For all of the BMW M140i's rear-driven inline six loveliness, it was a compromised hot hatch. Both in terms of handling and usability, the longitudinally mounted turbocharged 3.0-litre engine and rear-drive hardware delivered as many drawbacks as they did positives. Subjectively, it was easy to love. But for anyone valuing all-weather stability and rear headroom and boot space, it was hard to buy. Consequently, its replacement - comprehensively rethought and repackage - promised improvements in all those areas, and PH's first impression suggests it has succeeded. Job done, then.
Well, no, not really. By changing from a rear-wheel drive six-pot to an all-wheel drive four-cylinder configuration, BMW's M-fettled 1 Series can no longer excuse itself from comparative scrutiny on the basis of old-school charm and a sweet soundtrack. It now finds itself rubbing door handles with the Mercedes-AMG A35, the still new German that on paper appears far too close for comfort with the same number of litres, cylinders and driven wheels. The pair even share the same 306hp peak output.
There are notable differences, though. BMW has worked hard to claim some technical advantages. Its 2.0-litre unit is the firm's most potent four-pot yet, with a bigger twin-scroll turbo, strengthened crankshaft and new pistons and cod rods, giving it 332lb ft of torque from 1,750rpm to 4,500rpm; a wider and higher window than the AMG motor. In contrast, the A35 cannot claim to feature its maker's best-effort in the engine bay: it's got more in common with the A250's M260 than the pin-pulled hand grenade that is the A45-issued M133. Nevertheless, the Mercedes is actually a tenth quicker to 62mph than the M135i at 4.7 seconds so its on-paper advantages are somewhat irrelevant. Well, unless you consider that the BMW has slightly more cabin space and a boot that's ten litres bigger.
You'll need to keep those two wins front of mind when meeting the BMW in the flesh. Sat alongside the A35 on a dull, rainy day at Beachy Head, the M135i's improved practicality lends it a gawkier, more upright body which leaves the AMG looking sleek and expensive in comparison - particularly when offset by matte grey paint. BMW's designers have plastered familiar M division features onto the 1 Series's chunkier form, but the result is more cluttered than it is brawny. Its case is not helped by standard 18-inch wheels either (not to look at, at any rate); especially when the AMG is wearing bigger, prettier 19-inch alloys.
The cabin though is a smart, solid place to sit. BMW doesn't let you forget that this is an M-trim rather than a full blown performance model - it feels very functional and business like - but it does at least feature a pair of racey, Alcantara-wrapped sports seats, which are supportive and snug and fun-looking. Moreover, BMW's latest 7.0 operating system itself is ultra-easy to use and its crisp graphics make the system feel like decent value for money, considering all this stuff is standard (apart from the Apple Carplay, which bizarrely remains an option you must subscribe to in a BMW).
But there's unquestionably a higher level of glam on offer in the AMG - accentuated by a slim bar of dashboard that holds dominating chrome air vents below a wide slab of screens - which tends to make the 1 Series seem a little dull. The infotainment system is also impressive to behold, with augmented reality built into the satellite navigation and a handwriting touchpad that works brilliantly. That being said, to have this top-level setup is part of the AMG Premium Plus package, a Β£3,595 option on top of the A35's Β£35,580 list price.
We drive the Bavarian first. BMW made it clear on the launch that improving refinement was a top priority for engineers, and the M135i feels duly comfortable. The car wears the largest number of rigidity-enhancing braces of any UKL2-underpinned model, including a strut brace, underbody bars linking the subframe to the sills and - what sets its platform apart from the technically similar Mini JCW - braces connecting the sump to bulkhead. That greater rigidity has permitted the use of softer spring rates, so you might even call the M135i supple on certain roads. The adaptive suspension fitted here (a Β£500 option) is probably a no brainer.
Even with the coastal roads soaked, the BMW inspires confidence. It isn't particularly phased by lumps or bumps and even in the slightly firmed-up 'sport' mode enabled by the adaptive hardware there's more than enough flexibility in the damping. What impresses most, however, is the adjustability that's provided by the rear axle as soon as the ESC is switched off. In conditions even worse than those of our first drive the week earlier, the M135i rotates like a proper hot hatch with a lifted throttle, the car's quick steering rack (of fixed ratio) requiring minimal lock to achieve comical turn-in kicks of oversteer. There's no feel through the rim itself though, and the rack has an annoying tendency to want to self-centre. But when you're hammering between consecutive bends, its responsiveness does allow for swift tidying up and the assistance of the Torsen limited slip diff on the front axle is palpable - to the extent that it's really very hard to break the front end's bond with the tarmac. If only the xDrive system could send more than 50 per cent of torque rearwards to inject another layer of excitement into the process.
On drier roads, the M135i's handling compromise becomes a little more apparent. With rising grip levels enabling higher loads through corners, the body begins to roll more noticeably, occasionally making the car feel a little top heavy. It's never loose or uncontrolled, but it is to the detriment of the underlying chassis. That said, it's the pliancy of the suspension which keeps the pace fairly serious on UK road; the adaptive setup doing a remarkably good job of keeping those Bridgestone Turanzas pressed into the tarmac without unsettling your fillings.
