July 01 2009   Story: Stuart Fowle | Photos by Author

We loved our Project 135i and were happy with how it turned out, but that doesn't mean we're not man enough to admit when we've been outdone. That we've been beat by BMW itself, an international corporation with virtually unlimited engineering and financial resources, makes it even easier to swallow our pride. Which is a good thing, because the BMW Performance Parts-equipped 135i we recently drove was one seriously well-put together package.

In case you missed the video teasers and press releases, BMW has decided to slice a piece of aftermarket profit pie by developing its own, fully warranteed accessories under the straightforward name BMW Performance. So far, the 1 and 3 Series cars have been the main focus with aerodynamic, performance, and purely aesthetic parts offered for each. The car we drove was an Alpine White 135i loaded up with every component available for the car.

Outside, the changes should be obvious to any 135i fan. The carbon fiber rear diffuser is the most subtle piece, as it is mounted low and hard to spot at night. Which is a shame because, at $1769, it's also quite expensive. The exterior changes also include a thin carbon fiber spoiler, side skirts with sporty little scoops, carbon fiber mirror caps, a new front fascia, two-tone stripes, and black kidney grilles. Plus, of course, a new set of BMW Performance wheels that cover a set of yellowish-gold calipers with the company's branding in silver letters.

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Those wheels, an attractive style code-named "269," save approximately two pounds over each stock part; both measure 18 inches in diameter. We asked BMW Accessories Development Manager Stephen Zoepf why a larger-than-stock diameter isn't offered. "We extensively test our wheels and tires to meet a crash safety standard and decided that 18 inches is the largest we're willing to offer for the 1 Series, 19 for the 3 Series. Anything larger runs a risk of pretty catastrophic damage." No worries, as most people we ran into over the weekend thought the wheels were 19s, anyway. The wheels are offered individually at just over $400 each or as a set complete with high-performance run-flat Bridgestones and new TPMS sensors for $4100.

BMW Performance offers two options when for brake upgrades. The simpler, cheaper route is to simply upgrade to lighter, grippier drilled and slotted front rotors as we did with our project car. The job is as simple as swapping any other rotors, so it takes about a half hour and limited arm exercise. Each rotor runs $189.00. But there's also a full, $2450 performance brake kit, which is how the test car seen here is equipped. In reality though, as Zoepf told us, that kit is actually intended for the 128i and the 3 Series. Other than the front rotors, the system is just a repainted version of the already incredible 135i six-piston front, two-piston rear brakes. The kit is an opportunity for those other owners to upgrade, while 135i owners would be smart to simply add the upgraded rotors. Zoepf simply wanted his show car to wear his accessories proud and clear on the front calipers.

At first look, we weren't so sure about the treatment of the front fascia (offered with or without cutouts for optional headlight washers), which we felt was actually less aggressive-looking than stock. But it grew on us over time as we developed an appreciation for the more streamlined, rearward-flowing look. It looks more modern, less like a reimagining of an E46 M3's front end.

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The side skirts continue the idea of rearward flow, and we think they're just subtle enough to look good. Our favorite touch, though, is the carbon lip spoiler, which contrasted wonderfully against the stark white paint. The silver and gray stripes, too, were a tasteful mod that hint at, yet don't copy, the tri-color M stripes of the 1971 3.0 CSL. "The designers of these parts like to create a mood," Zoepf said, "I think this car is the best example of that." We agree. The only parts we wouldn't order are the black kidney grilles. Not because we don't like them, but because at $66 for each side, we'd be tempted to paint the stock parts ourselves.

What we wouldn't skip is the BMW Performance cat-back exhaust, which sounds almost Italian under load. It's slightly raspy, and tuned just right for our ears. Unless you ask it to scream, the system speaks softly. Cruising at highway speeds, for example, there's no unwanted droning coming from beneath the rear seat. On the other hand, there's certainly a tollbooth attendant somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike still cursing that little white BMW. There's also an Audi-loving ad salesman for our company sitting in Washington, D.C. debating whether his next car should be a 135i.

However, the cat-back system is just the runner-up for our favorite BMW Performance part. The blue ribbon goes to the short shift kit. We love BMWs, but that's not to say we're not comfortable admitting their shortcomings. One of them is that most BMW shifter handles are a bit long and their action a bit rubbery. The 135i represented a step in the right direction, but it wasn't perfect. However, this performance shifter feels as close to that of a Honda S2000 (a shifter widely considered to be one of the best around) as anything we've experienced. Even the shift knob design is similar, but we're sure that's just coincidence.

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To get this better feel, BMW Performance shortened the stock shift motion by 25 percent. The carrier and pivot point have also been redesigned and tested to ensure that the kit doesn't have any of the hidden clearance issues that afflict some other aftermarket options. It costs $576 and once you've tried it, you won't miss a cent of that.

That shift kit features a soft Alcantara boot, which conveniently matches the rim of the performance steering wheel with digital readouts. We reviewed that part in depth in our 135i project series. In addition to the parts you touch, BMW Performance offers replacement trim pieces made of carbon fiber. The whole set, each part sold individually, includes the door pulls, dash trim, console cover, and ashtray cover. Considering that most people would buy the whole set, we hope that BMW decides to offer the kit in its entirety at a slightly lower price than it costs to buy each part. As it stands, buying to whole interior kit will set you back $976.80.

The lone component left unmentioned on the complete BMW Performance 135i is the suspension kit, which is available for all 1 Series models. The kit was co-developed with industry giant KW Suspension and we're told it uses the firmest spring rate ever tested and released by BMW. That rate is increased 48 percent over the stock suspension and the kit lowers the car by about three-quarters of an inch. The resulting look is just low enough — not slammed, but not too high, either. The same basic adjustments are shared with the E90/92 3 Series kit, though there are some very minor packaging changes between the two, so the parts aren't interchangeable.

We performed a suspension swap back when we took delivery of our project 135i in the spring of 2008, as the car's stock ride was a little too prone to body roll and understeer. The H&R coilover kit we used made those issues nothing but a memory, but we did pay a decent price in terms of ride quality over sharp bumps. The BMW Performance kit delivers similar handling benefits but doesn't sacrifice comfort to the same extent. It's a near-perfect compromise that we wish BMW would just steal and use as the car's default sport suspension option.

That brings us to a bit of speculation. Nearing the end of E46 production, BMW offered a ZHP Performance Package for the 330i that included a little extra power, modified suspension, and some unique interior and exterior components. With such a cohesive offering of components from the BMW Performance arm, it seems logical that a special edition 135i might be on the horizon, offering many of the parts you see here at a bargain package price. The idea isn't so far-fetched-remember back to the 135i tii concept from the 2008 Tokyo show? It's widely believed that concept could serve as inspiration for a 135i "SuperSport" model, though that car's gorgeous seats unfortunately aren't approved for U.S. sale.

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BMW Performance also offers a high-flow air intake for the 128i and 328i, which we didn't mention because we drove a turbo car. Why no option for the 135i and 335i? Apparently, that engine breathes so well and is squeezed so tight into the engine bay that BMW hasn't found a way to build a package that offers better airflow in a way that would meet internal tolerance standards. But don't worry, the guys in the white lab coats are still working on it.

As you've probably gathered by now, we were incredibly pleased by the package BMW Performance has managed to put together for its 135i product portfolio. Sure, there are some great products on the aftermarket that will do a lot of the same things, but there's something to be said for having a "factory-tuned" BMW.