Not quite a 1M, but more usable and outstanding value for money, undercutting the rival Mercedes-AMG A45 and delivering greater driving thrills

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Making the case for this car is hardly difficult. We adored the bespoke savagery of the 1-series M Coupé, but that was a high-priced, low-volume M-car model never intended for mass production. Clearly, what was needed was a similarly outrageous output wrapped in a cheaper-to-buy hatchback shell, atop a slightly less spiky chassis. Step forward the M135i.

Whereas the 1M was meant as a showy halo product for the hardcore enthusiast, the M135i, in line with BMW’s new performance strategy, is intended as a natural range-topper and a genuine prospect for the multitude of buyers attracted to the modern mega-hatch concept.

We like the M135i at its cheapest price so we'd keep the car as close to its cooking spec as possible

It’s hardly alone in that market, but its appearance has been remarkably well timed. The hideously expensive Audi RS3 Sportback has been and gone, the next generation of Volkswagen Golf R and Ford Focus RS didn't appear any time soon and it has had the best part of a year's head start on Mercedes-Benz's new turbocharged four-cylinder A45 AMG, which is more powerful still than the M135i but also significantly more expensive.

Consequently, BMW’s effort has had the breathing space to establish itself as the benchmark premium mega-hatch. With a starting price of just over £30,000 and 315bhp from its turbocharged six-cylinder engine, the rear-drive M135i promises a massive bang for your buck. 



BMW M135i rear

So is this a worthy BMW Motorsport model? That’s a fundamental question for the M135i and we can start answering it here and now.

The M135i is built on the 1 Series’ Leipzig production line, not by the M division in Munich. But the same has been true of every important M car since the E39 M5. So that, in itself, isn’t any black mark necessarily.

It's not exactly a pretty car, is it?

The car’s powertrain and suspension can be described as ‘special’. Perhaps not as special as was the case in a full-fat 1 Series M Coupé, but this is a halfway-house solution, and a more affordable and less ‘trick’ machine altogether.

The bonnet hides an engine that has a smattering of novelty and intrigue about it. It produces 315bhp and 332lb ft of torque. The latter should make it pull 10 percent harder through the middle of the rev range than the 135i M Sport coupé, as well as being some £2000 cheaper.

The chassis, however, is a little more similar to that which you might find on a lesser 1 Series. BMW describes it as "M Sport suspension", which suggests that it’s not much different from that of a 125i M Sport, for example. There’s an aluminium-rich MacPherson strut suspension set-up at the front and an independent multi-link rear end, all supported by model-specific springs and dampers. Adaptive dampers are on offer as an option. Passive variable-ratio power steering is standard.

This is the only 1 Series currently on sale with rear wheels and tyres that are wider than those at the front. It’s to transmit the fat portion of torque to the road by the driven rear wheels, you suspect. But it has no mechanical locking rear differential, which in our view is a black mark against the name of anything with an M badge.


BMW M135i interior

The M135i is available with a choice of three or five doors. You get leather upholstery and a three-berth rear bench as standard; other 1 Series offer a strict four-seat option. Shame. We can’t help thinking M135i owners might quite like individual rear chairs.

Access to the rear in the three-door is quite good, thanks to the long side doors and easily folded front seats, which can be motored forwards and backwards via a handy button on the backrest – but only if you’ve spent £600 on the right option.

There is an additional 12v socket in the passenger footwell

Space in the back is acceptable rather than good – probably not ideal if you’re likely to carry bulky child seats or more than one average-size adult with any regularity. But if you’re choosing to spend £30k like this, such considerations are probably secondary anyway.

The situation up front is much better. Like every 1 Series, the M135i seems over-specified for legroom and headroom thanks to generous adjustment on both the seat and steering column. The driving position is all but flawless and quite unlike a hatchback in its low-slung cosiness.

The way that the cabin has been appointed and equipped is less impressive. There are precious few traditional performance flourishes to distinguish it from a lesser model in M Sport trim, and plenty of gadgetry remains on the options list that other hot-hatch makers wouldn’t dream of omitting. Enough, at any rate, to mean that not many M135is will come in at their £30k starting price


BMW M135i side profile

“Apparently, the auto should duck under five seconds to 60mph,” said one tester, prior to our trip to MIRA proving ground in the M135i. Yet this car has no launch control, our test car had completed some photography so was on part-worn tyres, and it wasn’t the world’s driest or warmest day when we arrived at the test strip.

So even though BMW is frequently conservative with its performance claims, we were surprised when, two up and with a full tank of fuel, the M135i posted a two-way average 0-60mph sprint of just 4.6sec.

The engine's soundtrack is nicely busy most of the time, but eases off at a motorway cruise

That is ludicrously rapid for the money and a reminder to models such as the Vauxhall Astra VXR and Volkswagen Scirocco R that a car can have all the power it likes, but if it doesn’t send at least some of its drive to the rear, it can forget trying to match the BMW.

