fabia, it should be free here too.

Other M140i features include adaptive LED headlights and an anthracite roof lining. However, the driver assistant tech extends only to approach control warning, regular cruise control with braking, lane departure warning and light city autonomous braking. We’d like to see radar cruise and blind-spot monitoring available.

All other BMW 1 Series variants receive various updates to price and spec, which you can read about in much more detail here. We'll review the 118i/118d and 120i when we get them through the CA garage soon.

The rest of the cabin doesn’t receive many updates, with the familiar driver-oriented fascia and fairly dour but good quality materials pervading. The driving position is low-slung and snug, like a coupe. As before, the rear seats are tight for the class and the cargo space is a middling 360 litres.

Now, to part two of this launch review — the top-selling (30 per cent of all 1 Series sales) BMW 125i, a $48,900 hot hatch designed as a rival to the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Mercedes-Benz A-Class A250.

The familiar 2.0-litre TwinPower turbo-four gets 5kW more than before, to 165kW between 5200 and 6500rpm, plus an unchanged peak torque figure of 310Nm from 1400rpm. This makes it 3kW more powerful than a Golf GTI, but keeps torque capped at 40Nm lower than the muscular VW. The 0-100km/h sprint time is a slick 6.1 seconds with launch control.

While it's a lovely, raspy engine, it doesn't feel as spectacularly muscular as the tremendous engine in the GTI, and it's a crying shame that the up-tuned 185kW/350kW version of the same TwinPower engine from the related 230i doesn't feature here. What a beast a 130i would be... BMW has instead worked to cut fuel use, by 0.6L/100km, but does that really alter your purchasing direction?

That great rear-wheel drive unique-selling-point obviously remains, as does the ZF eight-speed automatic gearbox with torque converter and manual mode. Like the M140i, you can order a six-speed manual for the same price, something that about seven per cent of Australians do.

Additionally, you get variable sport steering like the M140i, plus stiffer M Sport dampers that lower the car by 10mm. You don't get the full adjustable damper ensemble, and consequently the 125i on its 18-inch wheels with run-flat tyres feels a little less disciplined over sharp hits than that pesky Golf GTI.

Where the 125i beats the Golf is the playful rear-drive setup that, paired to the brilliantly balanced chassis makes the 1 Series feel more nimble and (sorry for the tedious word) playful than its rivals. The 8AT is also smoother and less indecisive in daily driving than a typical DSG-style dual-clutch. The little Bimmer really is the market's somewhat forgotten hot hatch.

Additional equipment over the old 125i (at an unchanged price) is limited to LED fog lights. But the equipment list also includes LED headlights, M leather steering wheel, all-round parking sensors/camera, lovely cloth and Alcantara bucket seats with distinctive patterns, dual-zone climate control, cruise control and more.

Instead of the M140i's 8.8-inch screen with Professional Navigation, the 125i makes do with a floating 6.5-inch Business Navigation system with iDrive. The resolution and size is a little disappointing for a $50k-ish vehicle, and it's here where the 1 Series is showing its age. The cabin remains a little dour, though everything is well-made and the ergonomics are typically excellent.

All BMW 1 Series models get BMW's ConnectedDrive suite, with real-time traffic updates, Intelligent Emergency Call, remote app functions and condition-based servicing that you can pre-pay for at delivery.

There's no doubt that the two sportiest 1 Series models are both unique, dynamic and surprisingly affordable hot hatches (considering the badge). The M140i is the brightest star, a wonderful throwback car that mounts an incredibly compelling case for those who especially value genuine go over flashy show.

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