Driven - Jan 2020

BMW M135i XDrive – Has the hot 1-Series gone soft?

BMW’s latest generation of the 1-series has moved a great deal away from what the car once denoted. Much to the dismay of almost everyone that bought the car prior on its driving merit or could appreciate the simple RWD layout and how that translated when behind the wheel of a hatchback that was still very good at being a hatch. A simple 120D offered enough fervour and energy to be a truly interesting car to drive and live with. An understanding that resulted in my ownership of an E87 120D LCI Auto. A car I loved and enjoyed far more than I would have had I suborned an equivalent Golf or Focus and given I enjoyed raging around and cast my RWD skid-age teeth with. 

Hot versions where always rather interesting and I cherish rather clearly how I envied the 130i M-sport of the same era and later the N54 powered 135i Coupe that prefaced modern versions. It had the same nuances as the rest of the range, in that the RWD driving characteristics shun through in very simple driving situations, yet given the 225kw on tap could become a rather seriously focused car when pressing on. The speed at which you can travel, take corners, and the number of hearts that it provided for you to trample with the six-cylinder throatiness. Modern motives now boasting the ‘Cerium Mirror M140i Persona’. B58 powerplants good for 250kW and 500Nm, serious numbers that translate into a sometimes wishful 4.6 second 0-100 dash given how slippery the rear can become and the typical 250Km/h limited barrier. It was a hoot, terribly rapid and more than a handful with the electronic nannies turned down. Like any half-decent enthusiast focused car, one should drive with their body in a more sensory form, where there’s a real link to you and the driving prowess the car has. 

Now, with the move to the FWD UKL2 platform from the 2-series and Mini range, long bonnets dimensions and slightly cramped rear seats more kindred to an RWD hatch-gone, replaced the larger the Extra large nostril cladding family face that we have since adjusted to. This is a move I sampled in the new 118i M-sport late last year. A point that exclaimed the point further and the conviction through a more cavernous interior, smooth tech integration with the driving experience which wasn’t as compromised and driver-focused but, compliant and enough for the class. Its greatest flaw was that it once drove dynamically because, without it, it grew to be rather vanilla. 

Arriving at the 2020 M135i

Now a 2.0litre turbo-petrol producing 225kW and 450Nm driving BMW’s XDrive All-Wheel Drive system. The numbers suggest that the new car is livelier to the 0-100 sprint given the grip and when pressing on the car does indeed feel rather rapid. The growls of a Turbo inline-six replaced with what I suspect is some fake engine noise from the stereo system, more to supplement comparatively less provocative noise that the 2.0litre makes. The car is as fast as the numbers suggest but simply put the connection that you and the car create as you blast off in search of naughty driving jaunts and adventures don’t resonate well with this car. All the 7.25inchs of driver info displays with all the modern connectivity toys; smartphone mirroring and charging, auto parking, gesture control, the adjustable driver elements are there, as a modern cabin its the usual BMW standard. Dynamically its much of the same, it’s not the greatest with respects to driver engagement but still a predicable AWD fast hatch, in that, at moments the power does move around and you do feel this and dull understeer tendencies surpass the opposite lock moments that now never arrive. Turning driver-focused aims like the M steering, and M dampers to their fruitiest still just fail to create a sense of nostalgia or a rejoinder of bliss at lease in this case similar. The exhaust pops and bangs and makes very attractive noises, launch control, diving into corners flat out, feeling the grip move around and still being progressive enough for you to keeping it planted through understeer inducing circumstances; all vast and impressive to be frank given the new attempt at a performance-based car, but sad not very charming. On the move, the car is properly quick and the vehicle dynamics are on par with a car that provides enough engagement to be a good drivers car, just not an inspired one. It reminds me almost holistically of the Audi S3 in its early stages. Dynamically it always fell short to rivals Megane RS for example, solely due to what the compromise the Megane offered. This the same mantra behind hot BMW 1-series. The X-drive is fantastic in keeping the power as well connected to the tarmac as possible but simply doesn’t connect with the driver as well as it does the road. 

The numbers translate almost directly into the real world and the car does absolutely fly. It pops and bangs and can be throaty on the overrun when pushing the car very hard but sadly just is not something that will tug at your heartstrings like the old one. Perhaps the number that speaks the most is the price and at basically 700k before options, you’d expect it to be fast, grippy and combine that well in the corners. It’s rather a good space to be and makes a good job of being a fast car but with emission becoming an issue and the mass market design it’s just not very ‘M’ car and in a world where that should mean tyrannical driving focus, it’s a bit vanilla probably why BMW motorsport and heritage Alpina and current M head Markus Flasch both refuse to anything hotter one the new platform, meaning if you aim really exploit a chassis to sell cars not all of them will be very exciting. Like this one can and should be.  

BMW M135i Xdrive In South Africa 

Prices start at R699 000 and are inclusive of a 5year/100 000 Motorplan