Baby 3-series blah blah blah. 2002 reincarnate blah blah blah. Back to basics blah blah blah.
That’s all you ever read about when automotive journalists introduce the 1-series.
Me? I’m not really a journalist, so I’m going to start with the engine: The Almighty N54.
It’s a 3.0L straight-six with two small turbos and believe it or not, the N54 engine you find in the 35i is smaller in terms of displacement than the engine in the 28i. Strange but true. That’s BMW nomenclature for ya. One turbo is used at lower revs and one at higher. This effectively eliminates the turbo-lag that single-turbo engines are renowned for. BMW’s twin-turbo trickery results in a smooth surge of power from 1,300 rpm all the way to the 7 grand redline. This engine is a symphony orchestra. The first turbo starts out in the low revs, the second turbo builds to a crescendo in the middle of the range, and just when you thought the engine would lose its breathe, the straight-six comes into its own and sings gloriously to the redline. If this all stinks of the kind of hyperbole normally found in your local newspaper’s Driving Section, I don’t care. This is the En Fifty Frickin Four we’re talking about here.
It is truly tough to believe that a forced induction engine can rev like this, but such are the advantages of the straight-six layout. The engine, and I can’t stress this enough, is the best I’ve ever experienced. It is as smooth as Alex “Hitch” Hitchens, as free as Nelson Mandela, and as potent as botulinum toxin. My only criticism would be the exhaust note – it was a touch on the quiet side and I would have appreciated a little more rumble. Still, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this engine before. But now that I have, my life is a little more complete.
Unforunately, the engine is slightly retarded by the gearbox, which although light, didn’t have the most confidence-inspriring action. There is a BMW Performance short shift kit available, but I imagine that it would just rob the gearbox of its lightness, which is all it has going for it in the first place. Conversely, the clutch is brilliant. Considering the power that it has to deal with, the clutch was light and gave the driver plenty of room for error. The exact opposite of the infamous ceramic clutch found in the Carrera GT, then.
The pedal positioning isn’t ideal or particularly to my liking. While the pedals are close enough for Hamilton-wannabes to rip off heel-and-toe downshifts, the dead pedal was too far away. This would be nice on highway cruising because you can almost completely extend your left leg, but when you have to get back on the clutch, it’s easy to slip onto the brake unintentionally. Especially with size 12s. You could blame this on my inexperience with the car or my poor driving abilities, but I’m going to blame it on pedal set-up.
The exterior design is the easiest to fault, especially the front end. It just looks squished, don’t you think? Certainly, the front of the 3-series coupe is more aggressive and attractive. The side profile of the One looks for all the world like a banana hammock, especially in the white colour of my test car. That curved character line just gives me the heebie jeebies. The rear of the car is aesthetically the most successful where the notched taillights add some visual width to the narrow coupe.
Entering the interior, you’ll notice the frameless windows that open a couple millimeters when you open then door and close back up when you shut it, just the same as the Passat CC. Once inside, you’re welcomed by a simple yet solid interior. The materials are of high tactile quality but some of the details are strange, such as the wood trim that only comes across half of the passenger-side dash. Still, everything in there has a purpose and there is very little in the way of extraneous fluff, except for the bluetooth buttons on the steering wheel that only function if you cough up a couple hundred bucks extra. Speaking of the steering wheel, you couldn’t ask for a better one. It tilts, it telescopes, it’s small in diameter, and it’s as thick as Jeremy Clarkson’s sarcasm. So basically, it’s perfect. As for the steering feel and accuracy, I’ll get to that in a bit.
The seats in my test car were the standard units and they were completely awful. They were flat-bottomed, lacking in thigh support, and inadequately bolstered on the sides. There are optional sport seats that come as part of the $1600 M Package, but these should really be standard fitment because I can’t imagine anyone actually wanting garbage seats in their 300 hp BMW coupe. If you’re building yourself a 135i, check the box marked “M”.
The back seats, of which there are two, are perfectly adequate for shorter drives and may even be occupied by adults. Something that can’t be said of the considerably larger Bentley Continental GT, for example. BMW has done a great job of making their 2+2 coupe usable everyday.
