Every carmaker with noble aspirations should buy one of these to store in a hermetically sealed case labeled Gold Standard of Driving Excellence. Withdrawal would be authorized for any employee hoping to understand the notion of entertainment behind the wheel. The 128i is reasonably affordable and a practical performer for a wide range of customers. But it especially stands out in the traits that matter to those who regard driving as an art. Steering and braking feel are superb. The clutch, the shifter, and the throttle are so well orchestrated that anyone with basic coordination can operate them smoothly and efficiently. The flaws and foibles that make many of today’s stick-shift alternatives annoying at times are conspicuously absent here. Whoever coined the term “Joy” to sum up the essence of a BMW must have enjoyed many happy miles in a 128i.
We know that the 1-series is a hoot to drive, but BMW has acknowledged that 80 percent of the car’s buyers don’t realize that they have a rear-wheel-drive vehicle! If you look at the car in this light, I wonder why those buyers don’t cross-shop the 1-series with a Volkswagen GTI. For a few grand less, they could get the hatchback body that BMW is afraid to offer American 1-series shoppers and lose about 200 pounds in the process. Rear-wheel drive certainly has handling benefits for enthusiasts, but on twisting roads, the GTI feels much lighter than the 200-pound weight difference suggests.
If I were shopping for a small rear-wheel-drive BMW, I’d step up to the 3-series to gain a car that’s a bit easier to live with on a daily basis and offers a touch more width and wheelbase. I know we’re supposed to be crying for smaller, lighter cars, but I think the 1-series has too many trade-offs when you consider the size/price/performance equation. I still love driving the 1-series, though, and this particular example is optioned out almost exactly as I’d want one, although I’d happily trade the sport package for xenon headlights.
This is just about everything a single person or a keen-driving couple could want in a sport coupe: athletic handling, super responsive six-cylinder powertrain, beautifully calibrated clutch pedal and shifter, highly communicative steering, supportive seats, well-controlled body motions, and a firm but perfectly damped suspension. If someone who has spent years in front-wheel-drive hand-me-down sedans, then perhaps made the leap in their first new-car purchase to a front-wheel-drive so-called sporty coupe, now makes the leap to a BMW 1-Series, they will be shocked at how much fun the process of driving a car can be. And although I like the high-power turbo six in the 135i as much as anyone, no one who “settles” for the base six in the 128i will be disappointed. Rev that gem of an engine, release the clutch, and go.
The BMW 1-series is a must-have on any car enthusiast’s personal top-ten list. That being said, I prefer the 128i to the 135i strictly for pricing reasons. The 128i is a steal at just under $30,000, and the 230-hp six-cylinder offers an insane amount of pleasure. Sure, the 1-series is not a hatchback and it doesn’t have tons of storage space, but remember, it’s a BMW, “the ultimate driving machine.” This little coupe exemplifies this phrase perfectly.
As Don points out, everything that involves the driver is perfectly executed in this car: steering, throttle, clutch, shifter, visibility, everything. The only downfall I see is the radio, which is dated. I’d like to see BMW’s iDrive rotary dial incorporated into the 1-series.
Like Mike, I really respect the BMW 128i for topping performance and fun with a great price. There are a lot of vehicles that come through our office in the $27,000 to $35,000 price range. Some are compelling alternatives, like the Volkswagen GTI. Others are decent cars that can’t match the dynamics of the 128i, like the Audi A3 TDI) And others, just fall flat on their face, like the Jeep Compass. The Mazda RX-8 makes for an interesting comparison with the BMW, but its packaging is a bit less practical for daily use. This leads me to the conclusion that the 128i is the most rewarding $30,000 car you can buy.
As good as the turbocharged in-line six of the 135i is, it also requires a $6900 premium over the 128i. The 230 hp from the 128i’s normally aspirated 3.0-liter is plenty lively, and power delivery builds nicely over the rev range. Driving fluidly and quickly comes easily, with great steering and sharp handling. Ride quality — even with the sport package — is quite good. My only hesitations with this BMW are its ballooned styling and the fact that you need to pay extra for a USB audio input — a feature that’s standard in a $14,390 base Kia Forte. BMW has an opportunity to address the few shortcomings with the refreshed 1-series due in 2011.
There’s no such thing as a slow BMW. Granted, you can get the 128i’s 3.0-liter straight-six engine in larger, heavier models, but I assure you that it’s not sluggish in those applications, either. The turbocharged, 300-hp 135i is a mini muscle car, as we learned during a recent Four Seasons test, but this 128i is very smooth and balanced — and incredibly fun. Heck, the entire vehicle is very smooth and balanced and incredibly fun. That’s good, because there are some pretty strong competitors that undercut the 128i’s near-$30K base price, although I must admit that I love the ultrabasic spec of our test car.
Due to the gearbox’s long throws, I can’t praise it quite as enthusiastically as some of my colleagues, but I’m happy that it’s not as rubbery as most other BMW manual gearboxes.
Finally, the 1-series and its back seat are small but not bad for baby-hauling duty, it’s definitely better than the next-smallest BMW products: Minis Cooper and Clubman.
Echoing my colleagues, this BMW really is a paragon of excellence. Everything in it feels connected – the steering, the braking, and the gearbox all work together to make you feel as one with the car. For a BMW the price is fairly reasonable, although $30k is still nothing to sneeze at for a car that, according to the EPA, falls into the subcompact class. Still, despite its relatively diminutive dimensions, the 128i proved to be quite handy during the weekend I drove it. In a pinch, the back seat can hold two adults, though not for long and with the front seats pulled forward. The trunk isn’t exactly cavernous, but I was easily able to fit in two flats of flowers plus a couple bags of potting soil. All in all, the 128i is a very satisfying car to drive, and would likely prove to be quite easy to live with provided that you don’t often need to carry lots of people or belongings.
Base price (with destination): $29,825
Price as tested: $31,525
3.0-liter I-6 engine
6-speed manual transmission
Dynamic stability control
Dynamic traction control
4-wheel disc brakes
Heated dual power mirrors/windshield washer jets
Automatic climate control
Rain sensing wipers
Tire pressure monitoring system
AM/FM stereo CD/MP3 player audio system
Auxiliary audio input
Options on this vehicle:
Sport package — $1300
Shadowline exterior trim
iPod and USB adapter — $400
Key options not on vehicle:
M sport package — $2450
Premium package — $2650
Convenience package — $1650
Navigation system — $2100
Steptronic automatic transmission — $1375
Moonroof — $1050
Xenon headlights — $900
Heated front seats — $500
Fuel economy: 18/28/22 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Size: 3.0L Inline 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 230 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 200 lb-ft @ 2750 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Unladen weight: 3252 lb
Wheels/tires: 17-inch aluminum wheels
205/50R17 front; 225/45R17 rear Bridgestone Potenza RE050A