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

While recent models suggested that BMW had gone suburban, the 135is comes out as clear proof that "The Ultimate Driving Machine" is not dead.

Wayne Cunningham

Wayne Cunningham

Managing Editor / Roadshow

Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.

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The 2013 BMW 135is restored my faith in "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Many years ago, I owned a 325is, of the E30 generation, which taught me what BMW was all about. But over the last few years, coinciding with the launch of the X6, the brand seemed to take a turn for the mundane, turning out cars tuned for the mass market rather than enthusiasts. After driving a particularly placid 3-series, I was beginning to fear the worst.

2013 BMW 135is

2013 BMW 135is

The Good

An engine upgrade gives the <b>2013 BMW135is</b> 320 horsepower and a 7,000rpm redline. It delivers an excellent exhaust note and handling is superb. An optional Technology package adds many connected features.

The Bad

Without the Active Steering option, indifferent steering response lets the handling down. And without the Technology package, the radio display barely serves to show audio and phone information.

The Bottom Line

Although pricey, the 2013 BMW 135is is an incredibly fun little coupe for the driving enthusiast, yet remains well-mannered enough for an everyday commute.

Now, the little 135is has convinced me that BMW still knows how to make a sports car.

Despite the 1 Series being BMW's smallest, entry-level car, it can be one of the most potent, and the best street performer in the lineup. At just over 14 feet long, the 135is comes to the U.S. in a coupe format, and includes two smallish rear seats. The Europeans also get a really nice-looking hatchback version, which BMW refuses to import.

The 135i, boasting BMW's excellent direct-injected and turbocharged 3-liter, six-cylinder engine, was already a little rocket. The addition of the "s" to the model name, something BMW has done occasionally through the decades, turns the car into a tuned-up street racer, with acceleration that won't quit and an exhaust note that will get your attention.

BMW 135is: The fastest 1-series (pictures)

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To make the 135is worthy of the extra letter, BMW reprogrammed the engine software, bringing the output up to 320 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. Likewise, a new traction control program allows for a little more play, and the suspension has been stiffened. On the completely unnecessary side, BMW adorns the 135is with little M badges, evoking the somewhat disappointing attempt at an M version of the 1 Series from a few years back.

Manual transmission
The model BMW sent to CNET was a purist's dream, with a manual transmission and no navigation system. Although the other transmission option is the truly excellent seven-speed twin clutch, which shaves 0.1 second from the zero-to-60-mph time, it was nice to get some driving time with the manual, which suits the 135is very well.

The gate exhibits what I think of as classic European smoothness. It precisely moves through the gears, but instead of feeling mechanical, there is a well-worn feel to each gear slot, as I imagine the giant gears of a centuries-old town clock would interlock. However, I'm not crazy about the flat-topped shift knob, as it feels too small for an adult's hand. Add an inch of height to it, and the knob would be a perfect pistol grip.

2013 BMW 135is
This six-speed manual shifts with precision and European smoothness. Josh Miller/CNET

I also rejoiced in the fact that the 135is had no buttons for Sport or Eco modes. Essentially, the 135is is always in Sport, and has no time for normal or Eco modes.

A purist might think, good, this is the way sports cars are meant to be: all mechanical with no technical tomfoolery. But don't fool yourselves, there is a lot of technology at work in this car; BMW just hides it well. First, there is the engine, a real marvel of engineering using precisely programmed variable valve timing and direct fuel injection, which bears as much resemblance to an old, carburetor push-rod engine as a Mac Pro does to a slide rule.

Instead of relying on a limited-slip differential to aid cornering, BMW applies programming to the rear brakes, selectively engaging each one to help the car rotate through the turns.

I was impressed that merely making a fast start, running up the engine revs for a good zero-to-60-mph run, caused the traction control warning to light up on the instrument cluster. Fortunately, traction control never seemed to interfere, and could also be turned off by pressing a button. Holding down that same button also turns off the Dynamic Stability Control, which is not advisable unless you are on a track that you know well.

As for acceleration, the 135is took off quickly, like any well-powered sports car. But its engine programming let it rev up to 7,000rpm, giving me more time in the lower gears. It hit 60 mph in second gear, just before hitting redline, and an upshift to third showed the 135is just had more to give.

Just about where most cars would give up, the 135is got another power bump, seeming to increase its rate of acceleration.

2013 BMW 135is
Engine software lets the 135is rev up to 7,000rpm. Josh Miller/CNET

The acceleration was accompanied by one of the best exhaust notes I've heard from a car in a long time. With the window down for maximum auditory stimulation, the exhaust growled aggressively under acceleration. Suddenly letting off the gas pedal resulted in a series of little backfires, as if the 135is had to somehow exhale all that power it had at the ready.

With the windows closed, the car's noise dampening reduces the exhaust note to a low, bass thrumming. It changed tone and tempo with the tachometer needle, making the car seem like an exotic, thereminlike instrument. Really, somebody should sample it.

The beauty of the 135is is that, even with its high-tempo acceleration, it is perfectly drivable in stop-and-go traffic. The manual transmission makes for a little more work when boring driving conditions prevail, but it shifts so well that I didn't mind. When you stop on an ascent, a hill-hold feature steps in to make taking off easier, too.

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
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
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

2013 BMW 135is

2013 BMW 135is

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 9Design 6


See full specs Trim levels 135isAvailable Engine GasBody style Coupe