After testing BMW 135i and 335i coupes back-to-back, I can reveal that there are only two good reasons to purchase the smaller, cheaper car. Either you need a track day machine or you're an idiot. Otherwise, spend the extra bucks and buy the 335i coupe. The 335i coupe is more attractive, more enjoyable to drive, holds its value better and offers far more real road usability than the 135i. If BMW had made the 135i as a lightweight, no-frills, Bahn-burning turbo rocket ship, they would have created a truly unique, desirable automobile. But they didn't.
Walking up to my 135i tester, it greeted me with the usual Bimmer face that I love. Staring straight into its double-kidney shaped aggression, I thought that maybe the photos really didn't do the car justice. Reaching the side of the vehicle, I nearly dropped my Starbucks latte in disgust.
Just three days prior, I was in Germany on an Air Force operation. I saw all manner of 1-Series hatches on the autobahn, in their natural element, looking graceful at over 240km/h. What I saw upon my return was a transmogrified beast. Not quite a coupe, not quite a hatch; a car that took all the worst styling cues from both. I hated it. The baristas hated it. TSgt Gasaway hated it. Ashleigh and Shannon at my apartment tower hated it. It really is an ugly car.
While sharing the same face, the 335i looks like Catharine Zeta Jones by comparison. I'm no fan of Bangle designs, but the 335i coupe is Bimmer's best melding of power and grace to date.
The 135i's dash harkened back to the driver-focused BMW's of yore. Nestling into the exquisite brown leather sports seats, contemplating the simple, elegant design, I nearly forgot about the 135i's hideous outside. Nearly. My only [Jay Shoemaker-esque] gripe: cheap sun visors that would make Hyundai blush. Oh, and the nominal rear seats.
The 335i's cabin can't match the 135i for clarity of purpose. To wit: iDrive. The huge hump protruding from the 335i's dash not only ruins the lines, but it provides bombardiers and other gadget freaks with an irresistible distraction– to the point where I nearly tested my insurance agent's religious tolerance (i.e. "accident forgiveness"). Of course, the 335i also gets props for adult-compatible rear accommodations.
Munich's twin-turbo, 3.0-liter straight six powers both vehicles. This powerplant should be revered as temples of VANOS. Both 300hp engines scream, Siren-like, beckoning pistonheads to pilot them on a wild journey of legendary proportions. The 135i outruns the 335i, but only just. Side-by-side, the 135i pulled away initially, to about a car length, but lost a bit of ground when both cars shifted into second gear (5.2secs v 5.6secs 0 – 60).
Both testers were auto-box equipped. Quick, smooth, and always at the perfect ratio, the cog-swappers nearly made me surrender my manual mantra. As previously reported, the 135i's auto feels cheaper and slower-witted than the sublime ZF-equipped 335i.
Step on the powerful, easily modulated brakes, toss the cars into a turn and you soon realize only one makes the driver look like they know what they're doing. The 335i never loses its composure. Even broken pavement fails to upset the chassis; the harder you push it, the more it rewards. At the limit, the 335i begs for you to push harder. When you do lose it, just dial in some opposite lock and steer with the throttle. The 335i does everything with poise and grace.
The 135i tells a very different story. On the track, the 135i has no rival. The 135i laughs at the STI and Evo's AWD systems, hangs out its rear end around the corners, and then snaps back in line. The fun ends there. On the real road, the 135i continually fights the driver with heavy steering and an extremely twitchy nature. Where the 335i has suspension control over all surfaces, the 135i bucks and snaps like a cheap Kia. The 135i never flatters the driver; it darts around like a fat, over-caffeinated cheerleader. Alternatively, I felt like a hormone-crazed 16-year-old with a freshly-minted license who'd just "borrowed" someone else's 70's car.
At $43k ($36k base), the 135i is not your average enthusiast's idea of "entry level." For about $4k more (options on both the 1 and 3-series are the same price), or 10 percent of the 135i's purchase price, well-heeled coupe buyers can acquire the more spacious and better-styled 335i. They'd give up a bit of speed for a car that makes you look (and feel) like Sabine Schmitt cruising the Nurburgring.
The poorly-packaged BMW 135i proved too difficult (read: unrewarding) to drive in daily situations. If the 335i didn't exist, you could make a pretty good case for the magnificently-engined 135i. But it does so you can't.