I get it. I totally get it. The BMW 1-series is now front-wheel drive, and that makes perfect sense. If anything, it should have been from the very start. No other C-segment was rear-wheel drive at the time, nor has any been since, because such a layout makes no sense for a car of this size.
A longitudinally-mounted engine with a gearbox poking out the back takes up a lot of space. You can make the bonnet a little longer, but it will inevitably sap cabin space before you’ve even considered the dirty-great transmission tunnel you’re going to need to supply torque to the rear axle.
The only reason the original 1-series and its F20 successor were predominantly rear-wheel drive (there were all-wheel drive versions too), was because of BMW’s dogmatic approach to which wheels are supposed to be driven. Now that stance has softened, we have an all-new 1er which is predominantly FWD.
Considering the majority of 1er buyers apparently don’t even know they’re getting into something RWD, you can understand the switch. But how does it pan out for the people who do know and do care? To find out, we need to drive the M135i.
Yep, the ‘35i designation is back, but it no longer refers to a 3.0-litre inline-six turbo. Instead, the new M135i is powered by a 2.0-litre inline-four turbo. Despite losing a litre of displacement it’s very nearly as powerful as the old M140i, putting out 302bhp. Its 332lb ft torque figure is a good chunk lower, but partly thanks to four-wheel drive the newer M Performance 1er is just as fast to 62mph, dispatching the benchmark sprint in 4.8 seconds.
Plus, the M135i will do that whatever the weather. In anything other than bone-dry conditions, the M140i struggled to get its power down. But with much of our week with the M135i being rather damp, it gave a good chance to discover that BMW’s newest hot hatch is fast off the line come rain or shine.
It feels a lot more tied down, too. The M140i almost seemed boaty when pushed to the limits, but the damping in its successor is much more resolved. Roll is kept in check, and the body settles quickly when the road surface becomes a little more…lunar.
The optional adaptive suspension setup is getting on for being too firm in Sport mode, but the M135i still feels tidy when the dampers are slackened off. The steering’s decent too, with a nice amount of speed and consistency. Albeit with the usual modern BMW complaint about it being much too heavy when switched to Sport.
The all-wheel drive system won’t ever put more than 50 per cent of torque to the rear wheels, and as such, it tends to be the front wheels that give up first. In the wet, it pushes on into understeer a little sooner than I’d like, but it’s a capable setup on the whole. And as far as point-to-point pace goes, the M135i easily bests its six-pot ancestor.
Inside it’s not quite as flashy as some rivals, but it all feels solid and upmarket. The tech’s great too - as we always note when driving a modern BMW, iDrive is doing a great job of making most competitor systems seem conspicuously shit.
The M135i does almost everything well. I say almost, as there’s one big catch with this car - it just isn’t exciting. In fact, I’d go so far as calling it dull.
300bhp used to be a figure to get excited about, but there’s a real lack of fizz from the inline-four under the bonnet. It drones away, with an ill-judged synthetic noise piped in over the top. Weirdly, it never feels that fast, and although the eight-speed automatic gearbox swaps cogs with efficiency, there’s zero aggression to the way it goes about its business.
Can we blame the ditching of rear-wheel drive and six-cylinder engines for this? Yes and no. Yes, because as flawed as the M140i was, it had a USP, which the M135i xDrive doesn’t. No, because cars like the Mercedes-AMG A35 prove that a circa 300bhp with a front-biased all-wheel drive system can be exciting.
The A35 may not cover ground any quicker than the BMW, but it does so with so much more flair and gusto. It’s a noisy little bastard, with a fantastically aggressive seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. And it’s not the only four-wheel drive hot hatch that does it better than the M135i - even the VW Golf R, which I’ve always found a little uninvolving, offers up more drama than this BMW. And both look much better - what’s going on with those giant nostrils on the front of the new 1-series?
What’s also frustrating is the benefits of switching to front/four-wheel drive aren’t hugely obvious to the end-user. It doesn’t feel substantially bigger inside, and although the 20 litres of additional boot space is welcome, the new 1er with its 380-litre load space still lags behind the new VW Golf 8 with its 450-litre capacity.
As the makers of some of the finest drivers cars ever made, I expected more from BMW’s first crack at the likes of the VW Golf R. It could have made something special, but instead, we’re left with an also-ran.