The arrival of a new racetrack is always met with unbridled excitement by the petrolhead fraternity. The chance to drive a new hot hatch - and a couple of big-power road weapons - around a shiny new circuit turns grown men into something akin to a group of 4-year-olds who've had too much red food colouring.
So began the launch of BMW's M135i at the Highlands Motorsport Park near Cromwell. The facility itself is enough to send race fans into a frenzy. Sitting in the good seat of something quick actually on the track is, without a word of a lie, a deeply religious experience. We had a handful of BMW's latest and greatest for, er, comparison purposes, but the star of the show was the new little semi-M-car. Not quite the same hard-edged piece of no-compromise machinery that is the brilliant 1M Coupe, the new M135i has a lot to offer and comes with a lower entry fee and a less demanding day-to-day option.
The 1M is a flat-out M Car, ultra-tight chassis, stroppy powerplant and only comes with a manual gearbox, while its sibling gets a more forgiving platform, automatic option (manual is available but is likely as a special order only, with BMW accepting New Zealand's auto-loving market is putting paid to "stick shift" here).
It packs a turbo-fed six into the hatchback form, and with this gets a surprising amount of wick, despite having essentially the same looks as more standard models in the 1 Series range.
This sleeper stance is going to surprise a few on the road - despite the occasional, and very subtle, hints about what might lie beneath. The more aggressive front, the bigger feet at the back, flasher brakes and a lower stance all serve to differentiate a supermarket spec 1 Series from the tuned-up newbie.
Those looking for a thinly disguised M-car should probably look elsewhere - the 1M is the real deal and sells at $112,000, but at $85,900 the M135i offers a more tractable daily driver that will still get up and boogie when asked nicely. BMW's M Performance division sits squarely between the madmen of 'M' and the standard range, with the model number three from the go-fast halfway house and a somewhat odd character in the BMW hatch range.
The Edition 30 - a specced-up model that BMW New Zealand released to celebrate its third decade in the market - offered lots of tech and cosmetic goodies without pushing the price up. It's unusual to see option boxes ticked by a car company and essentially sold under cost, but this birthday present seemed to offer everything that a 1-Series buyer wanted, plus a little more. If the M135i is to be considered an aspirational model or flagship, you'd think it'd be a sweet model that still has the average buyer in mind. But it kinda doesn't. The three-litre turbo six cylinder puts 235kW into what some might label a Mum's car - and it gets a 0-100km/h sprint time around five seconds as a result, the same as the 1M, in fact.
While the 135 is happy to wag its tail under its stunning acceleration, its suspension is far more forgiving than the hooligan-spec Coupe, and when you dial in Sport or Sport+ through the exceptional dynamics program, it comes into its own. You can opt for a more environmentally friendly performance with the same switch, but it seems like swapping eye fillet for quinoa - just not right.
On the highly technical Highlands Park circuit, this stealth mode rocket really came into its own. With the 116i Edition 30 on hand for comparison purposes, as well as the stroppy X6 M50d SUV tested here a couple of weeks ago, and the fire-breathing 412kW M6, for sheer entertainment purposes, it wasn't the worst day at the office any of us had experienced, and instilled even more respect for the track owner, petfood magnate Tony Quinn.
A Scotsman based in Aussie, Quinn wasn't the man you'd expect to build a world-standard racetrack in Otago (let alone the stunning NZ Motorsport museum on site), but with a host of Kiwi and Australian Targa wins among his motorsport trophy collection, he was certainly qualified to do it.
His Targa pedigree became quickly apparent by its obvious influence on parts of the circuit, with uphill, off-camber esses; a bridge that makes the car featherlight before diving into a deceptively tight left-hander and a sweeper that just keeps on going, and going, surrounded by large, very solid-looking trees and skirted with even more solid-looking concrete barriers.
The M135i's handling package, especially when set to Sport+ with its far less invasive traction control, was razor sharp on the tight and twisty stuff, far exceeding the road duties that it's primarily set up for. Even on those nasty esses, it popped out the other side with a seductive shake of the rear end and then, upon finding a straight line and some grip with its chunky 245 18-inch back feed, took off without hesitation.
There's nice deep leathery sports seats and M-ified trim elements that let you know you're in a warmed-over version of the 1 from the inside, while those on the outside are oblivious. Even with the Edition 30 parked next to it, you actually need to look for external differences. And this is where the M135i will find its market - those who want something that's undeniably quick, doesn't scream its intent (quite unlike the orange M6) and doesn't cost the earth.
With the eight-speed auto fitted, the carbon footprint is minimal at 175g of C02 per kilometre, and a factory mileage claim of just 7.5L/100km. None of us could safely vouch for this, as after three hours of hardcore bitumen abuse the numbers on the display weren't exactly representative of how thirsty it will be in daily road-going use.
But there's one fact I can vouch for: road users staring at a rapidly disappearing tailpipe will wonder where that hatchback came from, and where it's gone.
The 2013 BMW M135i in action at the new Highlands motorsport park in Cromwell.