When we last reviewed the BMW 135i in February the car had yet to go on sale in the US and there were numerous questions about everything from design and packaging to performance. What we learned with that initial drive is that the 135i delivered well enough in the areas of performance to negate any niggling design or packaging issues. However that was over the course of a day in and around some of the best roads Northern California has to offer. Our question this time around; how would the 135i fare through the rigors of a week in Chicago.
Our Montego Blue 135i came equipped with almost every option available. The most notable were the Sport package, Premium package and the 6-speed Automatic Transmission. The Sport package consists of just a few options on the 135i since the car comes standard with a M developed suspension, aero-kit and unique steering rack. However the thick, perforated M steering, shift knob and ebrake handle that come on the package add some subtle yet noticeable improvements to the touch-points drivers interact with the most. The Premium pack delivers leather, auto wipers, power seats w/lumbar support (a surprisingly nice addition), auto dimming mirrors along with some nice touches like the power folding mirrors and exterior door lighting. While I would consider all of it purely a luxury from an enthusiast point of view, it can be hard to pass up considering the cost of leather alone.
However the single option that defined this particular car’s experience more than anything was the newly released ZF Steptronic 6-speed automatic transmission. As someone who has clearly been defined as a stick-shift snob, I was dissapointed to learn that our test car would be coming with an slush-box. However a lot has been made of this particular transmission since it was released on the 335i last year. It’s shift times, ability to match revs on downshifts and general flexibility has won over many reviewers. And while I can’t quite call it the perfect choice for the enthusiast driver, I can definitely say that it is the best auto I’ve ever driven. Its ability to change gears so quickly is an immediate advantage it has over most torque-converter style autos. And the matching of revs on down-shifts is no less than addicting. It also gives the transmission a tangible sporting character where most autos have none. Even during aggressive driving it was hard to trip up the brains behind it all. In fact it’s hard to imagine being much faster in real world driving with a manual.
There were a couple of issues I still had with the auto however. For one it will automatically up-shift at redline. While banging an engine off of redline isn’t something any of us want or like to do, it’s somehow comforting to know that you as the driver has the ultimate control over the decisions made in regards to gearing. With this transmission you just don’t have that ultimate control. Another (and somewhat alarming) thing I noticed was the amount of heat emanating from both the gear lever surround and the left side of the transmission tunnel next to the drivers right leg. Granted it was only obvious after an extended period of somewhat aggressive driving using manual mode. I’m not entirely sure if this is an issue with just this press car or other 135i autos. One related note: I noticed the lack of an additional oil cooler on the automatic equipped 135i (vs the manual I drove back to back). This additional bit of cooling is located just to the side of the passenger side brake duct at the front of the car. After doing some research it would seem that this lack of an oil cooler may be limited to very early production 135i autos like this one.
Transmission choices aside, the real star of the 135i is the incredible 3.0L twin turbo inline six. It is an incredibly flexible power-plant that delivers what you want whenever you need it. Both power and torque are available from the bottom to the top of the powerband. And the ability to rev quickly and produce power all the way to redline is a BMW trademark that thankfully hasn’t been dulled by the addition of the two turbos.
From the low silky sound at take-off to the race-car like wail at the high-revs, the classic BMW inline six soundtrack present and accounted for. So good is the sound that I can’t imagine an aftermarket exhaust (or BMW’s own “BMW Performance” exhaust”) doing anything more than simply making it louder. It was hard not say no to hoonage in tunnels or underpasses.
The 1 has an eager feel that has been absent on non-M BMWs (the Z4 not-withstanding) since E36. The aggressive steering rack and the 200lbs + weight advantage over the 335i (500lbs + over the M3) give the 1 and more nimbler and decidedly more fun feel – especially at lower speeds.
In and around Chicago streets the 135i in auto form is brilliant. Small, nimble and relatively efficient (as compared with the M3 we tested a week later) the 135i could be considered the ultimate urban vehicle for the enthusiast. While I’d personally prefer a manual transmission (yes even with city traffic) the auto is almost faultless for use in an urban environment.
What isn’t quite faultless for a place like Chicago was the ride. With 18″ wheels, runflat tires and the M tuned suspension the 135i could get tiring for those not willing to sacrifice a little comfort for aggressive handling. It’s nowhere near as harsh as first generation MINI or a current MINI with the Sport Suspension but it was more unsettled over road irregularities than the M3 I tested shortly afterwards. Based on my experience with many BMWs and MINIs with runflats, I couldn’t help but feel it was the tires that let down the ride much more so than the more aggressive suspension. As stated in our previous review, the suspension isn’t even as harsh as one might expect and nowhere near as aggressive as the phrase “Tuned by the M Division” would have you expect.
Inside the 1 is endowed with all the material quality you’d find in a modern 3 Series. Touch-points are high quality plastic, foam or leather and the 135i equipped with the sport package comes with M branded goodies that further enhance the experience. However that’s not to say everything is perfect inside. Our test car came with the optional $2100 navigation system and of course the iDrive controller. While we have no serious complaints with iDrive as an interface, the screen’s design doesn’t do much to to keep glare from washing out the display. And the added accessory cup holder (the iDrive controller eliminates one of the two console mounted cup-holders) is less than stellar to look at. While it is removable (a great idea btw) you can’t help but think the design could have been a little better integrated.
Up front the seats are the normal fare found in other BMWs equipped with the sport package. The side bolsters are large and the thigh support is adjustable for taller drivers. One area however that BMW has changed for the worse is the side bolstering on the bottom cushion. This goes for not only the 1 series but all BMW sport seats. I can only imagine the widening waist-lines of Americans and some Europeans are at fault for this.
Living day to day with the 1 is relatively easy. The interior has plenty of small storage areas, the trunk is more than serviceable and the size of the car makes squeezing into tight spots easy. And while a lot has been made of the interior space of the 1 Series coupe, I can tell you definitively it’s larger than you would expect. Not only are the rear seats actually wider than the larger 3 Series coupe but the trunk is surprisingly large. With the seats folded down I found the 1 quite versatile. It all adds up to the 135i being an ideal car for city dwellers who don’t want to let go of the need for a sporty car but also want something both space and energy efficient.
Okay energy efficiency is a state of mind. For 300hp + it is quite efficient considering BMW’s V8′s weren’t getting that kind of power 10 years ago with much worse MPG. Over the course of a week I averaged right around 20mpg in aggressive city driving. Clearly it’s not spectacular but neither is it embarrassing considering the first generation MINI I previously owned was often right around that same number.
At it’s heart, the 135i a rear-wheel drive small car that has been endowed with all of the characteristics BMW’s are known for with one big added bonus; enormous power. It’s easy to forget about anything and everything behind the wheel of the 135i. It has an infectious attitude that is unique in the BMW line-up and in many respects, is closer to the MINI experience.
Yes the 1 has its faults. Yet a week with the car did nothing to change my general opinion of it from my initial test last February. At it’s core it’s a BMW that has come to term with it’s roots. The 2002tii and the E30 3 Series seems like distant yet relatable cousins to the 135i. While steering feel isn’t quite at M3 levels (and no where near the E30 M3) its traits can be traced directly from all the cars that have made the BMW brand what it is today. And with that in mind I can definitively say that there isn’t a car in BMW’s line-up that I’d rather own.
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