BMW's announcement of the 135i hit us like Pavlov's bell, the one he used to make his dog salivate. Once we got into the 2008 BMW 135i Coupe, all of our expectations were met, and more. BMW threw its best engine into its smallest car, leading to impressive acceleration for a car in this price range. But don't expect BMW engineers to content themselves with this simple concept; no, they tuned the car appropriately, such as making sure its tires would hold the road while being turned by 3-liter, twin-turbocharged power.
You usually have to pay for fast cars with poor gas mileage, but the 135i doesn't extract that penalty. Instead, the price you pay is a smallish back seat. We can live with that. BMW also makes its raft of cabin tech options available in the 135i, including navigation displayed on a pop-up LCD, Bluetooth cell phone integration with voice command, and a premium stereo system.
Test the tech: Track time
Although the 2008 BMW 135i that showed up in our garage came with a six-speed automatic transmission, CNET Car Tech editor Kevin Massy got the chance to drive the manual transmission version on the track at Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. As people interested in the 135i will definitely want to consider trying it out on track days, Kevin wrote about his experience driving the car through one lap on this highly technical track. Here is his account:
From the moment you fire the engine in the 135i, you know you're in for a special ride. Even if you didn't know beforehand that the compact coupe was packing the same twin-turbo-charged engine as the 335i, it would take all of about five seconds to become acquainted with the vast amount of power accessible. For our track testing, we used the motorcycle entrance at Laguna Seca, entering the track between turns 2 and 3 just after the end of the Andretti Hairpin. Conscious that we were entering a live track and the possibility of having to merge with the likes of the Dodge Viper and Audi R8 coming out of the hairpin at any moment, we immediately floored the 135i in second gear, pushing it to the fringes of redline before snapping the shifter forward into third and hugging the left side of the track on the approach to turn 3.
Laguna Seca's many technical turns tested the handling of the 135i.
The 135i displays phenomenal pickup in both second and third gears. The low-pressure turbo chargers assist the 3-liter engine in catapulting the car forward with a surprising lack of lag, and from 2,000rpm and higher, the acceleration is instant and linear. After a tap of the brakes, we turned into turn 3: the 135i tracks superbly in cornering at around 30 mph, and after brushing the apex we buried the gas pedal for the straightaway to turn 4. This stretch gave us another chance to experience the 135i's whirlwind acceleration, and we found ourselves approaching 80 mph before having to track left, touch the brakes and aim for the right-hand apex. We took turn 4 about 60 mph, tracking from left to right on the way through. The 135i's sports suspension can be unforgivingly harsh on the road, but for high-speed cornering it works extremely well, delivering a firm, sure-footed line.
Carrying plenty of speed out of turn 4, the 80 mph to 90 mph approach to turn 5 was a great place to test the 135i's six-piston aluminum fixed-caliper front brakes, which are effective and linear, but with a road-ready hint of softness. Approaches to turn 6 and 7 gave us more chances to flog the 135i in third gear, with turn 6 giving us a chance to push the back out by getting on the power a tad early on the exit. Into the infamous corkscrew, the 135i showed great poise and even weight transfer, waltzing through the left-right chicane with ease. After blistering through turns 9 and 10, and racing up to turn 11, we got hard on the brakes and cut the sharp corner off turn 11 in second gear, setting ourselves up for the main straightaway. As with our initial entry, we blew through second gear in about three seconds, changing up into third at around 60 mph.
The 135i builds up some speed after turn 9.
Despite its M-branded short-throw manual shifter, the gear-change lag and associated rev drop lost us a couple of heartbeats' worth of forward thrust, but once the magnificent third gear engaged, the 135i found its groove again and we were at 100 mph as we crested the hill and entered the gentle sweeping turn 1. With a curb weight of 3,373 pounds, the 135i takes some stopping from that kind of speed, especially with the incentive of the Andretti Hairpin approaching, and we squeezed ever harder on the brakes and snapped back into second gear in preparation for a single-apex maneuver through turn 2 and the completion of the lap. As we weren't racing in a designated competition, we have no official record of our lap time in the 135i, but we can give an unofficial estimate: fast.
In the cabin
With the 2008 BMW 135i, you get a special prize, an imprint on the start button bezel that says "Year One Of The 1." With limited space on the instrument panel, BMW displays the optional navigation system on an LCD that pops up out of the center dash. As our test car didn't have the navigation system present, we didn't have the LCD. From our experiences in a navigation-equipped 128i, however, we can say that, although the LCD placement looks as if it would be subject to glare, the bright graphics did a good job of compensating. The navigation system itself is the similar to what we saw on the 2008 BMW 535i, which includes impressive real-time traffic reporting.
The radio display shows options for choosing a playlist, a genre, an artist, and an album from a USB drive.
Our car came equipped with the standard BMW stereo, and its orange interface had a workable display for music tuning and cell phone integration. We also had another BMW specialty, HD radio, which we tested by flipping between an HD and non-HD radio station. The difference in audio quality was subtle, but definitely there. Satellite radio is also an option in the 135i. We didn't see an option for a six-disc changer, but the standard player can read MP3 CDs and will display song titles. Although the radio display is limited, you can scroll through a list of folders on an MP3 CD.
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.
You can plug a USB drive directly into the USB port mounted on the console.
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.
There's a lot of engine stuffed under this hood.
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.
The paddle shifters are chunky, and easy to accidentally hit.
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.