BMW 135Mi

Engine: 3.0 litres, six cylinders, turbocharged
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £29,995
Power: 315bhp at 5800rpm
Fuel/CO2: 35.3mpg, 188g/km

Don't be fooled by the name: the BMW M135i is not an M-car in any conventional sense. Instead it is intended to be a halfway house betwixt BMW's standard offerings and their vaunted and expensive motor sports offshoots. It is meant to offer a taste of what M is about, but at an affordable price.

In this case, £29,995. Or, put another way, for £3000 more than a 280bhp, 2-litre four-cylinder, front-drive Vauxhall Astra VXR, you can drive a 315bhp, 3-litre, sixcylinder rear-drive BMW. If that sounds tempting, wait until you've driven it.

In the past I have been quick to criticise BMW's pollution of its once pure 'M' brand by applying the leffer to cosmetically augmented but otherwise standard cars. The difference with this one is that it's actually more engaging to drive than one or two full-fat M-cars.

I've always believed that the true spirit of 'M' lies in compact cars like this. Call me a die-hard old traditionalist who cannot lay to rest the memory of the original E30 M3, but my almost unwavering experience of these cars is that the bigger and more powerful they are, the less satisfying they have turned out to be.

The M135i weighs around a tonne and a half, and with turbos that blow so gently it can keep a 10.2:1 compression ratio, it feels more like a larger capacity, normally-aspirated unit than a forced-induction motor. You can choose either a six-speed manual or an eight-speed auto and while I always gravitate towards three-pedal solutions for cars like this, the automatic was so good I had to confirm with BMW that it wasn't a double-clutch transmission.

BMW is also one of depressingly few makes who quite correctly programme their sequential gearshiffers to change down when pressed forward. In race cars you push forward to change down and pull back to change up because that's the direction in which your body is being pushed under forces of braking or acceleration. To have to push forward in order to change up is entirely counter-intuitive or, put another way, nuts.

I digress. By any standards, this M135i is a fine highperformance hatchback. With the automatic gears BMW says it'll beat 5sec to 62mph, but the car I drove felt quicker even than that, fast enough to provide the chassis with proper work too. I guess because it's relatively light and simple, the M135i felt alive in a way I associate more with performance BMWs of the past than present. It grips quite well even in marginal conditions, but is also an always-willing coconspirator in any tractionoff mischief you may wish to make. All I'd live happily without is the thick and squidgy rim to the steering wheel that clearly robs you of a degree of feel the car would otherwise happily provide.

But it's not much of a complaint, not when the rest of car is so competent and accomplished. It's quiet and sufficiently comfortable to make a very pleasant only car and you can buy it with three or five doors and find enough room in the back for your children in either.

Over the years we've seen many fine fast BMWs, but this one is slightly different: not only is it an outstandingly strong competitor in its class, it is also a bargain. For a BMW that's rare.