Model: BMW 135i Coupé
Price: £29,745 (range also includes 120d and 123d). On sale now
Engine: 2,979cc, six cylinders, 24 valves, two turbochargers, 306bhp at 5,800rpm, 295lb ft at 1,300-5,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, rear-wheel drive
Performance: 155mph, 0-60 in 5.3 sec, 30.7mpg official average, CO2 220g/km
Here are two BMW mysteries. What happened to the idea of a beautiful BMW? And why has the company never quite replicated the thrill of driving the very first BMW M3 (pictured below) – the four-cylinder, square-cut one from 1986? That car was one of the most enjoyable I have ever driven, yet it was also civilised enough to live with every day. Every subsequent M3 has been faster and more powerful but also bigger, heavier, more anaesthetised and the fun has gone.
Here, now, is the new 135i Coupé, which only maintains the mystery of BMW's abandonment of beauty; even the best-looking cars in the company's current range are only attractive relative to the really visually troubled ones. The original 1-series five-door hatchback had a curiously upright, dated nose full of clashing curves, while its flanks looked both dented and melted with that drooping sill line. The three-door looked tauter and tidier, but the style still sold a fine car short.
And the two-door coupé? Same again. The roof is shor-ter and there's a boot poking out at the back, but no one could call it beautiful. You're much better off inside it, driving.
This is the point of the 135i Coupé. BMW has not set out to do a remake of the original M3, but the broad parallels are there. Both are compact two-doors with powerful engines and rear-wheel drive, and neither is the 135i a bank-breaker compared with today's M3, whose number of cylinders, engine capacity and power are all double those of the original car.
Despite my misgivings at the start of this tale, one visual aspect of the 135i is positive: it instantly promises an enjoyable drive. Unlike most modern cars, the front wheels are pushed well forward with a minimal overhang ahead. That promises an even distribution of weight between front and rear wheels and an air of agility. So it proves.
It takes one joyful fling along a tight, twisting, preferably wet road to discover that this is where the best driving fun lurks within today's BMW range. The 135i flicks eagerly from one direction to another, instilling the confidence to take, in one accelerative movement, a bend on which a less capable car would be encouraging you to dab the brake. The BMW grips hard but it feels mobile and alive.
Its rear-wheel drive means you can tease it into a little powerslide as you exit a bend, all under easy control provided you haven't switched the stability system off completely. The electronic safety net is reassuring but hardly ever intrusive in road driving. It just adds to the fun by removing the fear and leaving you free to focus.
So there's a strong taste of that proto-M3, except that car didn't have any stability systems. Nor did it need them, thanks to its magical handling qualities and, compared with the 135i, its power deficit. But there's one way in which the new car still can't compete with the old: the steering.
The 135i, like many new cars, has electric power steering. It also has more power assistance than old cars had, as it's heavier. These factors combine to make the steering feel a little unreal at times, especially when returning to the straight-ahead position, which brings on a viscous resistance. The 135i will never match the delicacy and transparency of the old M3 in its steering, but in isolation it's good enough and very accurate.
And then there's the engine. It delivers up to 306bhp, and its 295lb ft of torque is available all the way from 1,300 to 5,000rpm, so it pulls like a good diesel from low speeds yet sings like the fine petrol engine it is at high speeds. Its two turbochargers are small – to give a faster response to the accelerator because small turbines can speed up more quickly – and its fuel is injected directly into the cylinders instead of the inlet ports. This allows the engine to run with higher compression, which is good for power and economy as injecting the fuel after the intake air has been compressed has the effect of cooling the air and avoiding damaging detonation (that rattle you sometimes hear when asking an engine to pull hard from low speeds in a high gear).
Being a modern BMW engine, it also has "efficient dynamics". This makes it, in some ways, a kind of passive hybrid. Once warm, the engine will stop when the car stops and the gear lever is placed in neutral, restarting the instant you depress the clutch.
The system also disconnects the alternator when the engine is under load, so energy isn't expended on charging the battery. As soon as you ease off the accelerator or apply the brakes, the alternator kicks back in to charge the battery – the energy needed to do this making the alternator shaft harder to turn and so adding to the braking effort. Should the battery run low, the alternator is re-engaged as needed.
So this very entertaining car – it can streak to 62mph in 5.3 seconds, and overtakes with little more than a flex of the driver's ankle – is also a greenish model that squeezes under the 225g/km gas-guzzler threshold.
The only dynamic snags arise from its taut, eager nature. It has BMW's M-sport suspension, which can make the ride choppy (but never harsh) on imperfect road surfaces. And the combination of a keen accelerator response and a springy driveline can make smooth progress hard to achieve until you have learnt the required lightness of touch.
But the six-speed gearshift is deliciously quick and precise, the brakes are firm and progressive, and it gives ultimate BMW enjoyment. More than a current M3? For me, yes. More than an original M3? That is harder to call. But for a new car, with all its safety features and greenness, to come close to a past master is cause for celebration.
I just wish it were a little more beautiful.
Alfa GT 3.2 V6 Lusso: £26,400
Smaller, older-tech and less dramatic than the Brera, the Alfa GT is quietly elegant and very pleasant to drive. It uses the old, all-Alfa V6, and sales will cease soon.
Audi TT V6 Quattro: £29,365
Much less space in the back than BMW but great looks and a punchy, 3.2-litre, narrow-angle V6 engine. Not as much driving fun as BMW, despite four-wheel drive.
Mazda RX-8 High Power: £23,000
The 231bhp version of Mazda's rotary-engined coupé is the one to have. Four seats, half-size rear-hinged rear doors, smooth pace and fine poise add up to a singular car.
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