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It’s early august and while temperatures are terrifically pleasant and clouds pregnant with economy-reviving moisture back home, here in Germany it has just nudged past the thirties. This is even more unpleasant than it sounds because the Germans just don’t do air-conditioning like we Indians like it. The coats and jackets are packed away in the luggage van and the sunglasses are out even though the route punched into the sat-nav takes us to a glacier in Austria, up the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, a road we are told will have only a slight smattering of traffic thanks to a 33 Euro toll. I’ve just been handed the keys to a powerfully blue BMW M135i – a car we’re told right away isn’t going to come to India (not immediately at least) – but hey, attacking a 48km alpine road, the venue of the Grossglockner hillclimb in the late ’30s isn’t done in a 118d.
The M135i then, shimmering in that M-division blue, sat on tasty alloys, menacing with the flared air dams and twin exhausts poking out the rear. In an imposing but inadequately air-conditioned conference room the previous evening we were told that the engine needs so much cooling they’ve even had to knock off the front fog lamps, the memory of which brings a smile as I contemplate the work out we will be giving the engine up the Pass. Cameras chucked into the back (and it is a surprisingly generous 360-litre boot, one must add) and we’re out of the BMW press centre on the outskirts of Munich (home to nearly 800 BMW, Mini and Roll-Royce press and fleet cars – the subject of a separate story in itself) and on to the Autobahn leading to Austria. It’s a de-restricted Autobahn, I recall from memory, but today there are 120kmph speed limit warnings everywhere – because of the heat! Reminded of the speeding fines and the forex rate we slip it into Comfort mode and have a poke around the interiors. Which could be from any BMW. It’s a good thing in that even though the 1 Series is the cheapest BMW you’d be able to buy nothing feels cheap in here. Not so nice is the fact that even though this BMW will be targeted at a younger buyer there’s nothing in here that makes you feel particularly youthful. As far as M-division details go the seats are heavily bolstered, the steering is far too fat for even my large(ish) palms to go around comfortably and there is a smattering of M logos but it does deliver an overwhelmingly fast-car impression. And then the de-restricted signs – black lines across a white circle – appear, Audi man in front floors the throttle, diesel puff exits the twin tailpipes and … it’s on. Sport mode is engaged, the muted but barely intrusive exhaust now finds its voice, the 8-speed ZF gearbox knocks down five gears and the acceleration assumes a rabid dimension, dispensing with Audi man and everything else on the Autobahn. The trademark M-division hue itself seems to be adequate indicator for German drivers who obligingly pull off the fast lane allowing that straight-six turbo-charged motor to rip. 320bhp in a small hatchback makes pocket rocket seem like a woefully inadequate description of the M135i; this is fast not just in the 0-100kmph time of 4.7 seconds but in the flexibility of the motor, the shocking ease with which it thunders from 80 to 160kmph, all the while pumping out a determined exhaust note. With peak torque coming in at barely 1250rpm, irrespective of which gear is selected on the 8-speed auto, there’s immediate and urgent acceleration on tap.
320bhp and 450Nm of torque mean the Austrian border is reached before we even know it but before entering Austria a little bit of history here. The M135i is not a full-blown BMW Motorsport model; the previous generation 1 Series was topped by the full-fat M Coupe – a savage, hand-built and low-volume M-car model targeted at the hard-core enthusiast. The M135i is sort of a half-way house, losing just 20bhp to the M Coupe but built on the same production line as the 1 Series family in Leipzig with a chassis very similar to lesser 1 Series cars and lacking bespoke M division engineering and components. It doesn’t even have a mechanically locking limited slip differential on the rear.
Back to 130kmph then, sitting behind a line of camper-vans and estates with bicycles strapped at the back – it’s holiday season in Europe and the whole continent seems to be trundling in the same direction as us. So we 89 bide our time, marvel at the valleys we drive through with waterfalls and streams on either side, down an early lunch and make for the Grossglockner – which, as it turns out – is where the entire continent has rocked up, along with every motorcyclist in Europe.
At least the toll gate acts like a staggered starting system, if not a deterrent, and with the climb starting immediately it is Sport+ mode, pedal to metal and with a slight chirrup from the rear tyres I put on my best racing-driver face and go for it.
Incredible as it was on the Autobahn the M135i finds a whole new purpose on this wonderfully twisty alpine road. The entire 1 Series family is rear-wheel-drive and that’s what makes it special, unique even in a class comprised exclusively of front-drivers. How many actual owners know or care about this fact is debatable but on rear-wheel-drive rests BMW’s reputation for Ultimate Driving Machines and the 1 Series, in its layout and driving dynamics, lives up to the billing.
