BMW 135I FIRST DRIVE
We expect a lot, but can it deliver? Adam Towler finds out.
What was your first thought when you heard about the 135i? I’m guessing a smile appeared somewhere along the line. After all, it’s hard not to let even the smallest of grins escape your mouth when you consider the prospect of a twin turbo straight ‘six’ shoehorned into the smallest car BMW currently makes. If you’re not moved at all, perhaps you’ve logged on to the wrong website.
Anyway, a big engine in a small car is a favourite recipe for any petrolhead, and often the favoured approach of engineers allowed a rare free rein in a corporate world. You know the sort of car. One that has slipped under the board’s radar; where the engineers had let their hair down, ordered in a crate of pils, and no one had come along to tell them to turn their music down. It’s fanciful to see the 135i as such a car, a kind of spiritual successor to the original M coupe, perhaps; a bit lairy. But it isn’t.
At the same time, it’s hard not to recall thoughts of the original E30 M3 and join the many that have speculated whether this 135i might offer plenty of the same diminutive fun. The latest V8 M3 is a tremendously powerful and capable sports saloon, but it’s a very different proposition to the entertainment offered by the raw and focused original. Perhaps here, in the unlikely form of a booted 1 series lays the answer to many an enthusiast prayer, and with 300bhp through the rear wheels, why not? No, it’s not anything like that either. Sorry.
Nevertheless, one thing is clear: this is another BMW with styling that’ll heavily split opinion. Formed by putting a boot where the rear hatch normally resides on a three-door 1 series, the 1 series coupe is shorter and narrower than a 3 series coupe, but taller, which gives it some, err, unusual proportions ‘in the metal’. The tag ‘coupe’ seems a mite optimistic too. Two-door saloon sums it up best. Look at the photos and make your own mind up.
There are other clues to how the 135i might drive. A 135i weighs just 40kg less then a 335i coupe. In other words, this is a ‘small’ coupe that weighs practically as much as a ‘medium’ coupe, which makes you start to wonder what the point of having a ‘small’ coupe is in the first place. It’s quite a considerable weight too at 1,560kg, although it’s worth pointing out that BMW do state in the (very) small print that this figure includes one driver and luggage.
Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t feel quite the hooligan in a straight line that you might have expected. This is a hard one to explain, as it is really, really fast – fast enough to get from rest to 60mph a tenth of a second before a Porsche Cayman S - but somehow the combination of weight, incredible drivetrain refinement and the linear delivery of the engine means that it doesn’t explode forward with quite the anger your brain thought it might have done.
This straight six is a superb engine – the International Engine of the year for 2007 in fact – and has just about the entire repertoire covered when it comes to road work. Sure, it is a little muted inside the cabin (although it sounds delicious from outside under hard acceleration), and its steady power delivery has been labelled a touch dull in some quarters, but at any revs in any gear it is ready to punch forward, even on a light throttle.
Torque floods forth from virtually tick-over and then builds seamlessly towards the red line. Yet despite the bigger turbo doing its thing at higher revs, it’s rarely necessary to extend the ‘six’ beyond 5,000rpm, and it comes as no surprise that tuners have extracted nearly 400bhp from this engine with only minor fettling required. Makes you wonder what the M boys might have done with it had they not felt compelled to go down the V8 route for the M3.
So the 135i is smooth and classy in a straight line, and much the same to drive too. Grip levels are high, the ride quality surprising good – so much better than a hatchback 130i – despite the fitment of run flat tyres, and once the initial and quite pronounced understeer has been worked through, the chassis has a nicely neutral feel to it. The shorter wheelbase makes it a more agile car to change direction than a 3 series, but it lacks the poise of the bigger car, especially when turning into faster corners. Other 1 series coupes get an electrically assisted steering rack, but the 135i sticks with a hydraulic set up in the name of feedback and it does a fair job, proving accurate without being particularly inspiring.
Despite the power on tap, there’s no LSD fitted to a 135i. What it does have is an electronic lock on the open rear diff that slows the inside rear wheel in a corner, thereby reducing the prospect of leaving a single, futile black line for your efforts. It’s very safe, although not so much fun for the experienced driver. Roberto Ravaglia wouldn’t have wanted one on his M3, but then as we’ve already seen, the 135i isn’t aimed at Roberto Ravaglia types at their place of work. Although BMW expects this car to have the lowest average owner age in their entire range, the 135i is aimed at those people looking for a small coupe with very senior performance and everyday practicality. If you’re a fan of the looks, then it’s quite likely it’ll prove very satisfying if that’s the kind of car you want.
The perception of quality inside the cabin is first rate, the driving position adjustable and very comfortable, and by coupe standards, the room for two passengers in the rear seats is not that bad.
At a whisker short of 30 grand the 135i is quite expensive, and the car we drove retailed at around 36 grand with a list of options that could hardly be described as decadent. So, it’s a small coupe with a pretty big price tag, big performance and big ambitions, but a very difficult and frankly rather personal car to place in any ranking system. It might not be raw and lairy, but in its own way it is a leftfield kind of car, just not the sort we were expecting…
2,979cc twin turbo straight ‘six’
0-62mph in 5.3sec
155mph limited top speed