Not that the M135i is any less shabby in or through its gears, as a quick glance at the acceleration figures on p64 will show. Want to go from 30-70mph using only third gear? It’ll take just 4.1sec. Even in sixth – which is barely past idle at 30mph – the BMW wants only 8.1sec, which is amply brisk. For all its power, the M135i’s unit is exceedingly flexible, smooth and happy to be rolled out from low engine revolutions.

Do we think it’s a disappointment that it isn’t naturally aspirated, with the same whip-crack response as a true M engine? No more so than you’d think. Both the gently blown six and the smooth-shifting conventional automatic may seem at odds with the M badge, but given the car’s ‘halfway’ status, it’s as responsive and keen as we’d reasonably expect. There’s only a little turbo lag at low revs, and you have to search for it.

Meanwhile, if the eight-speed auto shows any hesitancy in Drive, it’s no bother to shift it to Sport and make the changes yourself. Certainly, the drivetrain is as compelling as any in a direct competitor’s vehicle and, truth be told, you can’t ask for much more than that.


BMW M135i cornering

While the M135i comes as standard with Drive Performance Control, which provides a range of driving modes from Eco Pro through to Sport+, it can also be specified with £515 worth of electronically controlled adaptive M Sport dampers that bring faster reaction times. Sport and Sport+ modes tighten up the car's body control, add a little weight to the variable-ratio steering and progressively dial back the stability control system's eagerness to intervene. We suspect most owners will settle for the default Comfort mode (most of the time) and Sport (on more interesting, well surfaced roads).

The M135i doesn’t ride on runflat tyres, instead getting very serious-sounding and extremely grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sports. But, still, its ride retains a firmness and jiggle to its body that, say, a Ford Focus ST would smooth out to greater effect.

The sticky tyres provide plenty of lateral grip but can wear quickly

It is, however, extraordinarily better than the previous-generation BMW 130i, and quite bearable even in its firmer settings, which provide far tighter control of the M135i’s body movements.

There’s never much discernible road feel through the steering, but it’s smooth, accurate and quick, providing a quicker ratio once you get off-centre than it does at the straight-ahead. It’s a common trick that gives straight-line stability allied to a feeling of agility once you’re on lock. The M135i tipped our scales at 1545kg, yet it turns with the willingness and accuracy of a car a couple of hundred kilos lighter, no doubt aided by the fact that only 52 per cent of its weight is on its front tyres.

Typically, we’ve found 1 Series to be quite pleasingly balanced and adjustable at their limit, but seemingly the M135i would be overly tail happy were it to wear the same width rubber on the front as the back. As it is, it’s a rather enjoyable steer down most roads, with just the right level of adjustability when you get serious.

The M135i brakes well, pulling itself to rest from 60mph in just 2.6sec in the dry and comfortably under 3.0sec even in the wet.


BMW M135i

The M135i had a headline-grabbing starting price of £29,995 in manual form when it was first introduced, but prices were "realigned" not long afterwards, with the list price climbing to just over the £30k mark and a little more standard kit being added, including a DAB radio. 

Nevertheless, the M135i represents outstanding value for money at that price. It's £10k cheaper than the limited-run 1 Series M Coupe was when it was new, despite being just as quick. And even when fitted with the optional eight-speed automatic gearbox, it's a good £5000 less than its closest rival, the Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, which comes only with a dual-clutch automatic ’box.

Opting for the manual gearbox adds a 2.4mpg combined fuel penalty

Part of the reason why it appears so reasonably priced is that, despite the spec realignment, the M135i isn't exactly generously equipped as standard. You do get Dakota leather upholstery, sports seats, dual-zone climate control, the four-mode Drive Performance Control, an M Sport body kit and bespoke 18-inch alloy wheels fited with the sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, but being asked to pay extra for things like rear parking sensors is a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless, if £30k is your budget, we’d quite happily drive around in an M135i in its lowest spec or thereabouts.

All the extra grunt does come with added expense beyond the sticker price, too. But even in these terms, the M135i is about as competitive as it’s possible to be while wielding six turbocharged cylinders.

Opt for the slightly more expensive automatic and the CO2 emissions descend to 175g/km (from 188g/km in the manual). That’s only 6g/km more than Ford managed to extract from the Focus ST’s new four-cylinder EcoBoost engine. We also managed an admirable 41.4mpg on our touring run – slightly more, in fact, than the ST achieved.


4 star BMW M135i

A halfway house. Nearly, but not quite, an M-car. A midway compromise between the standard range and a full-blown product.

That’s what the M135i looks like being on paper, and that’s what it turns out to be in practice: a car that retains the mainstream 1 Series range’s sensible appeal, but with the wick turned up to cast a larger glow than you’d expect of a regular model.

This is a very entertaining and enjoyable car

It’s a compromise that works as well. This is an entertaining, enjoyable car.

Inevitably, however, the lack of bespoke M division engineering and components leaves the M135i feeling far more like a conventional BMW than an M product. Of the two paths, the normal 1 Series is the one to which the M135i remains closer.

Nevertheless, this is a fine driving companion and a car with both a spectacular set of performance numbers and a determinedly alluring price.

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

BMW M135i 2012-2014 First drives