This conjecture is further supported by the size of the trunk. Not only do the back seats fold down in a 60/40 split, but the opening between them is huge. While “huge” is a relative term, just look at the 2010 Camaro or the Hyundai Genesis Coupe to see how badly a 2+2 can be designed in terms of storage and passenger space. In the One, I could easily fit 2 sets of golf clubs, a gym bag, or my skis. Yes, I know that the golf club bit it thoroughly cliché, but for me, golf is right up there with cars. So a car that can’t fit a set of sticks immediately loses my consideration.
Ok, so now we know about the interior, the exterior, and some of the ergonomics, but what of the famous BMW driving dynamics? The 1-series is based on a shortened version of the 3-series platform, so it should be light and agile, right? Well for starters, the 135i isn’t that much lighter than the 335i coupe. You’d expect the smaller One to be 500 lbs lighter, so it is dissapointing to learn that it is only about 140 lbs slimmer. Still, 140 lbs is 140 lbs. Combined with a 4 inch shorter wheelbase, the 1-series is certainly more agile and lithe.
The chassis felt taut and sure-footed over the vast majority of road conditions. There was no chassis flex in the One most of the time, but hitting a big mid-corner frost heave at 50 kph sent the car trembling and bouncing. I couldn’t believe how badly the car was unsettled by the road imperfection. The steering was jerked, it felt as if wheels were airborne, and most importantly, confidence was shattered. This was the only instance where the chassis felt less than perfect, but it left a lasting impression on my drive. Some of the car’s behaviour could be attributed to the 35 and 40 profile run-flat tires. These have been much maligned in other reviews, so I won’t go further than that here. The roads I took it on weren’t the smoothest, so this probably unveiled some flaws that others might not experience, but with roads the way they are in Edmonton right now I think that the route was very fair.
Other than the single anomolous instance, the steering feel was seriously impressive. Yes, this was the first time I’d driven a brand spanking new Beemer, but I could scarcely believe how much road feel was coming through the steering wheel. It was a revelation. So much so, in fact, that I now realize that driving a new Porsche will probably bring me to tears. In the 135i, it was as if that perfect little steering wheel and the road each had a tin cup with a string attached between them. In 21st century terms, I suppose a bluetooth analogy would be more appropriate, but you get the idea. Unfortunately, while the steering was full of feeling, it didn’t inspire confidence in the corners. There was a certain vagueness about the off-centre accuracy.
While the steering didn’t get my confidence soaring in the corners, the engine certainly did. The amount of torque available at all rpms allowed me to stay in 3rd gear through the fast 90 degree turns. This meant that I didn’t have to rely on the rubbery shifter, vague steering, and the too-close pedals to exact a rev-matched downshift. While the new SynchroRev in the 370Z is a cool technology, it just isn’t needed when you’ve got an engine like this.
As a value proposition, the 1-series can be difficult to justify. Until you drive it, that is. It might seem absurd to spend between 45 and 60 thousand on a small coupe, but if you’re judicious with the options list and just get the M Sport Package, you won’t regret the decision.
I know that I’ve spent some 1400 words mostly harping on about an engine, but that’s because almost everything else in the 135i is overshadowed by it. If the steering, shifter, and pedal position were lifted from the One and put into another car, I would give them high praise. But with the One, the engine has raised the bar and made my expectations of the rest of the car that much higher. No one makes a better engine than BMW. And atop the BMW hill is the king – The Almighty N54.
Overall: A competent package that is overshadowed by a blindingly brilliant engine.
Price as tested: $45,195
Interior Design: 8.5/10. Simple. Functional.
Exterior Design: 6/10. Stay away from the banana hammock and you’ll be fine.
Engine: 10/10. None better.
Transmission: 7/10. Thankfully you don’t have to swap cogs that often.
Audio/Video: 5/10. Nothing special.
Value: 8.5/10. At the price, there’s nothing more refined and usable everyday. It’s also the cheapest way to grab an N54.
Thanks to Bill Bentley and Bavaria BMW in Edmonton.