History is bunk. Although cars like the Jaguar XK120, Shelby Mustang and Porsche 911 have become legends, their modern equivalents offer far superior driving dynamics. And greater reliability. And safety. But it is their "soul" that resonates: the combination of icnoclastic style and man – machine zeitgeist. So when enthusiasts (and BMW PR) started comparing the new 135i to Bimmer's venerable 2002, expectations were sky high. The reality is more like a fat guy limbo dancing under a pole raised six feet off the ground.
My paranoid-delusional theory: BMW intentionally botched the 135i. If executed properly and sold with a mid- to upper-20s price tag, the 1-Series would have eaten the 3-Series' breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not to mention the toll it would have taken on sales of the BMW-owned MINI. So The Boys from Bavaria grabbed a 3-Series, screwed it up a bit, kept the hatch for the Eurozone and said "here is your entry level car."
Even a quick glance tells you BMW doesn't believe in reincarnation. The 2002's huge greenhouse dominated its exterior. The 135i is the exact opposite. The new Bimmer's beltline rides absurdly high; an accurate indication of submariner visibility. Even by modern BMW standards, the 1-Series is a bit of an odd duck. The front end is contempo BMW, but the headlights are more cubist X3 than sleek 7-Series. The trunk looks like it's taller than it is deep. There is nothing iconic or beautiful about the 135i. It's a rolling caricature of a virtually identical car.
In fact, the 1-Series' looks like a trash-compacted 3-Series coupe. Yes, the 135i continues Chris Bangle's axles of power flame-surfaced design theme (and how). And yes, some elements are distinctly appealing. The base of the rear pillar, for example, has a lovely retro curve to it. But when compared to the form-follows-function minimalism of its alleged ancestor, the 1-Series coupe is nothing more than an automotive affectation.
The 135i's interior offers a welcome return to basics. Bargain hunters will be well pleased that the materials deployed throughout the 135i's cabin are virtually identical (in quality) to those found in the 3-Series. The 135i's dash design is considerably better. The center stack is oriented toward the driver– a BMW interior hallmark I've missed in the years since BMW realized the orthodontists leasing their cars didn't give a damn.
Dentists' chairs are more comfortable than 135i's standard-issue front seats; even if you include the drilling. The seats' inverse side bolstering places you on top of a leatherette covered hill. Continuing a less noble BMW tradition, righting this ergonomic wrong costs big bucks. That'll be $1500 for leather and another grand for sport seats– which come packaged with Shadowline Exterior Trim, an M-Leather-Wrapped Steering Wheel, Increased Top Speed Limit and all-caps spelling.
The 135i's back chairs will not accommodate anyone: you, me, children, smaller children, junior members of The Lollipop Guild or Jay Shoemaker's chihuahua. The rear accommodations are barely sufficient for a decent-sized backpack, never mind a pair of homo sapiens. Not that it matters. The 135i's front seats are mounted so close together you can't reach into the back. And now, the good news…
Thanks to its 300 horsepower turbocharged inline six, driving the 135i is like strapping yourself to a Flüssigkeitsrakete. Until you get used to the thrust, ramming the tach needle into the red line transforms the neophyte into nothing more than spam in a can, flung at the horizon by God's own right hand. BMW says the zero to sixty sprint takes just 5.1 seconds. I doubt it. It seems much faster. And yet, after a while, the 135i leaves red-blooded drivers wanting more gears, more space and a higher speed limit (see: above). It's too bad the rest of the car is just luggage.
The 135i's dynamics are distinctly "piano like." By this I mean it drives as if there's a piano strapped to the roof. And no wonder, the 135i tips the scales at 3373lbs. (When BMW and Edmunds described the 135i as the 2002's successor, they must have been talking about the 2002 model year 330i.) Even with the mighty mill motivating the mass, despite the fact that it's lighter than the equally powerful 335i, the 135i feels heavy on its feet. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty of grip. But someone forgot to add nimbleness.
The 135i's steering is a big part of the problem; its ponderousness makes turn-in an unnecessarily onerous chore. The 135i's manual transmission doesn't help matters. Like most latter day Bimmers, the clutch is a two-footer that engages with rubbery imprecision. And while the 335i has a most excellent ZF automatic transmission, the 135i does not. The smaller car's French-made six-speed auto is jerkier and more dim-witted than its big brother's cog swapper.
With the 135i, BMW decided to have its cake and ate it too. Maybe that's why the 135i is so fat. I guess BMW couldn't offer a beautiful, affordable, spirited entry level car below the 3-Series, but not have a car below the 3-Series. Rather than "make it fun" or "make it practical," BMW sent us a slightly smaller, marginally less expensive, much less attractive 3-Series. Damn it's quick. But a 2002 for 2008 it most definitely is not.