Munich's engineers have shoehorned their stunning 3-litre powerplant into the front end of the runt of the Roundel litter and transformed this humble hatchback into a sub-compact sportscar with the skills to take on the almighty Golf R32.
The 1 Series BMW was a more than welcome addition to the hatchback fold. Finally the prestige marque had embraced the masses, just, and the radical rear-drive set-up was an appetising prospect for serious drivers. The Golf had a real rival to worry about, it was just a little dreary in the engine department. Not any more, now the BMW 130i M Sport is upon us.
Munich’s engineers have shoehorned their stunning 3-litre powerplant into the front end of the runt of the Roundel litter and transformed this humble hatchback into a sub-compact sportscar with the skills to take on the almighty Golf R32. But it comes with an intrinsically different character, a raw-edged appeal that brings out the rebel in whoever slips behind the wheel.
On our test elderly gents in ties and blazers turned into hooligans behind the wheel of the ferocious ‘Baby M’, if only for a short while. This is one of those cars that loves its 7000rpm redline and, with a distinct lack of sound insulation, the soundtrack is all the sweeter. It jumps into the red zone without a second invitation and the fun and games behind the wheel will turn a mundane trip to the shops into a 30-mile round trip. If you haven’t got garden centres to visit, of course.
The 130i M Sport is a Tasmanian Devil of a car, a perpetual ball of energy bounding along the road. Of course it’s not a true Motorsport car, but the spirit is here as well as the fancy bodykit and interior baubles. They add significantly to the cost, putting this £26,515 car within touching distance of the sticker price on the 330i, which is a much more complete machine.
And it is no faster in a straight line than the 130i that costs £2000 less. The extra cash buys stiffened suspension, the glowering bodykit that turns a car that looks like Scooby Doo’s head into something altogether more aggressive, 18-inch wheels, fatter rear tyres and some cosmetic jewellery on the interior that all add to the flavour.
Now this propels the 130i M Sport well beyond the budget and basic entry-level BMW. This is just about 5 Series money and is a genuine lifestyle choice. This is an R32 rival for those young professionals that want the badge, don’t need the rear seats that are pillaged by the rear-drive layout and like a little fun in their lives. If I could tick this box on my company car options sheets, life would be pretty sweet.
This engine is amongst the best BMW has to offer and, thanks to extensive use of Magnesium alloy in the crank case, cylinder head and other areas, is the lightest in its class. The family favourite inline six cylinder produces a truly epic 265bhp. That’s enough to hurl this 1450kg beast down the road to 60mph in 6.1s and all the way on to 155mph.
Of course it’s not the lightest thing on the road and in fact is just a little lighter than the 630i coupe. Bear in mind, though, that the original Golf GTi, lean as a whippet though it may have been, had less than half the ponies. BMW may yet produce a genuine M-badged car on this platform, too, and that will be a lighter, yet more focussed car. Until then, this is all the fun you can have this side of an M3 and possibly more than you’ll ever need.
This three-litre loves high revs and peak power arrives at the lofty heights of 6,600rpm, while 232lb-ft of torque at 2,750rpm provides low down in-gear thrust.
The engine takes a deep breath at 4,000rpm, thanks to BMW’s VANOS variable valve timing, and all hell lets loose in a gnashing whirl of revs. It’s fast, brutal and takes time to truly master. The first few minutes were a Staccato mess of power, brakes and opposite lock, it takes time to smooth out progress in the buzzy little 130i. It’s one of the lairiest cars in the line-up and is almost as compulsive as the mighty M3.
Short overhangs and the longest wheelbase in its class, at 2.66m, together with perfect 50/50 weight distribution front/rear, have once again unlocked the door to driving pleasure. It’s not just a case of shifting ballast, BMW has gone to the extremes of mixing up the metals in the suspension to ensure the basic balance is right.
It’s an alarming indication how cars have grown, though, as this car is only fractionally smaller than the Z3M Coupe that had the motoring hacks entranced just a few years ago. The dimensions of two cars are eerily similar, in fact, which bodes well for the handling on this machine and the potential of a genuine M.
BMW prides itself on being the true driving enthusiast’s choice in the premium sector and only the terminally depressed wouldn’t love this car.
Stiff suspension and run-flat Bridgestones give the 1 Series a mildly crashy ride, but it all adds to the sense of occasion and the payoff in feel at the limit is worth every rut and pothole through town. When the road opens out and you press the loud pedal, this car’s true character comes to the fore.
It skips off ruts in the road and can push wide in corners, leading to one memorable moment on broken, damp tarmac, but it’s all part of the fun. Accusations of poor handling may have missed the point, as this car feels like the rough edges have been deliberately left unfiled. The four-wheel drive Golf R32 leaves the little Beemer in its wake in terms of ride and even outright speed, but I’d buy this car every time for the fun factor.
With the traction control off, you’re never far from opposite lock, as there’s no limited slip diff and the power is more than enough to unstuck the rear wheels and send the 1 Series sideways out of bends. Here it’s best to have ignored the active steering box on the optional extras list. While it’s getting better, this system still feels a little artificial for my liking and a bit more effort at parking speeds is a small price to pay for feel on the limit.
Some of the other trickery to filter down from the bigger models, though, such as brake standby and fade compensation are more than welcome. The former brings the discs closer to the pads after sudden lift-off, which can affect the braking distance just enough to save a big shunt, and ensures the pads are kept dry with occasional applications. And the latter puts extra pressure on the brakes to compensate for any heat-related fading. It’s all pretty impressive stuff and means that the lightweight 130i can stop just as effectively as it starts.
Now back in the real world, away from intoxicating things like car keys, it becomes harder to justify buying the 130i M Sport when the 330i is there for just a handful of extra cash. That is the best car I have driven this year, this was merely one of them. When I handed this car back, though, I really wanted it, just for a second it was a necessary part of a happy life.
VW should be very worried indeed.