Reviewed: 2020 BMW M135i

Like the more pedestrian models that sit below it in the 1 Series range, the new BMW M135i is a very special release compared to its predecessor. Now, gone are the big six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive, replaced by a turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder that’s coupled to a four-wheel drive system.

That means the monotonous, tail-happy handling of the M140i is gone, but don’t worry. In its place is a confidence-inspiring grasp of the road that allows you to fire the M135i out of tight bends with far less drama. Let’s also note that, while inclement conditions would slow your progress considerably in the old car, the same can’t be said of its successor.

So, what’s the secret behind this reformed behaviour? Well, up front, there’s a limited-slip differential that boosts traction off the line and when you’re accelerating out of corners, while the rear wheels can receive up to 50% of the engine’s power if the electronics feel it necessary. The final link in the chain is an eight-speed automatic gearbox with manual paddles so you can take control of gearshifts.

That engine change brings another benefit: more interior space. The compact arrangement of the M135i’s oily bits means there’s more leg room and a bigger boot than in the previous model. Of course, there’s still a pair of sports seats and a chunky leather steering wheel up front, as well as the top version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system.

A configurable, 10.3-inch digital display replaces traditional dials behind the steering wheel. Its graphics are sharp, but similar systems found in the A35 and S3 are clearer and have a greater range of display modes to choose from.

The 10.3-inch touchscreen is standard, forming the centrepiece of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, which is certainly one of the best on the market. It can be operated via the screen itself, by using voice command, or through the rotary dial controller and physical shortcut buttons. It’s simple to use, both on the move and when stationary. To further enhance its ease of use, gesture control is available as an option.

DAB radio, Bluetooth, sat-nav and Apple CarPlay come as standard. Unfortunately, as we roll our eyes at BMW’s headquarters, Android Auto isn’t available at all.

The view out of the front is good, but chunky rear pillars mean the view over your shoulder is slightly restricted. Fortunately, front and rear parking sensors are standard, and, for a very reasonable sum, you can get Park Assist, which includes a couple of very helpful parking aids. One of these is Parking Assistant, which can park the car for you. The other, Reversing Assistant, will remember your steering inputs when you drive nose-first into a space and can repeat them to automatically reverse the car back out again for you.Meanwhile, with LED headlights as standard, it’ll be easy to see clearly at night.

Fortunately all the switches and dials have a real feeling of quality to them, the overall effect placing the M135i’s interior a cut above that of most other hot hatches. Poke and nudge around all you like; you’ll find no hint of any cheap-feeling flex to the dashboard, although you will encounter harder plastics on the doors and in places where fingers roam less frequently.

All that we’ve touched on is great news in itself, but one of this car’s most notable improvements over the old M140i is the amount of room it has in the back. Those taller than 1.7m will feel their heads just brushing the roof, but anyone shorter should be comfortable, even on long journeys. There’s decent leg and knee room, plus a useful amount of space for feet beneath the front seats. Getting in the back is easy enough, I tried it, thanks to all M135i having five doors. Overall, it rivals German competitors for interior space, although all of those cars look a tad stingy in the rear compared with the Honda Civic Type R.

The M135i comes with a reasonable list of standard equipment, including automatic lights and wipers, heated front seats, dual-zone climate control, cruise control, 18-inch alloy wheels and a racy body kit to set it apart from lesser BMW 1 Series models. As an option, you can turn your smartphone into the key for the car, this feature even going as far as allowing you to unlock and start the car with it.

All this mechanical metamorphosis brings the M135i right into contention with swanky hot hatch rivals such as the Audi S3 and Mercedes-AMG A35, both of which also run 2.0-litre turbocharged engines, automatic gearboxes and four-wheel drive. Don’t forget, however, that the Honda Civic Type R gets along very well indeed with front-wheel drive and a manual gearbox that’s to die for.

Should you get one? If you love to drive, the M135i belongs in your garage. Pricing starts from R705 000

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