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When it comes to the surprises of 2016, the BMW M140i might just be at the top of the list for me. I guess I expected it to impress, but I never thought it would be as much fun as it turned out to be – an all round competent daily driver, with a sporting twist. As such, it featured on my end of year list for surprise of 2016.
Our 2017 BMW M140i is very much the halo-wearer of the 1 Series range and if you can’t stretch to this model, there’s still plenty to choose from, with pricing starting from $36,900 for the 118i.
Our test M140i starts from $64,900 before the usual on road costs. While pricing is up slightly from the M135i it replaces, the new 140 still undercuts rivals like A45 AMG and S3 by as much as $15,000 so it's hard to argue the point on value with that in mind.
Standard equipment highlights include a swathe of ‘M’ gear like sport brakes, adaptive suspension, leather steering wheel, four-mode drive settings, keyless entry, Harman/Kardon audio system, premium satellite navigation and leather sport trim as well as adaptive LED headlights.
So, the 1 Series range has something for everyone, with three-, four- and six-cylinder engine variants as well as both manual and automatic transmissions. It’s this model though, that is far and away the pick, if you love driving and you can afford the outlay. Do you need to buy a BMW M240i? You’ll struggle to prosecute the case for that car once you’ve spent some time behind the wheel of its little brother, that’s for sure.
You’d expect a 3.0-litre engine in such a compact chassis (1475kg) to feel spritely and you’d be right. This little hatch is a rapid way to get around. The inline six makes more power than it’s predecessor but despite that, uses less fuel, so it’s very much a win-win situation. It's no lightweight at that figure, but it's not so portly to dull the performance either.
Power and torque numbers are up 10kW and 50Nm respectively, for a total of 250kW and 500Nm and if, like me, you remember a time when V8 engines made comfortably less than 200kW, you’ll be impressed by the effortless power delivery of this roarty six.
BMW claims a sprint to 100km/h in 4.6 seconds and it’s that ‘shot out of a gun’ ability from a standstill that might be the most fun thing about this M140i. That figure is for the auto with launch control, while the manual is slightly slower at 4.8 seconds.
Fuel use is frugal, with the ADR claim being just 7.8L/100km. We averaged mid-nines during our week behind the wheel and you’ll only see the number head north of that if you work the M140i hard for long periods over twisty roads.
Tooling along the freeway at 110km/h, the live number drops right down into the sixes. Once again, the eight-speed ZF automatic is an incredibly flexible gearbox, which helps keep consumption low, but also shifts crisply enough to satisfy the performance nuts.
We’d call the M140i a ‘proper’ sports car, in that the engine is at the front and the drive is sent to the rear wheels. While our test M140i is automatic (which 90 percent of buyers want), keep in mind that you can order it with a manual (a no-cost option) for even more sporting purity. Sure, there are FWD rockets and AWD performance weapons that make my argument a little archaic, but the M140i nevertheless adheres to the traditional sports car formula.
The one departure of course is BMW’s – let’s call it conservative – styling. As such, the M140i won’t piss anybody off, but it might not get your blood pumping a little faster either. Never mind, crank the engine into life and that will all change pretty rapidly. The exhaust note will quickly let anyone know that there’s a measure of potency under the bonnet.
Competitors are numerous at this end of the affordable performance spectrum with the Audi S3 Sportback, Mercedes-AMG A45 and Ford Focus RS perhaps the most obvious. There’s a certain sense of purity, precision and comfort the BMW exhibits though, that none of the above can really capture in entirety.
The M140i’s cabin is an exhibition in premium style, quality finishes and muted elegance. If you want to tool around in relative silence you can, cosseted by BMW’s sporty yet luxurious appointments.
We love the fact that for such a compact vehicle, the second row provides useful seating for two adults, there’s plenty of luggage space thanks to the broad hatch aperture and clever storage for smaller objects abounds. The boot area is 360 litres with the 60:40 second row in use, but fold them flat and you open up 1200 litres of handy space. The seating position is the icing on the cake, with the M140i affording a down low, sporting position that makes you feel a little more like a race driver than you otherwise might.
As we’ve noted before, BMW’s iDrive system (iDrive 5 here) is as good as it gets, and while a few of the deeper menu functions take a bit of finding, the day-to-day usability is ridiculously easy. The satellite navigation system (upgraded for M140i and using an 8.8-inch screen) is crisp, fast and accurate. While there is currently a rush to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, you don’t necessarily need those options when the proprietary system is this good. Operating software has made its way down from the 7 Series, while the rotary control dial has been tweaked as well.
You’d rarely catch us spending much time assessing the ride quality and bump absorption of a sports car at CarAdvice, but the M140i’s is worthy of mention here. Plenty of people don’t care, but having recently spent time behind the wheel of both the S3 and the A45, neither can match the BMW for outright comfort and bump absorption.
The 1 Series possesses a ride that we’d say edges firm (in 'Sport' mode), but is effectively unruffled around town (in 'Comfort' mode), and no matter how competent a vehicle is, once you get out of town and nail the accelerator, you need to be able to live with it around town. The M140i is exceptional and it presents as a genuinely capable daily driver.
While it’s easy to bemoan the move away from naturally aspirated performance engines, it only takes a drive in a turbocharged vehicle like this M140i to adjust that perspective slightly.
The exhaust note is, for starters, nowhere near as muted as some boosted engines and gets snappier and more raucous the closer you get to redline. Measuring in at 3.0-litres, there’s enough latent low down thrust from the six to get the M140i moving without any of the nastiness associated with turbo lag. Finally, the huffer counters that initial delivery with scarcely any lag anyway, and a walloping mid-range that just keeps surging.
Every CarAdvice tester who spent time with the M140i came away raving about how connected the drive experience was, how enjoyable the engine’s characteristics and how evocative the exhaust note. Rarely does a vehicle of any kind get everything perfect, but the M140i nails its brief decisively.
Put any kind of M badge anywhere near a BMW and there are further expectations it must meet without exception. One of those expectations is razor sharp steering and the BMW electro-assisted system delivers. The M140i’s go-kart-like chassis setup is matched by the precision of your command through the wheel. There’s nothing remote about the way your inputs translate to the road and the 1-Series is capable of genuinely rapid corner carving if you’re in the mood. That you get to input those commands through a sensational M-Sport steering wheel is just another benefit.
Balance is another plus, helped by the chassis and the brakes, which combine to provide dynamics that are more akin to a well-built racecar than a family hatch.
Whatever magic the M engineers have breathed into the M140i has manifested itself in proper performance ability delivered in such a way that the driver barely raises a sweat at speed. If the M140i doesn’t put a silly grin on your dial after a fast punt, there’s something wrong with you.
Where the M140i leaves its biggest impression though, is how easily it switches back to mundane duties around town after you’ve had enough fun. It simply slips back into character immediately and reminds you just how practical it is in the real world.
While some of us need more space, and some want more performance, most of us could quite easily live with the BMW M140i. It’s one of those rare cars that has the ability to switch hit effortlessly, and reward constantly, regardless of which task you’re punishing it with.
We universally rated it very highly in the CarAdvice garage and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a sporting bargain – and a sporting surprise.
Click on the photos tab for more images by Sam Venn.