Front-wheel drive, four-cylinder cars have historically owned the hot hatch game, but there are plenty of paths to delivering fun in a compact package. With power from a turbo-six and rear-wheel drive, the BMW M140i is unique among its peers. Does doing things differently pay dividends? We spent a week with the M140i Performance Edition to find out.
Before we go any further, there's one little detail that needs to be discussed: the M140i doesn't have a four-liter engine, and it isn't a fully-fledged motorsports product. BMW badges used to be simple. The last two numbers (40) used to signify displacement, and the first number (1) referenced the model line. The letter afterwards (i) was used to signify if the car was gasoline or diesel. The M badge was applied to the hottest of the hot, the range-topping motorsport monsters.
Based on that logic, the M140i was developed in-house by the motorsports division with a four-liter engine. Except it was (and is) not. Power comes from a three-liter inline-six, with 250 kW (335 hp) of power and, thanks to the magic of turbocharging, a healthy 500 Nm (369 lb-ft) of torque. BMW straight sixes are known for their lovely linear nature, and turbocharging the M140i has done nothing to damage the reputation. Put simply, the engine is a marvel.
Heavily turbocharged four-cylinder engines like the ones in the Golf R and Focus RS deliver their power in a certain way: they tend to have a bit of lag down low, offer peak torque in a huge lump and run out of puff towards the redline. That's a slight generalization – engineers have become very good at making small turbocharged engines feel bigger and more special, but there is still an inherent sameness to the way they deliver their power.
The inline-six in the BMW is completely different. Maximum torque comes in just above idle, but you don't get peak power until the tach needle sweeps past 5,500 rpm. Running to the redline is an absolute joy, backed by a soundtrack that blends raspy heavy-metal induction noise with some overblown, engineered exhaust pops. They're the product of a new M Sport exhaust system, installed as part of the Performance Edition package.
Think of the heavily-boosted turbo four-cylinder engines popular in hot hatches like teenage boys on prom night: they promise plenty, make lots of noise but run out of puff fast. The M140i is more mature, more refined in its delivery. It hits harder from low revs, feels stronger in the midrange and hangs on through to a thrilling climax. Hang on tight and use protection, kids. The power delivery is silken, the noise intoxicating and gearshifts from the automatic eight-speed ZF gearbox instantaneous.
A manual gearbox is available on a quarter of the 60 M140i Performance Editions being sold in Australia, and includes a limited-slip differential for the rear axle. The six-speed stick is certainly tempting, especially when you consider how few front engined, rear-drive manual cars are still on the market. But the eight-speed automatic is so competent in town, and the shifts so quick when you bury the throttle, the only real reason for choosing the manual is sheer bloody-minded determination to do things the old-fashioned way. There's nothing wrong with that, by the way, but there's also no shame in picking the convenience of an automatic here.
Along with the slippy-differential and burbly exhaust, Performance Edition cars have been treated to a few choice exterior upgrades. For one, it rides on a set of spindly-spoked rims from the M Performance catalog, and there are carbon fiber caps on the wing mirrors. There are enough M badges scattered around the panels, but the treatment is subtle. If you aren't into cars, it's unlikely you'll be able to distinguish the M140i from any other 1 Series on the road until it blasts off into the distance.
On a sinewy stretch of road, the fact the M140i is rear-driven dominates proceedings. The steering is light in Comfort mode, before weighting up in Sport and Sport Plus. You don't get a great deal of gritty feedback in any drive mode, but the front end does what you ask of it, and the throttle is always there to dial in a little bit of attitude when you're feeling playful. Stability control cuts in quickly and smoothly in Normal or Sport, but flicking into Sport Plus allows a bit of slip before calling time on the fun. It's the type of fun you simply can't have in other hot-hatches, with their front- or all-wheel drive powertrains.
The differences are more pronounced from behind the wheel. The standard steering wheel has been turfed in favour of an Alcantara-trimmed unit, complete with a red stripe to mark out straight ahead. The seats and door panels are trimmed in a unique blend of Alcantara and cloth, designed to evoke the cabin of the limited-edition M4 GTS and CS, while carbon fiber has been applied to the transmission tunnel and door grab handles.
They combine to lift the ambience of the 1 Series cabin that, although well-built and functional, is starting to feel a bit dated compared to some of its rivals. BMW iDrive looks brilliant on its dash-mounted floating screen and is whip-crack fast to use, but the dash architecture and some of the materials aren't quite up to scratch. Apple CarPlay costs an extra AU$600 (US$485), too, which is absolutely ridiculous.
With that said, the electrically-adjustable seats drop right down to the floor, and the steering wheel can be pulled right into the driver's chest for your perfect driving position. BMW has always been good at the basics, and the 1 Series doesn't break with that tradition.
Not everyone was a fan of the boxy profile of the M140i from the outside, but it does make for a practical hatch. We managed to squeeze a family of six-footers into the car for Fathers' Day lunch, and the 360-liter (12.7-cu.ft) boot managed to swallow all the gear we could throw at it. Be warned, though, there's no spare wheel, just a puncture repair kit.
In the simplest terms possible, the BMW M140i Performance Edition is a very nice car. The engine and transmission are brilliant, it handles like a halfway-house M car should and the cabin feels a bit special thanks to the trim upgrades.
Whether or not you actually want one will depend on your preference. That sounds like a cop out, but stick with us here. There's a subset of buyers who want something a bit different: something that isn't front- or all-wheel drive, or something with a six-cylinder engine. The M140i is perfect for those people. In fact, it's their only option. Although it makes sense in the real world, it's the sort of car you buy with your heart and head.
Priced from AU$71,900 (US$58,250) with the automatic gearbox, the M140i Performance Edition is a brilliant all-rounder. It's refined on the commute, and great fun on a weekend blast. Do you need the Performance Edition? If you can get your hands on a manual, the limited-slip diff makes the AU$7,500 (US$6,075) premium over a regular M140i worth it. In automatic trim, it might not be worth the trouble. I still want one, though.
The BMW 1 Series isn't available in the USA, because American buyers haven't embraced hatchbacks. The M240i, which packs a near-identical powertrain in a two-door coupe body, is the closest approximation. It costs US$50,050 in a similar spec to the M140i Performance Edition.