Get up from your computer, drive to your nearest BMW dealer, and put down a deposit on a 135i. Now. You won’t regret it. In the years to come, you’ll probably even look on this as the best purchase of your long and distinguished life, a moment that defined your personal idiom, a moment that caused the tide of your existence to turn away from meh and toward Eat Your Heart Out, John Q. Dull, I’m Awesome. In other words, when you drive out of the dealership in your sparkling new 1-series, it will be the Rip Taylor moment of your life, confetti shower and all. This car is that good.
BMW’s 1-series coupe might seem like it comes out of left field – as a rear-wheel-drive premium compact car, it’s essentially in a class of one – but it’s actually Munich’s second attempt to create the segment in the United States. The Bavarians’ first effort came in the mid-1990s in the form of the 318ti, an overpriced and underequipped four-cylinder hatchback that was nevertheless a very good car. Poor sales afflicted it from day one, however, and it left our shores after a few short years.
Regardless, the concept of a sub-3-series BMW lived on in Europe, where the market for small cars is more vibrant and less fickle than it is here. The ti’s replacement, the 1-series, appeared in 2004 in hatchback form. Its success (more than 450,000 examples have been sold to date, and a convertible is also planned) prompted BMW to try the American small-car thing again. And so they cranked out the car you see here, a car that will be sold worldwide and was designed expressly with the States in mind.
Like all 1-series, the 135i is based on the underpinnings of the 3-series. The same twin-turbo, direct-injected, 3.0-liter in-line six-cylinder found in the 335i is also found here, producing 306 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque with virtually indiscernible lag. (A nonturbo, 128i-badged version starting at about $30,000 will also appear in American showrooms, but our drive was limited to the 135i, which we expect will cost approximately $5000 more.) A strut-type front suspension and a multilink rear setup are essentially borrowed wholesale from the 3-series, as is a six-speed manual transmission. (A six-speed automatic will also be available.) Finally, six-piston calipers are fitted up front, with two-piston units at the back.
At 172 inches long and 69 inches wide, the 1-series is 8.9 inches shorter and 1.4 inches narrower than the 3-series coupe. This smaller size doesn’t manifest itself in a huge weight loss, though – surprisingly, the 135i checks in at a claimed 3440 pounds, or a mere 130 pounds lighter than the 335i coupe.
Still, the first thing that hits you is just how blazingly quick the 135i is. The 3.0-liter six delivers its peak torque at 1300 rpm and hauls the little coupe to 62 mph in 5.3 seconds, according to BMW. (To put that figure in perspective, that’s just half a second slower than the 414-hp M3.) The engine emits a glorious roar, one that threatens to rip your ears from the side of your head. It’s angrier, coarser, and deeper than the noise that comes from the 335i, and it’s capped with just the slightest hint of turbo whoosh.
Chassis balance is one of our few complaints, as the 135i is plagued by tire-howling understeer-more so than with the 335i – a situation that’s not helped by an open rear differential, a minuscule rear antiroll bar, and front tires that are narrower than those used on the rear. That said, steering feel is fantastic – it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the 135i’s hydraulically assisted rack (all other 1-series cars use electrically aided steering) offers better feedback than any other current BMW, and that’s saying a lot.
This is all well and good, you think, but really, why do I need one? Why shouldn’t I just buy a base 3-series for about the same money – it keeps winning awards, right? – and get more trunk space, a bigger back seat, and more Joneses-wowing street cred?
Simple: with the 1-series, the appeal is in the intangibles. Indeed, the 135i isn’t spec-box perfect (witness its pudgy curb weight), it isn’t dynamically faultless (BMW engineers have hinted that their primary goal was ride quality, not balance at the limit), it isn’t cheap, and it isn’t a track junkie’s dream (that would be a lighter, high-strung, four-cylinder screamer).
What it is, though, is something of a renaissance. In essence, the 135i is BMW doing what BMW does best. In spite of all the superbly engineered autobahn missiles and the quirky-but-capable sports cars, the company’s forte has always been small, fast, and relatively affordable sedans. Forty years ago, the Munich carmaker built a legacy with the 1600 and the 2002; twenty years ago, it cemented that legacy with the E30-chassis 325i. In spite of what BMW’s marketing department would like you to believe, the 1-series isn’t a reborn 2002 – it’s far too portly and thirsty for that – but it is a return to the principles that have made BMW great. The 1-series is compact, endlessly involving, and absurdly fast. It is everything that the 3-series was before that car grew up. It is also more fun than a caffeinated circus monkey.
So, break out the confetti, kids, and start warming up those checkbooks. If you hadn’t guessed already, your lives are about to change.