The M135i has M Sport Suspension, which means uprated springs and dampers but otherwise the aluminium-intensive suspension is carried over from lesser 1 Series with MacPherson struts up front and multi-link independent rear mated to optional adaptive dampers. Sport + mode tightens body control, reduces the steering assistance, quickens the gearbox reactions and allows the rear to dance a little. In short order I’m on the tail of a black M5 and that’s his cue to get a move on. Which he does, opening up a gap on the short straights but the M135i’s compact proportions and the attendant nimbleness makes it easy to thread it up narrow twisties, narrowing the gap on every corner. You can see M5-driver having to work hard and, while I won’t say I wasn’t working equally hard, there was just no shaking off the little pitbull, the power coming in on a smooth yet rather large tidal wave and the chassis generating astonishing grip and minimal roll.
The alpine road, in the interests of bikers, is surfaced with a particularly high grip material yet gassing it early and hard does bring the tail around nicely, the meaty steering delivering enough communication to catch it neatly and carry on to the next corner without losing a heartbeat or much speed either. But there’s no mechanical locking limited slip differential at the rear, a trademark of M-division cars, and that means you can’t sustain the drift on the power. The M135i runs wider tyres at the back (sticky Michelin Pilot Super Sports, not run flats), all the better for putting down the 450Nm of torque, but I can’t help wonder if she’d slide better (that, after all, is the purpose of rear-wheel-drive, isn’t it?) with similar sized tyres to the front. It really is a sweet little car with a hugely manageable, beautifully balanced and adjustable chassis that is immense fun when pushing and provoking the pert little rump. The variable ratio sports steering takes on a quicker ratio when away from the centre and that makes the car feel even more agile off-centre while not robbing it of straight line stability at speed. At the cost of reading like a total cop out I will continue with my praise here, going so far as to admit that despite bearing a face only its mother could love, it is impossible not to fall totally in love with the M135i. Yes, BMW says they won’t bring it to India but when did you ever hear a manufacturer reveal its forthcoming vehicle line-up? With Mercedes already working on the A45 AMG for India it’s a done deal that the M135i will follow in short order. And, with it costing significantly less in Europe, the BMW will be priced more aggressively than the Merc, though I admit Rs 45 lakh for a hatchback is way too much to swallow.
In that case I should point you to the grey car on these pages. It is the 116i and it is has just been launched in India. At 136bhp it is nowhere near the M135i in ferocity or manic temperament but bear with me. After being a total hooligan up – and down! – the Grossglockner, the next day, in the interest of journalistic investigation, I sampled both the India-bound 118d and 116i and I’m still smiling. With a claimed 0-100kmph time of 8.5 seconds from the turbo-charged 1.6-litre four-cylinder motor you wouldn’t call the 116i slow, not by a long shot, and to add to that BMW have engineered a lovely turbo blow-off valve whistle which can’t help but put a smile to any enthusiast’s face.
The main attraction though remains the terrific chassis, the inherent goodness of which made the M135i such a hoot. The 116i is still a resolutely rear-wheel-drive car that, with a slightly greasy surface at hand, can kick the tail out and indulge in some skids. I must dwell on this aspect a little longer – all said and done the 1 Series is the only car in its segment that you will be able to slide around and it gets a proper mechanical handbrake (not one of those frustrating electronic jobbies) to provoke the tail into stepping out. For once a marketing tag-line actually has some substance, the 1 Series delivering on the promise of dynamics in the most unequivocal manner possible – by lighting up a smile on every driver’s face. Even the 2.0-litre 143bhp 118d makes a fair fist of living up to the sport-diesel billing, revving with an urgency and delivering enough performance (8.9 seconds to 100kmph) to make a joy out of every drive. And it’ll father an after-market industry supplying diesel tuning boxes to bump power up to 120d levels. In case you are wondering you will also get outstanding fuel efficiency from the 118d, especially with the standard EcoPro mode that urges and instructs you on how to drive in the most efficient manner.
That said I must also point out that apart from the love-it-or-loathe-it styling and the quality-but-not-quite-youthful interiors there is a big problem. And that’s rear seat space, or rather the lack of it. Even though the wheelbase has been increased by 30mm over the previous generation the rear quarters are still cramped and that’s the most charitable way I can put it. Plus it is impossible to seat a third person because of the huge transmission tunnel (courtesy of rear-wheel-drive). There’s also the ride quality that, while much improved over the earlier generation 3 Series, is not particularly plush. This is a hatchback in the traditional sense of the word, a car that makes little effort to cater to passengers but from behind the ’wheel, pedal to the floor, it’ll have every driver’s mercury soaring.
Engine In-line, 6-cyl, 2979cc
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Power 320bhp @ 5800rpm
Torque 450Nm @ 1300-4500rpm
0-100kmph 4.7 seconds
Top speed 250kmph
BMW 1 SERIES 116i
Engine In-line, 4-cyl, 1598cc
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Power 136bhp @ 6450rpm
Torque 220Nm @ 1350-4300rpm
0-100kmph 8.5 seconds
Top speed 210kmph
BMW 1 SERIES 118d
Engine In-line, 4-cyl, 1995cc
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Power 143bhp @ 4000rpm
Torque 320Nm @ 1750-2500rpm
0-100kmph 8.6 seconds
Top speed 210kmph