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Except for its price, the 2008 BMW 128i Convertible may be the least BMW-like car from the automaker. Oh, it does have all the cutting-edge tech found in BMW's other models, including a pop-up LCD that is surprisingly immune to glare. But where its turbo-charged brother, the 135i, feels glued to the road, the 128i Convertible's wheels seem to stretch away from the car in the corners. And where the 135i leaps forward with smooth and hard acceleration, the 128i Convertible's power delivery feels uneven.
Test the tech: iDrive versus voice
Although we've reviewed many BMWs, we haven't delved deep on the voice command capabilities, mostly due to initial frustration with the system. With the 2008 BMW 128i Convertible, we decided to give it a chance by having editors Antuan Goodwin and Wayne Cunningham see how quickly they could perform various car tech tasks, one using iDrive and the other voice command. This little test is also our farewell to iDrive, as the system is being radically redesigned, the first examples of which we should see at the Paris Motor Show.
Antuan Goodwin concentrates while using iDrive to find a local restaurant.
Our first task was to program a local restaurant named Town Hall as a destination in the navigation system. Goodwin took the first attempt using iDrive. As the stopwatch started, he quickly went from the main menu into the navigation submenu, and got to the New Destination area. Not finding the points-of-interest database, listed under the Information heading, he backed out and looked at the settings area. From here, he found an Information menu for the navigation system, and entered the name Town Hall in a search box. The search fairly quickly came up with the restaurant, which he selected, completing the task in 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Cunningham, more familiar with iDrive, attempted the same task using voice command. Pushing the voice command button, he said "navigation," and the screen responded by showing the navigation menu. He then said "information," and was shown a list of points-of-interest categories. The car didn't respond correctly when we named the restaurants category, instead going to the time setting. After a few more attempts, he gave up, as the voice command system doesn't let you go deeper than the points-of-interest category list.
Our second task involved playing an album called Under the Black Light from the iPod we had plugged into the car. Goodwin took up the iDrive knob again, going straight to the entertainment menu. He found the various sources, and got to the iPod menu. From there, he found the album listing, and chose the correct one in a blistering 14 seconds. Cunningham attempted to replicate the task with voice command, first telling the car "iPod." As that didn't seem to work, he said "Options," which makes the voice command system say all currently available commands. The car didn't list an iPod command, but did have USB, so Cunningham went to that. The car changed its audio source to the iPod, after which Cunningham tried saying "next track" and "next album." Neither of these commands worked, and the car didn't list any commands for navigating music, so we had to conclude that this task was not possible with voice command.
Using voice command, Wayne Cunningham can't get further than the points-of-interest categories.
For our final task, we merely had to dial a phone number with the car's Bluetooth phone system. We had paired a Samsung phone to the car. Goodwin went into the communications menu, found the dialing screen, and twisted and pushed the iDrive knob around until he had entered the complete phone number, taking only 25 seconds. Cunningham went next, telling the car to "dial number," then quickly rattling out our chosen phone number. The car started dialing, getting the spoken number right, in 23 seconds.
We concluded that, while the voice command system is very good for dialing a phone number you happen to know, it doesn't offer complete functionality for other car systems. Goodwin, an iDrive neophyte, stumbled a bit on the navigation task, but completed the other tasks very quickly.
In the cabin
Even though the BMW 128i Convertible is the company's lowest-end model, the cabin materials and design are right up there with the 335i and 535i. The plastic on the instrument panel isn't impressive, but we like the wood trim and the steering wheel. The iDrive controller is a solid metal knob located on the console, while the LCD flips up from the center of the dashboard. We had a number of options to tech up our car, including BMW's $500 Comfort Access System, which is basically a smart key. As in other modern BMWs, two buttons on the steering wheel are programmable, letting you assign various functions to them, such as muting the stereo, closing the LCD, and displaying the cell phone contact list.
This pop-up LCD proved remarkably resistant to glare.
The navigation system is the same as in other BMWs we've seen, having the same traffic and dynamic navigation routing we tested in the X6. The maps look good and the system generally works well, although we aren't crazy about its interface. There are only a few options for choosing destinations and the points-of-interest database is limited. The system is reasonably fast for being DVD-based and the map rendering is very good. One thing lacking on the 128i is the dual screen found on the larger BMW models.
