New BMW M135i xDrive prototype review

Is the new 302bhp BMW M135i xDrive a serious rival for the Mercedes-AMG A 35? We try it out in prototype form…VerdictWhile the move away from rear-wheel drive in the regular 1 Series isn’t as much of an issue, we can’t help wish this M135i xDrive model felt a little more fun. It’s extremely capable, easy to drive at a rapid pace and will definitely be a match for Mercedes-AMG’s A35 and the VW Golf R, but the BMW feels a little flat and not that inspiring – although it’s not alone in that. Overall, the M135i xDrive is a strong technical showing of the performance on offer from the new 1 Series platform and there is fun to be had – it’s just delivered in a different way and you have to work a little harder to find it.

No family hatchback line-up would be complete without a hot range topper, and this new M135i xDrive is just that car for the new BMW 1 Series. 

We’ve already seen how the regular 118i and 120d models drive and some of the technological advances and changes under the new front-wheel drive car’s skin, so what’s this hot hatch rival to the likes of the Mercedes-AMG A 35 like?

• New BMW 118i prototype review

For a start, it’s not front-wheel drive. The M135i is only available with BMW’s four-wheel drive xDrive system, which can send as much as 50 per cent of the power to the rear axle.

On the subject of power, there’s 302bhp and 450Nm of torque from a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol motor that’s an evolution of the motor first seen in BMW’s X2 M35i xDrive hot SUV.

But compared with that engine it boasts new pistons for higher compression, stronger con rods, a new, larger twin scroll turbo and new fuel injectors.

In this prototype it felt very measured and linear. That maximum torque output is delivered from 1,750rpm and sustained to 4,500rpm, so there’s strong performance low down and not much lag, while it revs out with a decent level of aggression too. However, it’s not the most characterful unit, so much so that BMW has enhanced the engine’s note with a contrived sound under load. There’s a rorty noise and some pops on upshifts from the sports exhaust, we just wish we could hear more of this.

The gearbox itself is good. An eight-speed automatic that shifts swiftly and smoothly no matter whether you’re going up or down, but it doesn’t feel as rapid as the best dual-clutch systems.

It doesn’t enhance nor does it hinder the driving experience, but what about that new platform?

• Best hot hatchbacks on sale

There’s a good level of grip and the balance is benign, so you can jump in and drive it to its limit very quickly – something BMW’s engineers explicitly wanted to achieve. Even once you approach or exceed that limit the M135i feels friendly, but not all that thrilling.

That’s because it pushes into understeer whereas its rear-driven ancestor wanted to indulge you in small slides. However, you can cure this a little by subscribing to the slow in, fast out mantra, taking some corner entry speed off and relying on the torque-sensing Torsen limited-slip differential on the front axle to tighten your line and maximise traction. It’ll no doubt be a devastatingly effective device to cover slick and greasy British B-roads in as a result.

On the regular 1 Series the responsive but vague variable ratio steering isn’t as much of an issue as it is here, but at least it’s nicely weighted and the car reacts well in direction changes – thanks to increased body rigidity, with a special design of strut across the front suspension turrets and extra bracing all over the car, including underneath the chassis at the rear.

Our early drive was limited to a tight and twisty handling circuit, so we couldn’t tell much about the ride on the standard 18-inch wheels. There is a subtle degree of adjustability, but even with the clever new integrated traction control and stability system that’s design to inject more of a fun feel, we’d have liked a little more. After all, this is BMW’s calling card.

We’ll have to wait for official performance figures, but expect it to match the AMG A 35’s 4.7-second 0-62mph time and to do it using less fuel than ever.

Key specs

  • Model: BMW M135i xDrive
  • Price: £35,000 (est)
  • Engine: 2.0-litre 4cyl turbo/petrol
  • Power/torque: 302bhp/450Nm
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
  • 0-62mph: 4.7 seconds (est)
  • Top speed : 155mph (est)
  • Economy/CO2: TBC
  • On sale: Late 2019

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