In this test, the 2020 BMW M135i meets the Volkswagen Golf R, which has been the best car of its type for more than half a decade. It’s been imperious, like the tennis virtuoso who makes you think he or she might never lose again. No other upmarket four-wheel drive hot hatch has ever got the better of it, failing either to match the Golf’s composure on very bumpy roads or its ease of use in normal driving.
And you can hardly say the competition has been meagre; both the Audi S3 (with which the VW shares a platform) and the very capable Mercedes-AMG A35 are fine hot hatches in their own right. Now, however, the Golf faces a brand new BMW.
A CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY
It isn’t only the rear-wheel drive proportions that have gone missing from this latest 1 Series that make the M135i look strange, but also those enormous kidney grilles that sit uncomfortably on the car’s face like wildly flared nostrils. If you choose to disregard BMW’s rival to the Golf R on the basis of looks alone, you’ll hear no protestations from me.
Nor am I especially bothered by this latest M135i being four-wheel drive with a transverse engine where earlier versions were rear-wheel drive with longitudinal engines. The truth is, the previous generation M135i and the later M140i were compromised, both needing fairly major upgrade work to make them as rewarding to drive as a compact car with a thumping turbocharged six-cylinder engine up front and powered wheels at the rear should have been.
Actually, what’s most regrettable about BMW’s decision to make the third-generation 1 Series front-wheel drive – with four-wheel drive derivatives – is that the premium hot hatch marketplace is now a less varied one than it was only a short while ago.
It’s worse than that, in fact, because between the Golf R, S3, A35 and now the M135i, you’ll find almost no mechanical variation at all: they all have turbocharged four-cylinder engines that displace 2.0 litres and produce around 300bhp; all have front-biased four-wheel drive systems; all are five-door only; and all have paddleshift gearboxes, although the BMW uses a torque convertor automatic where the others feature dual-clutch units. There is one more important mechanical difference, which we’ll come on to soon.
COMPARING PRICES, TECH AND SPACE
All that separates the BMW and the Volkswagen in terms of price is a few quid – in the Golf’s favour. It starts at £36,345, while the BMW costs from £36,430. But for all their similarities, there are key differences as well. Their styling you’ll have to make your own mind up on, but to my eyes the Volkswagen Golf R is understated and handsome, while the M135i looks busy and overwrought. That basic theme carries on within their cabins, the BMW’s being complex and intricate while the VW’s is almost functional.
There isn’t a great deal to choose between the two in terms of tech – both have very good infotainment and plenty of active safety systems – but the BMW’s cockpit does feel both far newer and much more upmarket than the VW’s. You also find a far more sports car-like seating position in the M135i.
One of the Golf R’s strongest attributes is that, most of the time, it doesn’t feel like a performance car at all. You could use it just like you would any other Golf, piling kids in the back and stuff in the boot while getting on with your life. It isn’t noisy in normal driving, or firm-riding, or horribly thirsty, or in any way demanding. The M135i matches it every inch of the way in that regard, except that its rear seats don’t offer quite as much leg or headroom for taller passengers. But there’s not much in it.
ENGINES, GEARBOXES AND PERFORMANCE
With a little more torque (332lb ft versus 295lb ft) the BMW’s engine is slightly more muscular than the VW’s, although you’ll be hard pressed to notice that extra shove on the road. Both engines pull with vigour from 2,000rpm towards the upper reaches. The key difference is that while the Golf’s motor keeps pulling until it crashes into the rev limiter, the M135i’s feels as though it’s run out of puff at 5,500rpm. Both are crisp and linear in their power delivery, though, and from both you’ll find very good throttle response for turbo engines.
On paper the BMW appears to be at a disadvantage with regard to gearbox technology, making do with a more traditional torque converter automatic where the VW uses a dual-clutch. But the M135i’s transmission is so snappy and responsive in manual mode, while also being very smooth in automatic mode, that you hardly ever wish for a gearbox like the Golf R’s. Only on downshifts do you occasionally sense the BMW’s auto hesitating fractionally.
Want a really thrilling steer from your hot hatch? You’ll have to look elsewhere (the Honda Civic Type R would be a good place to start). Models like the Golf R and M135i major on security, stability and predictability over outright excitement. The Golf R has always been the best at that because of its supple suspension; the sophisticated damping that allows it to ride bumps in the road like they aren’t there, keeping all four tyres pressed hard into the road surface so they can claw grip out of it. The VW feels light on its feet, never trying to pummel the road into submission. It remains the master of that, but the M135i runs it very close.
RIDE AND HANDLING
Both steer reasonably well, although the Golf’s steering is always good whereas the BMW’s only comes to life when you start pushing on a little. At lower speeds it feels gloopy, vague and dull. That word: dull. It wouldn’t be fair to use it to describe the Golf R, but there is a point to be addressed here. With its very prescriptive handling and defiantly nose-led balance, the VW has never been overwhelmingly engaging. It just does its thing, squirting rapidly from one corner to the next, always secure, always clinging gamely to the road. And no matter what you do at the wheel, that’s how it’ll behave mile after mile.
And that’s fine for a more grown up sort of hot hatch. It’s fine, except that the M135i has just arrived and demonstrated that it needn’t be that way. The BMW is every bit as confidence-inspiring as the Golf, but there’s more adjustability in the chassis on the way into a bend, some playfulness when you really start wringing its neck. The M135i is a more responsive car to drive, which makes it more rewarding. It has the added bonus of a limited-slip differential in the front axle – that last major point of difference between the BMW and the rest of the pack – which makes it feel keener and more alert on the way out of a corner, the front wheels scrabbling hard to pull the car through a bend.
Although the Volkswagen Golf R remains the benchmark hot hatch in a number of important respects, the BMW’s extra layer of driver involvement makes it, for me, the best car in its class. But they shouldn’t celebrate the victory for too long over in Munich: the Golf R was half a decade old when it was finally dethroned. With the Mk8 Golf just around the corner and a new Golf R on its way, there is every chance the four-wheel-drive hot hatch crown is leaving Wolfsburg for Munich for a loan spell only.
BMW M135i xDrive
Price: from £36,430. As tested £43,190
0-62mph: 4.8 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel economy: 34.4mpg (WLTP Combined)
Volkswagen Golf R
Price: from £36,345. As tested £44,029
0-62mph: 4.7 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Fuel economy: 32.8mpg (WLTP Combined)
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