Even a few months and a few thousand miles into our long-term loan of the M135i, consternation and controversy quite blatantly follow it around like the worst kind of surveillance. It just can't catch a break; tell enthusiasts you're driving an M135i and their expression picks up, expecting tales of straight six derring-do and punchy performance. Followed by disappointment when they learn the reality. The casual fan doesn't seem too bothered, either, the 1 lacking the A-Class's jazzy interior or the desirability enjoyed by the latest A3 as the new kid on the block.
Its manufacturer hasn't helped the situation by launching the M2 CS. Just as the world was starting to move on from six cylinders and rear-wheel drive in BMW's smallest cars, along comes the best yet, one brimming with intent, ability and seductive charm. Obviously we won't compare one BMW with another costing twice as much, though it seems unfortunate for the new era that the previous one is signing off in such spectacular fashion.
There are one or two things that could benefit the 1 Series without a huge outlay. Alright, that's a small lie; a manual in 2020 works wonders for driver involvement, though there isn't one that fits in the UKL1 architecture (it's the same issue the Mini GP faces). And there's a suspicion that buyers wouldn't want it, especially given how well an automatic suits both this car and the previous generation . That said tyres should benefit the 135; the CS boasted great turn in bite and a better sense of connection through the steering wheel than some recent M cars. While Cup 2s would be a bit much for this car, more aggressive rubber would surely work wonders - the car isn't inert as is, though never does it feel tremendously eager for a performance flagship either.
Tell you what the M135i is very, very good at, though: being the kind of modern hot hatch people actually buy. Because we can whinge on all we want about the demise of a cult classic, but there's no arguing with the kind of car that buyers now want, and it's one that's broadly (if not exceptionally) talented across the board. They want zero compromise, zero fuss, zero effort practical performance. With a nice badge on it.
Need proof? A dear friend, who for the sake of this story we'll call Elfyn, was in the market for a hot hatch. £25k budget, had to be auto. Which opens up all manner of intriguing options: the old M140i, of course, an original A45 AMG, the current Renault Sport Megane, an RS3 and so on. What did he buy? A Golf R. Because of course he did. Even a GTI Clubsport - lighter, just as fast once up and running, more fun to drive - wasn't good enough. It became Golf R or nothing. So, really, is it any wonder that BMW so slavishly copied the template? Because Elfyn clearly isn't the only one. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.
Furthermore, credit where it's due, the BMW does a good job of being the consummate everyday performance car. While I'd love to tell you about the finer points of chassis balance and body control, more relevant to the Golf R legion will be the impeccable integration of wireless CarPlay, keyless entry and start that never fails and a driving position that remains comfortable even after hours at the wheel. Because, let's be honest, the majority of our driving is pretty dull, perhaps punctuated by squirts between and through roundabouts to liven it up. The BMW, with its punchy performance, closely stacked intermediate gears and reasonably game chassis - along with the long distance refinement - means it suits that brief quite well.
A day spent with Ultimate Drives yesterday, on a tour of the Cotswolds, showed off the BMW's talents nicely. I saw 52mpg (!) driving up on the M40 (on the trip computer, but still), it was small enough to dart through country lanes that flummoxed supercars and yet entertaining enough on more open B roads. It's never thrilling, but it is capable, assured and easy to extract performance from. Not what any enthusiast gets fired up about, but much the same could be said about the Golf R. In an on-demand world, where TV is streamed, fast food delivered and tech with you almost before it's ordered, people don't want to put in effort where it's not needed. And for most people that definitely extends to driving - I think it's why the Golf R model successful, and why it's been repeated wherever possible.
Which sounds like damning the M135i with faint praise, being the car BMW needs it to be rather than the one we all want it to be. And to some extent it is, because a BMW should arguably be doing this job with more flourish than it is. But there's also something to be said for just getting the job done, being the right car for the situation whatever that situation might be. So while perhaps no journey has been tremendously memorable, neither have I ever begrudged being in the 1 Series, either. Which, I suspect, is the kind of quality that easy to rub along without getting excited about - and then miss once it's no longer there. We'll find out for sure when the car goes back next month...
Car: 2019 BMW M135i xDrive
Run by: Matt
On fleet since: March 2020
Mileage: 6,006 (delivered on 3,060)
List price new: £36,430 (price as standard; price as tested £43,190 comprised of Melbourne Red paint for £560, Comfort Pack 2 (steering wheel heating, Powered bootlid operation, Comfort Access, Electric front seats and driver memory) for £1,500, Technology Pack 1 (BMW Icon Adaptive LED Headlights, High-beam Assistant, Parking Assistant, Head-up display, Enhanced Bluetooth with wireless charging, Wi-Fi hotspot preparation) for £1,500, Adaptive suspension for £500, Panoramic glass sunroof for £1,000, Sun protection glass for £300, Through-loading system for £150, Lumbar support, driver and front passenger for £150, Driving Assistant for £1,000, Harmon/Kardon loudspeaker system for £750).
Last month at a glance: It's no M icon, but don't dismiss the M135i out of hand
1 / 9