Wednesday 16th November 2005


BMW 130I M SPORT

Is the fastest BMW hatch worth a drive? Nick Hall has fun finding out.

BMW 130i M Sport
BMW 130i M Sport

Apparently, some sharp-eyed local policeman spotted the flotilla of tricked up BMW hatchbacks. As a result, a mobile camera sat in the middle of the carefully scouted route. It was a good thing we went in forewarned, as the 130i M Sport would have got more than just me into trouble.

This is a car that lives by its 7,000rpm redline and brings out the devil in whoever sits behind the wheel. Perfectly respectable middle-aged men, ones charged with testing far more powerful cars than this, turned into young hooligans when presented with a 265bhp rear-wheel drive hot hatch.

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Not so long ago, these figures would have been trumpeted on the front pages of the motoring press along with a picture of the latest superstar from Maranello or Stuttgart. Today, it’s a mundane figure that barely raises the pulse on paper, but in the flesh this buzzing hornet of a car is a wholly different proposition.

Any mainstream hot hatch that accelerates to 60mph in 6.1 seconds, weighs 1,450Kg and tops out at 155mph has to be a little bit special, even in the modern age, and BMW has let it slip in casual conversation that this little animal has lapped the test track of the gods, the Nordschleife, in a time that certainly would not disgrace an M3.

Buzzy power delivery

The high revving nature of the 130i, with peak power achieved at 6,600rpm, allows for smooth power delivery all the way to the redline, while the 232lb-ft of torque at 2,750rpm provides low down in-gear thrust. It’s ferocious in a straight line and lunges deep into the rev zone with the slightest tickle on the gas and begs you to hold the gear and feel the noise.

The engine takes a deep breath at 4,000rpm, thanks to BMW’s VANOS variable valve timing, and all hell lets loose in a gnashing whirl of revs. It’s fast, brutal and takes time to truly master. The first few minutes were a Staccato mess of power, brakes and opposite lock, it takes time to smooth out progress in the buzzy little 130i. It’s one of the lairiest cars in the line-up and is almost as compulsive as the mighty M3.

Don’t get hoodwinked by the M in the 130i M Sport title, this is not a true M. The 130i is just as fast in a straight line and significantly cheaper and the M package comprises slightly stiffer suspension, the bodykit, 18-inch wheels, fatter rear tyres and some cosmetic jewellery on the interior that all add to the flavour of this frenetic, tooth-gnashing banshee. On some of BMW’s range, it has felt like a cynical ploy to empty the customer’s pocket of the last few coins, here it feels strangely fitting.

With a few choice modifications to the air induction intake and exhaust systems, the engineers have extracted an extra 7hp from the three-litre inline six that proved a sexier option than the marque’s 4.5-litre V8 in the 6-Series.

Extensive use of magnesium alloy in the crank case, cylinder head and other areas kept the weight to the bare bones and this is the lightest engine in its class. It’s compact, too, which helps with the legendary BMW 50/50 front/rear weight distribution. It’s not just a case of shifting ballast, though, BMW has gone to the extremes of mixing up the metals in the suspension to ensure the basic balance is right.

Driving it

The 130i has the longest wheelbase in class at 2.66metres, a wide track and short body overhangs at each corner. Simple and basic it might be, but such things matter when it comes to slinging the car round Newbury’s B-roads.

Now the 130i M Sport is, somewhat unbelievably, only a whisker lighter than the 630i, but this is an altogether less sophisticated machine. It’s a true hot hatch in the sense that the simple base chassis is pushed to its limits by the raw power, so it’s nervous and constantly bucking in your hands.

It skips off ruts in the road and can push wide in corners, leading to one memorable moment on broken, damp tarmac, but it’s all part of the fun. Accusations of poor handling may have missed the point, as this car feels like the rough edges have been deliberately left unfiled. The four-wheel drive Golf R32 leaves the little Beemer in its wake in terms of ride and even outright speed, but I’d buy this car every time for the fun factor.

With the traction control off, you’re never far from opposite lock, as there’s no limited slip diff and the power is more than enough to unstuck the rear wheels and send the 1 Series sideways out of bends. Here it’s best to have ignored the active steering box on the optional extras list. While it’s getting better, this system still feels a little artificial for my liking and a bit more effort at parking speeds is a small price to pay for feel on the limit.

Some of the other trickery to filter down from the bigger models, though, such as brake standby and fade compensation are more than welcome. The former brings the discs closer to the pads after sudden lift-off, which can affect the braking distance just enough to save a big shunt, and ensures the pads are kept dry with occasional applications. And the latter puts extra pressure on the brakes to compensate for any heat-related fading. It’s all pretty impressive stuff and means that the lightweight 130i can stop just as effectively as it starts.

Value proposition

The M Sport costs £26,515, the 130i costs £24,745. Just a couple of thousand more will get you behind the wheel of the 330i, which remains one of the best cars of the year and the same money could just about get you into a 5 Series. So this is not a cheap entry-level BMW. It’s a lifestyle choice, a baby ‘M’ for those that don’t need the rear seats and want something that’s more of a handful than the corresponding 3.

Now it’s all well and good talking about the theory behind it, the simple truth is that I couldn’t justify buying this car with full M regalia when the cost is so close to the 330i – one of the best cars pound-for-pound I have driven this year. As I emerged from the cockpit to hand the keys back to BMW’s every helpful staff I wanted it, though, just for a minute I wanted this car.

If you don’t need the back seats, love adrenaline-fuelled motoring and like the idea of a hot hatch, then try the 130i – it really won’t disappoint. Unless the police are around, that is…

Photos by Matthew Griffiths

Author: Nick Hall