The 1 Series has lost its six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive - but what about enthusiast appeal? We stack it up against two key rivals to find out.

Autocar UK, By Mat Saunders

© Image credited by Haymarket Media Group | Hot hatch shootout: BMW M135i vs Mercedes-AMG A35 vs Mini JCW

There’s a great deal you might infer about the hot hatchback, it seems to me, if you stop for a moment to contemplate the fish-finger sandwich.
Both are the sort of indulgences that lend themselves perfectly to the enrichment of the everyday. Both are extraordinary, some might even say unlikely, triumphs of human ingenuity made from fairly ordinary ingredients. And yet both can be corrupted so easily if you disregard the modesty and simplicity of their make-up and let your tastes for the exotic run riot.
Sliced white bread, fishy digits of unspectacular quality (arranged transversely for optimal space efficiency), a scrape of margarine and a (traditional) condiment of your choice – that’s the upper limit on how ambitious one ought to be with a fish-finger sarnie. As I regularly remind my better half, at no point should Nando’s extra-hot sauce be part of the equation. In a similar vein, a really good four-cylinder engine, a great manual gearbox, a driven front axle and a good sprinkle of seasoning with the specification of your tyres, suspension, brakes, and diff is probably as exotic as it’s advisable to be in the construction of your hot hatchback.
Anyone who’s been tempted, as I once was, to slip a pickled gherkin (thinly sliced, obviously – I’m not an idiot) in between “cod” and bread will know how Icarus must have felt the night before his big flight when he inadvertently made his Warburtons soggy. I have since learned to be highly suspicious of the fish-finger ciabatta when eating out – especially if it comes with any menu-born mention of tartar sauce. Here’s the lesson, folks: if you want wonderful out of these things, you mustn’t get carried away with what you put in.
With the last two generations of its 1 Series hatchback, I’d argue, BMW strayed onto the wrong side of that line. Not as far wrong, quite clearly, as Renault Sport did when it signed off a mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive, V6-powered Clio at the end of the last century. Fair enough, though – albeit only by the application of a longways six-cylinder engine and rear-wheel drive – to have given people unrealistic expectations about the handling dynamism and driver involvement that any Golf-sized hatchback might be capable of.
And so, while some BMW die-hards may now be adrift in the various psychological stages of grief and loss about the demise of the rear-driven M140i, I’d urge them to take heart. Few who owned or drove an M140i will be moved to ululate at its funeral. There were several reasons why that car never quite toppled its various opponents in the estimations of this magazine, and strangely inert handling, leaden steering, and restive body control all numbered among them. The new M135i xDrive, however – which you might say succeeds rather than directly replaces the old M140i because of its slightly lesser power output, cylinder count and nomenclature identity – is a better driver’s car than its forebear in most of the ways that should matter. This is a fact that you can’t fail to notice, as I just have when getting it together with a close rival and an even closer platform relative.
The Mercedes-AMG A35 4Matic and Mini Clubman John Cooper Works were, for different reasons, the biggest potential barriers to the market success of the new BMW M135i xDrive that I could think of during the planning of this test. They may not quite be the fast four-wheel-drive hot hatchback institutions you expected us to pit the new BMW against. But there was no Volkswagen Golf R to include because Wolfsburg’s mega-hatch is now out of production and won’t be replaced until the equivalent eighth-gen Golf is ready for the top-level performance treatment. The Ford Focus RS is long dead. An Audi S3 Sportback might have squeaked into contention had this been a straight three-way fight – and an RS3 might have blitzed all and sundry, for those who could afford one.
But how much more interesting – revealing, even – might it be to gauge this new junior performance BMW against an in-house rival that uses so many of the same mechanicals to slightly different ends, as well as against the newest, closest and fiercest of its German opponents?
Well, it was certainly revealing – not that it takes any back-to-back comparisons at all to deduce that so much fundamental mechanical change has been effected on the hot 1 Series. My word, doesn’t the smallest BMW feel different? Surprisingly perched up in its driving position, even by wider hatchback-class standards – never mind Munich’s own – it also locates your backside in an entirely different spatial relationship to the car’s axles than the long-nose, short-rumped, old-gen 1 Series used to. Is that a turn-off? When the last-gen car’s driving position used to feel so singularly low and ensconcing, I’d venture that it will be for some.
The fact is, the Mini’s driving position is now much lower and more recumbent than either of its rivals and feels the most naturally sporting here, before a wheel is turned, by a distance. Although the BMW’s seats are in other respects the best on the test, the position they oblige you to adopt augers the least promisingly.
Cast your eye around the rest of the cabin and the BMW fares better, though. The A35 beats it for material ritziness, perceived quality and general ambient pleasantness if you’re a front-seat passenger – but not by much. To travel in the back row, meanwhile, I’d sooner take the M135i, which seems to make marginally more space for heads and legs, and feels that bit better-packaged. Honourable mention goes to the Clubman, which really does offer competitive passenger space in both rows – once you’ve bent that bit lower to get in.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve trapped an outboard knee in between the driver’s seatback and the interior door handle while closing the back door of a current-generation A-Class or CLA… well, it’d be my round at the cinema pick ’n’ mix. It’s quite surprising, actually, since this is one of the hatchback class’s outwardly bigger operators and exactly 100mm longer than the BMW (and longer still than the Mini), that the Mercedes doesn’t do better on interior accommodation.
