2013 BMW 135is review: BMW proves that it still makes sports cars

Driving the twists
The most fun I had while reviewing this 135is was spent driving the twistiest roads I could find in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there are some good ones. The car's full capabilities were on display on a few lengthy second-gear hairpin turns. It let me keep the power on while the wheel was cranked hard around. At every moment in the turn, I felt like I could apply additional control, either adjusting the wheel turn or power, and it would give me room to work.

2013 BMW 135is
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I wanted to spend all my time with the 135is on twisty mountain roads. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On these roads, the 135is took to each turn as if it were brokering a multinational merger. Its stiff suspension kept the body flat while the nose followed my steering line. The rear of the car slipped out just enough to aid the car's rotation, classic BMW handling.

The 7,000rpm redline came in handy in these tight turns, as I still had power in second gear, and could wait for the straight to hit third.

The steering could have been more responsive. There was a little play in the wheel and, while it exhibited good control, it gave no intimation of road feel. It felt like BMW left the steering with the standard road-tuning as the standard 135i. However, BMW's Active Steering can be optioned, which changes the steering ratio depending on driving conditions and speed.

I felt the stiff suspension when driving under more mundane circumstances, but it wasn't uncomfortable. It did not jar harshly when the car went over bumps, instead feeling like a tight, well-tuned suspension.

The exhaust note and pure joy of acceleration in the 135is took a toll on its fuel economy. Where the EPA estimates put it at 20 mpg city and 28 mpg highway, I came in just below the range. If you were a careful driver, and always upshifted whenever possible, the 135is would likely reward you with fuel economy in the mid-20s. At freeway speeds, in sixth gear, the engine ran comfortably around 2,000rpm.

But you wouldn't really be getting the 135is' worth by driving it in such a manner.

Information-crammed display
I mentioned that this car was pretty much stripped of cabin electronics, but BMW included a USB port and Bluetooth hands-free phone system standard. Despite having Bluetooth for the phone system, there was no Bluetooth streaming-audio source, leaving the car with HD Radio, satellite radio, and the USB port for thumbdrives or iOS devices.

2013 BMW 135is
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Browsing a list of artists on the radio display is possible, but not easy. Josh Miller/CNET

BMW manages to cram a music library interface for selecting music into the monochrome two-line radio display. Although not optimal, the interface let me scroll through lists of artists, albums, genres, and tracks from any USB drive or iPhone. With the price of the 135is, I would think BMW could afford to include a standard LCD to better display the audio options. Voice command was limited to the phone system, and offered no control over music playback.

Also base was the six-speaker audio system, the quality of which I found pretty average. It delivered some clarity for light percussion instruments on simple tracks, but when it came to complex, multilayered mixes, the music was a complete muddle. I couldn't distinguish much from the individual instruments or layers. The system isn't much for bass, either.

As an improvement, BMW offers a Harman Kardon 10-speaker system as an option.

Since I last drove a 1 Series with the navigation option, BMW updated the system, so the 135is can be had with the latest cabin electronics. Expect the system to have similar features to what we recently saw in the 2013 X1. BMW wraps navigation and some other features into a $2,350 Technology package, with the most enticing feature being integration with the BMW Connected app. Running on a smartphone, that app integration adds a big bundle of connected features to the car, such as online local search, Internet-based radio, and social media.

Point made
It is too bad that the point had to be made, but the 2013 135is proves without a doubt that BMW can still make an excellent sports car. The quality of the handling and the impressive acceleration combine for pure driving joy. BMW's Dual Clutch Transmission might have given this 135is a performance edge, but using the manual transmission made the car overall more fun, and didn't detract from its everyday drivability. As shown in the other models that use it, BMW's turbocharged 3-liter engine is a technological marvel.

I like that BMW includes the USB port and Bluetooth phone system standard. Every automaker should. But the lack of Bluetooth streaming audio will inconvenience some. As with other cars reviewed by CNET, the 135is' rating reflects the better technology available, so it earns points for its navigation system and connected features. I would consider both the Technology package and the Harman Kardon audio upgrade worthwhile additions to the car, making it more useful on a daily basis.

With a base price of $43,250, the 135is is one pricey coupe, and even without any electronics upgrades, our example still ran close to 50 grand. As an alternate performance idea, a $2,500 Dinan upgrade will bring a stock BMW 135i up to 373 horsepower and 408 pound-feet of torque. Just, you know, as a point of comparison.

Tech specs
Model 2013 BMW 135is
Trim n/a
Power train Turbocharged direct-injection 3-liter, 6-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission
EPA fuel economy 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 19.8 mpg
Navigation Optional hard-drive-based system with traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources iOS integration, USB drive, auxiliary input, HD Radio, satellite radio
Audio system 6-speaker system
Driver aids None
Base price $43,250
Price as tested $47,125

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