These are the days of the £30,000 hot hatch. Frill up your Astra VXR with satnav, leather and metallic paint and you're pretty well there, and it's little different with a Megane RS 265. Instead, how about a three-door BMW with six cylinders and an M-tuned suspension for that same price? There's no power trade-off. In fact, quite the opposite: the M135i has 320bhp. It'll get to 60mph in under five seconds.
Here we have a BMW that's an actual performance bargain. Clearly, I'm going to have to spend the entire next two pages looking for the catch. OK, I don't. The catch is staring us all in the face. Literally. This is not a pretty car. The Astra and Megane are low-slung quasi-coupes. The 1-Series three-door does have the classic long-bonnet proportions of a pure driver's machine, but, that apart, it's a rather homely, upright thing, its face pulling a strangely surprised frown. If it were 11 years old and it texted you, it'd sign off with an =:-0
So, let's move right along to the good bits, which are many. At £30k, you might worry this is only 75 per cent of the marvellous, deceased and much-missed £40k 1-Series M Coupe. But I'd say it's knocking on for 90 per cent there. The engine makes 320bhp via a single turbo. OK, so the old M made 340 with twin blowers... but the new engine makes the same torque, over a wider rev range, and it's propelling a car that's now 70kg lighter. And while the people at M haven't gone over the engine's internals for the M135i, they have worked on the sound.
This is not one of those turbocharged engines that does its best work only at medium revs. Oh yes, the work there is extremely effective, giving you a lag-free kick forward. But, go towards 7,000, and it keeps pulling with in-yer-face vim, and the epic straight-six howl that hot little BMWs are meant to make. To be honest, on the motorway, the noise is almost more than you'd want for a
long cruise. But I only said ‘almost'.
Actually, I was driving the optional automatic. It has quick-responding paddles, and it gets to 62mph (not just 60) in 4.9 seconds, and its thirst and CO2 are even lower than the manual's. As it has eight gears, top is pretty relaxed on the motorway, and, on the autobahn, it's dead keen to kick down and go hunting for the 155mph speed limiter like a 100m sprinter breasting the tape. Despite
the fact that the M boys have put in special high-geared steering, it still feels reassuringly stable at these speeds.
The M engineers have also worked on the suspension geometry and rates, and developed an extra sticky set of 18-inch tyres, widened to 245-section at the rear. It shows. The result is tyrannical grip, even when it's moist. But not just brutal, dictatorial roadholding: really nice handling too, with plenty of sensation through the wheel and a balance that's playable on the throttle. Unlike a FWD turbo hot hatch, there's no messy torque-steer out of a tight, bumpy bend. Maybe it isn't quite as connected as the old 1-Series M (it doesn't have hydraulic steering any longer), nor I suspect as playable in full opposite-lock mode on a track (it doesn't have the M locking diff).
But, honestly, for an urbane £30k road car, the M135i has a chassis that's as marvellous as its powertrain. The relatively unsteep price doesn't mean it's brutally basic inside. You get nice sports seats, trimmed in leather, and decent stereo, BT and iPod links via the iDrive. No navigation, admittedly, but the general level of trim is pretty plush.
The ride, while hardly pillowy, is more forgiving than it would be on a full-noise M car. The test car has the adaptive dampers option ticked. It's not just the available auto 'box that brings the M135i to a wider audience than before. Because it's quite a lot bigger, the back seat is more hospitable, and there's a five-door option as well as this three-door. By the end of the year, BMW will add a 4WD version with a computer-controlled centre diff to keep the handling nicely balanced, even in the dry, they promise.
BMW calls this an M Sport Automobile, like the M550Xd. It's apparently disbarred from being called a real M car because it's available with 4WD. The M550Xd is ruled out because it's diesel, as well as 4WD. My most recent drive in what BMW defines as a real M car was in the M6. It had all manner of M technical goodness and was massively fast. But it was heavy and remote. I want M to mean cars that are light and sharp and involving and make you go "Mmmmm." The M6 doesn't. This does.
2979cc, 6cyl, RWD, 320bhp, 332lb ft, 35.3mpg, 188g/km CO2, 0-62mph in 5.1secs, 155mph, 1425kg