May 22, 2008
When the BMW 1 Series first looked like it would be brought to the U.S. from its successful home in the European market, we had visions of a return to the BMW 2002, the car that really invented the BMW brand in America back in the late 1960s. It would be a return to form, an expression of the true BMW spirit. You know, something small, light, nimble and affordable. We even dared to dream of a reborn BMW 2002 tii.
But then the specifications hit our desk with a thump. It turned out the BMW 1 Series would be heavier than we expected, not to mention more expensive. Fortunately it would be more powerful, too. It became clear to us that the 1 Series was not so much a continuation of the beloved 2002, but rather a rebirth of the 3 Series.
If you haven't noticed, the BMW 3 Series has, well, expanded. Those who hit the upper-middle-class running in the go-go 1980s bought a far different 3 Series from the one we enjoy today. It was small, light, nimble and affordable. It was a gateway car, an introduction to the brand — a broker's first BMW, you could say. BMW hoped as its new customers climbed the corporate ladder, they would steadily upgrade their BMW to suit. Have a family, buy a 5 Series; make partner, buy an M6. Retirement imminent? You, sir, need a 7 Series.
But then the BMW 3 Series became a mass-market success and soon it acquired a mass-market identity, morphing into a vehicle that is all things for all people. It's a coupe, sedan, convertible, wagon and even a sport-utility if you count the X3, and there are gasoline engines, diesel engines, four-cylinders, a twin-turbo inline-6 and now even a V8. Once you're behind the wheel of a BMW 3 Series, there's very little need to move up.
Which brings us back to our newest long-term test car, a 2008 BMW 135i. When you compare the specifications, the 1 Series is not so different from the 3 Series: a fraction shorter, a fraction lighter and really only a fraction less expensive. It's smooth, sophisticated and as carefully optioned with consumer-friendly convenience features as a 3 Series.
If we wanted a 1 Series more like a BMW 2002 tii — something in the spirit of cheap and cheerful, only with terrific speed — it was clear we would have to build our own.
What We Bought
At $28,600 the 2008 BMW 128i is the least expensive new BMW you can buy in the USA, but it's missing something for us. Something with a little more kick. Something with a pair of turbochargers. Something, oh, like the twin-turbo, 300-horsepower 3.0-liter inline-6 that currently resides in the latest BMW 335i and BMW 535i. This is an engine so sweet that it seduces us no matter where BMW puts it. And we're not alone, as this engine has been awarded top honors in the 2008 International Engine of the Year competition.
Of course, as soon as you tick this box on the order sheet for a 1 Series, you take a $6,300 hit to the wallet. But don't think you're paying $6 grand for the engine alone, as the upgrade to a 135i includes a sport-tuned suspension, 18-inch wheels with summer-only performance tires, and six-piston fixed calipers for the front brakes. The 135i also includes an aerodynamic body kit inspired by BMW's high-performance M-cars.
So we spent the money.
And even though we were already cheating on our plan to create a modern 2002, we still wanted to remain true to a pure spirit of performance, so we kept the options to a minimum. Only Porsche makes this process tougher than BMW, however. Days and then weeks slipped by as we called and e-mailed and called again, looking for a stripper 135i. None to be had, no matter where we looked in the country. At one point, it looked like our best alternative would be a 135i with an automatic transmission and enough dealer-installed accessories to bust the $45K barrier.
But then we found the right car right in our own neighborhood. Rusnak Westlake BMW (Buy a car there? Rate it!) in Thousand Oaks, California, had a 2008 BMW 135i equipped with a six-speed manual transmission right on its lot (true believers in the 2002 tii!). No premium package and only one indulgence: power front seats.
Unfortunately this item added $995 to the tally and kept us from the 1 Series sport seats that had captured our attention in our full test of the 135i. As Director of Vehicle Testing Dan Edmunds says, "The package also includes terrific eight-way manually adjustable seats that adjust quickly, hold on tight in corners and look great. Why spend the money for optional power seats?"
Well, you buy them because you have to. It was that or wait months for a custom-built 1 Series to be shipped from Germany.
What Kind of BMW Is This?
Did you catch our recent all-BMW comparison? We pitted our long-term 2002 BMW M3 against a 2008 BMW 335i and a 2008 BMW 135i in daily life, on back roads and at the track to see which would come out on top. The winner?
No, not the 335i — too big, too expensive and too slow. Instead, the numbers on the scoring sheet recorded a tie between the 2008 BMW 135i and the aging yet still potent E46 M3. A tie! A hopped-up version of BMW's cheapest car not only keeps up with one of the finest BMW performance cars ever built, but also outpaces it in several respects.
And so we're persuaded that we have the right 1 Series in our long-term test fleet. Apart from storage space, is there a downside to the basement BMW with such compelling performance credentials? Is this the BMW 2002 tii we long for, or just a BMW 3 Series in disguise? How about that styling? We have 12 months and 20,000 miles to find out.
Current Odometer: 2,082
Best Fuel Economy: 24.0 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 19.1 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 21.4 mpg
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.