It used to be that the German car manufacturers' rivalries were perfectly illustrated by a desire for horsepower. And oodles of it. But now things are shifting, ever so slightly. Bhp is hardly disappearing from the agenda, but both BMW and Audi are getting into Merc's traditional territory of filling every conceivable niche with a model.
Take the BMW 1-Series. Launched with a simple five-door layout in 2004, earlier this year, it got a facelift and a three-door version. This month we've driven the new coupe style you see here, there's an X1 SUV, along with a cabrio in Spring 2008, and still they're going at it. In fact, even as I was writing this article, news came through about the hardcore tii concept you can see over the page.
For the time being, though, this 135i Coupe is the M1 of the range. Don't let BMW hear you calling it that - it's highly unlikely anything of the 1-Series' ilk will ever get the same name that adorned that iconic 1970s supercar. But with 302bhp and a 0-62mph time of 5.3 seconds, they might as well have slapped an M badge on it somewhere.
After all, the original M1 supercar went from 0-62mph in 6.2 seconds. If ever you wanted proof of how cars have moved in the last 20 years, look no further than those stats. That astonishing pace is courtesy of the 3.0-litre straight-six lump under the bonnet... and a couple of turbochargers. This is the same engine that features in the 3-Series Coupe - it gets one small turbocharger to work at low speeds, and a larger one to take over at higher speeds.
What this means is that there's virtually no lag. Porsche makes a great song and dance about the variable-vane technology in the 911 Turbo, but this BMW motor is even less leggy. Plant your foot at anywhere over 1,500rpm, and the response is virtually instantaneous.
That's not to say there's a massive shove in your back - it doesn't thwack you up the road quite as much as I was expecting. Especially given that it produces 295lb ft of torque. It's more an elastic sort of acceleration, where you suddenly find yourself doing quite silly speeds. This is another of those cars where you're going to need a clean licence before purchase. And a good lawyer. Thank goodness for the bigger brakes on the 135i, which feel really strong.
It's difficult to overstate just how impressive this engine is. It revs easily, there's no massive rush of torque because of those tandem turbos, it's smooth and it's got a great hard edge to the exhaust note. The list goes on. I can come up with very few criticisms - it could sound better inside, and the relatively small 53-litre tank gets drained quickly, but this is trivial stuff.
Even the looks aren't that bad. Bangle-bashing might have taken a bit of a rest in the media recently, but I fully expected the 1-Series Coupe to be all wobbly in the middle with a token boot stuck on the end. You know the sort of thing - whenever a manufacturer bungs a boot on a car to please particular demands in a specific country (I'm thinking Toyota Yaris and the USA), things get ugly.
The 1-Series needed a boot for its launch into America next year, but somehow BMW has managed to make it look OK. The extra length seems to have removed that rather sad droop that the hatch has in its midriff, and none of it looks out of proportion. Other less obvious alterations are the frameless doors, slightly bigger air intakes and the chrome slats in the kidney grilles on the 135i versions. The frameless doors aren't a complete success, sadly, because the 1-Series Coupe's wind noise isn't as hushed as you'd expect. Nor is tyre noise good, but blame the wide 18-inch wheels for that.
These last criticisms throw up a paradox about the Coupe, because they illustrate how confused this car is. On the one hand, the extremely relaxed and rapid engine and the decent seats make a seriously good case for the car being a fine long-distance GT cruiser. Slot it in sixth, and don't bother changing gear between here and Munich. But then, the fuel tank isn't really big enough for that, and the tyre roar is far from relaxing.
Nor, I suspect, is the ride all that cracking for long-distance comfort. Those 18-inch alloys are surrounded by some liquorice-thin rubber, and I reckon that on more broken surfaces (ie, most of the UK), things could get a little jiggy. The roads in Sweden where we drove are smooth in comparison. This 1-Series feels seriously well-damped, with plenty of control over bumps, but I just think over sharper bumps, the run-flats won't give the suspension a chance to absorb them. Ultimately, though,we'll have to wait for a British drive to decide that.
None of this would matter if the 135i was a very focussed bit of kit, if it really involved the driver. But, strangely enough, it doesn't. Sure, it handles well with a real poise and balance, and grip is seriously impressive, both at the front and rear, but I couldn't get excited by it. I was expecting serious fireworks, something that I'd want to hop back into just to drive some more. The fact I didn't is almost entirely down to the steering.
With BMW's Efficient Dynamics system in most 1-Series, you get electrically assisted steering, which, while easy to use, takes away some of the feel. Apparently, the 135i doesn't have this set-up, but you could've fooled me. By most yardsticks, it's perfectly acceptable. Good even. Really precise, no judder, decent levels of feedback. But it just didn't suck me in like it should, and it makes the car feel a bit remote, which is something a Mercedes A-Class can get away with, but not a BMW 1-Series.
This sounds like harsh criticism. But look at the price. This M Sport trim level is £30,465, before you start adding any extras. By the time those go on, you're beginning to look at decent 3-Series money, because a 335i Coupe SE costs £36,130. Given all this, perhaps it's a good thing BMW didn't call this the M1.