BMW's 1-Series does not smirk at you and say "don't hate me because I'm beautiful." No, this small Teut is easy to deride on appearance; one look has you hating it because it's not beautiful while so many of its past brethren have been classically handsome. Whether it suits your taste or not, the 128i convertible we borrowed is unmistakably the work of the wizards of Munich. So, it's definitely a BMW, and it's being described as a reincarnation of the legendary 2002; does it measure up?
Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
The short answer is no. The 128 is nothing like the 2002. It is, however, reminiscent of the E30, the yuppie-starter-car during the coked up '80s. Comparisons to past greats break down when taking into account what modern consumers expect, and the 128i is loaded up better than an E32 7-series. At nearly $44,000, our 128 was filled right up to the windowsills with gear, all of it adding to the experience in a good way, while adding to the curb weight in a bad way. Wearing the Cold Weather, Sport, and Premium packages leave the driver wanting little, though the additional extras our car wore weren't unwelcome. At roughly 3500 pounds, it's not as bad as the punditry has made it seem, but the 1 series could stand to lose 500 pounds. Heavier and better equipped than its forebears, the 1 can't match those cars in terms of driving purity, but delivers them a sound drubbing in performance and modernity.
We had the opportunity to street park the 128 behind an E30 325 droptop, and the cars are comparably sized. The comfortably snug dimensions don't feel claustrophobic, though the older cars like the 2002 feel more scooped-out. Buttoned up inside the 128, door panels actually curve away from you, controls fall at hand without fouling any movement, and space is comfortable, if not generous. Rear seat passengers get stuck with a lack of legroom and a narrow bench, but even with the top up, the upward bow of the roofline affords more headroom than you'd think. This is the size the 3 series should have stayed, obviating the need for the 1 series.
Sliding into the excellent sport seats, and snapping the Comfort Access fob into its slot, it's hard not to snicker at the "Year One of the 1" inscription on the bezel as you stab the start button with an insouciant finger. Special touches like that indicate that BMW's trying awfully hard to make this car a prefab legend. We weren't expecting the world - it's very difficult to improve on the slightly larger, possibly cheaper 3 series that this 128 is based on. At best, we thought the 128i would be the New Beetle to the 135's TT. Half a revolution from the 3.0 liter inline six dispelled any notions that this is anything other than a proper BMW. A solid bark emanates from the back as combustion events happen in well-balanced 120-degree intervals. A BMW six is always a thing of aural beauty, and the ripping-linen snarl this engine delivers is on par with the most celebrated coloratura.
BMW is synonymous with deft handling, and the 128i does not disappoint; apexes are easily clipped, the car is an extension of the driver's body, and positioning the car involves little more than thinking and looking - the vehicle just winds up perfectly placed. Grabbing hold of the chunky sports leather steering wheel with half-annoying, yet responsive paddle shifters for the Steptronic automatic plugs your hands in to the well-oiled chassis that feeds back in a most delightful fashion and operates with smooth precision. For all the handling accumen, and even with the Sport Package, the ride/handling tradeoff is liveable. Rolling the big tires over high-frequency pavement aberrations will give your gut high-frequency jiggles, though. Cowl shake is present, as it is in any vehicle given a roofectomy, though quite minimal. The windshield frame only dances over bumps, and never does the feeling of solidity drain away. The weight doesn't amount to a hill of beans out on the road, either.
The 128's nomenclature denotes that a 3.0 liter naturally aspirated engine delivering 230 horsepower is bolted between the front wheels. We don't get it, either - and BMW further obfuscates engine fitment by naming the twin turbo version of the same vehicle the 135, while it still gulps atmosphere with six 500cc lungs. Our inner acceleration junkie finds it easy to understand the 135 and its 300 horsepower, but the 128 is wholly satsifying and exceptionally well balanced. Acceleration is strong, handling superb, enjoyment high. Unless you need to kick up a dust storm like the Tasmanian Devil, go with the 128. It's a rare automatic transmission that deserves praise for its enthusiast-friendly manners, but the Steptronic, especially in sport mode, is brilliant, even downshifting where appropriate. We're not sure we'd have enjoyed this car any more with a manual. No, we're not pensioners with bad knees, it's just that the auto tucks out of the way and doesn't interfere. Either way, 128 or 135, auto or standard, you can't lose with the powertrains.
