Doug Lloyd, Senior Copy Editor
It's a perfect summer's day, and we're putting the 2008 BMW 128i Coupe through its paces in the hills above Montecito, just south of Santa Barbara. The sun is high in the sky and there's a light on-shore breeze as we blast down a narrow road lined with olive trees and dotted with magnificent Tuscan-style homes. Approaching a 90-degree left-hander, we come down hard on the brakes and then punch the throttle. As soon as we're through the corner, we're eager for the next one.
It's fun, this entry-level 1 Series. It makes us wonder what you really miss when you select this 2008 BMW 128i with its 230-horsepower 3.0-liter inline-6 engine instead of the twin-turbo 300-hp 135i.
Maybe not much. We've been driving BMWs since that first, tired old '76 2002 back in San Francisco (it had been converted into a tii and painted navy blue when we got it in 1993), and we've learned that a BMW has never really been about the numbers. A BMW is a pure driver's car, meant for roads like this on days like this.
By the Numbers But if you must discuss numbers, the 2008 BMW 128i gives up some big ones to the 135i. Its normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6 makes 230 hp at 6,500 rpm and 200 pound-feet of torque at 2,750 rpm. That's a deficit of 70 hp and 100 lb-ft, and you can definitely feel it every time you drive, since this test car weighs 3,198 pounds with its six-speed manual transmission, just 121 pounds less than a comparable 135i.
The 128i hits 60 mph in 5.9 seconds (5.7 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and reaches the quarter-mile in 14.3 seconds at 96.5 mph. This is 0.9 second slower than the twin-turbo 1 Series to 60 mph and 1.0 second slower to the quarter-mile. But this hardly makes the 128i some kind of delivery van.
In terms of handling and braking numbers, the 128i holds its own, generating 0.84g on the skid pad and nailing the slalom at 69.1 mph. The brakes are powerful and the pedal is firm, and the Goodyear Eagle NCT 5 tires are good enough to bring the little coupe to a stop from 60 mph in a mere 113 feet.
But there's also another important number here. The 2008 BMW 128i is $6,000 cheaper than the 135i. That's a big number on the 128i's side of the performance ledger.
Seat of Your Pants Driving If you want to know what makes the BMW 128i a real BMW, let's start with where the driver spends his time.
Pure and simple, the driver seat of this 128i is fantastic. It's a simple, eight-way, manually adjustable seat, part of a $1,200 Sport package that also includes the upgraded 17-inch wheels and performance rubber and sport suspension. Manually adjustable is a very good thing, because it means the seat is bolted directly to the body without an intervening layer of electronic doodads that thicken the cushions of the power-adjustable seat. So the inputs from the chassis are translated directly through your glutes.
The Bavarians also know from steering wheels, and this one has a rim that fills your palm without making you feel like you're holding some giant sausage. It also has audio controls, so you can select just the right track from the CD as your right foot summons a complementary bass line from the tailpipe.
Meanwhile, the six-speed manual transmission snicks through the gears with BMW's characteristic smoothness. And since this normally aspirated engine isn't supplemented by the turbo thrusters of the 135i, you have to shift aggressively to take full advantage of its 200 lb-ft of torque. Torque peak is reasonably low in the band at 2,750 rpm, but the 135i's 300 lb-ft feels pretty juicy in comparison because it comes in at just 1,400 rpm. Yet what seems like a power deficit in the 128i quickly becomes a satisfaction surplus, as the driving experience this engine delivers is ultimately more involving and rewarding because you need to work the throttle pedal and the shift lever.
Although this is an entry-level BMW, it has the same MacPherson struts in front and a multilink setup in back as the 3 Series, and the Sport package brings you 205/50R17 front and 225/45R17 rear Goodyear Eagle NCT 5 all-season tires, so it corners confidently and predictably. The 128i comes equipped with both stability control and BMW's Dynamic Traction Control as standard equipment, and the DTC can be turned off if you have a hankering to burn some Goodyear.
