Based on all the hype over the last few months, you ‘d expect the BMW 135i to be able to walk on water. European journalists have raved about the car and customers have already begun forming lines at dealerships here in the US. Praise flowing from computer keyboards around the world is enough to make almost any automotive enthusiast take notice.
Even BMW has gotten in the act trotting an early 70 ‘s era 2002tii at every marketing opportunity they can. And why not, all the right ingredients are there; short overhangs, 50/50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive, 300hp all wrapped in small coupe packaging. It ‘s almost enough to forget about the one glaring issue – all 3373 lbs of it. That ‘s over 1000 lbs heavier than the 2002tii – the classic BMW that 1 Series coupe was clearly inspired by.
However I ‘ll let you in on a little secret, it simply doesn ‘t matter. Over some of the best roads northern California has to offer I found the 135i to be more enjoyable than the far more capable new M3 I drove the day before. I ‘d go so far as to call my time with the 135i manual one of the most memorable and rewarding driving experiences of my life.
Seeing the 135i for the first time in the flesh you ‘re struck at how short and stubby it is. With the flared wheel arches (especially the rear) and the turned up lip on the trunk with small rear spoiler, there ‘s little question that BMW meant for first impressions to be sporty and purposeful. Pictures simply cannot do a shape like this justice.
All this means that the 1 is not necessarily a pretty car. However it has a muscular, almost brash look about it that is unexpectedly charming in person. It ‘s one of those rare modern cars that has character trying to be different. The 1 Series coupe has all classic BMW design cues without looking retro; the short overhangs, the upright grille and of course the strong shoulder line that runs the length of the car. In fact when compared in person to the new M3 at one point, I was struck by how much I preferred the 135i ‘s squat proportions and more subtle design details. The 135i looks upright and eager standing still. This is BMW distilled to its purest form.
Like the exterior, the interior of the 1 coupe follows a long line of driver focused BMW cockpits. From the moment you first feel the thick perforated M steering wheel (the best I ‘ve ever felt) and the short throw chunky M shifter, you know BMW made this car for the enthusiast. I drove both an iDrive and non-iDrive equipped cars and found that everything was relatively straightforward and easy to operate. The front seats are the standard fare you expect with the sport package equipped BMW. They had great support both on the seat backs and on the lower cushions. Extendable knee support was also present and welcome.
Rear seat room as you ‘d expect, was rather tight. While I ‘d say it ‘s slightly more spacious than the MINI Clubman, the rear is obviously more difficult to get to without the additional small door. If you ‘ve been in the back of any previous 3 series coupe, the 1 Series will feel very similar. At 6 ’2 “, my head was brushing up against the ceiling while testing the rear seat. Adults could probably make it work for short trips but generally speaking the rear of the 135i is best left to children.
The 135i occupies a strange middle ground between a normal BMW and an M car. Standard on the 135i (not the 128i) is the M tuned suspension, M aero-kit, M steering wheel and M shift knob. Then there ‘s the electronic differential (also on the 128i) and uniquely tuned dynamic stability control that will eventually make it ‘s way to a future performance version of the 335i according to our sources. There ‘s even an oil temp gauge, something that ‘s been absent from all current BMWs save M cars and the 335i for the past few years. It all adds up to a BMW that feels just a bit more special than most.
But this all pales to the performance of the 135i. The car has the wonderful chassis balance and excellent steering feel associated with all the finer cars wearing the roundel badge. While it lacks some of the tactile feel a MINI has, it rewards the driver with much better composure and balance.
As has been reported elsewhere, the 135i (like most modern BMWs) will understeer at the limit. It ‘s a little disappointing but a slightly wider set of front rubber or an increase in rear sway-bar size should help make things right. In stock form you can either lift to bring the front back into line (the car will also rotate slightly when doing this) or punch the throttle for some old-school tail out action.
And it ‘s this tail-out ability that makes the 135i so special. There are no small RWD cars that (A) have this kind of power or (B) have such a finely tuned chassis. At the limit the 1 is predictable in every imaginable way. With a twitch of the steering here and the jab at the throttle there you have effortless control of the car through the most demanding roads.
