A Return to BMW's Core Values
To put it plainly, the 2008 BMW 135i is more than merely good. It raises the standard of measure for small coupes to a whole new level of excellence. It is one of the purest expressions of the BMW character since the 1971 BMW 2002 tii.
This is not another space-efficient front-wheel-drive hatchback. Instead BMW's classic configuration of front-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive brings an emphasis on driving to the segment of premium small cars that includes the Volkswagen R32 and Volvo C30.
Search if you will, but you can take it from us; there is simply no more accomplished car for $30,000 than the 2008 BMW 135i.
The Numbers Tell the Story
The numbers tell the story. The 2008 BMW 135i coupe gets to 100 kph (62 mph) in just 5.3 seconds and the standing kilometer (fast becoming a standard performance benchmark among Europe's more sporting carmakers) in 24.6 seconds. To give this speed some perspective, the new 2008 BMW M3 is just 0.5 second and 1.3 seconds quicker to the same marks respectively. Even more important, this 135i coupe will rip from 50-75 mph in 4th gear in just 5.0 seconds — just 0.1 second slower than the latest M-car.
These figures are important, because there is little about the styling of the new 1 Series coupe to hint at such performance potency. Its compact dimensions, strongly creased character lines and taut surfacing can be jarring from some angles and certainly won't be to everyone's taste, but they do provide the new two-door with an alluringly muscular appearance that expresses its sporting aspirations.
Dimensionally, the new car measures 171.7 inches in length, 76.1 inches in width and 56.0 inches in height, making it noticeably smaller than the 3 Series coupe, some 8.7 inches shorter in length, 2.0 inches narrower and 1.1 inch taller.
The coupe shares its front-end styling with the 1 Series hatchback that has been in production for the last three years, and indeed both cars will share BMW's assembly plant in Leipzig, Germany. For the coupe, the front bumper has been slightly reprofiled to direct additional cooling air into the engine bay. In addition, the coupe has frameless doors. Aft of the B-pillar, the coupe is unique, executing the traditional three-box silhouette.
Inside, it is all pretty familiar to anyone who has spent any time in the 1 Series hatchback. The wide transmission tunnel restricts the rear seat to just two passengers, and rear-seat legroom is limited. Trunk space is 13.0 cubic feet, only 2.1 cubic feet less than the 3 Series coupe.
Though its front engine, rear-drive configuration is pretty unpopular in this size category because of its lack of space efficiency, BMW reckons its layout has unique appeal to people who care about driving, not passengers.
After the failure of the BMW 318Ti hatchback in the U.S. in 1995-'98, the BMW marketing people have decided to offer the 1 Series with a choice of premium-class powertrains. The naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 will develop 228 horsepower. But it is the top-of-the-line 135i and its sublime twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6 to which we're drawn for this first drive of the new BMW in the Netherlands. With 306 hp available at 5,800 rpm, the aluminum-block six has the sort of power you might expect from a V8, giving the 1 Series coupe some genuine muscle car credentials.
You'd never know it lurks under the hood of this 1 Series unless you detect the oil temperature gauge beneath the tachometer, a feature previously reserved for BMW's high-performance M models. Thumb the starter button on the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel and you're presented with a delicious throaty resonance through the exhausts. When you blip the throttle, you can feel the little coupe shimmy in excitement as the engine and drivetrain wind up.
Once underway the 135i delivers effortless acceleration; the crushing effect of 295 pound-feet of torque arriving at just 1,300 rpm makes this engine terrifically flexible all the way through the rpm range. You can pull away in 1st gear and slot directly into 6th without any major objection from the drivetrain.
To do so, however, is to deny yourself what is arguably this car's most appealing feature — its strapping midrange acceleration. There's no discernible turbo lag as you pile on the revs through the gears, just one fabulously linear flow of drive to the rear wheels. Remain committed and you find that there's absolutely no let-up in the urgent rush until 7,000 rpm, when the electronic rev limiter softly retards the ignition.
When you couple this with excellent straight-line stability and superb levels of mechanical refinement, you've got the makings of not just an impressively sporty coupe but also a supreme long-distance touring machine capable of 360 miles between fill-ups (if you can duplicate the 26 mpg that BMW says this car will achieve in European highway mode).
Turn the Corner
The 135i coupe inherits the same excellent rear-wheel-drive chassis as the 1 Series hatchback, so it doesn't come as too much of a surprise to discover it boasts excellent body control on challenging sections of blacktop. Few cars at any price manage to dish up such entertaining handling as this new BMW.
Balanced weight distribution clearly plays a role in its willingness to change direction, as does an aluminum-trimmed suspension setup that is little changed from the 3 Series.
As the premium model, the 135i has 18-inch wheels as standard equipment and features run-flat tires: 215/R4018s in front and 245/35R18s in the rear. It hangs on extremely well in the corners, with an eventual tendency to understeer on the entry to decreasing-radius corners, yet there's enough torque to induce oversteer in the right conditions.
Cost constraints have ruled out a mechanical limit-slip differential, but the 135i gets an automatic brake differential. The electronic stability control can be switched off, leading to engaging oversteer for those who seek it.
Thanks to an added measure of structural rigidity from the coupe's body shell, the car has more forgiving rates for its springs and dampers than the hatchback, although for marketing purposes it is described as an M-sport arrangement. The result is a more compliant ride, although the stiff sidewalls of the run-flat tires continue to generate an inordinate amount of noise on less-than-smooth road surfaces, notably at the front end.
Its brakes, meanwhile, are tremendously robust. With 13.3-inch vented discs in the front and 12.8-inch vented discs in the rear, there's plenty of stopping power that doesn't fade even after repeated hammerings from high speed.
BMW 2002 Redux
BMW's 1960s-era 2002 made famous all the attributes we associate with BMW today — its spare form, responsive handling and willing engine. As the 3 Series has evolved over time, it has left behind much of the 2002's iconic goodness as it became larger, heavier and more sophisticated.
The 2008 BMW 135i cuts right to the heart of what a BMW is meant to be about. You can argue about its appearance and complain about packaging, but in just about every other respect, it delivers a unique and exhilarating driving experience, which is what matters most.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.