Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - 135I Coupe
Concept, styling, practicality, performance, handling, safety, quality, value, efficiency
Room for improvement
Firm ride, very little else
12 Sep 2008
THE problem with BMW is that while its coupes are always convincing, its hatches are constantly controversial.
Critics harp on about how the E87 1 Series hatch suffers from unnecessarily tight (rear-seat) packaging and how oddball the styling is, while its 1995 E36 and 2001 E46 ‘Compact’ predecessors never possessed the appeal of the respective 3 Series sedans they sprang from.
Indeed, going back further, 1971’s rare 1600/2002 Touring hatch looked unhappy besides its iconic sedan siblings too.
Yet few people have anything much bad to say about any generation 3 Series coupe, and earlier two-door BMWs like the sublime CS models of the 1960s and the original 6 Series (as featured in TV’s Moonlighting) are held in especially high esteem.
Even the once-derided 8 Series coupe is now a bona-fide classic.
So what are we to make of the E82 1 Series Coupe?
We have always had a big soft spot for the small hatch that spawned it, whether we’re talking about the capable 118i, frugal 120d or searing 130i. Yes, larger wheels result in a terse ride vision out the back is abysmal access through any door is a contortionist’s caper and desirable options are still bloody expensive.
Nevertheless, for the way it looks, drives and makes you feel, we love the ‘1’ all the same.
But if the hatch is a true BMW, the 1 Series Coupe is a blueblood of the Bavarian marque, because it does what BMWs do best – be a desirable coupe.
Like all good sports cars, its styling draws you in from the onset, melding the classic form and proportion of a flowing coupe silhouette with taut muscular surfaces to put you in mind of both yesterday and tomorrow.
And the detailing! Night or day you will spot that familiar, almost anthropomorphic face from a mile away the L-shape tail-lights recall past glories like the 1988 E34 5 Series fewer alloys are framed by lovelier wheel-arches and the E82’s glass-to-metal balance is exquisite.
Feel free to write in and disagree. This car evokes heated discussion like few others, and for that we love it even more.
Better still, after a week behind the wheel of a 135i Sport Coupe, we can tell you that this is actually a better day-by-day life proposition than the well-intentioned rear-drive hatch. Now that’s unexpected.
You see, the weighty doors that now close with a vault-like thud are longer and allow easier entry into the cocooning cabin. And to get out, drivers need no longer automatically slide their seat backwards to clear the rakish windscreen and tiny aperture.
Gone is the fishbowl effect of the domed roof and shallow windscreen, for a larger forward panorama that is matched by equally more fulsome side and rear windows. You need no longer peer out of BMW’s baby to see properly.
Don’t come under any illusion – this car isn’t about to rival the warehouse-like Honda Jazz for space efficiency or cabin access. The 135i’s slow-moving electric seats and tight rear legroom in this 2+2 coupe see to that.
And while a 180cm adult should find the rear pair of pews sufficient for short to medium-haul travel, the fact that there is a fat B-pillar in the way and non-retractable rear windows mean that this coupe is not all that a coupe can be despite having frameless front doors (ie: it's a pillarless hardtop). Claustrophobics should probably sit this ‘1’ out too, by the way.
But the front pair of seats are delightfully adjustable, with ample comfort and support, with the driver perched perfectly in front of a tilt-and-reach steering wheel that is a beauty to behold.
We have no reservations about the carryover (from the hatch) instrument panel, because BMW does dashboards brilliantly.
The dials could not be clearer (though the dirty orange lighting is not to our taste), the heater controls work with extraordinary ease and clarity, and the newly devised ‘favourites’ line of buttons for your choice i-Drive audio, sat-nav and media settings is a cinch to work after a little familiarisation time.
And when will people stop whinging about i-Drive? Even one of our elderly mothers mastered it quickly. In this day and age we’re not all technology Luddites, you know!
The Coupe’s 370-litre boot is 40 litres better than what the hatch offers, and is surprisingly accessible, with a low load lip and wide (if rather shallow) floor area that is augmented by the split/folding rear seats, providing good long-item access into cabin.
Lift that nicely finished carpeted floor and you might be shocked to find a battery nestling in where the spare wheel would go. Thanks, run-flats.
So the 135i Sport Coupe looks gorgeous and is a treat to sit inside if you’re sited in the front. Our car was finished with white leather seats against a black interior with dark wood trim inserts, and that certainly gave it a more upmarket appearance than the rather gloomy monotone of some 1 Series cabins.
