On the road Hot-hatch swan song? The brilliant new M140i is put through its considerable paces. The next generation 1 Series will be based on a front-wheel drive platform which means that, as Bob Harper reports, this M140i could be the last of BMW’s rear-wheel drive hatchbacks Photography: BMW.
IT’S A POCKET ROCKET! BMW’s brilliant M140i driven
You couldn’t really claim that BMW has a rich heritage in hatchbacks, at least not in the way that a company like Volkswagen has with its Golf. Yes, BMW certainly dabbled with the formula back in the early 1970s, with the Touring ’02-based models but, when the ‘02 generation was replaced by the E21 3 Series, the company evidently concluded that it wasn’t a furrow worth continuing to plough.
For a company that, at the time, had all its eggs in the rear-wheel drive basket, the packaging for a hatchback just didn’t work. Longitudinally-mounted engines took up precious space, and rear-drive platforms – with their transmission tunnels and rear suspension layouts – made rear seat and boot accommodation poor.
So BMW looked like it was just going to ignore the increasingly burgeoning hatchback market. But it did eventually resurrect the Touring name for the E30 estate, but even this machine was a chance creation by a BMW technician who wanted more space in his E30.
The success of the Touring in E30 guise meant that when the E36 3 Series came along, it too featured a sporting estate, and in the same year as the Touring made its debut, BMW dipped its toe in the water with a hatchback version of the E36, the aptly named E36 Compact. It was a little bit of a mish-mash, with E36 styling and E30 rear suspension, but it did represent a good entry-level point for BMW ownership, and attracted new customers to the brand. The hottest version for the UK market was the 318ti that used the 16-valve 318iS engine and, while it was an entertaining steer, it wasn’t as quick as a Golf GTi by any means. European buyers did get a hot version though; the 323ti with a 2.5-litre, 170hp, straight-six and it was perhaps this version that sowed the seed with BMW’s top brass that BMW could, and should, be involved in the hot hatch market.
Since that time, BMW hasn’t really looked back. For the E46 generation of Compact, there was the 325ti which we did receive over here, and it’s still got a pretty loyal following today. Yet BMW was still obviously holding back a little as it could have just as easily fitted the 3.0-litre ‘six from the 330Ci, but perhaps it was still a little worried that a 330ti Compact might steal sales from the svelte coupé.
However, once the 3 Series Compact was ditched in favour of the 1 Series in 2004, BMW did indeed go the whole hog and offered the 130i hatch; one of the most entertaining non-M cars of its generation. Which brings us more or less up to date with the arrival of the F2x 1 Series models, in three-and five-door form. At the Geneva Show in 2012, BMW unveiled the hottest hatch to date in thinly veiled ‘Concept’ form, the M135i. Since then the 1 Series range has gone through its midlife refresh, and the range-topping model has morphed into the M140i; arguably the finest of the latest crop of hot hatches. It could also be the last of BMW’s rear-drive hatches, with the next generation of 1 Series set to adopt front-wheel drive for the first time.
So, what do you get for your money? Under the bonnet is the new B58 Baukasten modular, straight-six with a single twin-scroll turbocharger and, as you’d expect, it has the full complement of bells and whistles. These include direct injection, twin Vanos and Valvetronic. It certainly delivers the goods, with 340hp at 5,500rpm and 369lb ft of torque, all the way from 1,520-4,500rpm, and if that torque figure looks familiar, it’s because it’s exactly the same as the venerable 5.0-litre V8 in the E39 M5 could muster!
The M140i is quick, too. The Sport auto model tested here will sprint to 62mph in a scant 4.6 seconds, while its top speed is limited to 155mph, in line with virtually all current BMWs. Yet, despite the impressive power, torque and acceleration figures, this car is also capable of returning nigh-on 40mpg on the combined cycle, according to the official figures.
The version of the M140i we have here is known as the Shadow Edition; a new trim level that can be specced on all 1 Series M Sport models. It features all the specification from the popular M Sport Plus package (M Sport braking system, Harman Kardon loudspeakers, sun protection glass), while additional, standard equipment includes cruise control, rear park distance control and extended lighting, plus a wide array of unique additional features.
Among these goodies you’ll find black kidney grilles, dark chrome tailpipe, 18in M light alloy wheels (in Jet Black or Bi- Colour), darkened LED headlights and smoked rear lights. The M Sport Shadow Edition costs £1,900 more than the M Sport model although, on the M140i, the difference is slightly less, at £1,335. The M140i is already equipped with the M Sport braking option. This brings the price of the M140i Shadow Edition – in Sport automatic form – up to a not insignificant £36,085 in on-the-road form. So, is it worth it?
Let’s quickly get the aesthetics out of the way, as this is all very subjective. To my mind, the face-lifted 1 Series really does look significantly better from the front, with the new headlights. What’s more, while I initially thought the enlarged, rear light clusters were a little too big, I’ve now grown accustomed to them. As for the Shadow Edition trimmings; well, I could take or leave them, to be honest, although the darkened headlights do work well. The standard M140i Ferric grey highlights look OK on the Mineral grey car featured here, but I’m less keen on other colours.
