Review: BMW F20 M135i
In the past, the term ‘hot hatch' used to refer to small, light, front-wheel-drive hatchbacks with go kart handling and a motor that felt like it was from a coffee grinder. Safety was non-existent, comfort was relative, and parking was a breeze. Hot hatches were all the rage in the 80s and early 90s, particularly in Europe where French cars dominated the scene while the German manufacturers tended to stick to building fast saloons. Recently though, there's been a host of quick hatches from Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW. And while most of them stick to turbocharged four-cylinder motors mated to an all-wheel-drive underbelly, BMW has chosen to bolt a turbocharged six-cylinder motor into the engine bay and send power to the rear wheels. With the exception of the turbo, it's a classic BMW recipe that's proven hard to beat. The result is the M135i, and it's quickly redefining how we think about hot hatches.
It quite uncommon to find a rear-wheel-drive, six-cylinder drivetrain bolted into a hatchback, but BMW broke that mould with the first 1 Series. The original 130i was a revered driver's car, and with the company's move to turbocharged engines, the M135i has taken that concept and run wild with it. The twin-scroll turbocharger allows the motor to have an uninterrupted power delivery from idle, right up to redline. The claimed 235kw feels like a very conservative figure, especially considering that the car can propel you from 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds. To put that into perspective, a little over a decade ago BMW's flagship performance car, the M5, had a claimed 0-100 time of 4.8 seconds. It all comes down to that turbo, which allows a fat torque curve of 450nm from idle. The M135i comes with a choice of six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic as tested. It's a traditional automatic gearbox from Germany's ZF, and it flies in the face of the current trend of dual-clutch (automated) manual ‘boxes.
With the release of its sister, the M235i coupe, the M135i hatch looks as if it's the ugly duckling of the family, even with its recent facelift. The body has all the lines in all the right places, but the front lights and kidney grilles are not as sleek and pleasing to the eye as they perhaps could have been. But the five-door hatch proves to be significantly more practical than the 2 Series coupe, and allows four adults to travel comfortably with a bit of luggage. Staying in the cabin, and this is where the M135i impresses. High-quality plastics in the right places with excellent build quality make the cabin a lovely place to be. The switchgear is easily read and navigated, and never feels cheap. When you first sit in the car it can feel a touch cramped, but the ergonomics are so well laid out that you'll never feel uncomfortable or claustrophobic. The body-hugging sports seat and thick-rimmed steering wheel make it possible to find your perfect driving position. It's a good place to be.
Driving the M135i means laughing. A lot. There's so much power available that is being delivered without fanfare to the rear wheels, it's impossible not to have the traction and stability controls cut in when you take off. But it's never intrusive and you never feel out of control. The torque curve makes the little hatch feel like a 747 that has had the jet engines put on full thrust. It's a little bit hard to get used to, as there's a disconnect between the power delivery and the sound from the motor. Some of that sound is artificially created through speakers inside of the cabin, but you'd never know. The torque is instantaneous, with the sound of the engine seemingly trying to always catch up. Despite the lackluster steering feel, turn-in is sweet and direct and the car holds predictably through corners. You never feel as if it's going to lose its composure as is common with short wheelbase cars. The ride is surprisingly compliant over bad roads.