For interior width, there is only 4mm between the three cars – the related BMW and Mini measuring up almost identically, and all three cars feeling every bit as expansive as you’d want a relatively compact car to on the road. For boot space, meanwhile, the BMW tops the practicality pile again, proffering 380 litres of under-shelf cargo space to the Merc’s 370 and the Mini’s 360.
Time to compare driving experiences, then – and to find out whether a premium badge, a two-pedal gearbox or a four-wheel-drive system puts any of these hot hatchbacks in the fish-finger ciabatta territory. That is, after all, precisely how all three of these cars roll for mechanical specification – the similarities extending even as far as a three-car engine line-up comprising exclusively 2.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged petrol engines producing precisely 302bhp at peak output – two of which are exactly the same B48A20T1 motor, of course, fitted sideways into the same UKL2 BMW model platform.
Funny, then, that the M135i should somehow make that engine feel a touch more potent than the Clubman manages. Perhaps it’s the Mini’s marginally greater kerb weight at play, but the BMW definitely hauls through the middle of the rev range with a shade greater urgency than the Mini, and with a shade more still than the Mercedes, which is operating at a telling performance deficiency unfamiliar for an AMG. It’s down on both accessibility and outright quantity of peak torque and feels it.
There’s also an odd reediness to the tonality of the A35’s engine at revs, a slight lack of enthusiasm to its power delivery above 5000rpm and a dieselly chunter to its voice at idle that doesn’t do much to endear it to you. The BMW turbo sounds a shade more obvious in its warbling digital enhancement; it’s also slightly slower to respond at middling revs when you ask for a wave of acceleration than the Mercedes lump is – though far from slow. But, quite clearly, it pulls harder, revs more keenly, sounds better and tends to work better with the eight-speed automatic gearbox to which it’s attached than the Mercedes engine manages in combination with its seven-speed twin-clutch set-up, the latter ultimately shifting more quickly on the paddles but feeling neither as slick nor as smooth otherwise.
But predictably enough, it’s a ride and handling that best separate the M135i and the Clubman JCW – and they’re also what finally consigns the A35 to the bottom step of our podium. We’ve tested this medium-hot A-Class once before – on AMG’s standard suspension when we found it a little too aggressively damped to work well on every kind of British road, or on an everyday basis about town. Here, we tested it with optional adaptive dampers – but also on the optional 19in wheels of Mercedes’ AMG Style package. And for fluency of primary ride and good, close composure over less-than-perfect surfaces, the car performed much better than it did first time around – although, for secondary ride isolation and general sharp-edged bump absorption, the A35’s occasionally noisy ride still left plenty to be desired.
Tested on standard passive dampers, the Mini’s ride left, even more, to chance in one sense: firmer, shorter of travel and less compliant overall, it feels busier over bumps, although still less clunky. But the Clubman handles with a shade more precision and immediacy than either the M135i or the A35, capitalising on its lower centre of gravity to surprisingly striking effect around corners both tight and fast. So it should, you might think, but so often modern performance Minis have failed to – admittedly when judged against their peers at a size smaller on the hot hatchback model chart (Mini Cooper S compared with Fiesta ST, for example).
Be advised, then: this Clubman JCW really does deliver a more incisive, engaging driving experience than the average hot hatchback of its size, and packs plenty of driver appeal into its esoteric silhouette. It corners flatter than either of its rivals and grips just as hard. It communicates slightly less through its steering than the BMW, granted – and offers much more in the way of precision, stability and traction than of outright cornering balance or handling adjustability, too. Still, it’s the most natural entertainer here – the simplest, most fun, most route-one hot hatchback.
An optional adaptive suspension, the Mini might also have had a chassis compromise you would gladly live with, and would very readily accept the car’s relatively antiquated infotainment systems and its slightly annoyingly ‘novelty’ interior styling for – even if you’re not an avowed fan of the Mini brand. But that’s not how we tested the car; and only in the realm of supposition, I fear, could the Mini have won this test outright.
As it actually played out, the adaptively damped BMW’s distinguishing real-world pace, better-resolved ride, more enticing steering feel, better-finished and more daily-usable interior were just enough to get it over the line. Although the BMW feels a bit unsporting at a standstill, its ride is taut, deft and composed on a testing surface, and more supple and better-isolated than either of its rivals. It’s not the keenest-handling car of the bunch, but it still feels precise and purposeful, and incisive enough to take a B-road apart, corner by corner, when you’re in the mood to.
The BMW M135i xDrive is more usable than its forebear, and it’s both fast and fun, with fewer notable dynamic flaws than the fast 1 Series used to have. Liberated from the weight of expectation that rear-wheel-drive placed on its antecedents, it feels like a hot hatchback free to play by the class’s established rules – and it does so well.
For the record, I’d say it’s good enough to escape any fish-finger ciabatta association quite comfortably; and I, for one, am glad that BMW left the hot sauce in the cupboard, where it belongs.
This article was originally published in Autocar UK.
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