BMW’s New Baby: Fast, Not Fresh

by Michael O. Allen on May 16, 2008


BMW 135i coupe
The 1-Series is the German auto maker’s smallest and least expensive model.
In Europe, BMW sells 3- and 5-door hatchback version of the 1-Series and offers four-cylinder gas engines as well as diesel engines.

The convertible 1-Series offers the same engines and is priced slightly higher than the coupe, starting at $33,100.

The 135i is an inch taller than the larger 3-Series coupe, making the 1-Series’ roof look out of proportion with the rest of the car. This effect isn’t helped by a concave crease that runs along the vehicle’s lower sides.

I have become somewhat disaffected about BMW of late, disliking the overriding design theme of this decade’s newest models. From the “flame surfacing” look of asymmetrical and unbalanced curves and lines to the myriad electronics that sully the man-machine interface, I pine for the purity of BMWs past.

So it was with much excitement that I hopped behind the wheel of the 2008 BMW 135i coupe for my weekly test drive. The new 1-Series is being cast as a car for a big group of BMW fans: enthusiast drivers who love the communicative steering, nimble handling and rear-wheel-drive layout of Bimmers, but feel the beloved 3-Series has become too big and heavy, too feature-laden and too expensive.

Indeed, the 3-Series coupe has grown 6 inches in length and gained over 500 pounds since the version produced in 1992 to 1998, the “E36” to aficionados. And since the dollar started its long descent against the euro, BMWs have become dramatically pricier. While five years ago you could pick up a new 3-Series coupe for under $30,000, the starting price today is over $35,000. By comparison, the average price of a new car climbed less than $1,000 in that time.

Time, then, to cue the 1-Series, a car that has been waiting in the wings since it went on sale in Europe in 2004. Starting a few hundred bucks shy of $30,000, the 1-Series moves BMW back below that important psychological price point, though to get into the top-of-the-line 135i you’ll still head back over 35 grand. If you were hoping, like me, that the 1-Series might be a truly economical new BMW with a price firmly in the 20s, well, I suppose that’s what the used market is for.

If the 135i’s MSRP is disappointing, its performance is anything but. Fitted with the same 300-horsepower, 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline six-cylinder engine as used in both the 3-Series and 5-Series, the smaller 1-Series absolutely hauls. Not only is it as quick in a 0-60 mile per hour sprint as its bigger brother — Road & Track magazine tested it at 4.8 seconds — but it’s every bit the match for the previous generation of the M3, BMW’s high-performance coupe that sold for about $50,000 until it went out of production in 2006. However, you’ll pay for all that speed at the gas station: The 135i’s EPA city/highway fuel economy is a pathetic 20 miles per gallon. With the required premium gas now costing over $4 a gallon here in Michigan, I hope somebody at BMW is agitating to bring a four-cylinder model to the U.S. like the company sells overseas. Or a diesel.

The 135i has a firm suspension for sports-car-like handling that is nearly as impressive as its power. If there is a fly in the ointment, it would be that I don’t find the 135i as light and frisky as many older BMWs. While the 1-Series is about the same size as the E36 coupe, its 3,370-pound curb weight makes it about 300 pounds heavier than a 1990s-vintage 3-Series. While we’re talking dimensions, it’s worth noting that the 135i is actually over an inch taller than the current 3-Series coupe, making the 1-Series’ roof look out of proportion with the rest of the car. This effect isn’t helped by a concave crease that runs along the vehicle’s lower sides, lending the 1-Series coupe a cartoon-like quality. It’s unfortunate that such a fun-to-drive car should join the many other recent BMW models that are similarly aesthetically challenged, especially given that the design of the 3-Series coupe is so stunning.

Inside, the 1-Series is little more than a shrunken version of its relative, sharing similar equipment, features and controls. (Yes, you can even order the car with iDrive, BMW’s confounding interface for its navigation and audio systems.) This is both good and bad, as the already busy interior styling of the bigger BMWs makes the 1-Series cockpit feel smaller than it is. As has become BMW’s wont, the tiny (read: mostly useless) back seat can accommodate only two people, the 135i’s thick steering wheel tends to impede the view of the speedometer and tachometer, and the cup holders are small and poorly positioned between the seats such that you must choose between armrest and beverage.

Of course, the more crucial choice is whether, if you’re shopping for a BMW, the 1-Series is even a consideration. As a poor-man’s M3, it undoubtedly succeeds. But I expected something different, something better from this all-new model. The 1-Series was BMW’s opportunity to redefine that part of its image that’s always been about the driving experience first and foremost. However, it’s clear that the collective engineers, designers and product planners involved chose not to break any ground, which might have been fine if the company had instead gone back to its roots. But a more affordable, more practical, simpler, smaller BMW didn’t emerge, either. Instead we get yet another length of the same old Bavarian sausage. It’s a decent enough meal, but it’s still not as good as I remember it being. Or, perhaps, as good as it could have been.

Write to Jeff Sabatini at [email protected]

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