When BWM arrived—as in showed up with any real presence—on the American automotive scene in the late Sixties, another German carmaker was securely established as the sedan of gravitas and worth. BMW was an interloper, sportier, and light-on-its-feet-suitable for SCCA sedan racing in a way that the other German builder’s cars were not. While the product of that other manufacturer was already in a pin-striped business suit, the Bimmer showed up in beads and bellbottoms.
That BMW was the 2002. It was small and light, with a kick-butt two-liter engine and backroads agility that made it a giant killer. It became a legend.
But the BMW 2002, for all its merits, was tiny inside and as these things go, it was replaced by the first of the 3-Series, the 320i, in 1975. And that two was followed by more versions of the 3-Series until, to use BMW’s words, it had “matured.” Meaning that the 3-Series, nee 2002, had outgrown its bellbottoms, in more ways than one.
BMW couldn’t put that particular genie back in the bottle even if it had wanted to, but by moving upwards, the 3-Series had left a gap in BMW’s product line between it and the top of the Mini Cooper line-up big enough to drive a sports coupe through. Which BMW did.
Behold the 1-Series.
Smaller and lighter than the 3-Series—not by a lot but enough—the 1-series would appear in the U.S. market in two body styles, a two-door coupe and a convertible (Europe also gets a three-door hatch), each with two engine choices lifted directly from the 3-Series. The 128i is powered by a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline six rated at 230 horsepower and 200-lb-ft of torque. The 135i has the 300-horse twin-turbo six that cranks 300 lb-ft of torque at a remarkable spread of 1400 to 5000 rpm, providing great thumping acceleration regardless where the engine is in its rev range.
Both engines are available with a six-speed manual transmission or an automatic with optional paddle-shifting (that comes with the automatic when the Sport Package is ordered).
The 1-Series is available (at least at this time) with rear-wheel drive only, but with a near-perfect 50/50 weight balance. Double-pivot front suspension with extensive use of aluminum is matched by a lightweight steel five-link rear suspension. The 135i comes standard with M-tuned suspension.
BMW’s dynamic stability control (DSC) and traction control (DTC) are standard, and Active Steering, which increases the steering ratio based on vehicle speed, is optional and not universally appreciated. It’s a little too responsive for some drivers, but it’s an acquired taste.
Even your grandmother can recognize the 1-Series as a BMW, thanks to the double-kidney grille which, however, is more vertical than other current BMWs, perhaps as a reminder of the 2002 which had a grille that leaned forward.. The 1-Series shoulder line is flatter, with less wedge, another hint of the 2002.
Standard on the 135i Coupe are 18-inch alloy wheels mounted with 215.40R-18 tires up front and 245/35R-18 rear.
There’s little a BMW 135i needs extra, with M trim inside and lots of standard features, but the truly dedicated can bump the $34,900 base price to almost $50,000 with options only, without dipping into the accessories. (You mean you want floormats with that?)
The curb weight of the 135i Coupe is 3373 lbs. Combine that with 300 horsepower and the result is surprise-your-passenger power, and supple suspension for surprise the driver adhesion. The 135i sticks like athletic tape on a running back’s ankles. Turn-in is crisp and the drive out of corners is a treat on real world roads where blind curves are often the norm.
Did we mention drive? Nail the throttle and the BMW 135i Coupe stays level as a stone masons’ convention. The sound of the inline six is something to make the fan of vee engines turn apostate. Hit the brakes and there’s as much drama as an Akron, Ohio, Saturday night. The shifter is slick and the pedals set up for heel-toeing like it was done by someone who’s engineered that sort of thing before.
Only the manual shifter suggests that the 2008 BMW 135i is a performance sedan. In ordinary use, the ride is smooth and the engine quiet. Even the driver can be deceived. The clutch is light and has a soft uptake unlike the typically sudden grab of German clutches. It’s more like a Japanese economy car, and that is intended as a compliment. Simply put, the 135i is good at hiding its performance potential in everyday life.
The BMW 135i is a selfish pleasure. The back seat is barely big enough for two—there’s no phony middle seatbelt—though with limited legroom. Front row denizens, however, have buckets with big bolsters for that overall well-supported feeling of sitting in a first baseman’s mitt. The steering wheel is a meaty handful and the gauges no-nonsense. If you’re at home in another BMW you’ll be a home here.
But if $34,500 seems steep for a sport coupe compared to like-sized vehicles, it’s only following in the tradition of the 2002. While it was at the time easy to buy a subcompact for about $2,000 base price (several hundred more if you wanted things like disc brakes), the 2002 circa 1970 had a base price of about $3,400. A sporty subcompact (front wheel drive and some pep) will cost in the very low twenties. Which means that proportionally the relationship is unchanged. The BMW 135i Coupe costs about half again as much as average for a car its size.
Simply put, if you couldn’t afford a BMW 2002 back then, you wouldn’t in the same stage of life be able to afford one now. But it would be just as much worth saving up for.
The 2008 BMW 135i Coupe has captured the soul of original BMW 2002 though on a performance level that even a race-prepped 2002 of the era couldn’t match. Not only is the 135i living up to history, it’s about to make some of its own