Road Test: 2008 BMW 135i
This 2008 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2013.
By Matt DeLorenzo of Road & Track
Settling in behind the wheel of BMW's new 135i Coupe, I suddenly flash to the early 1990s, somewhere in the south of France, where I'm driving the brand-new E36 3 Series. It's not just the dash layout, but the close-coupled feel of the cabin and the illusion that you can almost touch the passenger-side A-pillar. The body of the car feels as if it's hewn from stone and not pressed steel. The steering action is direct and the handling precise.
This sense of déjà vu quickly passes as I press the 135i harder, snaking my way from Felton, California, high up in the Santa Cruz mountains, to the Pacific Ocean through stands of redwoods. The giant trees crowd so close to the road that some serve as apex cones on the roller-coaster ride down. Driving the new 1 Series is to experience BMW's philosophy in its purest form, thanks to the car's compact dimensions, surefooted manners and abundance of power.
While the company line is that the new 1 Series owes its inspiration to the legendary 2002 models, its execution is more in tune with E36-based coupes, the two-generation forebear of the current 3 Series, which has now grown to nearly 5 Series proportions.
The E36 coupe and the 1 Series share the same aesthetics that has served BMW well over the past 16 years. Muscular flanks instead of the 2002's slab sides. Thick pillars and a rounded roofline contrast with thin pillars and a larger glass area. Even the twin-kidney grille is more horizontal than the 2002's vertical presentation. The only difference here is that the 1 Series' long-hood, tall-roofline, short-rear-deck profile projects an odd, almost ungainly proportion from some angles. Yet, it's clear the 135i owes its inspiration to previous 3 Series rather than anything further back in the BMW catalog.
Even more striking are the similarities in dimensions and pricing. The 1 Series rides on a 104.7-in. wheelbase and measures 172.2 in. overall, just a respective 1.5 and 2.3 in. shorter than the E36. And at 68.8 in. across the beam, it's actually 1.5 in. wider than the old coupe.
While the 1 Series was thought to be a new entry-level BMW, the base 128i stickers for $29,375. In 1992, the 325is bowed at $29,475. What we have here is more of a 3 Series Coupe Lite rather than a real entry-level BMW. Pricing aside, the 135i's compact size and tight rear seat put it somewhere between the practicality of Volkswagen's R32 and the sportiness of Audi's TT.
The 1 Series comes in two basic flavors — the 128i, which is powered by a normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 producing 230 bhp and 200 lb.-ft. of torque, and the 135i, which has a twin-turbo 3.0-liter six making 300 bhp and 300 lb.-ft. of torque.
Buyers of the 128i will find that car eminently satisfying. Tipping the scales at 3250 lb., the 128i is light on its feet and has enough torque so that the car responds immediately to rolling on and off the throttle as you dart in and out of corners. The car is balanced, the steering action direct. It just seems to never miss a beat.
But the real thrill ride in the line is the 135i. Weighing slightly more at 3340 lb., this model has amazing pulling power. For those who remember what a big deal it was when the M5 boasted 300 horses, the 135i represents a similar breakthrough in performance for this class of rear-drive vehicle, giving new meaning to the term "pocket rocket."
It's fitting that the 135i is fitted with a BMW M-developed aero kit that distinguishes it from the 128i models. The front is more aggressive, with a larger lower opening to duct additional air required by both the engine and the brakes. The ducktail-shaped rear decklid is augmented by a small auxiliary spoiler to fight lift.
Other changes designed specifically to cope with the additional output include a stiffer sport suspension to reduce body roll, larger 18-in. wheels and tires for a wider footprint and a beefed-up braking system that features 6-piston front and 2-piston rear calipers. While not in the same league as the M3, this hotted-up version of the 1 Series is best described as an "M2.5." The reduced weight and muscular powertrain deliver at least two-thirds the excitement of the 414-bhp V-8-powered M3 Coupe. So in this respect, the 1 Series does live up to its expectation as a sort of entry-level vehicle into the world of M.
Grab the remote key fob, throw it into the center console (the little dash-mounted holder seems superfluous to me) and punch the start button. Look closely at the silver ring around the starter and you'll notice the engraved words "Year One of the 1," a neat touch that, along with a hardcover book and certificate, will make these first-year models instantly collectible among BMW diehards.
A scan of the instrument panel reveals everything in its place — the look is classic BMW, straightforward analog gauges, white lettering on black faces, the radio and climate controls similar to those found on the 3. The simplified iDrive system with navigation is an option, but I was perfectly happy that our test vehicle didn't have the additional knob and dash-mounted pop-out screen. In the case of the 1 Series, less is more, for this car is about the purity of the driving experience. And that goes for specifying the 6-speed manual over the similarly cogged Steptronic paddle-shift automatic. I like the fact that this car, in many respects, is a back-to-basics sporting coupe.
Selecting 1st gear, you'll notice that the throws are fairly short, the clutch takeup linear with fairly light effort. The dohc inline-6 is a twin-turbo and it spools up rapidly. Peak torque arrives at just 1400 revs, which gives the car lightning-quick reflexes off the line. The 135i revs freely to redline, and in testing it hit 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds. The quarter mile was covered in 13.4 sec. at a speed of 104.0 mph.
While the car is equipped with BMW's Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) and Dynamic Traction Control (DTC), both of which can be deactivated, the thresholds are set high enough so that neither is intrusive in spirited driving. In fact, in Sport mode, there is enough slip built into the system to allow the tail to hang out a tad when really pushed hard. The stiffer suspension, quick turn-in and the electronic rear brake management (which operates as a de facto locking rear differential) put a fine edge on the car's handling. The 135i simply goes where it's pointed, as evidenced by its slalom speed of 70.6 mph, with little or no drama. There is a slight bias toward understeer when entering a corner, but judicious application of the throttle easily pushes the car to a more neutral attitude. The large tires and taut suspension give tremendous grip, enabling the car to pull 0.91g on the skidpad. And in braking, the posted stopping distances are 204 ft. from 80 mph and 114 ft. from 60.
But these are just numbers. It's out on the open road where it all comes together. The 135i's compact size, relatively lithe body and prodigious output are the ingredients for intuitive driving. This is one car where you simply concentrate on the road ahead. The engine song tells you when to shift, the communicative steering and the buttoned-down body motions signal when it's time to give it the gas or gently trail-brake to settle things down. The engine's flexibility allows you to cruise comfortably in high gears or you can row the gearbox down low to your heart's content.
The 135i is a driver's car, a "gotta have" car. The question, though, is at what price. The Euro has not been so kind to the dollar and that's reflected in the 135i's base price of $34,900. Throw on a premium package that includes the glove-soft Boston leather and you're in the neighborhood of $39,000. Add navigation and you've zoomed past 40 large, which puts it solidly in the larger and more comfortable 3 Series territory. So the question is — do you want comfort and size, or do you want to drive?