The key ingredient in all of this is the fabulous 3.0L twin-turbo charged inline six. This engine seems to defy logic with no turbo lag and an ability to rev while making power all the way up to it ‘s redline. It ‘s rated at 300 hp but truth be told it feels noticeably stronger than even that. The 300 ft lbs of torque certainly do their part in helping the car accelerate to 60 mph in what will surely be under the five second mark once independent testers get a hold of it. Yet all of this power is so linear that it doesn ‘t overwhelm the overall experience.
But the car is not without imperfections. The steering can be a little nervous on the highway due to it ‘s quicker ratio non-electronic set-up (unique to the 135i). Granted I find this a fine trade-off but for those who do a lot of highway commuting and a little less of sporty driving, a 128i (which has a slightly slower ratio electronic set-up) would probably be a wise choice.
Also surprising was the car ‘s propensity to wallow over severe road undulations. While I expect the standard or even sport suspension on BMWs to cater a little more towards comfort, I was surprised to not find the suspension (tuned by the wizards at the M division) a bit more hardcore. Perhaps it ‘s the right choice for the market at large but I would expect track day warriors to make the move to something more aggressive.
Now with that said, I think both of these potential issues actually make the car more endearing. For one I ‘d expect the steering to be quick. And if I have to give up some smoothness on the highway, it ‘s a great trade-off in my opinion. Likewise the suspension is softer than what you find on the new M3. But because of that, the car ‘s limit doesn ‘t feel quite as unattainable. The 135i is easier to grab by the scruff of the neck and throw around corners knowing full well where the limit is. In my time with both cars I gelled with 135i easier than with the M3 and, at the same time, had more fun with it.
And if you thought the 135i was heavy, drive the new M3. At 3700lbs it really puts the 135i in perspective. While it ‘s still hard to call the 135i a lightweight, BMW has done an incredible job at hiding the mass and giving the car an eager feel. It ‘s quick, agile and stops better than it has a right to without the expensive suspension electronics that the M3 has at its disposal.
The 1 Series also marks one of the first times BMW has gone to something other than a floating caliper design for the front brakes. Unlike the M3 which makes due with a massive single piston front brake system (reportedly preferred by the M Division for weight reasons), the 1 Series has a 6 piston set-up. Ironically BMW engineers had to go this route due to space available to them within the structure of the car and the wheels. However there ‘s no denying it ‘s more impressive looking than the typical BMW set-up. And it works pretty freaking well. The brakes felt strong all day long despite spirited driving through the mountains in central California. After a fluid swap I ‘d be shocked if you saw much fade with them at the track. Something I can ‘t say about my track time in the new M3.
One of the most talked about additions to the 1 Series coupe (and another exclusive) is the electronic rear differential. The idea is that, in order to save weight and money BMW has created a program (activated when DSC is turned off) that gives the car something close to a mechanical limited slip differential. I didn ‘t have a chance to take the car to the track but from the driving I did do (on some of the best roads in North America I might ad), I found the technology was surprisingly effective. More than once I had the car in a controlled drift out of a corner without roasting the inside rear tire. The car simply locked up and powered out as you ‘d expect from a normal LSD. While I can ‘t quite call it an unqualified success until some proper track time with the car, it ‘s surprisingly effective on the road.
To get a full feel of the 1 Series line-up I also spent some time behind the wheel of a 128i convertible auto. The short take; it ‘s exactly the car it needs to be. The auto saps an enormous amount of the fun out of the car but there ‘s little question it ‘s still quick, handles well and, with the less frenetic steering, is a bit more livable as a commuter car. If you lease your BMWs and normally have to ask yourself if you really need something called “the sport package ” the 128i is your car. If you know how to match revs and look for curvy roads like some people look for a Starbucks, the 135i is your car hands down.
And what a car. After a day in the 135i I came away as smitten by it as I have ever been with an automobile. The new M3 I had driven just 12 hours before was fantastic, but the 135i is just so much more enjoyable in all situations. I love that it ‘s incredibly capable but not quite perfect. In fact I find myself comparing the feeling I get in the 135i to the MINI Cooper S more so than any other BMW. From the upright grille and eager face to the quick revving 300hp inline six and the exceptional handling, the 135i has an enormous amount of character for a modern automobile.
My advice for those curious? On March 22nd, when the 135i goes on sale in the US, get to your dealer early. I guarantee there will be a line to test drive this car. And for those thinking of ordering? Make the call… now.