Anyone familiar at all with BMW's sporty vehicles knows what the company's model numbers mean. In cars, the 3 Series is the compact model, the 7 is the big cruiser, and the 5 sits neatly in between. The volume seller in America has long been the 3, but, like a person, it has put on a few extra inches and pounds over the years.
Enter the 1 Series, available as a two-door coupe and convertible in the U.S. this year. Of course the long awaited model is not one third the size of the 3, it's actually quite close in dimensions. Measuring 8.4 inches shorter and 1.4 inches narrower, it is built on a 4-inch-shorter wheelbase and weighs 200 pounds less. If you're seeking a tiny BMW, visit your MINI dealership.
The 1 Series' little secret is that it comes with the same engines as the 3, so with less weight, it moves along very quickly. The 128i model receives the 328i's normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six with its 230 horsepower and 200 lb.-ft. of torque driving the rear wheels. Step up to the 135i and you enjoy the 335i's lusty twin-turbocharged version of the 3.0-liter six, good for 300 horsepower and a matching number of lb.-ft. of torque. That'll get you from zero to 60 in just 5.1 seconds.
My Crimson Red 135i evokes the revered 2002 of the 1960s and 1970s with its pronounced shoulder line, but its overall style really fits in with its 21st century siblings. BMW introduced radical styling changes a number of years ago that generated controversy. Today, the "flame" styling -- mixed concave and convex side panels and pronounced tail section are widely copied throughout the industry.
The interior is a mix of rounded and chunky, with athletic sweeps of black panels and metallic accents. The "Glacier Silver" trim on the dash and low, sweeping door grips reminded me of the ice trays of my childhood. No real or fake wood here. BMW interiors are becoming a bit less sober.
The optional Black Boston Leather ($1,450) on the sports seats (part of the Sport Package--$1,000) moved the little coupe upscale and perfumed the air when you stepped in.
The M (= high performance) steering wheel, also part of the Sport Package, transmits a perfect sensation of road feel, like all cars that wear the blue and white roundel. The six-speed manual transmission does the same. Driving a BMW is a participatory sport, not a chore or a mindless cruise. All controls have heft, although the 1 Series shares the delicate iDrive knob with its fellow BMWs.
Easy and familiar for computer mousers, iDrive gives access to many vehicle functions with a turn, a click and a glance at a screen; it has been updated and improved steadily since its arrival several years ago. It takes some practice and still seems a bit convoluted compared to straightforward knobs and buttons, but today's BMW interiors are clean and uncluttered because of it.
The iDrive has six dedicated buttons where you can store your most frequently performed actions sort of like favorite radio stations. This makes the system much easier to live with. Also, my tester had a USB adapter, so I could plug in my iPod and control it with iDrive.
The 135i rides quite firmly, not much of an issue for a smiling, wide-eyed driver, but my sister-in-law found the accommodations in the rear quarters quite harsh. My teenager had no complaints from the front passenger seat, other than regret that the vehicle could only stay for a week.
The 135i averaged 21.9 mpg over the week, with official EPA numbers at 17 City, 25 Highway. That's good for the amount of enjoyment it supplied at all times. The EPA's green vehicle numbers are 6 for both Air Pollution and Greenhouse Gas scores, just a touch better than average.
With this much performance available, it's reassuring to have Dynamic Stability Control. Along with Dynamic Traction Control, it keeps you moving where you intend to go in dry and wet conditions. You can disable both of these systems if you want to rely on your wits and skill (or get into trouble).
BMWs come with a four-year, 50,000-mile warranty, and four years of free maintenance and roadside assistance. If you lease the car, you'll likely pay for nothing but gas.
Prices start at $29,375 for the 128i coupe. My 135i coupe started at $35,675, but with options ended up at $39,125. The 335i coupe without options comes to $42,350 a $6,675 difference from the 135i. All prices include destination charges.
Fun lives at your BMW dealership. One wonders what a 1 Series with a turbo four and cloth seats might cost.