May 21 2009   Story: MWerks Staff

It's been a couple months now since our long-term 135i departed, and while we love the 335d that showed up to replace it, we have to admit we're already feeling a bit lost without the little coupe. In fact, the passing of time has allowed us to clear our heads and reflect accurately on our year with the car. So here are some observations on the 135i:

Looks- Without a doubt, the 1 Series coupe is probably the most controversial design in BMW's stable right now. Whether you're a fan or a hater, you can't deny it's an unconventional shape. Criticism is most often hurled at two features- the heavily flame-surfaced sides and the bug-eyed headlights. For better or worse, these two details help the 1er faithfully recall the CS1 concept car of 2002. And that's pretty cool in our book.

Compared to a 3 Series coupe — E46 or E90 in particular — the 1 Series coupe is certainly neither as graceful nor elegant; instead, its attitude is decidedly more punk that than pretty. With its long hood, high and sharp waistline, and stubby trunk, the 135i always seems to be giving more conventionally-styled cars the middle finger. And that's one of the qualities some of us really grew to love. This attitude got an adjustment for the better in the form of a new suspension, which allowed us to dial in a bit of forward rake for an even more aggressive posture. By the time it left our office, it had converted most of us to true fans of its looks, though we generally agreed the shape is better served by a metallic color than our Alpine White selection.

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The interior scored marks for simplicity — especially without the navigation system and its requisite iDrive controller — and phenomenal seats. The general styling of the dashboard left us a little uninspired, but at least the material choices throughout the interior allowed it to live up to the BMW standard. The one exception was the "glacier" aluminum dash trim, which we felt a bit gimmicky and distracting; a simpler brushed aluminum, as in our current 335d, would have been preferred, though in the end we covered it with Alcantara to match the ultra-cool BMW Performance steering wheel. Much tastier, indeed.

Quality- In the year-plus that we had the 135i, we put over 20,000 miles on it. We made one unscheduled visit to the dealership for an interim oil change, and while we were there we had a handful of seemingly related (to each other, not to the oil change) electrical gremlins checked out. The demons were never discovered; perhaps the dealer tech was wearing a silver cross and cloves of garlic around his neck. Nevertheless, the problems seemed to occur less frequently after the visit.

Aside from that issue, the 135i served us pretty much trouble-free for more than a year. Sharp bumps in the road occasionally shook the instrument cluster, which also squeaked with some regularity. The leather on our driver's side seat bolster showed signs of wear pretty early on, but the seat structure itself never gave up a bit. In short, the 135i was a trusty companion that delivered the kind of quality we expect from any car wearing a roundel.

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Practicality and Economy- Let's face it, the 1 Series coupe is a compact car and it's really best to consider it a 2+2 sport coupe. Not that there isn't real room in the back seat, it's just a matter of getting into the back seat that's difficult. A couple of us actually loaded toddlers into car seats in back, an exercise that often produced language not fit for their tender ears. For a pair of adults, however, the two front seats offer all the room needed for a comfortable cross-country drive. We know, we did it more than once, sleeping in those very seats. Headroom with the standard (and not deletable) sunroof, we noted, could be more accommodating to helmeted drivers.

Trunk space is decent for a small coupe, but access to that space is limited considerably by the short decklid. No more than two tires, for instance, could be hauled without having to drop the rear seats, a definite consideration for track-day and autocross regulars who might wish to bring a set of race tires with them.

In terms of economy, the 135i returned an overall average of 21.1 mpg over a year of use that included al kinds of driving in all manner of conditions. We witnessed some pretty amazing efficiency when we tried, eking out a 29.0-mpg average on one highway trip with the advantage of cruise control (and a tailwind), and we never averaged less than 17 mpg on any tankful; not too bad for a 300-horsepower sport coupe that can get to 60 mph in less than five seconds.




Performance- Did we just mention the 135i can get to sixty in under five seconds? Our vBox unit recorded 4.9 on several occasions. With 300 lb-ft of torque to accompany its 300 turbocharged ponies, the little coupe never had a problem getting out of its own way. In fact, the rear tires were nearly worn in about 12,000 miles of driving, giving in to the constant battle between the engine and the road. Though we never got around to upgrading our engine software, the ECU’s programming is smooth and satisfying from any engine speed and offers more performance than most drivers could handle.

Speaking of handling, our 135i's sport suspension felt great initially, but was quickly outdone on all fronts by a set of H&R coilovers. Not only did the handling response improve, the ride actually got better as well on all but the sharpest, high-amplitude bumps. A larger rear sway bar tuned the native understeer out of the chassis without further altering straight-line comfort. It wasn't until we put the factory suspension components back on that we really got an appreciation for how well the aftermarket suspension worked.

Despite a weight of over 3400 pounds, the 135i delivers impressive performance in all categories. It goes, stops and turns with the precision and fervor of more hard-edged sports cars, yet offers refinement not typically found in smaller cars. A limited-slip differential would have been nice, and we speak from experience when we say that proper winter tires are absolutely essential in any climate that gets snow; the car is simply immobile on the white stuff with the sport package's high-performance tires.

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Value- Once you get done arguing over the 1er's aesthetics, the next battle usually comes over price. All too often we heard the 135i was overpriced, presumably based solely on the fact that it's a small car. The one argument in particular that always got us steamed was from critics that insisted the 135i was simply an ""entry-level" BMW and that buyers were somehow unable to afford a "real" BMW. Ironically, those comments often came from owners of 3 Series BMWs, who, prior to the arrival of the 1, were themselves guilty of buying BMW's "entry-level" model.

From our perspective, we were always amazed that it featured all of the 335i's mechanicals in a more compact, lighter (by 200 pounds), and more focused (on performance versus luxury) package for $5000 less! That doesn't make it a cheap car by any means (ours had an MSRP of $39,145), but value is where you find it.

A poor man's BMW? No, but perhaps a thinking man's M3.

Although magazines across the world insist on pairing it with everything from Mustangs to 370Zs to Hyundai Genesises (or would those be Geneses?), the consensus is often that the 135i is in a class by itself when everything is considered. To us, that's worth something.

Summary- The short answer for anyone who asks about our time in the 135i is that we found it to be a great everyday sports car that delivers a lot of driving excitement and pleasure without punishing you for the privilege. It's a true driver's car in which one can genuinely learn the finer points of high-performance driving while still enjoying the refinements of a modern premium coupe. It's not a car for everyone; admittedly, it's better suited to those with more selfish priorities, as those of us with families discovered. And it probably helps to have an owner with a thick skin and deaf ears to ignore the static from critics who have not yet discovered the joy of Oneness.

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