BMW 130i M Sport review
by David Finlay (20 October 2005)
On paper, the package is very exciting. BMW has fitted its smallest car with one of its largest engines, and taken the trouble to modify it in the process: in the 330i, 530i and 630i, the 2996cc six-cylinder petrol unit produces 258bhp, but in the 130i the output is boosted to 265bhp as a result of improved airflow and cooling and a low-friction, electronically-driven water pump. This upgrading probably doesn't make a great deal of difference - you'd be hard-pressed to notice the effect of 7bhp at this level - but it emphasises the point that BMW is very serious about the 130i being a truly hot hatchback.
As well as being unusually powerful within its market sector, the 130i is also unique in being rear-wheel drive. BMW has spent a lot of money in recent years emphasising its continued insistence on this layout, and there's little doubt that it will appeal to those who still regard front-wheel drive as an ungodly abomination. We'll see shortly whether this bias is justified.
First, though, a word about the specification of the test car. The 130i comes in two forms, the more basic of which is the £24,745 SE, but we've avoided that partly because the M Sport is more interesting and partly because a BMW spokesman - who admitted he was guessing about this - reckoned that it will be the better seller. Fair enough. If you're considering a car of this type you probably want all the bells and whistles, and probably don't mind paying an extra £2230 for them.
Many of the differences concern the styling, and some of these may, as BMW claims, have an impact on the car's aerodynamics. I speak here of the lower front spoiler, the sculpted side sills and the rear bumper venturi. Interior items exclusive to this model include sports seats, anthracite headlining and liberal application of the letter M (no small matter to those who know their BMW onions).
More significantly, the M Sport gets either 17" or 18" alloy wheels, plus special sports suspension. This last feature leads to what was, for me, the most surprising aspect of the 130i. I had been expecting it to be a roller skate, with far more attention being paid to handling than to ride quality, but the exact reverse proved to be the case.
While some recent BMWs have been distinctly questionable over uneven surfaces, this one was simply brilliant. I would go as far as to say that I have not driven any current BMW (7-Series included) which had a more composed and comfortable ride at low to medium speeds.
It would be great to say that this is combined with magical handling, but that's surprise number two. For all the talk about how superior rear-wheel drive is to front-wheel drive, I found the 130i highly disappointing every time I tried to push it through a series of bends. Normally BMW is very good - especially in comparison with its German rivals - at front-end precision, but it's all been lost here.
The nose of the 130i spends a lot of time floundering over bumps and undulations when it should be contributing to the overall balance of the car. The tail, meanwhile, varies in its ability to transmit power through different sections of the same corner depending on which part of the bounce cycle the front has reached, and the entire supposed point of one end doing the steering and the other looking after the acceleration is a thing of the past.
This all makes an interesting contrast with the behaviour of the 120d (see road test). The turbo diesel version of the 1-Series really does feel like a classic rear-wheel drive performance car, to the point where it works most effectively when you're driving it hard.
The 130i operates in exactly the opposite way: it seems full of potential when you're going gently, yet when you drive it the way you think you should the potential is never realised. Strange as it may seem, the much less powerful, much less dramatic 120d is the true driver's car, while the 130i has a definite excess of mouth over trousers.