If there's a more ironic automotive juxtaposition, we can't conceive of it on this day. We're hooning the heck out of the 2011 BWM 135i Coupe on the sleepiest back roads that define Ohio's Amish country. If there's somewhere the silly-fast and technology-laden smallest BMW really doesn't belong, it's here where life remains deliberately simple, sober — and slow.
The 2011 BMW 135i Coupe is none of those. Its superb 3.0-liter inline-6 now has direct fuel injection and a new dual-stage turbocharger to take the place of the twin turbos that aspirated the previous iteration of the BMW six-cylinder, but that's only the beginning. The 2011 model year marks the first time the 135i Coupe gets BMW's mostly magnificent dual-clutch transmission (DCT), the automated manual that does the clutching for you and allows sequential up- and downshifting through the seven tensely packed ratios.
The 1 Series is BMW's smallest car (we don't count Mini), so the 300 horsepower from the redesigned engine makes it muscle-car mighty, while the availability of the slick, seven-speed DCT and its quick-as-a-blink gearshifts adds a new dimension for those who'd rather not deal with a clutch pedal.
The 2011 BMW 135i isn't as whippet-light as you might want from a car that's 8 inches shorter than a 3 Series, but the turbocharged inline-6 nonetheless generates the kind of slap-in-the-face acceleration and nonchalant velocity that make the 135i as much a premium muscle car as the mighty V8-toting M3 — not much slower, either. And it's $24,000 cheaper.
BMW's numbers say the 2011 135i Coupe with the DCT hammers to 60 mph in 5.0 seconds, one-tenth quicker than if you were using the conventional six-speed manual. Curiously, even 7th gear is not an overdrive ratio, so the DCT gives up 2 mpg on the EPA city cycle and 3 mpg on the highway cycle to the manual-transmission version of this car. Still, the combination's 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway is plenty good for a car with such outright performance.
We back out of our driveway onto a fairly steep hill and the maneuver underscores the only genuine foible with the DCT. That is, the gearbox doesn't transition smoothly or reliably from reverse to forward in this situation. The magnificent engine has a broad-shouldered torque delivery that covers the DCT's deliberate shifts in full automatic mode, but those can be hurried and sharpened by depressing the "Sport" button on the center console that calls up more aggressive shift and throttle mapping.
The DCT is rather dear as optional transmissions go — automatic or otherwise — at $1,575, but the performance is nothing short of remarkable, while those who encounter a lot of traffic congestion surely will consider the DCT an almost no-compromise godsend.
Stretch-out room is not the hallmark of the 1 Series, although most who approach the 2011 BMW 135i Coupe expecting nothing more than a genuine two-seat coupe won't be disappointed. The two front seats — the Sport package option is a must just to get these superb chairs — offer plenty of adjustment and legroom. Rack them all the way back, though, and the rear seats, already highly suspect, become useless for anything but lap dogs.
The rear suspension hacked from the 3 Series rides firmly and the 135i's standard 18-inch Dunlop run-flat tires don't bring any cushion to the party. The payback is the delicious, uncorrupted (if vaguely numb) steering response that keeps BMW enthusiasts coming back to this brand.
What function? The 2011 BMW 135i is a go-fast coupe that's best treated as a two-seater. The car feels narrow and intimate, which is mostly a good thing if you're considering a car of this ilk.
For the driver, the cockpit is a model of simplicity on the order of "everything you need and nothing you don't," a graceful tenet we still expect from BMWs, particularly the Series wearing numbers starting with 1 or 3. Nobody could quibble with the gauge cluster, but the center stack is basic and looks stark for a $37,000 car, and this test car lacks a navigation system despite its $43,000 price, another reminder that the value of the 1 Series is suspect.
Don't look for much capacity from the trunk (a meager 10 cubic feet), the opening of which doesn't encourage much beyond soft luggage or groceries.
Design/Fit and Finish
The 1 Series usually is derided for being a compact car with a high-end price, but the 135i's interior fit and finish appears to hew to the same standard as BMW's flagship vehicles, and there's a satisfying heft to all the controls and touch points. The car's standard "Boston" leather upholstery is decadently rich, while all the interior finishes are first-class.
The 1 Series never is going to be recalled as one of BMW's best-looking designs, however. There's something about the proportions that your eye never sorts out. And even with 2011's revised fascia and the standard aerodynamic-style sheet metal enhancements, this seriously fast car does not have the looks to live up to the performance.
Who should consider this vehicle
First, the BMW 1 Series is the lowest-cost entry point to the BMW nameplate, the cheapest way to buy into the family if you've decided it's time to try the brand.
But the 1 Series — and particularly the 2011 BMW 135i — should be bought first and foremost by those looking for arguably the most unfiltered BMW driving experience. At its base MSRP, the 135i's performance is practically unchallenged. Domestic muscle cars do it, but they have nothing like the 135i's build quality or interior robustness.
And did we already mention this is a nasty fast little car?