Ask any car enthusiast what BMW makes best and the answers will inevitably circle around one or two key elements — a small chassis and power going to the rear wheels. BMW is best known for making extremely enjoyable small cars and even though they are typically coupes – such as the BMW M2 – they can also wear different body styles, like the BMW M140i we recently sampled. When the original 1 Series hatchback was unveiled everyone paused for a moment, because BMW hasn’t made a hatchback since the E46 3 Series Compact. It also was, and still is, the only rear-wheel drive model in its segment.
Nothing changed over the decade that followed, being that both Mercedes-Benz A-Class and Audi A3, the true competitors of the 1 Series, are either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Even with all-wheel drive, they have a certain inclination to send more power to the front. So the 1 Series remains a rare bird but a beautiful and exciting one at that. Sure, the space inside the cabin is limited, by comparison to its rivals, and the same applies for the boot space. But then again, mash the gas pedal you’ll understand why.
I remember a while back BMW actually had a commercial on various message boards showing a rabbit with its legs interchanged, so that the rear legs switched places with the front ones, simply saying that there’s a reason why RWD setups are more enjoyable. That might’ve been the case back then but as time went by, even the Bavarians have had to cut some corners in order to better adapt to what its customers are asking.
For the moment, however, the 1 Series is still flying its RWD banner and its latest iteration might just be the best yet. The model range received a facelift last year that was well needed. Gone are the googly eyes that scared people away and gone are the square taillights as well. The new model looks a lot better and is actually quite the eye catcher if you choose your options right.
Then, this summer, the world got to meet the new BMW M140i. Yes, to some, it may suggest that the 1 Series, as small as it is, may be using a 4-liter engine. If you’d only know how many people asked me this question while I was driving this it. However, it’s not the case. The BMW M140i uses a new B58 3-liter straight-six engine that has been turbocharged to make 340 HP and 500 Nm (369 lb-ft) of torque.
The second most popular question revolved, once again, around the car’s nameplate. Seeing the most powerful letter in the world in front of all those numbers prompted a lot of people to ask me if this was indeed an M car. From there on, I had to spend on average about two minutes to explain what exactly it was.
The M Performance brand is now trying to fill the space left between proper M cars and their regular siblings. To make better sense of it, you could think of it as an alternative to Audi’s S models or Mercedes-Benz’s new 43 AMG versions, previously known as AMG Sport. All premium manufacturers are looking to do this sort of niche-filling. The performance these cars bring to the table are enough for most people and they’re a lot cheaper than proper M models. Compared to their M brothers, M Performance Automobiles don’t benefit from limited-slip differentials or special suspension setups or even upgraded brakes, most of the time. However, most customers don’t need all of that to have fun and don’t see the point in paying more when the performance difference is rather small.
For most people the straight line acceleration figures and the day-to-day practicality of the thing will be paramount and the M140i delivers incredible results here. In the tested guise, with the 8-speed automatic gearbox and rear-wheel drive, the M140i accelerates to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 4.6 seconds. Get it with all-wheel drive and you’ll see the time drop to 4.4 seconds. How much faster is the M2? 0.1 seconds. That’s right, the manual-equipped BMW M2 is just 0.1 seconds faster in a straight line.
Chip in the fact that you get more torque on the M140i and you can have it with a much more forgiving suspension, less money and optional all-wheel drive for those snowy months and it starts to make a lot of sense. Sure, around a track it won’t handle as well. But then again, it’s a hatch. It still looks good and has almost the performance of the M2.
Speaking of looks, this is the one version this editor would go for. Sure, the 5-door model offers more practicality as the people in the back can get in and out more easily. But then the car becomes a bit heavier and it loses a bit of its charm. In Valencia Orange, combined with the Ferric Grey accents, this thing is a looker!
Inside, the cabin room is rather limited. It’s a small car by any standard and you feel it. Getting in the back isn’t all that hard to do but you might get a bit claustrophobic back there if you’re a big guy, such as myself (6-ft, 240 lbs), mostly due to the small windows. As standard you get the M Sport package that brings the traditional Alcantara/cloth seats, with their blue hexagonal motif. The seat backs are a bit on the firm side but you get the side bolstering you’ll be screaming for once you kick things up a notch.
A premiere for this car is the new iDrive 5.0 system that was introduced this summer on all BMW models. In case you’re a bit confused, it’s the new iDrive version that was launched on the new 7 Series family when it came out. Of course, this being a much cheaper 1 Series, some differences are noticeable.For example, you don’t get the touch sensitive screen as you do on the 7er, but who uses that anyway when you have the brilliant iDrive controller at the reach of your fingertips? Other than that, the rest of the functions are identical. The screen has the same high definition we’re used to, while the sub-menus are identical as well.
One gripe I found was that the Bluetooth connection didn’t always work, not recognizing my phone from time to time. On top of that, I could also complain about the fact that the animated 1 Series model shown on the screen didn’t correspond to the car I was driving. Instead it showed a stock, Sport Line model instead of the M Performance version I had. But I understand that not all cars can be replicated on the screen as it would take a huge amount of resources to get that done.
