BMW’s M brand downsizes with the M135i

BMW M135i side view motionFew cars get gearheads as excited as the ones that wear BMW’s M badge. BMW says that it builds “ultimate driving machines,” and the M cars are what make that tagline more than advertising hype. The M Division used to concentrate on a few core models, like the M3 and M5, but now it is spreading the love to the rest of the BMW range. The redesigned 1 Series is the latest BMW to get the M treatment, which transforms this small hatchback into the M135i.

Powering the M135i is a 320 horsepower inline-six, hooked up to either a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission. The engine is a significant step up from the normal 1 Series, which only gets four-cylinder gasoline and diesel engines. In addition, the M135i also has M-tuned suspension, as well as a body kit and unique interior trim to remind everyone that the car is something special.

Like the previous 1 Series, and unlike every other small hatchback, the M135i will be rear-wheel drive. However, it will also be available with BMW’s xDrive all-wheel drive. This is an unusual move for M, which has been wedded to rear-wheel drive since time immemorial.

Consequently, even with the powerful inline-six, the M135i may not seem as hardcore as the M3 or M5, and that’s because it is not. The M135i is part of BMW’s M Performance Automobile line, which offers performance upgrades for cars the M Division normally wouldn’t touch. So far, BMW has given the M-lite treatment to turbodiesel versions of the 5 Series sedan and X5 and X6 SUVs to create the M550d, X5 M50d, and X6 M50d.

BMW M135i rear three-quarter view motionThe M135i may not be a diesel, but it will test how much BMW can water down the M brand before it becomes meaningless. The new car will probably be fun to drive, but it may not match up with the original M-tuned 1 Series. The 1 Series M Coupe packed the 335 horsepower engine from a 335is and the running gear from an M3 into the tiniest of packages. It was known as a pure driver’s car, sacrificing refinement for performance.

Will the M135i be a pure driver’s car, or it will it just be a small car with a big engine and a few M badges? The former makes it a good car, the latter would make it a great car. more accessible performance car will probably be easier to sell, but it may not inspire the passion that the old 1 Series M Coupe did.

For Americans, this is moot; the M135i will not be coming to the United States. A new 1 Series, in coupe and convertible body styles, is on its way. The hearse-like three- and five-door hatchbacks are not coming here either, but they represent what the U.S.-spec coupe and convertible will look like.