BMW M135i: PH Fleet

With the standard BMW suspension junked in favour of a set of Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs, the M135i project is officially under way. To recap, we've bought a five-year-old M135i for £17,500 to see if, with a few choice modifications, we can turn it into the car it always should have been. We're working with BMW tuning specialist Birds on this project and, by the end, we should have a truly brilliant little hatch.

Kind of ring binder we like to see...
Kind of ring binder we like to see...
The first thing we wanted to address was the M135i's ride and handling. As standard, it's a curious mix of uptight ride quality and soggy body control. It's liquorice syndrome: terrible for your health, but at least it tastes disgusting. A relatively small, rear-wheel drive hatchback with more than 300hp should be a right old hoot to drive, but as it rolled out of the factory the M135i just doesn't feel quite right.

Rather than off-the-shelf parts, Birds' suspension upgrade uses springs and dampers that have been tuned specifically for the M135i. The Iver-based company recruited former racing driver James Weaver and experienced motorsport engineer Peter Weston to develop the upgrade package. Between them, James and Peter selected the correct springs and arrived at their own damper curves. The latter are valved accordingly at the Bilstein factory - this isn't simply a matter of bolting on stock parts and fiddling with damper clicks.

But hold on a minute. What do a couple of circuit boffins know about tuning a road car chassis? I wondered that myself, but when I heard James had some initial input into the Noble M600's chassis - one of the best suspended cars I've ever driven - I left my cynicism at the door.

James - who raced single seaters, touring cars and endurance racers across a four-decade career - wasn't particularly impressed with the M135i's chassis. 'I drove the standard car and it was a bit of an eye opener to say the least,' he says. Ride quality was his main bugbear. Peter reckons the issue is that German cars are generally developed for German roads, which are typically much smoother than our own, and that they're actually optimised for a very narrow set of circumstances. 'In Europe new cars have to do 200kph five-up with a boot full of luggage, so that's what the suspension is optimised for,' he comments. 'But normally, when your car is heavily loaded you moderate your driving anyway; you're not trying to find the limits of the car. You really want the car to be at its best two-up.'

Out with the old and in with the new!
Out with the old and in with the new!
Using a short loop made up of narrow, bumpy lanes close to Birds' HQ, James and Peter assessed the standard set-up. They found that the springs were too soft - an effort, perhaps, to put some ride quality back into the car - and there was far too much rebound damping. Rebound is the rate at which the wheel is allowed to drop out of its arch. Too much rebound keeps the wheel hanging up in there, which knackers ride quality and reduces grip. Why would BMW give the M135i so much rebound damping? It's all to do with that 200kph, five-up, fully loaded boot requirement, reckons Peter. If you optimise a car for those very specific circumstances, it'll feel massively over damped 95 per cent of the time when the car is much lighter.

James and Peter arrived at a set-up that uses stiffer springs - 15 per cent at the rear and 10 per cent at the front - and dampers that have much less rebound. The front end also sits 10mm lower. The stiffer springs should keep the body better controlled while less rebound damping will allow each wheel to drop into and roll through negative road features - potholes, sunken drain covers and the like - vastly improving ride quality.

That's the theory, at least. Having driven the car a few hundred miles on its new set-up I reckon that's exactly what James and Peter have achieved. There's greater plushness to the ride now, the new suspension smoothing out those negative road features rather than thumping through them. Very rough patches of tarmac are also much better ironed out. On particularly bumpy stretches of road, the kind of back lane that's almost unique to the UK, the body is much more settled now, rather than skipping and bouncing around, and the car also feels better tied down over crests whereas before it felt like the body and wheels might separate entirely.

"Chaps, anyone know how to get this down?"
"Chaps, anyone know how to get this down?"
Very useful improvements then, and our first step towards making a proper gem of the M135i. The new springs and dampers took half a day to fit, costing £1554.23 with installation, but not VAT. Incidentally, they can also be fitted to the M235i, as can all of the forthcoming upgrades.

Along with the new suspension Birds also fitted 10mm spacers to the front axle, subtly changing the steering geometry to try and bring some feel and precision to the wheel. The steering is better now and the car also looks a little meaner with a touch more track width, but it's not a night-and-day improvement.

So what's next? We'll be fitting a limited-slip differential soon, which should get the car to where we want it to be in terms of dynamics. Only then will we look at obtaining more power from the turbo straight-six.

BMW M135i
Run by: Dan Prosser
Bought: July 2017
Mileage: 32,400 total, 900 this month
Purchase price: £17,500
Last month at a glance: Shockingly good improvement with new suspension fitted

Previous reports:
'You could get an M135i for that' - so we have!





Lead image Luc Lacey, all other pics Stan Papior

P.H. O'meter

Join the PH rating wars with your marks out of 10 for the article (Your ratings will be shown in your profile if you have one!)

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Rate this article

Comments (108) Join the discussion on the forum

  • jason61c 03 Oct 2017

    I had a ride in one that had an Intrax setup fitted. It was great fun along bumpy Devonshire roads.

    With the car though, 17.5k seems a lot to spend on one to then throw loads of money at it. No 8k cars that'd make a more sensible start point?

  • MR2 Steve 03 Oct 2017

    This sounds like a great upgrade. When I had mine I took it on the Evo triangle and the car was laughably bad on a demanding bumpy B road. It just tied itself in knots.

    How does the ride/handling compare to a Leon Cupra 290 which is much better as a stock set up.

  • ZX10R NIN 03 Oct 2017

    I'd say forget the price of the car it's giving owners & potential owners a heads up as to what they could expect from the upgrades without spending a penny, then if they wish they can cherry pick the parts that suit them best.

  • urquattroGus 03 Oct 2017

    I had my 13 plate M135i for just under 4 years, waved goodbye to it this March.

    2 years in a had the Birds Springs, Anti Roll Bars and Quaife diff installed (B1 or B2 dynamics package)

    What a transformation! The car was band on really, much less unsettled and more steering feel, for the first time I was able to drive it with real confidence.

    A great little car that was.

    17.5K seems a lot to spend on a 62 plate car though...

    Sold My high spec 63 plate, with the birds goodies for that in March.

  • D200 03 Oct 2017

    Suspension changes sound great - looking forward to reading about the LSD and the engine tuning in near future

    Dan, can you please performance test the car before [using proper timing equipment: D] before and after all the modification you make? 0-60, 0-100 and in gear comparisons like 30-100mph etc. I read about all these car being remapped etc. but you rarely hear how much faster they actually are

    I also assume the when getting the engine tuned they will dyno it before and after?

View all comments in the forums Make a comment