But nobody in their right mind would pay any attention to that once the engine starts. Be it a cold start or not, in Comfort, Eco Pro or Sport mode, the car wakes you up as soon as you press the Start button. The new B58 engine has a slightly different note compared to its N55 predecessors, one that to my ears sounds a bit better.
Due to the difference in bore and stroke for the cylinders, the B58 has slightly higher notes when revved while the N55 sounds a bit meatier. It’s a small difference that few people will notice anyhow and what you need to remember is that the M140i sounds brilliant no matter how you put it.
On the road though, the sound insulation is so good that the brilliant sound of the 3-liter straight six engine is muffled out almost completely, no matter the driving mode you’re in. Of course, Sport mode will get the best out of it but even in the most hardcore setting, you’d be hard pressed to hear anything coming from the rear. As for Active Sound Design, we have a feeling it was left out as the sound was underwhelming all the way. What was even better than expected though was the induction noise. To be more precise, whenever you pressed the gas pedal, a whoosh was audible and quite noticeable as well. The same can be said about the turbocharger that makes a distinct sound that resembles a blow-off valve from time to time. However, these little things will take some time to observe. That’s because they are only noticeable when you really go at it. During those periods, you’ll be focused more on the road ahead as the M140i picks up speed at an alarming pace.
The power is put down quite efficiently most of the time, but the huge amount of torque available from just 1,520 RPM will make the rear wheels break traction easily. As a matter of fact, it’s quite frightening to drive this thing without the electronic nannies on. The rear axle will become overwhelmed quite easily and you’ll need a really steady right foot and some experience to keep things in check. Even at speeds over 50 mph I noticed that the traction would break under heavy acceleration. Maybe that’s why the xDrive version would be recommended for some people. Not only will it save you the trouble of buying tires all the time but it will turn the car into a more docile, faster-in-a-straight-line beast.
What surprised me, though, was that when I used Launch Control. The car took off without much wheel spin, a sign that the rear differential, electronics and the ZF gearbox were designed to cope with the copious amounts of torque. While I recommend getting the xDrive model for snowy climates or inexperienced drivers, I have to admit that it won’t handle as nicely as the RWD model. With the power being sent to the back only, the weight distribution is better, with 55% hovering over the rear axle with 45% over the front one.
That translates into a really light nose that gives you the impression you can turn this car on a dime. Even at 10/10 you won’t feel any kind of understeer but you’ll have to be really careful not to oversteer as the rear wheels will break traction easily, even when fitted with Michelin’s Pilot Sport tires. The feedback coming through the steering wheel isn’t all that great and, at times, the steering did feel a bit too light. But you know what the wheels are doing most of the time nonetheless. Push the car hard into a corner and you can actually rely on the brakes and the gas pedal to steer, something we’ve sort of started to miss on heavier, more modern cars.
Speaking of weight, the M140i tips the scale at just 1,545 kg (3,300 lbs) but it feels a lot lighter due to the optional adaptive dampers that we totally recommend. It’s basically a pocket rocket with three doors, a perfect alternative to the M2 if you need the practicality of a hatchback body.
Criticizing this thing is a hard job but somebody has to do it, right? To start things off, the one thing that makes it extraordinary is also the one thing that may bury it. I’m talking about the engine. While it is brilliant in the way it delivers its power to the rear wheels it can also be deadly. Not long ago, Jeremy Clarkson found himself in trouble with the M135i over wet roads and the same is even truer in the case of the more powerful M140i. It takes just a second for the rear axle to break traction and turn you sideways, so you might want to be careful.
As for the price, the M140i is the performance bargain of the range. Our tester started at €42.540 with taxes only to end up with a sticker price of €53.262 when everything was said and done. The performance you get for this type of money is staggering, especially in the premium segment. Just bear in mind that the A45 AMG starts at €51,170 in Europe while the Audi S3 starts at €43,000 and has significantly lower performance figures. And while they might be tantalizing, in terms of fun, the RWD setup of the M140i will have the edge any day of the week.
And that’s why you should hurry up and buy one now, while it’s still in production. For quite some time there’s been talk about the new 1 Series that’s approaching rapidly and, unfortunately, the signs aren’t that good. BMW is apparently going to make the future hatch front-wheel drive, even though most enthusiasts are begging them not to.
SHOULD I BUY ONE?
Officials have gone on the record saying that they’re still debating this change but it’s been a while since anybody said anything about the future of the 1 Series. And it would be a shame too if the new version lost the one thing that made it stand out in the crowd. And then again, if BMW does decided to go down the FWD route let’s just hope the resulting car will be at least as fun as the new MINI Clubman JCW. As for the BMW M140i, you’d better get one while you still can as it truly is a nicely rounded car that can offer plenty of adrenaline shots.