There was a lot of secret- squirrel stuff going down in Melbourne last week. Each day, it involved small groups of motoring journalists being picked up from the airport and delivered to a seedy area of bare land underneath a freeway bridge in the notorious Docklands area.
Once the writers had stepped out of the vehicles, they were handed envelopes marked Top Secret. Inside each
POWER PLANT: 3.0-litre in-line six cylinder twin scroll turbocharged petrol engine, 235 kW at 5800 rpm, 450 Nm at 1250-5000 rpm.
RUNNING GEAR: Rear-wheel drive. Eight-speed Steptronic automatic transmission. Aluminium double-joint cross strut front axle with M-specific elastokinematics, lightweight steel five-link setup at the rear. Full suite of electronic performance and handling aids.
HOW BIG: Length 4340mm, width 1765mm, height 1411mm, wheelbase 2690mm.
HOW MUCH: $85,900.
WHAT'S GOOD: Muscular performance potential, very good interior specification.
WHAT'S NOT: Typical 1-Series failing - lack of rear cargo room.
OUR VERDICT: Only a limited of these cars will initially be available in New Zealand. We can see them getting snapped up pretty quickly.
And the cars? The only two examples in Australasia of what promises to be one of the most exciting performance cars to enter the market in 2013 - the BMW M135i hatch.
The secret-squirrel stuff was a fun way of overcoming the fact there are just the two Bimmers in this part of the world and that this has prevented BMW from holding a traditional media launch for a larger group of journalists.
So each day last week, four journalists were delivered to the cars in this secretive way, then left to head off on a drive programme into the inland hills where they could try out the performance potential of this latest addition to BMW's M lineup.
And that performance potential is considerable.
BMW has taken a standard 1-Series five-door hatch and shoehorned a 3.0-litre twin-scroll turbocharged six-cylinder engine under its bonnet. This engine delivers 235 kilowatts of power and 450 Newton metres of torque, which is sufficient to get the M135i to the open-road speed limit in a blistering 4.9 seconds, and on to an electronically limited top speed of 250 kmh.
The engine is mated to BMW's impressive eight-speed automatic with Steptronic; and when the car arrives in New Zealand early next year, it will retail for $85,900. Those wishing for a six-speed manual version will be able to buy one to order, with the price dropping by $3100.
Both cars available to be driven in Australia last week were automatics, and personally I was very happy with that. As owners of other BMW product have discovered, it is a lovely transmission that operates so intelligently and super-quickly in all conditions - whether powering up those wonderful racer roads that exist in the mountains in the Victoria hinterland, or decelerating down the other sides.
The M135i's M-specific suspension tuning means the hatch rides and handles very well, too. It's helped along by the fact it is shod with 18-inch alloys fitted with high performance tyres - 40 series at the front and 35 series at the rear - that have been specially designed for this model.
The vehicle also has individual control of the suspension and damping systems as well as the specific elasto-kinematics of the front axle, all of which contributes to precise handling in a big- engined, rear-drive sort of way.
There are big brakes, too. The M135i is fitted with BMW's M Sport brake system as standard, featuring four-piston fixed calipers on the front axle and two-piston fixed calipers at the rear, all in dark-blue metallic paint bearing the M logo.
So there you go. Visually, this latest addition to the M Sport lineup doesn't look that different to a standard 1-Series - even though it is fitted with the full suite of M aerodynamic add-ons and, of course, sits lower thanks to those very big wheels and low- profile tyres.
But the hatch's performance credentials quickly begin to show themselves the moment you step into the vehicle. Leather sports seats are very form-fitting and thankfully have full lumbar adjustment, and there are other visual clues including M door sills, an M leather steering wheel, and anthracite roof lining.
The most obvious clue, however, is when you start the M135i, put the transmission into drive, and hit the accelerator. It is then that the big in-line six up front begins to growl a glorious engine note as the car takes off.
What I do like about the M135i is that it is an easy vehicle to drive in the urban environment - it feels considerably more flexible than the 1-Series M Coupe that it effectively replaces.
In that regard, the vehicle will be easily be able to double as a standard, albeit rather expensive, five-door hatch.
But frankly, there other 1-Series models on the market to fill that role. This car's forte is as a performance machine, so last week it wasn't long before I was happily out of the heavy Melbourne traffic, off the freeways, and letting the BMW off its leash along the secondary highlands roads.
The rear-driven 1-Series is one of the best-handling small cars on the market anyway, and this M version takes things up another level. It feels balanced, tracks very nicely, and it features BMW's Driving Experience Control which offers four driving programmes that range from very economical to very sporting.
This system defaults to a Comfort setting which is ideal for normal motoring, and which allows the driver to achieve an impressive average fuel economy of 7.5 L/100km.
But for the more enthusiastic motoring, Sport or even Sport+ can be chosen. Both change the throttle responses and give the steering more heft. In the Sport+ mode, the traction control is partly disengaged so the person behind the wheel can get even more involved with the performance driving experience.
Super-hot hatchbacks always seem to work well in the New Zealand motoring environment, because they are compact enough to be at home on our often challenging local roads. Volkswagen Golf R, Audi S3 and Renault Megane RS265 are among such product.
When the new BMW M135i arrives in four months, it will immediately install itself as one of the best of that fleet, not the least because it will be the most powerful.
The concept of putting a big six- cylinder engine into a smallish rear-driven hatchback is very appealing.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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