So what does BMW have to offer the driver who’s interest lies not in outright pace, road-holding, or the satisfaction of a perfectly executed heel-toe downshift, but one who requires simply a well balanced car to handle the daily grind. This is a different flavor than what we typically get excited about at BimmerFile, we make no secret our preference for the sporting inclined offerings from BMW. However, I’ve recently spent the past week getting to know the slower side of BMW, a more relaxed proposition in what is likely the most common 1-series, the automatic equipped 128i.
What’s on offer is a 2011 Space Gray Metallic Steptronic equipped 128i with the Premium and Cold Weather packages. The content is almost completely not what I would ever choose, and in that way I really had to alter my perspective, in that what we have here is certain to be the “business case” 128i. The car most buyers shopping in this size & price point at a BMW dealer are likely to find and drive away with, in part because it’s also what’s most likely to be spec’ed and held on dealer lots. There are more than enough Lexus’ sales to give evidence that not all buyers are interested in the intensely focused drivers cars we crave at BimmerFile. So let’s try to look at this honestly.
The 128i features the N52 3 Liter engine tuned in the American market to output 230 hp and 200 lb/ft of torque while achieving 28 mpg highway. It revs sweetly to redline providing more than enough power for the daily grind and, if mated to a 6-speed manual, likely plenty rewarding on the track. The well known Steptronic proved itself a competent companion to the motor, plodding along I never really felt held back by it. However, the moment quickly passed and I was “shifting” soon enough. Lacking the tactile intimacy of a proper clutch and the immediate response of a DCT, I was able to achieve a level of control I was more comfortable with, if not completely satisfied. If the traditional torque-converter automatics will see their demise with the onset of DCT style transmissions, then it’s a shift that couldn’t happen soon enough.
Initial road disruptions transmitted by the fitted 17″ wheels on all-season run-flat tires were still not on the level of a more traditional set-up. Although an improvement over earlier efforts, it continues to validate the long held complaint by many that the tire manufacturers just haven’t delivered the ride quality expected. Grip was as expected, easily overcome by the competent chassis (lots of throttle, manual mode, DTC off). The suspension was well balanced, if softer with more roll, dive & squat than I’d prefer, although probably perfect for the target demographic. Certainly hints of a very competent chassis that will shine when more stiffly sprung and mated to a more substantial power-unit. The steering was nicely weighted and plenty communicative. Pretty standard BMW stuff, no surprises here.
As for the interior appointments, well, I’d always believed iDrive and NAV was unnecessary. Brilliant, but unnecessary. Particularly with the progression in smartphone technology, the multi-media, automobile interface I’ve always regarded a tool for the directionally impaired, for the traveling salesman that can’t find his socks let-alone his way through the countryside. Certainly the iDrive offers a window into the car and a level of interaction and customization unattainable otherwise, but I never missed it in my non-iDrive equipped cars. Until I tried to use my iPhone through the standard radio display. Sure, it functions well, and is as intuitive to use as can be expected given the limitations of the medium, but ease-of-use compared to iDrive is no comparison. The standard radio display acquits itself admirably to the task, displaying track and title information, and functionality is easily grasped; however when paired to an 80 gb iPod classic, scrolling through artists and track selection can take a while with a lot of time furtively glancing between the radio and the road. I can’t say definitively that I’d spec iDrive on my new BMW, but I’d look hard at the options list and my lifestyle priorities before passing, otherwise I’d make liberal use of playlists to facilitate easier operation.
The rest of the car is standard BMW fare, good build quality and quality of materials. My car was equipped with leather seating surfaces which leaves the balance of the seats in BMW’s excellent leatherette. The color and texture are very very close, but a close examination reveals a slight difference, one wonders how these materials will compare after 60,000 miles of the daily grind.
Which brings me to my single largest complaint of the car, the seats, they’re abysmal. No, they’re not medieval in their design, nor are they poorly built of shoddy materials, they’re just poorly designed. These are not the excellent available sport seats. There’s no lateral support to be had, cushion or seat-back, both completely lacked sufficient bolstering, even for the relatively low limits afforded by the tires and softer suspension. Even a friend who’s relatively indifferent to things automotive commented on how poorly seated she felt. Perhaps we as Americans are simply too fat to fit in anything else that the excellent sport seats can’t be spec’d as standard, they are far and away more comfortable, offer more support and are absolutely a better driving proposition.
Okay, so maybe I wasn’t as objective as I’d hoped to be, but don’t get me wrong, I actually do like the car and understand where it belongs in the BMW portfolio. For the average car buyer looking for a balanced approach to the daily grind the 128i as equipped is nearly perfect. It’s the enthusiast within that recognizes the excellent chassis and motor are being let down by a soft suspension and automatic transmission. Perhaps, if you need a 1-series at this price-point a 128i M-sport would be the way to go.