BMW's M-pack hatch a sparkling drive

HOT HATCH: BMW 125I M Sport.
HOT HATCH: BMW 125I M Sport.

During the early weeks of this year, BMW will launch a 3.0-litre six-cylinder addition to its lineup of 1-Series hatchbacks.

POWER PLANT: 2.0-litre four cylinder twin-scroll turbo- charged petrol engine, 160 kW at 5000 rpm, 310 Nm at 1350-4800 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Rear-wheel drive. Eight-speed automatic transmission with manual over-ride. Electric power steering. MacPherson strut front suspension, multi- link setup at the rear.
HOW BIG: Length 4324mm, width 1765mm, height 1421mm, wheelbase 2690mm.
HOW MUCH: $64,700. As tested, $76,300.
WHAT'S GOOD: Beautiful if firm drive, great engine.
WHAT'S NOT: The price. Ride can get harsh.
OUR VERDICT: This BMW has the goods to compete against such product at the VW Golf GTi.
I've already driven this M135i in Australia - did it late last year - and it's a big-engined little beauty that will be sure to prove a hit with those punters who want a high-performance Bimmer hatch that can blast to 100 kmh in less than five seconds.

Trouble is, it's going to cost $85,900 and availability will be limited.

HOT HATCH: BMW M125 I Sport.
HOT HATCH: BMW M125 I Sport.

So what to do? Well, there is another 1-Series currently on the market that is almost as good. It's the BMW 125i M Sport, a twin- scroll turbo-charged 2.0-litre four- cylinder unit that costs from $64,700.

Naturally, it does not have the same 235 kW/450 Nm raw power as that soon-to-arrive six-cylinder unit, but it does offer 160 kilowatts and 310 Newton metres, which is pretty darned good all the same.

That's sufficient to power the car to the open-road speed limit in 6.4 seconds, and it helps make the 125i a sparkling drive.

And if you don't feel the need to drive enthusiastically, it's an easy drive, too.

This latest edition of the 1-Series was launched in the middle of last year and continues the traditional BMW mix of a longitudinally mounted engine feeding its power and torque to the rear wheels.

It's bigger than before, which starts to overcome this BMW's biggest bugbear - interior space.

It's slightly wider; but more significant is that 85mm has been added to its length and 30mm to its wheelbase, which has allowed the BMW designers to increase rear seat leg room by 20mm and to increase boot space to 360 litres, which is 9 per cent more than before.

The rear seats have also been changed, so that instead of them being of the 60/40 split-fold variety, they are 40/20/40 which adds flexibility of use.

So the biggest criticism of the 1-Series - its lack of rear-seat room for the price - has all but disappeared with this new model. Obviously, being a small car it is still fairly cramped back there, but it is much better than before and even tall adults would be happy to use the rear seats for all but long journeys.

I also like the new model's interior. I find it nicely built and functional; and, in the case of our 125i M Sport test car, BMW New Zealand had installed $11,600 worth of optional extras to add to the experience of driving a sports- oriented small hatch.

This vehicle comes standard with an M Sports package, which gives it an uprated suspension, different aerodynamic add-ons, sports seats, and 18-inch alloy wheels. Among the additional options fitted to our vehicle were a $1500 M Sport brake package, and $2400 electric seat adjustment with memory for the driver's seat.

All this adds up to handling that is really good, but a ride that is quite hard at the lower speeds even if the overall drive can be relaxed and flexible.

At the higher speeds, the M Sports suspension can result in fairly jolting bumps and thumps, particularly during hard cornering. It made me wonder what this hatch would be like if it had the all the good power and torque, but a standard 1-Series suspension (which is a no-cost option) - or at least was fitted with adaptive damping which costs $2500 more.

But, if you're prepared to put up with a reasonable amount of bump-thump, then you are rewarded with one of the best- handling cars around, with the turn-in for cornering especially impressive.

The BMW's 2.0-litre engine develops its maximum power of 160kW at 5000 rpm, and the top torque of 310Nm is there from 1350 rpm through to 4800 rpm. The engine is mated to an eight-speed automatic, which I've experienced many times before in BMW product and have always been hugely impressed for its fast action.

This 1-Series also boasts BMW's Drive Performance Control which allows the driver to select any one of four driving modes that range from a fuel-sipping and performance-inhibiting Eco Pro, right through to a Sport-Plus mode that changes engine characteristics, partially knocks out stability control, and even changes the dashboard display so there are digital power and torque readouts.

Configure this control system the right way - and don't boot the car at every opportunity - and it will return average fuel economy of 6.6 L/100 km. But hit the Sport or Sport-Plus modes and you'll get nowhere near that figure.

Overall, this latest model continues the 1-Series tradition of being a joy to drive.

It's powerful, and it's beautifully balanced, to the extent it has to rate as one of the world's best- handling hatchbacks. But the ride can jolt you when you are pushing on.

And, the price is expensive for what remains a small five-door hatch.

Taranaki Daily News