Inside, the 1 Series has also received a little bit of a lift – changes were from July production – and the M140i’s interior now feels a little classier, with improved finishes and materials here and there creating an interior ambiance befitting a car in this price bracket.
It’s the drive that we’re mainly interested in, though, and from the moment you fi re the B58 into life, you know that it’s the engine that’s going to dominate proceedings. BMW has allowed it to be considerably more vocal than in its other applications, such as the new 640i GT xDrive I drove recently. It positively fizzes into life with a baritone rumble that’s quite intoxicating, yet soon settles down and, at moderate speeds, remains quiet and cultured.
Delve a little deeper into the rev range, though, or select Sport on the Drive Performance Control, and the engine becomes progressively more vocal the harder you push it. While it might not have the ultimate character of some of BMW’s older, normally-aspirated, straight-six screamers, it’s about as good as you’re likely to find in this modern, turbocharged world into which we’ve stumbled to worship at the altar of lower emissions. There’s very little lag and the throttle response is strong and keen, and it delivers more than enough performance to thrill. The flipside of the coin is that when you just want to cruise or pootle along, the car will return pretty decent economy – mid to high 30s being eminently achievable.
While the ultimate drivers’ spec might be to opt for the six-speed manual that comes as standard, the eight-speed Sport auto (a £1,600 option) really is a gem, making light work of everything you can throw at it. You hardly notice it’s doing its thing when driving gently yet, when you want it to be a lightning quick, slick shifter when you’re dissecting your favourite back road, it’s more than happy to oblige. It blips the throttle to rev-match during downshifts, too, which adds to the experience.
Our test car was equipped with BMW’s Adaptive M Sport Suspension (£515 on the options list) with variable dampers and, while they certainly work well, a drive in a less powerful 2 Series Coupé (with which the M140i shares the majority of its underpinnings) on the standard set-up, did show that the passive dampers can do a good job, too. The adaptive set-up does give you the option of softening things off a bit when you’re cruising and, in Sport mode, providing the roads are smooth, you’re given a little bit more body control. Our test route had sections of lovely, recently-laid Tarmac which really allowed the M140i to strut its stuff, powering up the straights, with the M Sport brakes more than up to the job of washing-off speed for the corners, with the chassis resisting understeer pretty well, too. Provided the surface is smooth, it turns in well, with the chassis feeling stable and unfussed as you squeeze the throttle to get back on the power and slingshot up the straight in search of the next corner. Switching the traction control into its half-way house setting in these situations, allows a little bit more slip before the DSC reels in the fun and, in the dry, it’s undoubtedly the way to go. However, when the going gets a little tougher, the M140i can be a slightly more wayward companion. If you leave it in its Sport suspension setting, it’s a little too stiff and one feels the suspension can’t quite keep up with the questions it’s being asked – it can answer one or two, but if you rapid-fire queries at it like a weird amphetamine-fuelled episode of University Challenge, it starts to flounder a little.
Knocking the dampers back into Comfort while leaving the throttle control in Sport does help, but you have to have your wits about you. Concentrate on the road surface ahead and you can drive around the problem. But maintaining rapid progress over an unfamiliar, bumpy, wet back road takes a lot of concentration, and I suspect a well-driven, four-wheel drive Golf R or Audi S3, would have the beating of the BMW, certainly in terms of outright speed, if not in terms of driver involvement.
But, in a way, I like the M140i’s spiky character. In the right circumstances (dry roads, smooth Tarmac), you really can drive it hard without having to worry that it’s going to throw you off into the hedge. But when the going gets a little tougher, you have to really focus on what you’re doing to get the best out of it. It can be a challenge to extract the last couple of tenths of performance from it, but life would be boring if everything was utterly perfect.
As an all-round package, the M140i certainly takes some beating. It now looks smart and has an interior that’s up there with the best in class. Its engine is an absolute belter – powerful and angry-sounding when you want it to be, but soft and serene when you’re in a more mellow mood. Its chassis, while entertaining, isn’t perfect but, as a potential swan song for BMW’s rear-wheel drive hatchback, it’s a pretty good effort.
As an all-round package, the M140i certainly takes some beating. The I Series’ size makes it easy to drive and park in the urban environment. The cracking straight-six engine in the M140i certainly delivers the goods, producing 340hp and 369lb ft of torque. There’s plenty of space up front for driver and passenger. Improvements to the interior create an ambience befitting a car in this price bracket. The M140i M Sport Shadow Edition features stylish, 18in M light alloy wheels, in Jet Black or Bi-Colour. The large rear light clusters are smoked on this M Sport Shadow Edition. The car will return pretty decent economy – mid to high 30s being eminently achievable. Its engine is an absolute belter – powerful and angry-sounding when you want it to be.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 BMW F21 M140i Shadow Edition (Sport auto)
ENGINE: B58 straight-six, 24-valve, turbocharged
MAX POWER: 340hp @ 5,500rpm / DIN nett
MAX TORQUE: 369lb ft @ 1,520-4,500rpm / DIN nett
0-62MPH: 4.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 155mph
PRICE (OTR): £36,085