The 2008 BMW 128i is not the tail-wagger's dream car. While an M3 begs for tail-out powerslides, the 128i simply carves through corners the way a BMW always has, doing everything in its power to keep its driver on the road. Its near-perfect 51/49 percent weight distribution and 104.7-inch wheelbase make it responsive yet stable, so you don't have to resort to hooliganism to have a good time.
The Inside Story BMW has always thought about the driver first and foremost, perhaps more so than any manufacturer. As a result, the 1 Series offers excellent sight lines all around, and all the controls fall easily to hand (a phrase that is actually descriptive in a car like this). The gauges are simply spot-on BMW, with a big fat speedo and an equally large tach.
Even so, it's hugely annoying in that the center stack's visual display vanishes should you be wearing polarized sunglasses; and when it's summer in the hills around Santa Barbara this is a distinct possibility. What is more glaring, however is that the main instrument display leaves no room for a temperature gauge, which is probably the best indicator of trouble under the hood that you can have.
As always, BMW has a read-out for instantaneous fuel economy, so we were entertained for a few seconds by the fact that it would register a paltry 12 mpg with our foot to the floor and then 74 mpg when we coasted a few seconds later. We were more interested in this car's EPA rating of 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway, marginally better than the 135i's 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway.
There isn't a lot of room for storage in the 1 Series, as the tiny glovebox seems to be designed to fit nothing more than the textbook-size (ah, those thorough Germans) owner's manual. There are a couple of small compartments in the center console, including a nifty little iPod pouch that comes as part of the optional $400 iPod/USB adapter. But there was no handy spot out in the open for something as simple as a phone and a set of keys.
There isn't a lot of room for storage in the backseat, either, as the seats are upright and offer minimal legroom of 32 inches. BMW thoughtfully separates the seats with a center storage console lest you attempt to squeeze more than two people back there in an homage to telephone booth stuff-a-thons of the 1950s.
Body Image A white car always brings to mind the rental-car fleet at some airport in the Midwest, but we'll admit that Alpine White works well on this 128i. Even so, the 1 Series is not a pretty car. It looks like a 3 Series that was rescued just a little too late from the junkyard crusher, having been squeezed at both ends until the roof bulged upward. At 171.1 inches long, it's only 10 inches shorter than the 328i coupe, a big difference in terms of proportion. It looks even stubbier because it's 2 inches taller than the 3 Series.
Considering its size, the 128i includes a very respectable trunk of 10 cubic feet, perfect for an overnight trip. The 50/50-split folding rear seat expands the trunk if you've got something large to carry, such as a flat-screen TV or a Van Gogh, and the seatback releases are conveniently located in the trunk.
Maybe we'll just get used to the 1 Series' shape over time, since it's not too overly stylized, and in true BMW form, everything has its purpose.
Cool Breezes As we continue our midday drive past the yards where the billionaires romp, we consider the question.
Is it the right thing to spend an extra $6,000 for the forced induction of the 300-hp 135i and get some bragging rights in performance numbers, or does the 2008 BMW 128i Coupe provide all the charm, dynamic poise, driver involvement of a BMW of old, such as the great 2002 of the 1960s and 1970s?
In answer, we flick off the A/C, open the sunroof and windows, and breathe free.
Vehicle Testing Coordinator Mike Schmidt says: When you consider that the difference between a 128i and 135i amounts to only $6 grand, not many will opt for the coupe with less horsepower. Power-crazed logic won't let an enthusiast overlook the additional 100 horsepower this extra cash affords. But these folks are missing out, sort of.
Lean into the throttle of the 135i and the boost comes on strong. The surge of power generated by the turbos will whiten knuckles and could get less experienced drivers in trouble. As a result many owners will never appreciate the rewards of driving the 135i at its limits. Not so in the 128i.
Power delivery in the 128i will still quicken the pulse, but the power curve is more balanced and even refined than that of its turbocharged sibling. Most drivers will find its 200 hp more accessible, inspiring confidence and leading ultimately to a more rewarding experience. And less focus on torque management equates to more time appreciating the balance, poise and communicative steering we've come to expect from a BMW chassis.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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