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First drive | BMW M135i

BY Joel Tam

Is the new BMW M135i still good without rear-wheel-drive and that soulful 3.0-litre 6-cylinder? Thankfully, it is. Here’s why.

We're carving some seriously beautiful (but narrow) mountains roads from Munich to Austria as we sample two variants, the 118i diesel and the M135i, from BMW’s new 1 series, now dubbed ‘The 1’, by the brand.

Among the two cars we’re driving, I’m happy to announce that we’ll be getting the M135i here in Singapore within the next few months, along with a base-model 118i petrol variant.

Even though the trademark rear-wheel-drive and 3.0-litre 6-cylinder combination is no more, the new 2.0-litre turbocharged unit and all-wheel-drive (AWD) drivetrain tact team that replaces it is not as sacrilegious as it sounds on paper.

As we take on the twisty Austrian B-roads and German autobahns, the 306 bhp 4-cylinder engine feels almost as smooth as a 6-cylinder. It may lack the beefy power delivery that only comes with a high displacement engine, but the sheer speed and power are not lost. Neither is the refinement, the 2.0-litre engine manages to feel composed under hard acceleration, with the audible bark coming mainly from the sports exhaust, emitted from huge dual 100mm tips at the rear.

For the record, I’m actually a fan of AWD. Having owned a variety of AWD, FF (front-engined + front-driven), FR (front-engined + rear-driven) and MR (mid-engined + rear-driven) cars, I’m privileged to report that they all have their strengths and weaknesses (duh!).

But it’s true, and in real world driving situations, you really want a system that will work in your everyday life, and the best drivetrain is a 4WD or AWD layout. No more fear of wet roads or hard acceleration in corners anymore, the car will grip and go, just like the M135i did in the Austrian Alps.

So the M135i hits back at the Volkswagen Golf R and Mercedes AMG A35 in the area of performance, but is it as sporty in the other aspects? Well, it does get some really cool M-worthy bits. Aside from the aggressive exterior M-sport kit, the 18-inch wheels get a sporty anthracite dark grey paint finish.

Inside, the seats are wrapped in predominantly Alcantara with some small fabric sections, thoughtfully stitched with blue threading.

The seat belts feature the M tri-colour lines, and the seat piping also gets some subtle trim-colour branding on the sides. Basically, this is very obviously an M-breathed car - and BMW is not going to let you forget that.

But M bits aside, the overall finishing and materials used are finally worthy of the Bavarian company. I’m sorry but the previous generation 3 series was not really up to par. Hard panels and poor ergonomics plagued it and I could never see how anyone could pay premium dollar for that.

But the new 1 series is good. It is also now considerably wider and higher, allowing more space and headroom inside. It’s not just a claim either, it really does feel roomy and it’s so easy to feel comfortable in the new car.

If the Audi A3’s cabin is too spartan and the Mercedes A-class’ too futuristic for you, then the BMW’s sleek design touches on the dashboard, switch buttons and centre console with be perfect for you. The 1 Series’ interior design sits somewhere in the models of its fellow German competitors and in my opinion, offers the best of both worlds.

We can’t wait to try it on our local roads, but as it stands, it looks like the premium hot hatch segment has a new king. At an estimated $235,000 price point, it won’t come cheap. But hey, that’s the price of royalty.