January 29 2009   Story: Stuart Fowle

If you spend as much time skimming the internet for BMW content as we do, you've no doubt seen one of those teaser videos promoting 1 and 3 Series factory BMW Performance parts. Even if you've fallen behind, you at least remember the 1 Series tii concept that hit the auto show circuit last year, right? Among its many upgrades, the tii had an especially noteworthy steering wheel, one lined in cushy Alcantara and featuring inset LED shift lights and a digital display that anyone might find useful on a weekend track day. For the past few months, our project 135i has had that very same wheel.

The BMW Performance steering wheel's installation process was included in our last update, but we wanted to wait until we'd spent some time with this new toy to talk about what exactly it can do. First things first — those shift lights.

Sitting at roughly eleven o'clock and one o'clock, there are two banks of LED lights, each with fifteen lights in all, separated into five groups of three. Four groups are yellow, while each closest to the middle is red. You might expect them to light up progressively through the entire engine rev range, but they don't. And they don't light up at fixed points, either, but rather at a certain percentage of a redline of your own choosing. That maximum limit can be selected through a settings menu controlled by buttons hidden beneath the fabric where each of the driver's thumbs sit. The first set of yellow lights illuminates at 80 percent of the limit, the next at 85 percent, the third at 90 percent, the fourth at 94 percent, and finally a set of red LEDs comes on at 97 percent. When the preset limit is reached, all the lights flash on and off. Most people will set that limiter to just below the engine's redline, but if you want to show your tech off to friends (or have the need to take photos for an article) the option is there to bring the threshold down to any point on the tach.

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Moving to twelve o'clock on the steering wheel, there's a rectangular display with a whole array of optional readouts, again controlled through the same buttons hidden beneath the fabric. A majority of the functions, including a simple, straightforward stopwatch, involve timing.

The first timer tracks lap times down to one hundredth of a second. A stopwatch is displayed on the screen, along with the current lap number and, for three seconds at the end of each lap, that lap's time and the difference from the fastest previous lap flash across the display. The only downside is that the start of a new lap is triggered by tapping a button, so each lap starting at just the right moment is only as precise as your thumb. Casual track drivers won't mind this, but the more serious guys will probably prefer a timing method that's GPS-based. A full reset of the clock is done by holding down the same button that signals the start and end of each lap. Thirty laps maxes out the wheel's memory.

The same drawback carries over to the wheel's section timer — the start of each segment of a track must be triggered by hand, with an allowance of nine segments total. Do you think you can accurately trigger the starts of those segments, all while focusing on the road ahead, lap after lap? On the plus side, the section timer does record a lot of useful information: length, in feet or meters, of the segment, along with top speed, maximum G forces, and elapsed time.

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Rounding out the range of specialized timers is what has to be the most entertaining. I mean, whose inner child isn't brought out by a quarter-mile timer (or 400 meters for the seriously Euro among you), complete with Christmas tree lights? It works like so: a timer, held at zero, is displayed on the top line of the display, while five circles light up below it. The circles light up one-by-one every two seconds until all are illuminated. At that point a random generator decides how much time — somewhere between two and four seconds — before all five lights are switched off. This randomization is built in to measure reaction time, which is then displayed at the end of the race. Along with reaction time, total time, and top speed, the readout provides 60-foot and 330-foot times and speeds. Quelle suprise! — the owners manual cautions that this function mustn't be used on public streets.

Outside of the timers, the display on the wheel has two added functions. The first is a display of both oil and water temperatures (unless you have a diesel model, which only displays water temperature). If the oil temperature reaches a potentially harmful level, the display flashes, pleading you to stop. The second function is a G-meter with both lateral and longitudinal readouts, with arrows for each indicating direction. Maximum values for each . . . let's call them "acceleration events" are left on the screen for two seconds. A settings menu to edit brightness, choice of units, the threshold for the rev warning lights, and an overall reset function, is the last screen that can be displayed on the wheel.

With all the functions of the BMW Performance steering wheel covered, the question is where this accessory falls on the show-versus-go scale. For its primary purpose, controlling the direction of the front wheel, this is a truly wonderful piece of hardware. The Alcantara is soft and grippy, the diameter of the wheel is just thick enough, and the wheel is contoured in all the right places. The build quality is BMW top-notch and we're especially enamored of the white cross stitching. We're so in love with the way this wheel looks and feels, in fact, that we resurfaced every piece of aluminum trim in our 135i project car with black Alcantara. Sure, maybe we're a bit crazy, but we love the stuff.

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Assessing the wheel on its secondary features, it leans more toward showiness. Yes, the digital temperature displays and shift warning lights are quite helpful, but the rest of the functions lack some functionality and precision. A GPS-powered timing box like the Vbox used by MWerks for track timing is just as useful, has a memory card for easier record keeping, resets for new laps by itself, and costs less, depending on the model. Still, we've had some good times seeing how high we can push the G-meter on our daily commute, and the shift lights have kept countless passengers entertained.

So while BMW's performance wheel may not be perfect for the track day kings at whom it is aimed, it certainly is a step up in appearance, comfort, and feel from a stock 1- or 3-series component. The only catch is the price, which is steep. For the main wheel, the cost is $1244, plus $60 for the Alcantara cover for the spokes. If you're ready to throw down the cash, be sure to note the different part numbers for cars with our without Steptronic shift paddles and/or multi-function control buttons. In our project 135i this new accessory has been a blast, and we'll definitely be carrying it over to the next MWerks project when the 1 is retired.