We were happy to find a USB port in the 128i, letting us plug in an iPod or a USB thumbdrive. BMW fits a standard auxiliary input right next to the USB port. As we showed in our tech test, you can choose music off an iPod by album, artist, genre, and playlist. With a USB drive, you can view a list of folders on the LCD, and navigate them using iDrive. This interface is the same as with MP3 CDs loaded into the six-disc in-dash changer. Our 128i also came with Sirius satellite radio and HD radio, currently a unique BMW option, which delivers very good quality audio, although it is limited by range from the transmitter. We found that, while listening to a San Francisco radio station, the HD signal would drop out as we drove away from the city, leaving us with a scratchy analog radio signal.
The USB port can handle a simple USB flash drive or an iPod.
Our car came with the Premium Sound option, which includes two subwoofers and a digital signal processor. Along with the normal bass and treble audio settings, BMW includes a full seven-band graphic equalizer buried under the audio settings menu. The sound quality from this system is good, but we weren't blown away. The system produces a very heavy sound, which dulls the highs. Bass is strong, but not sharp.
The other significant tech option on our car was Bluetooth cell phone integration, which comes with the BMW Assist telematics package. The phone part of this system works very well, immediately downloading a compatible phone's contact list and making it available through the iDrive interface. The telematics side of BMW Assist offers roadside assistance, automatic collision notification to a central office, and recovery services for stolen vehicles.
Under the hood
Driving the BMW 128i Convertible was not nearly as fun as the 135i. Acceleration felt strangely uneven, but we couldn't determine if that was becuase of difficulty modulating the gas pedal, the transmission, or the engine itself. With a hard foot on the gas pedal, the car delivers reasonable acceleration but no tire-spinning theatrics. The six-speed automatic transmission keeps potential antics under control, although in manual mode it lets you run the tachometer close to redline.
The console-mounted shifter for the six-speed automatic is complemented by paddle shifters on the wheel.
In spirited driving over mountain roads, we felt some lean as the inside shocks extended, very unlike the more planted feel of the 135i. As our 128i came with the Sports package, bringing in a sport-tuned suspension, we were a bit surprised at this behavior. The steering was very responsive, as we would expect from a BMW. As a convertible, we would expect the 128i's driving performance to be a bit compromised, but the body didn't feel like it lost any stiffness. The car feels more like BMW softened the suspension, designing it for the general public as opposed to driving enthusiasts.
For power, BMW deploys its latest engine technology in the 2008 128i Convertible, giving it the same straight six 3-liter engine found in the 328i. This magnesium-aluminum engine uses BMW's continuous variable valve timing system, called Double-VANOS. It puts out a modest 230 horsepower at 6,500rpm and 200 foot-pounds of torque at 2,750rpm. In the 135i, this engine gets dual turbochargers, but in this application, it is naturally aspirated. BMW claims 7 seconds to 60 mph.
BMW brings some impressive engineering to its variable valve timing system.
The car gets an EPA-rated 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. During our time with it, doing a variety of city and freeway driving, we came in at a solid average of 21.3 mpg. For emissions, the 128i meets the California Air Resources Board's ULEV II rating, a very good achievement.
The base price for the 2008 BMW 128i Convertible is $33,100, about $5,000 more than the 128i Coupe model. But BMW options are expensive, quickly jacking up the price with most of the features we've mentioned here. The Premium package added auto-dimming mirrors, telematics, and Bluetooth, for $3,600. The automatic transmission added $1,275, while the sport steering wheel with paddle shifters cost an additional $100. The navigation system was $2,100, HD radio cost $350, Sirius satellite radio was $595, and Premium sound cost $875. The Sport package, which added the sport suspension and 17-inch wheels, added $1,200. A few other options and a $775 destination charge brought our total up to $46,895, a lot of money for a relatively small convertible. The closest alternative to the 128i Convertible is the Audi A4 Cabriolet, but that's a more expensive car with inferior tech.
For cabin tech, the navigation system mostly impresses with its live traffic feature. The stereo was OK, and we liked its iPod integration, but we didn't think it really sounded "Premium." The phone system is very good, though, earning the 128i Convertible a decent rating. Performance tech is certainly better than average, but we felt this car lagged behind other BMWs we've tested. For design, the car suffers from its iDrive interface, and the body style doesn't regain much ground.