Thrilling performance, athletic handling, great front seats, more rear-seat room and cargo space than you'd think.
Questionable styling, gets pricey fast, a few ergonomic quirks.
Some of us on staff remember the time when BMWs were austere in design and driven by real enthusiasts who appreciated a sprightly, agile and communicative car. Guys and gals who'd have the steering wheel in one hand while working the four-speed manual with the other. Today's Bimmers are still great cars, but some feel that the quintessential sport compact, the 3 Series, has gotten too big, too loaded up with gizmos and too likely to be driven by those who care more about the badge on the hood than the car's sporting capabilities. You know who we're talking about — Ultimate Driving Machine "drivers" who've got a Starbucks in one hand while working a Blackberry with the other.
That's why we can't help but feel a connection with the BMW 1 Series, including our test car, the top-of-the-line 2008 BMW 135i convertible. The "1" is a reincarnation of sorts, a compact, basic "three-box" design that harkens back to the original sport sedan, BMW's 2002, which was produced from the late 1960s to the mid-'70s. Of course, the new 1 Series and its twin-turbocharged 135i are light-years ahead of the old 2002 in terms of luxury features and acceleration, but the spirit of a relatively small, nimble and highly communicative road car remains.
Unfortunately, most will likely agree that the 1 Series just isn't pretty. The styling is downright strange — witness the "someone-just-poked-me-with-a-sharp-stick" face, the sagging, pregnant-cat-like lower character line and the mid-'90s Hyundai Elantra taillights. Every time we think we've fallen in love with the 1, these mirror-shattering styling cues snap us out of our reverie.
But a spirited blast along a mountain road is usually enough to make us forget about the 1's aesthetic issues. Like an old 2002tii, this Bimmer's beauty comes into sharp focus when you're behind the wheel.
One measure by which the 1 Series betrays its back-to-basics ethos is curb weight. Despite its petite dimensions, the 2008 BMW 135i Convertible tips the scales at a hefty 3,660 pounds — nearly 300 pounds more than the 135i coupe, and almost as much as a Chrysler 300 full-size sedan. But thanks to its twin-turbocharged, 300-horsepower inline-6, the 135i drop top always feels light on its feet when you drop the hammer. At the test track, our 135 blasted out of the blocks like Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt, lunging to 60 mph in just 5.5 seconds and blasting through the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds. We suggest powering the top down at every opportunity, not just to enjoy alfresco motoring but also to revel in the refined, subtle growl of the 135's superb engine.
With a remarkable panic-stop distance of just 107 feet from 60 mph, the 135i's brakes are more than up to the task, and those strong binders are controlled by a firm, linear pedal that inspires confidence.
Our test car's six-speed manual gearbox was typical BMW, with a light, progressive clutch coupled to a shifter with a positive, cushioned feel. In any case, the turbo six boasts such a broad power spread that it feels like it could get by just fine with three gears instead of six. Passing on the freeway was a breeze even in top gear, though dipping down a cog or two produces a thrilling rush that made addicts of us all.
The EPA puts the 135i convertible's fuel mileage estimates at 17 mpg city/26 highway and 20 mpg combined. We averaged 17.2 mpg, a testament to our "dipping down a cog or two" tendencies.
Let loose on a twisty road, the 135i ragtop handles very well for a relatively heavy vehicle saddled with a convertible's inherently less rigid architecture. Those extra pounds were evidently put in structure-stiffening places, as the car feels solid when pushed hard in the corners or driven over rough pavement. There's plenty of grip to be had, and body lean is minimal when you're cutting a crisp line through your favorite turns.
First off, you have to get the Sport package. At an absurdly affordable $1,000, this bargain is an anomaly in BMW's alternate universe of pricey options. It includes manually multiadjustable and heavily bolstered sport seats that can be tailored to fit just about any body type, from Big Brown's jockey to Shrek. If you choose, you can configure these comfy seats to hug you like an aunt you haven't seen in 10 years. The standard seats, conversely, are so flat and featureless that they could have been lifted out of an economy car, as we've noticed in our long-term 135i coupe. The backseat is well-contoured, and surprisingly, its head- and legroom are about equal to what you'll find in a 3 Series convertible. Shoulder and hiproom are tight, however, so the broader of beam should make sure to call "shotgun" first.
Our 135i convertible's sport-tuned suspension struck an extraordinarily agreeable balance between back road agility and ride comfort. Even over the expansion joints of Southern California's 405 freeway, the 2008 BMW 135i refused to assault our backsides with the "thwack, thwack, thwack" that many other sporting cars administer.
Since it's a convertible, we expected our 135i's rearward top-up visibility to be lacking, and indeed it was, thanks to the top's thick sail panels. Of course, these concerns are immaterial when the top is down. An unusual and appreciated feature is the heat-reflective seating, which supposedly reduces the seats' surface temperature by 20 degrees in direct sunlight, rendering the "Yoww, these seats are hot!" complaint a relic of summers (and convertibles) past.
The 135i's ergonomics are satisfactory for the most part, with most controls proving intuitive and simple to use. However, BMW still refuses to provide a dedicated "off" button for the climate control — you must repeatedly tap the fan's "down" switch until it shuts off. And though the python-thick "M Sport" steering wheel is great to grasp, its substantial rim blocked the upper third of the speedo and tach for shorter drivers. On the other hand, the optional iPod/USB adapter was easy to use, and included a spin knob that mimicked the iPod's controller.
At only 8 cubic feet, the 135i ragtop's stubby trunk doesn't boast massive capacity. Still, it's well-shaped, allowing us to stow both a large roller suitcase and a golf bag — with the top down, no less. Equally surprising, a rear-facing baby seat can be installed in the rear compartment, even with the front passenger seat all the way back.
Design/Fit and Finish
We've already touched on the 1 Series' strange styling, so we won't belabor the point. Inside, it's much more attractive. Our 2008 BMW 135i sported the optional leather seats, done up in Coral Red as part of the distinctive red and black two-tone interior color scheme. Along with real wood trim, this imbued the cabin with a suitably upscale ambience for a $40,000-plus car. Build quality was tight with the exception of the wood strip over the center stack, which had a slight gap behind it.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you love to drive, you're pretty much guaranteed a good time in most any BMW convertible. But if you 1) feel that the still-capable 3 Series convertible has gotten too big, 2) are intrigued by the idea of the familiar 300-hp twin-turbo engine in a smaller car and 3) can put up with a tighter rear seat, then you may find the 135i ragtop tantamount to convertible nirvana.