The BMW 1-series, available as a coupe and a convertible, seems poised to be a very exciting addition to the company's lineup. The 1-series uses the same, highly regarded mechanicals as the benchmark 3-series, but wraps them in a smaller, lighter, and less expensive package. From a driving standpoint, one can hardly argue with the results. But what is open to debate is whether the cost and weight savings of the 1-series are significant or does the car too closely overlap to the 3-series.
A glance at the window sticker for our 135i convertible certainly suggests the latter. The bottom-line number of $48,445 sure sounds like 3-series money. It is in fact very close. The 335i convertible starts at $50,400, and it comes with a retractable metal hardtop, as opposed to the 135i's fabric roof. The 328i convertible starts at $44,300.
To be fair, our test car was larded with options. The premium package (power seats and a bunch of minor items) was a whopping $3300; the six-speed automatic was $1275; the sport package (seats, steering wheel with shift paddles, eighteen-inch wheels, performance tires, and Shadowline trim) added another $1100; additional items (heated seats, iPod adapter, HD radio, satellite radio, and rear parking aid, among others) pushed the price up by $2895 more.
If the 135i isn't far from the 335i in price, the two models are largely identical mechanically. Both use the same 3.0-liter turbocharged straight six and (optional) six-speed automatic. The super-sweet engine seamlessly integrates its two turbochargers, creating a stepless wave of power as the revs climb. Peak output is 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque. It wasn't long ago that those were M3 numbers. In the 335i, they're enough for a 0-to-60 mph run of 5.7 seconds, whereas the lighter (by 286 pounds) 135i does it in 5.5 seconds. Both cars have the same EPA ratings, 17 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. The automatic wouldn't be our preference - the slick manual is more rewarding from both a tactile and a financial standpoint - but we couldn't fault its logic and its response is instaneous.
The 135i is more than eight inches shorter than the 3-series, and the stretch between the axles is trimmed by four inches exactly. Both convertibles are strictly four-seaters, and both require the cooperation of front-seat occupants (moving their seats up) in order to accommodate adults in back. In fact, their factory-measured rear-seat legroom figures are within an inch of each other. Similarly, their trunk-space measurements are very close as well, with the 3-series having a slight edge when the top is up, but the 1-series winning out when their lowered, as its fabric roof stows more compactly than the 3-series's retractable hardtop.
Like the 3-series, the 135i convertible's handling is sublime; the car eats up curves and begs for more. The steering - without the curse of the 3-series' optional active steering - is pure and true. It was a pleasure threading the 135i along narrow winding parkways that can be a white-knuckle affair in other cars. And its nimble size was a source of pleasure as well. But the larger, eighteen-inch wheels mean that bumps are sometimes fairly pronounced.
The insulated fabric roof does a fairly good job of keeping out road noise, but of course not as good as the 3-series' metal hardtop. The metal roof also holds the advantage in outward visibility with the top up, thanks to its thin C-pillars. But the fabric top provides fewer body cutlines and a more traditional convertible appearance; ours was the optional "moonlight black" soft top, which has silver threads woven into the black fabric, a subtle but cool effect for a relatively inexpensive $100. Just like its bigger brother, the 1-series convertible has pop-up rollover bars that emerge from behind the rear seat headrests if a rollover appears imminent. Another convertible-specific item is specially treated leather (standard in the 135i) that doesn't get as hot when exposed to the sun, to keep from searing your backside when you first sit down.
Overall, we very much enjoyed our time in the 135i convertible. A close examination of the similarities between the 1-series and the 3-series helps explain why the two are so close in price, but we never fully accepted the notion that this was a nearly $49,000 car. Of course, a 335i similarly equipped would likely have cost $10,000 more, which wouldn't have been any easier to swallow. If you think of the 1-series as a bargain BMW, you're likely to be disappointed - there are no bargain BMWs. Expensive as it is, the 135i convertible is substantially less costly than the 3-series equivalent, only slightly more cramped, but every bit as fun to drive, if not more so. It's an excellent BMW, but a dubious bargain.
2008 BMW 135i Convertible
Base Price: $39,875
Engine: Turbocharged 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve I-6
Horsepower: 300 hp @ 5800 rpm
Torque: 300 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
L x W x H: 172.2 x 68.8 x 55.6 in
Legroom F/R: 41.2/31.3 in
Headroom F/R: 38.6/37.0 in
Headroom F/R: 38.6/37.0 in
Cargo capacity: 8.0 cu ft
Curb weight: 3671 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 17/26 mpg