Preparing to shoot a few segments of Big Jon in 5 for BEER2WHISKEY in our upstairs studio at Barley's Taproom in downtown Greenville. That's owner Josh Beebe preparing for his closeup.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BMW 1 Series: BMW Qualities in a Small Wrapper

As an entry-level luxury-sports coupe, the BMW 1 Series excels despite a price tag with the power to repel many potential buyers like a garlic necklace would a vampire. But its hefty price aside, the BMW 1 Series shines in its entry-level role because it is no pretender to the BMW brand. Armed with the same zippy engines that power the 3 Series and a suspension that vanquishes the physics of the tightest curve, the 1 Series is really a 3 Series Lite at heart.

BMW presented me with the $36,675 135i Coupe for this review. There is also a $29,975 128i Coupe. Drop-top versions of both are on the BMW menu, and they inflate the respective prices by about $4,000.

Although there are a few extras, such as 18-inch wheels versus 17-inch ones, as well as a sunroof and automatic climate control to be found on the 135i Coupe that are absent from the 128i, the key feature separating the two is under the hood. The 128i uses a 230-horsepower 3-liter inline six-cylinder engine to turn the rear wheels via a six-speed manual transmission. Sprinting to 60 miles per hour from a standstill requires about six seconds. Bolted to the same manual tranny, the 300-horsepower turbocharged 3-liter inline six pushes the 135i to 60 miles per hour in about a second less.

Those not wishing to stir the transmission themselves can pony up $1,375 for the optional six-speed driver-shiftable automatic tranny. In addition to the manual setting, it offers two automatic modes ("Drive" and "Sport") reflecting an individual's driving style. Sport mode maps up-shifts at higher rpms. Opting for the automatic doesn't alter fuel economy that the EPA estimates at 18 mpg in the city and 28 mpg on the highway for the 128i. The extra performance and driving fun generated by the 135i comes with a fuel economy cost, but not much of one. It shaves 3 mpg from the highway stat.

Exceedingly smooth, both inline engines deliver deliberate and aggressive acceleration. My test 1 Series had the manual transmission. Although the shift gates are close together, they are well defined. The shifting is precise. The clutch engages with a light touch. All of this contributes to a driving experience that is fun and satisfying.

Mitigating forward motion falls to ventilated disc brakes on all four wheels. The antilock system includes stability control, traction control, emergency braking preparation, emergency braking assist and electronic brakeforce distribution.

What would a BMW be without superior cornering acumen? Exhibiting BMW's fabled acuity in the twisties, the 1 Series earned the BMW "propeller" badge affixed to its snout. Comprising the independent suspension are MacPherson struts in front and a multi-link arrangement in the rear. For even sportier performance, BMW tweaks this setup in the 135i for more aggressive handling.

Chocked full of standard features, such as full power accessories, six airbags, leather-wrapped tilt-telescoping steering wheel with redundant audio controls, dual-zone climate controls, leatherette seating, and a 10-speaker audio system with CD player and auxiliary audio input jack, the cabin seats up to four. Actually the stingy bit of space allotted to rear-seat passengers may discourage all but the most flexible from entering its confines. If your regular occupant quotient is more than two, you might want to spend the extra bucks for the larger 3 Series. The trunk contains just a smidgen more than 13 cubic feet of cargo space.

The front bucket seats are comfortable enough, but if you intend tossing the 1 Series around some curves, you should consider the $1,300 M Sport Package. Not only does it include sport seats with meatier side bolsters, it features real wood interior trim, an "M" steering wheel, and special wheels and exterior trim.

Those familiar with the 3-Series will feel right at home in the 1 Series. The surroundings don't look or feel as top notch as in more expensive BMWs, but this is the anchor of the lineup after all. However there is a familiarity in the overall styling, as well as with the arrangement of the controls and switches. BMW interiors tend to be more utilitarian than plush; the 1 Series cabin doesn't deviate from this formula. While some luxury models would have you think you are piloting your living-room sofa down the boulevard, the 1 Series is more like taking your desk chair out for a spin.

Adding Boston Leather surfaces will tack $1,450 to the bottom line; while opting for the hard drive-based navigation system boosts the total price by another $2,100. The $3,400 Premium Package lumps together several popular amenities, such as eight-way power adjustable front seats, auto-dimming outboard and rearview mirrors, digital compass and the Boston Leather upholstery.

Thanks to the run-flat high-performance tires and the tauter sport suspension in my test 135i, the ride was somewhat stiff. Otherwise, the cabin is a rather pleasant place to be on a quick turn to the corner store or a multi-hour cross-country run. Other than the purr of the exhaust note under heavy acceleration, most noise generated outside the cabin stays there.

Any time a luxury marque attempts to broaden its appeal by offering a smaller, less-expensive model, it runs the risk of diluting the brand and cheapening its image; however, the temptation to coax younger, less well-heeled buyers into the brand is difficult to resist. Some efforts are more successful than others. In the case of BMW and its 1 Series, the exercise has produced a car that lives up to the brand with a price tag that reflects that. Pricey, yes; but what you get is a true BMW.

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