Road Test: 2008 BMW 135i
This 2008 review is representative of model years 2008 to 2013.
By Aaron Robinson of Car and Driver
Downsizing, rightsizing, delayering, whatever term you prefer, the act of getting smaller sends primordial chills through our bones. For eons, humankind has chased the process of growth—in population, in physical size, in knowledge, in economic output, and in possessions. Except where microchips are at work, we instinctively shrink in fear from shrinkage.
BMW is betting the world has tilted. Its Mini brand proved that subatomic could be cool, and now BMW is leaning to the little using its own hallowed spinner. To make the sawed-off, snub-tailed 1-series coupe, BMW cut four inches out of the 3-series coupe’s wheelbase, 8.4 inches from its length, and 1.4 inches from its beam. Those hoping for a reincarnation of the much loved 1982–91 E30 3-series should note that the 1’s wheelbase and width are longer but the body shorter and wider than an E30 coupe’s by a crash-cushioning four inches. At 3420 pounds, this 135i tester has a very modern heft.
The two available engines, a 230-hp, 3.0-liter inline-six and a 300-hp twin-turbo inline-six, are direct hand-me-downs from the current 3-series, as are the six-ratio manual and automatic transmissions. A redrawn dash, a reconfigured rear suspension, and a few mechanical details round out the 1’s differences—at least those not buried in blueprint footnotes. No doubt this is why BMW doesn’t knock much off the 3-series’ price.
The price spread from a base $29,375 128i to a larger 328i is $6700, and the $35,675 turbo 135i is just a $5900 saving over a 335i coupe. A few nuances in standard equipment add some complexity to the comparison that we’re glossing over, but the content and pricing of option packages are virtually identical. So those price gaps stay about the same as stickers inflate with options.
Hence, the 135i pictured here, at a breathtaking $42,895 and still not at full froth (the iDrive nav system runs another $2100), is just $5400 less than the comparably optioned 335i. Some back-of-the-napkin calculations on a 36-month lease put the monthly payment difference at $90 to $100, assuming all terms are equal. The world may have tilted, but BMW dealers will need well-lubricated tongues to steer buyers into the 1-series.
It takes a second glance for untrained eyes to pick out this model from a Bimmer lineup, even with its bobbed tail, taller, less-liquid roofline, and goggle-eyed daytime running lamps—two perennially glowing Hula-Hoops with design inspiration by Harry Potter. Selecting a 135i over a 128i adds visual amps, including a blockier front air dam and a pretend rear undertray armed with a black exhaust shotgun.
With turbocharging you also get more standard go gear, including 18-inch wheels with Bridgestone RE050A run-flat summer tires, size 215/40 in front, 245/35 in back (the battery lives where the spare tire would like to). They’ll make 0.89 g on the skidpad with minimal understeer. The “M Sport Tuned” suspension, the stiff one, is included, as well as 13.3-inch front disc brakes and six-piston calipers screaming “BMW” in large white letters and delivering 70-mph stops in a curt 157 feet. Xenon headlamps and a sunroof are also standard.
It's Not the Size, it's How You Use It
The hue of the primer-gray upholstery and the deep-grain plastic textures in this test car are straight BMW design code. The switches and the panel displays fell directly out of the Munich parts bin. There’s no slapdash, no whiff of cost cutting in the 135i, a fact we’d celebrate more if the car’s price were lower. Perhaps BMW should have chiseled a few more of those pricey euros out of the cockpit—must we really have that sunroof?—to create greater window-sticker separation in the lineup.
A small car shrink-wrapped around a larger car’s engine, the 135i has a tranny tunnel bulging into the footwells and crowding the gas pedal. Otherwise, the 1’s slimmer dimensions go largely unnoticed from the enveloping front buckets, which offer leg- and elbowroom to spare. Rear-seat riders have less to cheer, especially when what appears to be a center armrest proves just a floppy panel to hide the pass-through tunnel. At least BMW has thoughtfully scalloped the seatbacks and headliner to gain precious half-inches and give the back an adult rating.
It’s never easy to wriggle free of a small coupe’s caboose, but BMW eases passage with shoulder buttons that activate the motorized front sliders. The split-folding rear seats, as well as the tunnel (here, augmented by a ski bag, part of the $600 Cold Weather pack), can virtually double the 10-cubic-foot trunk. Three huzzahs for German practicality.
Words you almost never hear at the stoplight: “Hey, mine is smaller than yours!” The 135i may have to endure some size snobbery, but only until the green light. The last E46 M3 we tested [September 2005] hit 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. The 135i does it in 4.7. That $48,995 M3 chewed through the quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds at 108 mph. This 135i does it in 13.3 seconds at 106 mph, also about identical to the M3’s then-competitors, the Audi RS 4 and Mercedes-Benz C55 AMG. As part of the $1000 Sport package, the speed governor stays quiet until 143 mph, 13 mph higher than the base car.
A Class of it's Own
Opt for the big engine, and BMW assumes your taste leans to sport. The suspension hanging off the solidly carved unit body is reinforced commensurately with firm damping rates that in concert with the shorter wheelbase clearly transmit freeway clop, and it thoroughly jiggles the car’s contents over ropy pavement at slower speeds. In back-road battle the chassis shows its aces with suppressed body roll and switchblade steering response that jabs the nose at corners with a firm, steady equipoise that is BMW’s trademark.
What it lacks, thankfully, is the nervous, rut-chasing twitchiness sometimes found in BMW’s littler offerings, including the old M3 and the current Z4. The 1-series’ rear suspension is slightly altered from the 3’s, incorporating a different arrangement of links and control arms. The net effect is the same, however. Besides the extra suspension hop and cabin noise, the 135i basically drives like its larger 3-series brother.
We found tangible advantages to the 135i’s size, especially for urban buyers with scant real estate for automobiles. The 135i makes tidy U-turns on side streets and slips into parking spaces larger vehicles must pass on. Its narrower body means more walk-around space in a cluttered garage and more swing space for the doors, always a concern with coupes.
Even so, the 135i may struggle at its price. Presented with the numbers, most buyers, we expect, will step up to a 3-series, perhaps by trading away the turbo engine and associated extras. A mere $400 separates the base 135i from the slightly dearer 328i coupe with its gorgeous bod. The 135i may drive with the grace of larger cars, but to pass up that deal, you’ll have to be one of the few who don’t fear downsizing.