The time was up for my 2007 Audi RS4. It had been a great car but at nearly eight years old and 70,000 miles it was starting to get a bit more expensive to keep on the road. I got stung for front brakes at the previous service with two sets of pads, two discs and a caliper setting me back over £3,000 at an Audi main dealer. The rear brakes were on their way out too and, although they were not going to be as expensive as the front ones (Audi estimated £1,300), the car had reached a point where I thought it best to move on. My wallet was beginning to grumble under the strain.
Make no mistake, the RS4 is a fantastic performance vehicle. Its ability to chew up miles is phenomenal and it put a smile on my face every time I drove it. I was sad to see it go but between its age, mileage and Audi’s eye-watering charges I’d decided it was time for us to part company.
So I began my research for a new car. I wanted something that was under 3 years old, under 25,000 miles and a bit more economical to run and maintain but still has some exciting performance. I had a few cars in mind: a Golf GTi or R, an Audi S3, a BMW 640d, a Focus ST, a BMW M135i and a BMW 330d to name a few, so I set about testing some of my target cars.
When I’m hunting for a new car, the first thing I do is spend weeks reading articles about my target cars. Then, when I test drive these cars, I try to forget everything I’ve read. Car reviews rarely hit the mark with me. They are usually written by people who are interested in extracting every iota of performance out of the car on the track and essentially racing the things and that’s pointless for most of us. Or at least that’s the way many so-called ‘professional’ reviews seem to me – genuine user reviews are often better. What I’m interested in is a car that adequately gets me from A to B in relative comfort and yet has a bit of oomph for those rare occasions when you find a bit of clear, open road and can press the happy pedal a bit further than normal.
It means little to me that one car can get round a circuit 1.5 seconds quicker than another or that some particular car has such exquisite feedback through the steering wheel that when you run over a packet of crisps you can tell what flavour they are. That’s not to say I’m not interested in the performance aspect of cars – I am and I had an RS4 to prove it – it’s just that I’m interested in it as it relates to driving on public roads at (mostly) legal speeds.
So after two weeks and a good 500 miles of car hunting and testing I ended up buying an 11 month old, 5-door BMW M135i Hatchback with 14,000 miles on the clock.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but I suspect few beholders would rate the 1 series BMW as a looker the first time they see it. I test drove a BMW 640d and that, to my mind, is a looker. The 1 series BMW pales in comparison I’m afraid. However, it does grow on you after a while and the subtle changes made to the M135i make it a little more aggressive-looking than the standard 1 series. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ugly but if the term ‘acquired taste’ ever suited any car it’s the 1 series BMW. From directly in front of it the M135i looks okay but it seems to lose something in the lines as you look further down the car and when it comes to the rear it looks like the designer’s pencil slipped in a few places. It is hard to put your finger on exactly why the looks don’t quite work. It’s a bit like a person having lovely eyes, high cheekbones, pert lips and a cute nose when all those features are taken individually, yet finding they don’t quite work when put together as a complete face. But, as I said, you get used to it and there are far uglier cars on the road.
The inside is pretty much what you’d expect from a modern German car. Everything is bolted together well and it feels like it will last. The seats are sporty enough for spirited driving yet not uncomfortable on a long run and they adjust in all directions. The wheel is adjustable too and if you tinker with that and the seat you can easily find the ideal driving position. I do tend to find that the dials – speedometer, rev counter and such – are a bit obscured by the wheel, which wasn’t an issue on my RS4, but you can live with it. If you like gadgets, there are plenty of things in BMW’s iDrive computer to mess about with and the professional navigation system fitted to my 135 has a decent size screen that can be split to display two different things. All-in-all it’s a fairly nice place to be for the driver and front-seat passenger. This being BMW’s smallest car, the rear seats don’t afford huge amounts of room. It would be fine for young kids and an adult would be okay on a short journey but I doubt it’s the sort of place two adults would want to be on a long journey. That doesn’t bother me as I rarely take more than one passenger anywhere but I think a family with older kids would find it wearing after a while and might be better off with a 3 or 5 series.
When it comes to driving, I think the BMW M135i really shines. Mine has the 8-speed automatic box fitted to it and that’s a doddle to drive around town. There are four driving modes – Eco Pro, Comfort, Sport and Sport+ – and in Comfort mode with relaxed throttle use it behaves very calmly and provides a sedate driving experience. My biggest criticism would be that there’s a lot of road noise on a bad surface but on a decent surface it’s fine. When you’re pootling around you barely notice the auto box changing gear – it just finds the gear you need and off you go. If you bury the throttle, though, this thing takes off like a scalded cat, even in Comfort mode. There is a smidgen of delay – it’s as if the car has been dozing a bit, yawning at your sedate driving and then suddenly wakes up and thinks “right, at last, here we go” – but it quickly gets into it’s stride and you feel every one of its 320 horses as it propels you into next week.
