M Performance Makes Another Case For Itself

2012 BMW M135i

Here is a sign that (1) BMW is still intent on having fun with its ultimate driving machines and (2) it realized quickly that it got it wrong on the 1 Series hatchback redesign and needed to dress it up, literally, to save face. Whatever the justification for its existence, this M135i three-door hatch is as close to outrageously fantastic as the recently decommissioned 1M Coupe.

The new hatch comes with BMW's turbocharged N55 direct-injection 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine producing 315 horsepower at 5,800 rpm – just 20 fewer horses than that 1M Coupe – and exactly the same torque rating of 332 pound-feet between 1,300 and 4,500 rpm. Plus, the M135i weighs a precious 120 pounds less than the 1M, even when carrying the eight-speed Steptronic sport automatic (155 pounds less with the six-speed manual).

Among top-tier hot Euro hatches like this, the M135i is the first one on the field, to be followed by the future Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG, next Audi RS3 and hopefully a worthy MkVII successor to the Volkswagen Golf R32 legacy. Nothing says "niche" like a high-priced 300-hp hatchback, so it's a fool's game. And we feel foolish.

2012 BMW M135i side view
2012 BMW M135i front view2012 BMW M135i rear view

If you're North American, you cannot get this M135i at all.

You can get the M135i – actually, if you're North American, you cannot get this M135i at all – with the supreme six-speed manual shifter, but BMW had only automated manuals available on our test day in Munich. BMW estimates the manual shifter will get you to 62 miles per hour from a standstill in 5.1 seconds, while the eight-speed automated manual will do it in 4.9. Looks like we've reached a crossroads. How much longer can BMW continue with manual transmissions on any of its mid-to-high powered cars?

The four tires touching the ground on our particular tester were Michelin Pilot Super Sports measuring 225/40ZR18 88Y in front and 245/35ZR18 92Y out back. No matter how much we played with chassis, transmission and traction control settings, the wider rear Michelins just refused to skip a beat unless supremely forced to do so. The rear differential is a pseudo setup that relies on instantaneous but smooth application of the brakes to both minimize understeer and also get you through tougher curves more quickly by keeping the right line. There's also the adaptive M suspension stiffening things up and lowering the car by nearly half an inch. Variable sports steering also comes with this M Performance model, which works intuitively based on the type of driving it senses you are up to.

2012 BMW M135i headlight2012 BMW M135i wheel detail2012 BMW M135i taillight2012 BMW M135i exhaust tip

The M135i falls squarely between the M3 and the total aggression of the 1M Coupe.

There were several requisite naysayers present while we were testing the M135i who just had to pick on something until it bled, though they purported to "really love the car." Most were noodling around with the suspension settings, saying that things got a bit rough in a few of the calibration combos available.

This is an M Performance car, though, and if it didn't rattle us occasionally, even just a little bit, only then would we be irked. The F21 hatch in M135i trim is so tossable and smooth in transition that we were peeling off almost no momentum in faster sections of road. What came to mind most during these exercises was the naturally aspirated V8 setup of the M3, but really (and appropriately) the M135i falls squarely between the M3 and the total aggression of the 1M Coupe. Through zesty curve combinations, we came away feeling this M135i creation may have done the better job overall versus those other two.

2012 BMW M135i driving2012 BMW M135i driving

The transmission was honestly terrific out here on roads meant for true sports cars.

A unique bushing strategy throughout the front axle assembly makes a positive driving difference here as well, which is good since the M135i doesn't benefit from the 1M Coupe's dedicated lighter weight alloy assembly. The huge brake discs of the 1M are also not present here, with the M135i settling for a slightly smaller set with four-piston front calipers and two-piston rears, but the braking power is still fine.

While we initially moaned about there being no standard six-speed manual available to test, the behavior of the eight-speed Steptronic, particularly via the shift paddles of the M Sport steering wheel, was never tedious, not even on downshifts to find higher revs going into and through curves. We'd have to see about all that on a closed circuit, but the transmission was honestly terrific out here on roads meant for true sports cars. Pulling the revs higher toward the engine's 7,000 rpm redline while accelerating produces a proper and authoritative upshift, while short shifting under heavy throttle gets a nudge that's understandably a little improper, but all in fair play.

2012 BMW M135i engine

This M Performance treatment is about finding a right balance of supersport in an everyday car.

The dual sport exhaust on this wee M performs some wonderful orchestral maneuvers of its own. The popping and pipping off throttle is great stuff for the ears, but not self-conscious and overcompensating like, for example, the optional sport exhaust for the new Porsche Boxster S we recently drove. Again, this M Performance treatment is about finding a right balance of supersport in an everyday car, meaning it's not for poseurs either.

One of the sweeter bits of a well laid-out hatchback body is that, should you ever need it, there's a goodly bunch of cargo room, especially when you remove all obstacles behind the front two seats. The space in the new three-door 1 Series ranges from 12.7 cubic feet on up to 42.4 cu-ft, and it is wide, flat and all usable. The three-door version of the M135i is not so impractical as it's cracked up to be.

2012 BMW M135i interior2012 BMW M135i front seats2012 BMW M135i rear seats2012 BMW M135i rear cargo area

BMW is instead formulating an M235i coupe for us that will follow on the spiritual heels of the 1M Coupe.

On the exterior, the primary change is one that helps make those large expressionless lights at least fall into a better balance with the rest of the design. The air intakes in the chin spoiler are much larger now, which alters the whole facial expression for the better, much like the 6 Series with its far better M6 face versus the civilian trim cars. The optional 18-inch wheels are a very good choice for the everyday, but 19-inchers would look better in the wheel wells despite the sacrifice to comfort that would be required. Between the lowered chassis and the added flair along the wheelbase, above the rear glass and rear fascia, the 1 Series three-door fills out quite nicely.

Much like BMW is doing with the 3 Series coupe and convertible, renaming them as the 4 Series, the wondrous notchback coupe body and convertible versions of the 1 Series are set to be renamed the 2 Series, which ought to show up in time for deliveries in early 2014. So while we are not getting this M135i hatch in North America, BMW is instead formulating an M235i coupe for us that will follow on the spiritual heels of the 1M Coupe.

2012 BMW M135i rear 3/4 view

The M135i would start around $37,000 USD, roughly $10,000 less than the 1M.

Messing around with cross-ocean mathematics a bit, this M135i three-door in base setup would start around $37,000 USD, roughly $10,000 less than the 1M... before dealer markup.

Europeans should also have the choice of both an all-wheel-drive version of the M135i as well as a five-door body by November of this year. It is doubtful that all of these 1 variations will reach North America when the M235i starts its commercial life, but at least the BMW experts didn't laugh in our faces when we asked, so consider that all yet to be determined.

The M135i, the second official model from the newly coined M Performance group following the recent launch of the M550d sedan, is bringing us closer to being convinced that this whole new effort isn't just for marketing and profits. The cars being thought up are, at least so far, refreshingly quirky in their packaging and tech mix. And very Euro, which is why we can't wait for this exact powertrain on the new architecture of the Yankee-bound 2 Series.