Fun fact: if you try to spec and price out a 2012 135i on BMW's site, the configurator tacks on the dual-clutch gearbox -- a $450 option -- without your input. Talk about a sign of the automatic-obsessed times. Still, it isn't exactly a curse -- the seven-speed transmission, which is a new option for 2012, behaves fairly respectably. When cold, it occasionally is reticent to engage off the line, but otherwise proves smooth and lightning quick.
The basic 1-Series architecture is pushing close to seven years old, but it's still quite appealing: as someone who prefers the vintage New Class (i.e. 1600, 2002, etc.) Bimmers and the early 3-series models to the later cars, the 1's package pushes the right buttons: small, lithe, and agile, but not to the point of being cramped or confining. Entry/egress to the rear seats is a bit tricky, especially for larger adults like myself, but front-seat occupants are treated to a commendable amount of head, leg, and shoulder room. I elected not to stuff any passengers in back, but did manage to squeeze two large Ikea dining chair kits in that space, along with a third in the trunk.
Still, if I were to bring home a 1-Series, I'm not sure I'd go for a 135i. The turbocharged-six cylinder, is almost too powerful for a car of this size/weight. It makes for a delightful pocket rocket, perhaps, but I think the normally aspirated 3.0-liter I-6 found in the 128i makes the car a little more enjoyable. As does the fact that the ultra-stiff sport suspension is an option on the 128i, not standard equipment as it is on the 135i.
Evan McCausland, Associate Web Editor
For the most part, I enjoyed driving the BMW 135i. It has plenty of luxury appointments and is very, very quick. The seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, new in the 135i for 2012, picks gears nicely in automatic mode and provides snappy performance when controlled via the paddle shifters.
There are, however, some problems. Harsh suspension damping means driving along a crumbling road feels like Wayne Rooney is repeatedly kicking you in the backside. The car also tramlines excessively. The rear end gets squirrely and illuminates the stability-control light unless you drive like a monk. And the fancy transmission, while fine at speed, lurches and jerks in urban driving. The BMW 135i is a very good sports coupe, but I wish it were a bit more refined.
Jake Holmes, Associate Web Editor
I once spent a week with a 128i Convertible with a six-speed manual and came away completely impressed on what a tidy, fun package BMW had introduced to the market. The 135i displays the same nimble handling and deliciously weighted steering as the 128i, but with more power. And that is where this 1-Series does not impress -- the turbocharged inline-six, while aurally infectious, feels like too much power for the car's current setup. Case in point: the 1 Series M Coupe feels like an altogether more coherent package thanks to its chassis upgrades; here, the car feels overpowered at times, especially in the wet when the back end likes to get twitchy even under the most benign driving. The softer suspension, less overwhelming power, and lower price tag makes the 128i the better buy in BMW's smallest series right now. Those looking for more should have jumped at the 1 M if they wanted more power.
Donny Nordlicht, Associate Web Editor
I'm not philosophically opposed to an over-engined car, necessarily, but I concur with my colleagues who maintain that, as fun as the 135i can be, this small car is quite well served by the smaller engine in the 128i. That said, selecting sport mode in the 135i, putting the dual-clutch automatic transmission into manual mode, and accelerating hard to 115 mph is a satisfying experience.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
While the 135i can be a fantastically fun car, it comes off feeling somewhat haphazard: as if BMW simply took their latest and greatest equipment and dropped it into the compact 1-series without fully fleshing it out as a package. The twin-turbo I-6 is smooth and powerful but it unsticks the back end without much provocation; the suspension is far too stiffly sprung to be tolerable on most roads; and the dual-clutch automatic is fast but low-speed shifts can be jerky.
Although it could be a better overall package, with the departure of the M coupe for 2012, I definitely think that the 135i has a legitimate place in the 1-series lineup. On the other end of the spectrum, the addition of turbo fours to BMW's engine portfolio bodes well for the future of the 1-series model line. A (relatively) low-powered, less aggressive, and hopefully less expensive 1 would help separate the model from the 3-series in terms of price, and make it far more attractive to those who value fuel economy.
Jennifer Misaros, Managing Editor, Digital Platforms
We've questioned whether the 300-hp, 3.0-liter twin-turbo I-6 is too much engine for the 1-series ever since we put a 135i through a Four Seasons test a couple years ago, but there's no denying that this is a sweet engine. The fact that it's now available with a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission does nothing to detract from its entertainment factor. With swift acceleration, precise steering, and powerful brakes, this 135i is great fun to drive. The stiff suspension and big eighteen-inch run-flat (ck) tires don't do the car any favors when it encounters rough pavement, however. And the price is painful as well -- the base price is now perilously close to the $40,000 mark, and this particular car came in closer to $50K than $40K. The 128i costs $8000 less, and its normally aspirated, 230-hp I-6 is no slouch, either.
Amy Skogstrom, Managing Editor
BMW enthusiasts will cringe, but when I drive the 135i, I think about the Ford Mustang Boss 302. I know, I know, they're very different cars...but are they really? Both offer lots of power in a package that's extremely small and light by today's standards, not to mention relatively cheap at $40,000. Both have firm bordering on harsh suspensions (the Mustang more so thanks to its live rear axle). Both have straightforward, driver-focused interiors (the 1-series has better materials quality but the Mustang isn't bad). And make no mistake: though the 135i has less power on paper, it's just as willing to overwhelm its rear tires. Which is better? That's not something I'm prepared to answer without some serious back-to-back seat time. But if you're considering either car it's worth checking your prejudices at the door and giving the other a look, as well.
David Zenlea, Assistant Editor