My RS4 had a sport button on it and all that seemed to do was inflate the side-bolsters in the seat and make everything a bit louder but the changes are really noticeable if you go into Sport mode on the M135i. The whole car seems more alert, the suspension toughens up and the throttle response is more direct. And the sound is awesome – I can’t decide if it’s a wail or a scream but that sound telegraphs just what a good performance car this is when you need it to be. I am fairly certain that in the dry this car could easily match my RS4 despite giving away 100bhp to it. I think on a spirited cross-country run in anything but perfect weather the RS4 would make better ground, which stands to reason as that is what an RS4 is purely focused to do, but not by much and you’d have to be driving at 8/10ths or more to notice it and, let’s face it, we rarely drive at that level because it’s dangerous and risks your license spending an inordinate amount of time in Swansea. In 99% of real-world situations I’d suggest the M135i is the RS4’s equal and could even better it in a sprint to 60mph. I’ve had a few performance cars in my time – an M5, an Integra Type R, an Evo, an RS4 – and this M135i could match any of them in virtually any situation you’re likely to find yourself in on public roads. I could scarcely believe this understated car could perform so well.
Many of the reviews I read about the M135i went on about lack of steering feel. I suspect a couple of reviews started this and then the others copied it because it’s nonsense in my opinion. The car goes where I put it – always useful, that – the steering’s weighted just right and I get all the feedback I need for anywhere I’m likely to drive it. Mine has the adaptive suspension on it and the ride is just fine. I’d describe it as being slightly on the firm side of comfortable but way more comfortable than my RS4. It grips well too. Its 18 inch wheels have 225/40s on the front and 245/35s on the rear and, clad with the Michelin Pilot Super Sports it comes with as standard, it would take extremely aggressive driving to find the limits of grip, particularly in the dry. The auto box is so good on this car that the flappy paddles are almost superfluous. They’re something to play with if you’re bored but if you’re trying to make quick progress you’d have to be a very good, well-trained driver to do better with manual changes than the auto does.
I have the hatchback and could really only describe the boot space as adequate. My RS4, which was an Avant, had a fair bit more space in the boot. Yes, you can fold the seats down in the M135i and triple the space available but you’d still be limited by the hatchback’s gap, which is not particularly big. It’s fine for your shopping but wouldn’t be ideal if you’re the sort of person who frequently takes stuff to the tip or needs to carry golf clubs on a regular basis. I haven’t actually tried it but I think it would struggle to cater for a couple of suitcases without folding down the back seats. Again, this is something that doesn’t really affect me but if you need lots of boot space this is not the car for you.
BMW’s claimed economy figures are 27.4/48.7/37.7 mpg (urban/extra-urban/combined). I know BMW, unlike a lot of car manufacturers, are supposed to be conservative with their figures but I think you’d struggle to get 48.7mpg anywhere. There’s an Eco Pro mode you can select that performs all sorts of trickery to squeeze more miles per gallon out of the car and, maybe, if you used that on a long run with a very light accelerator foot, you’d get close to BMW’s figure. But this car makes it hard to resist burying the throttle occasionally and, anyway, Britain’s roads are more stop-start than the test conditions they use to get these ‘official’ figures, so I think you can take those figures with a pinch of salt. I’ve managed 44mpg trying to maximise economy on a long motorway run but I’m only averaging 33mpg over all since I bought the car. Then again, if economy is your main concern you probably don’t buy a 3 litre, 316bhp petrol car in the first place.
There are one or two minor gripes I have with the BMW M135i that I’ve mentioned in this article but, over all, I think it’s a great car and I’m very pleased with my purchase. I do fewer than 7,500 miles a year these days so, for me, it’s part practical driving machine and part toy and the dual-nature of this car suits me perfectly.
Make/Model: BMW M135i 5-Door Hatchback
Model Designation: F20
Engine Designation: N55
Engine Type: 6 cyl inline longitudinally-mounted with single twin-scroll turbocharger
Engine Management: Bosch MEVD 17.2
Engine Size: 2979cc
Compression Ratio: 10.2:1
Driven Wheels: Rear
CO2 Emissions: 175g/km
Annual Tax: £205
Insurance Group: 39/50
Transmission: 8-Speed Step Auto ZF 8HP45
Engine Stats: 316hp/320PS/235kW @ 5800rpm, 332lb.ft/450Nm @ 1250-5000rpm
Official 0-100kph (0-62mph): 4.9s
Official Top Speed: 155mph (limited)
Official MPG: 27.4/48.7/37.7 (urban/extra-urban/average)
Tyres: 225/40R18 88Y (front), 245/35R18 92Y (rear), Michelin Pilot Super Sports