BMW 130i M Sport

Nearly 20 years ago, John Simister fell in love with BMW's M3. Now, the new M Sport is angling for a place in his heart. It's not true romance, he says, but it's close enough

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Price: £26,515 (130i SE £24,745)
Engine: 2,996cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, 265bhp at 6,600rpm, 232lb ft at 2,750rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-60 in 6.0sec, 30.7mpg official average
CO2: 221g/km

Nineteen years ago, it was. Estoril racetrack in Portugal, a test day to try out Continental's tyre range. And the star of the show? BMW's original, then-new M3, a boxy little two-door saloon with a crisp-edged, manic four-cylinder engine of 2.3 litres and the sort of steering and handling that made you wonder why all cars can't feel like this.

Lap after lap I blazed round, having a fantastic time in this easiest, most forgiving and most engrossing of souped-up saloons. This is what can make rear-wheel drive so good. Some car-nuts take the view that rear-wheel drive is always better than front-wheel drive, that it's heresy to suggest otherwise. This isn't true, but that fabulous M3, with its perfect car-driver communication and complete dynamic transparency, was those car-nuts' best argument. No electronics, no rubbery interfaces, no tactile anaesthesia, just the car and you.

No M3 has been this engaging since, for all their greater power. Nor has any M3 ridden so smoothly while serving up such joy. So the idea of the BMW 130i M Sport sends instant bleeps on that old-M3 radar. The 1-series is BMW's smallest car, so it should be and agile like that first M3.

This, however, is the Noughties and not the Eighties, so naturally the new car weighs more than the old one thanks to its stronger structure and ample safety kit, which in turn means it needs more engine to do the same job. So, like the M3s that replaced the original, the 130i has a six-cylinder engine. It's actually the same unit that powers other 30i-suffixed BMWs, such as the 330i, 530i and 730i, so in a 1-series the results are likely to be spectacular - especially as it has an extra 7bhp (making 265) thanks to modifications to the intake and exhaust systems. It's a light engine, too, with a magnesium block, and it features BMW's clever Valvetronic technology, which has no throttle but instead controls engine speed by altering the amount the inlet valves open, thus regulating the engine's air supply.

Plenty of electronics there, then. But far from adding a delay to the engine's response, it makes the 3.0-litre unit almost supernaturally responsive. Its deep, straight-six burble has a lovely crispy, crunchy edge, and when you accelerate hard a valve in the rear silencer opens to release a racy howl.

You feel just what an eager machine this is the instant you move off. It's almost violent, actually. Having been pinned back in your seat after what was meant to be a gentle getaway, you then make a hash of the first-to-second gear change because the actions of both accelerator and clutch are so sudden. You get used to it before long, though, and it's quickly clear that this is a very rapid car. No compact-ish hatchback has more power, and it's delivered with a continuous, insistent push right across the engine's speed range. Overtaking is clean and confident.

How big is this push, then? Six seconds of accelerative violence will see you at 60mph, but paradoxically this is one of those cars that doesn't encourage you to extract the last drop of power, simply because you always know there's plenty left in the reservoir. You can stay in high gears and still gain speed quickly, or you can give the engine its head. The choice is yours.

But this is a fairly small car with rear-wheel drive and more power than some would deem sensible - isn't it a slithering liability if the road turns wet or bumpy? Not at all. The 130i M Sport feels firmly planted on the road, and its dynamic stability control system (DSC+) reins in any power-induced waywardness so subtly that you hardly know it's happening. This stability system even includes a hill-start assist that keeps pressure in the braking system to stop you rolling back, periodically wipes the brake pads against the discs when it's raining to remove the water film, and applies a "priming" pressure to the brake hydraulic circuit if the driver lifts suddenly off the accelerator, ready for a possible emergency stop.

The two things that deprive the 130i M Sport of the hoped-for old-M3 feeling are, oddly, two things that today's sporty-car fans could well regard as plus points. If they haven't driven an original M3, they might not mind the M Sport's over-firm, choppy ride on typical British backroads. They'll just think it confirms the M Sport's performance credentials. And they might like the steering, even though I don't. I've always found 1-series' steering to be oddly viscous, with surprising resistance when returning to the straight-ahead position.

My test 130i came with Active Steering (£925), already experienced on the the 3- and 5-series but new to the 1-series and available only with this engine. It uses an epicyclic gear system on the steering column to speed up steering response at low speeds, levelling off to normality out on the open road. It certainly makes the 130i an ultra-agile town companion, and the change in steering response with speed is more progressive than in BMW's first such systems, but it exaggerates that viscous feeling. You get used to it, but the old-M3 tactile pleasure is lacking. And now a whole generation of drivers is growing up without knowing true steering feel and the intimacy with the road that it brings.

You'll still enjoy the 130i M Sport, however, because its pace, its tautness and its immediacy make up for its shortcomings. You'd find excuses to take it for a drive, which also brings the advantage of not having to look at it. Deeper front and rear valances, hefty 18in wheels and ridges on the door sills mark this 130i out as an M Sport, but it's an ugly-looking thing, with chaotic curves up front and a side view that seems to have sagged in the sun. Inside, rear passenger space is tight and so is the boot, but it's undeniably well made and expensively trimmed. You can even get the hang of the iDrive one-knob control system if you persevere.

The 130i is not the hoped-for reprise of that original M3, then. But it is a unique experience, a Golf-sized hatchback with rear-wheel drive and a lusty straight-six engine. The world of driver-pleasing cars would be the poorer without it.

The rivals

ALFA 147 GTA, £23,205

One of the last cars to use Alfa's delicious old 3.2-litre V6, here with 250bhp sent through the front wheels only. Feels nose-heavy, sounds fabulous, looks good, getting dated now.

SUBARU IMPREZA STI, £26,995

The Impreza Turbo cult may be tired, but this latest 2.5-litre, 281bhp STI model is unbelievably good fun with its four-wheel drive and throbby flat-four engine. Firm ride.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF R32, £24,245

Four-wheel drive here, too, and a 250bhp V6 engine as tuneful as the BMW's whose accelerative abruptness and ride firmness it also matches. Test next week.

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