In the face of a hot hatch resurgence that saw Honda, Ford, VW and Audi all launching new models recently, it’s easy to forget that BMW still builds a fruity version of their littlest model.
Almost as if to remind us of its existence, BMW recently facelifted the 1 Series, and in turn replaced the M135i with this new M140i. Don’t think of this as an entirely new car though; the changes amount to a mid-life nip-and-tuck rather than a thorough going-over. So the basics remain the same - rear-wheel drive, a choice of manual or automatic gearboxes, and a 3 litre, single twin-scroll turbo straight six motor. The latter has had its power bumped up to 335 bhp and torque to 500 Nm, increases of 13bhp and 46 Nm’s respectively over the outgoing car.
Similarly, step inside and the inherent sense of ‘rightness’ that shot through the M135i’s driving position and ergonomics remains. The basic cabin design may be getting on a bit now, but the low seat and thick steering wheel imbue the driving position with wonderful intent. Thumb the starter button and the six cylinders settle to a familiar, smooth idle - and all the better for it. It still baffles me that the archetypical sports car layout - biggish engine out front, drive to the back - has become such a novelty of late, but the straight six is a welcome dollop of honey in a world filled with industrial four-pots.
Performance is of the suitably looney genre - I don’t know about you, but the idea of a 1 Series that doesn’t even bear a ‘proper’ M badge hitting 100 km/h in 4,6 seconds still shocks me. Less than ten years ago, that figure would have resided in the press pack of a Porsche 911. And whilst rivals like the Focus RS or Golf R will match or even better such times, it’s the way the BMW takes care of acceleration that sets it apart. The full torque figure doesn’t peak so much as plateau across most of the rev range, providing ample shove low-down and in intermediate gears. This isn’t to the detriment of the engine’s ability to rev, though; it pulls hard all the way to its 7000 rpm limiter with no discernible trough in power delivery. Doing so also allows you to share in one of the greatest benefits of six cylinders as opposed to four - noise. No amount of turbo whistles or wastegate flutters could substitute for the rich induction sounds that fill the cabin of the M140i.
Mated to the ubiquitous but stellar ZF 8-speed automatic, turbo lag is hardly present. Naturally, there still is some, but the gearbox always manages to find the right ratio in automatic mode to keep things in the juicy end of the power band. Take control of the paddles yourself, and shifts are very nearly as quick as a double-clutch unit, too. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the auto ‘box suits the engine’s character even better than the slightly notch six-speed manual, which with its longer gearing can sometimes expose gaps in the power delivery low down. Sacrilege, I know.
Drawbacks? Well, the M140i like its predecessor remains an eight-tenths sort of car, happy to work up to a certain level but scrappy at the limit when truly great hot hatches like RenaultSport Meganes begin to shine. Without a locking differential, the inside rear wheel often spins up under load through slow corners, and the steering, despite being accurate, is (as we’ve become used to of late) devoid of any kind of ‘feel’.
Yet the M140i doesn't suffer much for it, as this is a more grown up proposition than most of its rivals at this price point, and the concomitant softer-edge is more palatable as a result. Moreover, while the dynamics could use a little more nuance, the basics are again spot-on, as rear-wheel drive offers the BMW an inherent party piece. While Drift Modes and the like may be fun on paper, they err on the side of gimmicks in reality. On the other hand, the feeling of the rear end driving the car out of a corner, the outside rear wheel squatting under pressure and just the suggestion of oversteer on corner exit are far from gimmicks - these are dynamic luxuries.
Throw in a ride that is firm without feeling crashy, and damping that feels composed and supple over all but the most rugged of surfaces, and the M140i shapes up to be a compelling package. Certainly, if I were in the market for a hot hatch I’d look long and hard at the Beemer, as while some competitors may offer more outright thrills, they arguably lack the polish and quality that the M140i has in spades.
So there you have it: a friendly reminder that BMW makes an M-badged 1 Series. And a rather great one at that.
(Images courtesy of Evo)