Annoyances are mostly minor once you get past the looks and price. Some of the controls are initially confusing. For example, after a day of only being able to upshift, we discovered that the thumb switches deliver downshifts, while pulling on the paddles give you a higher ratio. It's not a proper left for down, right for up, but it's close enough. The horribly tedious audio system is also frustrating. Let's say it again: a knob for volume, a knob for tuning. How annoying to grab the right side knob, only to find it will just cycle through your presets. To actually manually tune, it's a two-step, small-button process. The audio system does sound good and offers an optional auxiliary input and a usb connection. iDrive is available, but our car was thankfully not equipped with the soul-sucking interface to Hell. Ergonomics and markings are a bit inscrutable, with strange pictograms, and some hidden controls. The cruise control, for example, hides quite effectively in the nether region behind the steering wheel on the left.
Visibility is another sticky wicket when the roof is closed. The glass rear window is smallish, and the C-Pillars are convertible-big. Top down, it's like piloting a speedboat; 360-degree vistas are available with a twist of the neck, and we dropped the lid every chance we got. While the seats are fantastic, the Gray Poplar wood trim our car wore is awful, leaving the impression the interior had a wildfire recently. The small but useful trunk has a pass-through with integrated ski bag thanks to the Cold Weather package, too. The folded roof encroaches very little on boot space, making the 1-series a car you could take to the grocery store alfresco, and possibly betters the 3-series convertible's trunk useability.
The price is what everybody is choking on, and the car we drove was a hair over $43,000, a veritable fortune, with options and accessories left to go. The extra stuff like Bluetooth, BMW Assist, HID headlamps, sports steering wheel, even the automatic and the premium package, none of it was necessary to enjoy the sublime chassis and plangent engine. In the New England climate, we'd definitely want the Cold Weather package, and the Sport Package adds the 17" rims, starchier suspension tuning, divine seats, and Shadowline trim - all desireable. A 1-series outfitted with a restrained option sheet can be had in the high $30,000s, though still flirting uncomfortably with $40K. Everyone has been saying "for the money, you could get the 3-series." True, and the 3-series coupe is a prettier design. The even-prettier-still Z4 also occupies the same pricing territory, but after driving the 128, the 3 would feel a half-size too large and the Z4 lacks the occasional rear seat. The 128 really is right-sized, and it does something different than the 3, something we found rather charming, if also rather dear.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
All-new entry-level BMW.
BMW already offers more different size and shapes of cars and SUVs than at any time in its history, and the North American debut of the 2008 BMW 1 Series signals another attempt to provide the sporty-minded buyer on a budget a car that he or she will really enjoy driving.
For its U.S. debut, BMW is adding a two-door coupe to the lineup, which will arrive at BMW dealerships in the first quarter of 2008, and a two-door convertible, which is expected to arrive just in time for summer weather. (The BMW 1 Series has been available in Europe and other markets for more than a year in three-door hatchback and five-door hatchback body styles.)
The 1 Series is currently offered with two diesel and three gasoline engines in most markets, but initially the U.S. will get only the full-dress, high-performance coupe, the BMW 135i, which offers more than 300 horsepower. This will be followed later on by a slightly less frenetic BMW 128i with a 230-hp inline-6 engine and nearly all of the same amenities as the 135i will have, for about $5000 less.
The 1 Series is about seven inches shorter overall than the next car up in the lineup, the popular 3 Series. The 1 Series wheelbase is four inches shorter than that of the 3 Series, and it's slightly narrower in width. The 1 Series is meant to be a serious, sporty competitor to all the front-wheel-drive Japanese, Korean, and domestic cars in the entry luxury coupe class. BMW brings its highly developed rear-wheel-drive platform to the fight.
In many ways, the 1 Series is nothing more or less than a scaled-down coupe version of the 3 Series two-door coupe, with similar looks, similar equipment and similar performance and handling because it uses many of the same components and systems, including the big twin-turbocharged engine that was introduced last year in the 335i, so the 135i is a smaller, lighter package with the same engine for about $4000 less starting money, said to be starting around $35,000.
The 1 Series convertibles will feature soft tops expected to be of the level of quality of the previous-generation 3 Series, which is to say top quality with three-layer sound insulation.
Initially, the BMW 1 Series lineup is limited to the 135i coupe, but it will soon be followed by a less-expensive, lower-performing 128i coupe. Both the BMW 128i and BMW 135i will be offered in convertible versions, but these will not be available initially.
The BMW 135i comes with a high-performance 3.0-liter inline-6 with twin turbochargers, with either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission with conventional floor shifter and wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
An AM/FM/CD changer will be standard. An AUX input for MP3 and iPod players will be standard, with a USB port a likely option.
