- Blistering linear power delivery
- Rear-wheel drive is fun
- Firm but forgiving ride
- Still some cheap plastics in the cabin
- Detached steering feel not so fun
Ben Griffin visited Sheepdrove Organic Farm as part of his BMW M140i first drive to see if the German hot-hatch has what it takes to compete with the Ford Focus RS and VW Golf R.
The BMW M135i is dead. Long live the BMW M140i, which replaces it as part of a badge refresh. Until a 'proper' M1 comes along, this is the fastest, scariest and most lethal 1 Series hatchback your Brexit-damaged pennies can buy. So is the latest model any good?
BMW M140i: What is new over the M135i?
Not a lot, actually. It has a new badge that says 'M140i' instead of 'M135i' and this is justified by a power increase of 14hp and 50Nm more torque over its predecessor, bringing the total to a tasty 340hp and 500Nm and within a stone's throw of the Ford Focus RS and its 2.3-litre EcoBoost.
The suspension setup, meanwhile, has been revised to make it firmer and bring it in line with the M240i. It looks identical, too, so expect a radical departure at your peril. BMW basically focussed on making the M140i faster, which leads us nicely onto the next question.
BMW M140i: Is it the same 3.0-litre engine as before?
If we said yes, we would be lying. Both the M140i and M240i have been given a new engine, which has the same 3.0-litre displacement in the same six-cylinder flavour, but it is now of the Baukasten variety (BMW's modular engine platform).
With most turbos, lag is to be expected but there is no such issue here. All 500Nm of torque kicks in so low down the revs that the M140i blasts forward with an unhinged level of pace, before topping out at an electronically limited 155mph. The Focus RS wishes it felt this quick.
It feels a bit like old naturally-aspirated BMW engines with big displacements because there is no slow burn as the revs build, just unbridled forward motion that makes the head spin. Drop it into Sport mode and it snaps even more savagely.
The eight-speed automatic gearbox changes gears so fast it knocks two-tenths off the 0-62mph time (4.6 seconds, stat fans) and feels almost seamless. Where it falls down is if you want to quickly change from plodding along to embarrassing a Sunday driver as the downward shift can be slow to react.
You do get flappy paddles to compensate though and it is fun to use them, but we could see ourselves going for the six-speed manual simply to enjoy greater control and involvement. On the M135i it was the better choice and we assume that is still the case (only the auto was available on the test drive), especially as it has the addition of the M2's autoblip function.
The odd exhaust pop is a sweet, if understated, reward for really caning the M140i. It never produces the same obnoxiously loud roar as the Audi RS 3, but what you get is less artificial bark than the Focus RS that becomes especially enjoyable near the red line.
BMW M140i: How does ze German handle?
The M140i has several different personalities and it feels like they are in a constant battle with each other. On the one hand, it has the slightly relaxed and almost sterile feel of some luxury-oriented BMW so it can do the whole comfortable cruiser, stuck in traffic thing brilliantly.
But put your foot down and you get unrelenting pace that quickly becomes intimidating. Even in second gear in the dry, the rear wheels do their utmost best to break free and the playful feel of the car means, like the BMW M2, it feels good to slide around the place like an idiot.
So far, so good, then, until you really push your luck in fast country bends. The steering is supposed to have improved but on first impression it feels at least as detached as on the M135i, maybe even more so. Or perhaps it is merely emphasised more by the increase in performance.
Either way, going fast is a constant see-saw between wonderfully satisfying and utterly terrifying. The M140i handles well at moderate speed but a small dollop of body roll and the fact you are never sure what the front wheels are doing makes it scary as you approach the edge. Where the Focus RS tries to hold your hand, the BMW tries to burn it.
You can still have a blast driving it very quickly but we suspect only the truly brave or stupid will routinely push their luck.
We really wish there was an option to get some sort of mechanical steering or beef up the feeling so you feel more connected to the car, but there isn't and as such you never fully trust the M140i. It will end up killing you – you are just never sure when.
BMW M140i: Looks a bit reserved, no?
Yes and herein lies a key issue with the M140i. For those who want a hot-hatch to look, well, hot you would never contemplate what is essentially a German breadvan. The aggressive and shouty Honda Civic Type R and Ford Focus RS own that gap in the market.
But there are some who love the whole 'Q car' thing and the M140i is even more understated than the twin-exit exhaust-toting VW Golf R. If surprising other road users is your bag, there is nothing better as you would be hard-pressed to notice the M-specific extras over the standard 1 Series hatchback without knowing them beforehand.
BMW M140i: Still pretty practical?
It is, actually. The boot is 360 litres so it is by no means the best in its class, but by no means awful. Fold the seats down and it rises to a healthy 1,200 litres, as you would expect from a breadvan design that works especially well for transporting quadrupeds. Think of it as a mini estate.
Various cubby holes and comfy seats help make it a practical hatchback – just don't expect to seat a full-sized adult in the rear-middle seat, although rear leg room and head room is good for everyone else.
As for fuel economy, that comes in at a respectable (and potentially unobtainable) 39.8mpg for the auto and 36.2mpg for the manual. CO2 emissions, meanwhile, for the auto and manual are 163g/km and 179g/km, respectively.
BMW M140i: So how much is it, then?
Prices start from £31,875 and for that you get navigation and a few mod-cons but far fewer than we would like. Our car came in at £40,635, thanks to added cruise control (£250), Adaptive M suspension (£515), reversing camera (£275) and sun protection glass (£290).
Adaptive LED headlights (£495), a Harmon Kardon sound system (£600), enhanced Bluetooth with WiFi hotspot (£395), electric front seats with driver memory function (£650) and, last but not least, the Professional Media Package (£900) were also fitted.
Side by side with the Focus RS, the M140i looks pricey indeed, even if BMW's infotainment system is considerably better and the car has superior badge appeal. A few cheap plastics in the interior really stand out in a 40k car, too, even if the overall package is sturdy and well thought out. Perhaps it is time for BMW to do that much-needed interior revamp?
BMW M140i: Should I buy one?
Tough to say after a short drive, but we love the fact that instantly lively character has been retained and the firmer ride copes with Britain's worst roads, making it more comfortable and potentially better as a daily driver than the Focus RS and Civic Type R.
But the lack of steering feel, though certainly no deal-breaker, is still an issue and one that that is amplified by all that extra torque. It takes the Bimmer beyond the realms of aggressively playful and into 'my life expectancy just halved'.
While fearing a car can be good and bad, there is no arguing the M140i has a premium price, which puts it close to the less torquey Audi RS 3 – another royally fast hooligan of a hatch. But then not that many years ago this would have been considered supercar pace so maybe the £32,000 is not so bad.
Quite honestly, the combination of rear-wheel drive fun and boundless pace stays with you long after you get out of the M140i. For that reason it stands tall in hot-hatch land – taller, dare we say it, than the Focus RS for sheer driving pleasure.
- 3.0-litre six-cylinder Baukasten petrol
- 368lb/ft (500Nm)
- 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds (4.8 for manual)
- 163g/km (179g/km)
- 39.8mpg (36.2mpg)
- From £31,875