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2013 BMW M135i a performance beauty

Published: July 19, 2012 | 8:13 am
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Sadly, the BMW M135i three-door hatchback is not coming to Canada — five-door hatches do not sell well on this side of the pond, while the three-door variety fares worse still. That, however, is the extent of the bad news. You see, the sweetness that underlies the latest version of the 1 Series will, most assuredly, come to Canada — on that I will stake my last loonie!

The new range will be sold under the M Performance banner. The cars treated thusly are designed to slot between the top-end BMW of a particular Series and the vaunted M cars. If the M135i — which is the first car to undergo the M Performance treatment — is a harbinger of things to come, the new range promises to be a thing of beauty.

The rework starts with the look — it earns an M-like body kit that includes a new front grille and a more aggressive lower valance, bolder side sills and twin tailpipes that poke out at the extremities of the reworked rear valance. Inside, the changes are limited to a few M Performance touches such as the chunky steering wheel and two very comfortable sport bucket seats. It is a fairly mild stylistic transformation, which happens to be a good thing — it serves to keep the M Performance derivative a sleeper.

Next comes the chassis tuning. The ride height is lowered by 10 millimetres and the regular suspenders are replaced with BMW’s adaptive suspension, which has been tuned to M Performance specification. The steering is also upgraded to include BMW’s variable sports system. It alters the ratio as the steering wheel is turned off-centre and proved to be just about perfect. It is deliciously direct without feeling twitchy, yet it takes less than two turns of the steering wheel to go from lock to lock. The final chassis modification is found in the upgraded brake package — four-piston front calipers now clamp down on larger vented rotors.

While the M135i uses the same engine as the 135i, it has been reworked to deliver more power. In European trim, the horsepower rises by 14 to 320, while the torque jumps from 295 pound-feet to a robust 331 lb-ft at 1,300 rpm. The other upside is the rapturous noise that the intake and exhaust systems combine to deliver whenever the driver digs deep into the throttle — it is unadulterated music to the occupant’s ears!

The power is relayed to the road through a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic transmission with a full-on manual mode and P245/35R18 rear tires. The good news is that the M135i will be available with xDrive and the all-wheel-drive stability it brings.

So, that’s the theoretical side of the transformation, all of which is done by BMW’s M division. The reality of the work is that it produces a vehicle that is an utter delight to drive. The inclusion of BMW’s Drive Experience system means the M135i can be tuned to suit the driver. There are four settings — Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+. Frankly, Eco Pro is redundant — it softens things to the point where one might as well be driving the entry-level 114i and its 102-horsepower engine. Comfort ramps things up so there’s a hint of the underlying performance while keeping things cushy to the feel.

Sport is going to be the most popular setting. It allows the driver to sharpen the chassis (steering and suspension), the powertrain (engine and transmission) or both together. My preferred setup proved to be the Sport chassis mode and Normal powertrain mode. This brought the right balance for everyday driving. The suspension and steering are sharp, while the throttle is less sensitive and the gearbox upshifts early, which brings a relaxed urban drive and better fuel economy.

Sport+ cranks everything to hyper and turns off the traction control. Nail the gas in this mode and the automatic drops a couple of cogs, the engine delivers its all and, because the traction control is off, it lights up the rear tires at 75 kilometres an hour!

And so to the all-important numbers. The automatic M135i runs from rest to 100 km/h in 4.9 seconds. That speaks to the urgency M Performance has instilled in the 1 Series. However, where this car truly comes into its own is in the mid-range. It completes the 80-to-120-km/h passing move in 3.6 seconds! Now that, by any measure, is very quick.

The real plus, however, is that the on-road dynamics are easily the equal of the performance. The steering is unerring in its precision and the suspension dials out all body roll while retaining a surprising degree of comfort. In short, the M135i delivers seriously prodigious traction that sees the driver flinch before the car begins to misbehave.

Finally, given the gusto with which this car begs to be driven, those bigger brakes push the fade threshold so far out that I never encountered it.

I have always been awed by the M3 and M5 — both are wickedly fast and deliver razor-sharp handling. The combination is as good as anything on the planet. The only hitch is that both are so track-focused that the stiffness needed to dial out any and all body roll makes them a tad too taut to live with on a regular basis, especially given the crumbling infrastructure that makes up Canada’s roads. This is where the new M Performance line fits in very nicely.

In this instant, the M135i is not only blindingly fast, it dances like a prima ballerina when urged on through a series of fast corners because of its perfect 50/50 front-to-rear weight balance and adaptive suspension, yet it proved to be the model of civility when driven in stop-and-go traffic. Factor in the availability of BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive and it becomes a true year-round proposition.

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