Options include bi-xenon headlamps, cornering lamps, premium sound systems, a demountable rear rack, and a choice of three interior and upholstery schemes, cloth, leather and cloth, and leather.
Safety features that come standard on the 135i include six air bags, ABS, electronic stability control, traction control, cornering brake control, and launch control for getting started on slippery surfaces. The 135i comes with run-flat high-performance tires. The brake lights include a panic-braking mode that lights up the entire lens extra bright whenever the brake pedal is stomped hard.
The best thing about the exterior appearance of the BMW 135i coupe is that this time around, it looks like a real car, unlike the late 318tii which was a cheapened, cut-off version of the 3 Series that attracted a small cult following but never sold well in the U.S.
The 135i's proportions were more carefully considered and while it is definitely short in the poop compared to the larger 3 Series, it looks good that way, thanks to the designers. It doesn't look cheap or cut off or bandaged. Every major part of the car, the nose, the bodyside, the roof and the rear end, blends beautifully with the rest of the car to make a shorter, narrower version of the 3 Series with a different and special roofline.
We're particularly fond of the M Aerodynamics Package made standard on the 135i, including the huge air intakes in the nose, necessary for cooling the turbocharger intake air, and the very strong, sweeping upper body line than emanates from the front fender and carries all the way to the taillamps.
The 128i, when it comes, will have a less aggressive front end appearance and will come with the smaller engine, smaller tires and alloy wheels, for a lot less money, if projections are correct.
Anyone familiar with the interior layout of the current 3 Series would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the BMW 135i and the much larger, more expensive 335i. Just about everything inside is in the same location and looks and operates the same way.
The front bucket seats are very comfortable and supportive, with big side bolsters. The 135i steering wheel tilts and telescopes, helping drivers of different shapes and sizes to find the ideal driving position.
The iDrive system features a pop-up screen on the dashtop for managing the entertainment, optional navigation, vehicle, and telephone systems.
All 135i coupes come with a 60/40 split folding rear seat than can provide almost triple the trunk room of 13 cubic feet. A storage package for the trunk area includes some tie-downs and straps and a 12-volt power point for external accessories.
The convertibles feature a soft top that can be raised or lowered in 22 seconds, even while driving at speeds up to 25 mph so you don't need to worry whether that stoplight will be long enough to finish the roof operation. The soft top takes up less trunk space than a convertible hard top would, which is partly why the design uses a soft top. They are expected to be high-quality, three-layer insulated soft tops.
Simple mathematics will tell you that driving a 306-hp, 3400-pound rear-drive coupe built on a short-wheelbase chassis adds up to a great deal of driving enjoyment, especially when the engine's torque curve is absolutely flat from 1300 to 5000 rpm and the engine redlines at 7000 rpm.
This 24-valve inline-6 packs two turbochargers and makes more than 102 hp per liter, which is considered engineering magic. BMW says the 135i will accelerate from rest to 62 mph or 100 kmh in a mere 5.3 seconds, and top out at 155 mph, which is not something that most cars in this projected price category can do.
Because the BMW 135i is essentially a scaled-down 335i, its ride, steering, and handling carry the same exemplary qualities as the larger car. Its smaller front steering tires are matched to the job of pointing the car while the fatter rear tires lay the power down in wonderfully linear fashion, and the car's weight is distributed just about 50/50 on the front and rear tires.
Electronic driving aids abound in the 1 Series, including antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and cornering brake control, dynamic traction control, dynamic stability control, and a switch that can disable the DSC system for track days or generally more involving driving through the woods. That's ABS with EBD, CBC, DSC and traction control, for those who prefer acronyms.
The brakes use massive six-piston calipers at the front and twin-piston calipers at the rear, with 13.3-inch front discs and 12.75-inch rear discs and a built-in brake drying and anti-fade feature.
We found the steering, cornering, and braking performance of the BMW 135i to be exemplary, perfectly matched to the huge acceleration power of the engine.
If BMW can keep pricing under control with the current negative fluctuations between the dollar and the euro, and bring the 128i version in for about $30,000 and the high-performance 135i in for about $35,000, we see a bright future for the 1 Series in the U.S. market. It has all the style, performance and features a driver could want in a compact package built around one of the best chassis in the segment, and the only one with rear-wheel drive.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw test drove the 135i Coupe and filed this report from Munich, Germany.
BMW 128i coupe, convertible; 135i coupe, convertible.
Options As Tested
BMW 135i coupe ($35,000 est.).
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