But we really relied on the optional USB port/iPod connector for music in our test car. The USB port is located in the console, next to an auxiliary input jack. We were pleased to find that we could insert a thumbdrive directly into the port and hinge down the armrest that sits over it without one making contact with the other. The radio display lets you view the music on a thumbdrive by playlist, artist, album, or genre. Possibly because of the fact that we had a preproduction car, we weren't able to access an iPod when we plugged it in, although we expect that the interface would be the same as that for the thumbdrive.
As we've found with previous BMWs, the standard audio system produces a very strong sound because of an obviously powerful amp. But the quality is muted in the 135i, as it only comes with six speakers around the cabin, two A-pillar tweeters, a woofer in each door, and two speakers on the rear deck. There is an optional audio system that employs two subwoofers, and we would expect greater range out of it.
Bluetooth cell phone integration comes standard in the 135i. Once you pair a phone, its address book is downloaded automatically, and the radio interface gives you access to contacts and call history. The phone can also be dialed with the voice command system. This Bluetooth system, with its access to contacts and previous calls, is one of the best available.
As this car is a coupe, back seat access is limited. That said, we found that, with the front seat set for a 5 foot 10 inch tall driver, there was plenty leg room in back. BMW also includes a switch for moving the front seats back and forth on the shoulders, making it easy to increase back seat access.
Under the hood
BMW engineers accomplished the impressive feat of stuffing a 3-liter twin-turbocharged straight six engine, also used in the BMW 335i and BMW 535i, under the hood of the 135i. When you open the hood, you can see how tightly packed it is. But this engine gives the 135i incredible performance. We discussed the track-worthiness of this car above. The engine produces 300 horsepower and 300 foot-pounds of torque, with no hint of lag under acceleration.
In traffic, we found the 135i sprightly, its tight steering letting us make quick lane changes and its power ensuring we could get up to our new lane's speed. The 135i drives effortlessly, with ample acceleration even up at high speeds. BMW says that the full 300 foot-pounds of torque comes in at a low 1,400rpm, something we can easily believe as our various fast starts excited the traction control light, and we could feel the car's road-holding electronics working to keep the rear wheels under control. On the freeway, we found it difficult to travel at less than 80 mph, as the 135i just wants to go. When we accelerated to pass another car, we got up to 100 mph before we realized it. You really have to pay close attention to the speedometer in this car, as it's easy to blow past speed limits.
We were a little disappointed to get the automatic transmission in our test car, but knowing that it came from BMW, we expected it would perform better than most. And it didn't let us down once we had it in sport mode and tapped the brakes coming into a corner. The transmission downshifted aggressively, holding its lower gear as we powered through the turn. The automatic also has a manual mode, engaged by hitting the steering wheel-mounted paddles or the shifter when in Sport mode. We don't really care for BMW's paddles, thick growths on the wheel spokes that you push in for a downshift and pull back for an upshift. They are easy to accidently hit and difficult to use in a tight turn. We would prefer column-mounted shifters.
What particularly amazed us about the 135i was its fuel economy. The EPA rates the 135i at 18 mpg city and 26 mpg highway, numbers that don't sound particularly impressive. But in our driving, we saw our average range from 22.8 to 23.5 mpg, economy we just wouldn't expect to get from a car this fast. For emissions, the 135i only gets the minimum LEV II rating from California's Air Resources Board.
We felt a little mixed about the 135i's styling. While the front end looks almost like a standard 335i, the back gets cut off abruptly, making for a shortened cabin. That short cabin gives the car a sporty look. But the sides are oddly bowed out on the top and bottom, while a little concave in the middle. These undulations seem almost random.
Our 2008 BMW 135i Coupe had a base price of $34,900. Our tech options included the automatic transmission ($1,275), HD radio ($350), USB/iPod adaptor ($400), and the Comfort Access System ($500), fancy words for a smart key. We also had various niceties included with the Cold Weather package ($600), the Sport Package ($1,000), which brought in the M steering wheel and paddle shifters, and the Premium Package ($3,300). Sundry other options and a $775 destination charge brought our car's total up to $43,675. Navigation would have added an extra $2,100, while the premium audio system costs $875.
On the performance front, our only criticism of the 135i is that it could get slightly better emissions. But its fuel economy is very impressive for such a fast car, so we give it a top rating for performance. Although our car didn't come loaded with all the cabin electronics, we give it credit for those available, as we've tested them in other BMWs, giving it a very high rating in this category. We have to give it a slightly lower score in design, partly for that odd bowing in the sides and for iDrive, which would be included if the navigation system was present. Our few minor critiques won't stop us from giving the BMW 135i our Editors' Choice award.