Better still, the great driving position puts the person in charge in the correct frame of mind to enjoy its fabulous driving experience.
Think about it, this is the stuff of fantasy cars: twin-turbo 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder engine. World Engine of the Year stuffed inside a small rear-wheel drive coupe with super-duper body strength and rigidity, near 50:50 front-to-rear weight distribution, Z-axle multi-link rear suspension and wonderfully measured rack-and-pinion steering.
The figures are mesmerising: 225kW of power at 5800rpm and 400Nm of torque accessible from 1300 to 5000rpm, to launch the 135i Sport to 100km/h in 5.3 seconds, on the way to an electronically speed-limited 250km/h.
Back at this car’s launch in May we said that having all this, and one of the greatest-ever engines, in a car that is 40kg lighter than the supernaturally gifted 335i Coupe, is an invitation to one of the most fun parties you are ever likely to attend... and so it proved to be over a glorious week together with us.
Trundle off to work in the morning and only the ever-so-slightly present growl of the 135i’s exhaust is there to remind you that what you have underneath that pretty little bonnet is a flying, fire-breathing dragon of powerplant.
But until the devil takes hold of you, progress is smooth, contained and orderly, partially thanks to the smaller of the two turbos fitted helping to manage the everyday commute with reassuring competence.
You are more likely to notice the nicely oiled but still firmly-weighted six-speed manual gearshift that operates harmoniously with the equally pleasing and properly placed clutch action, tightly-sprung ride over the myriad of speed bumps many of us endure daily, and perfectly proportioned brakes that feel as if they can haul up a steam train.
If you look underneath your 135i you will spot the six-piston fixed callipers fixed at the front and two-piston callipers out back, working with massive ventilated discs (fitted with a wet-wipe function for even greater performance). Gee, there’s even a two-second hill-hold function to stop you rolling backwards while you re-engage.
Driven sedately there is every reason to believe BMW’s combined fuel consumption figure of 9.6 litres per 100km and a carbon dioxide emissions output of 229 grams per kilometre.
Umm... we failed to see the former figure fall below 12.1L/100km because of what follows, which seemed to happen quite a lot.
Press hard on the accelerator and this silky, super-revvy six powers up like a V8, creating a domino effect on the steering, suspension and brakes that then deliver progressively higher levels of handling, cornering and body control responses to match the rapidly rising performance being generated.
BMW seems to have engineered long-legged ratios in every one of those forward gears, because flooring it in first gear reveals an ever-so-slight hesitation. But given its head on an empty country road, and this car spools up in no time to slingshot towards the horizon in true grand tourer style.
Third and fourth gears act more like a twin second-gear act, channelling the power from the two variable-sized turbos into a seamless and instantaneous rush of speed.
Find a winding mountainous road and the driver in you will bond with this BMW like a blood brother, because this car’s level of grip and cornering finesse is outstanding, aided by the 135i’s standard electronic differential lock that slows the spinning inside rear wheel in a fast corner for improved traction and power transference.
Wet roads will give the hooligan in you a great time, thanks to a stability control set-up that can be disengaged, while the traction control can be controlled to allow wheelspin and tail-wagging antics.
If all this sounds scary to you, take note that the 135i feels unflappable with all the safeties switched on.
Furthermore, it features a pre-tensioning system that partially activates the brakes if the driver’s foot comes off the accelerator in preparation for an emergency stop, to shorten distances. There’s also a brake-fade compensator that maintains full stopping performance by varying the degree of retardation according to the state of the pads and discs.
As we said, this is like an old-school BMW coupe, but with all the latest safety gear and even greater levels of refinement and control.
With talents and abilities like this, we find it difficult to recall any driving-related issues – apart from the firm (and at times noisy) ride on its 215/40 R18 front and 245/35 R18 rear tyres over rougher or uneven road surfaces.
So thank you, BMW. In the price progression of sublime everyday driving experiences, the $71,400 135i Sport Coupe fills the gap finally between the $43,000 Mazda MX-5 and $120,000 Porsche Cayman 2.7.
Is it a mini-M3? No, not at all, for the 135i is far too docile and rounded to hit the dizzy heights of BMW’s cut-price supercar.
But with comparable performance at half-the-ask of a Cayman S 3.4, you could almost call this BMW a bargain.
Back in May 2008 we said that the 135i Sport Coupe is the most convincing car its maker has offered in years.
Ultimately, it looks and feels different enough from the fab but flawed 1 Series hatch for any BMW coupe aficionado to completely revel in.
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