Somewhat inevitably, the twin-scroll motor doing all the heavy lifting can't match the character of the old M140i's 3.0-litre straight six. Repeat buyers are unlikely to appreciate the piped in smoothness of an otherwise flat tone, and barrel-chested refinement has ebbed away. Nevertheless, the special attention given to the four-pot pays off; it follows a strong mid-range with a punch of top end power just before the 7,000rpm redline, meaning there's reward in seeking beyond that flat torque curve. Rest assured the M135i is properly quick, too. Generally speaking its eight-speed auto is very decent (if you can forgive a curiously abrupt step off) and clearly responsive to manual shifting. There's none of the pops and crackles fakery other hot hatches produce off throttle, but the powertrain's basic enthusiasm is good company. Much like the rest of the car.
It's a surprisingly high bar for the A35 to match, then, because while we know AMG to be a very capable bit of kit, it hasn't necessarily stirred the soul on previous outings. However, the autumnal backdrop of the south coast seem to suit it, and the A35 feels a little more mobile and a little less blunt than we remember on its Pirelli P-Zeros. While not as fast lock to lock, the car's steering has better natural resistance and the AMG's front end tends to stay hunkered down during quick direction changes - more so than its rival's. On a greasy route, you need to trail the brake to unlock any playfulness, otherwise the car stays comprehensively glued-down. With very scant body roll to speak of and huge composure on turn in, the A35 encourages you to jump back on the power earlier and while the conditions slightly lower its limits, you'll still be hard pushed to reach them consistently on public roads. Probably that's for the best - there isn't enough feedback through the chassis to make the handling seem properly immersive.
Point-to-point, however, its conviction doesn't miss a beat. The AMG makes great use of brake-activated torque vectoring on the front axle to really haul itself out of bends without any hint of slip - suggesting the traction issues difficulties Matt felt on his earlier drive were related to the winter boots. If there's any difference in urgency between the pairing, it is located in the lower peak of 295lb ft at 3,000rpm when leaving a corner. The AMG's seven-speed twin-clutch auto has nothing to mimic the BMW's kicks on upshift either, making the process comparably uneventful - although the action of the A35's extended metal paddles is much more satisfying to fingertips than the M135i's plasticky alternatives. In a straight line the AMG is fast - faster than it feels actually, because the engine's flatter delivery tends to smooth out and understate the acceleration. So while the A35 is quicker away from the line, there's less drama (and therefore less satisfaction) than aboard the BMW.
There are no kicks of oversteer either, and no tugs through the wheel or lean from the body. You simply get on with it in the A35, pressing wilfully harder and harder. Predictably, the issue with this narrow focus is when you back off - and find yourself living with a firm chassis everywhere else. Those bigger, prettier 19-inch wheels seem to sniff out unseen cracks and ridges no matter the drive mode, meaning anything other than freshly laid tarmac will result in fairly coarse road noise. The Mercedes never stops reminding you of its intentions; fine when you're on the right road, exhausting when you're not. The BMW's calmness is easy to miss on the drive home during Friday evening rush hour.
The difference is prominent enough for it to seem elemental. Where the BMW is playing the role of a plush 1 Series with only a fettling from M division, the A35 has been taken to task by AMG with every intention of delivering high-grade cross-country pace, albeit with a significant deficit in power compared to the A45. Its parameters reflect that, whereas the M135i's sit somewhere closer to middle ground. As an ownership proposition, it means the A35 delivers a greater focus on performance - almost from the word go. But for us it doesn't extend enough of a lead over over its rival to make up for its less forgiving ride and costlier options. In contrast, BMW's emphasis on making its hot hatch a more liveable prospect has seen it deliver a better all-round car. It's just a crying shame that you'd have to get over those looks to love it.
SPECIFICATION - BMW M135i
Engine: 1,998cc, four-cyl petrol turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 306@5,000-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 332@1,750-4,500rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,525kg (without driver)
Price: Β£35,555 (price as standard; as tested Β£42,405 comprised of Β£1,500 for Technology Pack (adding adaprtive LEDs, high beam assist, parking assistant, head-up display, enhanced bluetooth with wireless charging, WiFi hotspot preparation), Β£1,500 for Comfort Pack (adding heated steering wheel, power operated bootlid, comfort access and electric seats with driver memory), Β£500 adaptive suspension, Β£1,000 panoramic sunroof, Β£300 sun protection glass, Β£150 through loading system, Β£150 lumbar support, Β£1,000 driving assistant, Β£750 Harmon Kardon surround sound system).
SPECIFICATION - MERCEDES-AMG A35
Engine: 1,991cc, four-cyl petrol turbocharged
Transmission: 7-speed twin-clutch
Torque(lb ft): 295@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 4.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Price: Β£35,580 (price as standard; as tested Β£47,050 comprised of Β£1,295 AMG advanced navigation (adding MBUX augmented reality, traffic sign assist, head-up display), Β£1,695 driving assistant (adding active blind spot and braking assists, active distance and active speed limit assist, active lane change assist, pre-safe plus route-based speed adjustment), Β£695 adaptive suspension, Β£3,595 AMG premium plus (adding leather, folding mirrors, 10.25-inch tochscreen, active parking, heated seats, 10.25-inch instrument cluster, illuminated door sills, ambient lighting, keyless entry, rear armrest, Burmester surround sound, active electric and memory front seats, multibeam LEDs and high-beam assist, panoramic glass roof), Β£2,595 AMG style pack (adding 19-inch wheels, high-black sheen finish, Night Pack, tinted glass with heat insulation, aerodynamics package - not fitted to this early production car), Β£1,795 Designo mountain grey paint, Β£495 smartphone integration, wireless charging, pre-installation key for smartphone).
Photos: Stan Papior