My plan: drive the metallic blue BMW 128i Convertible down to San Diego. I could've clichéd down the coast, stopping off in Yorba Linda to do donuts in the parking lot of the Nixon Library. That's what a sensible person would do. But the true masochist always chooses the route less traveled. So, straight from the heart of Hollywood, I loaded up the Bimmer's minuscule trunk, saddled my semi-potent Deutsche-steed and set off through the seriously Lynchian Inland Empire. Unseasonably hot, 97-degree late-April weather be damned.
Within 60 miles, it was clear I was the one who was damned. Perching on leather seats without a roof on a cloudless day is a combination only out-dumbed by a fresh-off-the-plane, no-SPF sojourn at an Australian beach. Sure, I could have pulled over and raised the 128i's lid. But I'm a journalist damn it! Heatstroke is who I am and what I do.
After building the bridge on the river Kwai, I left the 215 in Upland. Could the BMW 128i really be this awful? Seriously; 60 miles had never felt so tortuous. I could only justify the misery by telling myself that the hot, windy, loud and uncomfortable ordeal was good practice for my upcoming LeMons race. But in reality, there is no way a $100 Volvo could be this bad.
I consulted the Geneva Convention over something frozen and caffeinated. I pressed on, top folded. The [optional] 740k-way adjustable sport seats were hateful devices. Though I can't say they lacked a peel; I was literally stuck to the material. The 128i's steering wheel is so fat it's fatiguing to hold. At 85 mph, wind noise was five drums past bombastic. The radio was useless and the air conditioning was out of breath before it finished the first set of reps.
The 128i Convertible's gearing and its 3.0-liter inline six conspired to place the car into a dead zone at a slower-than-traffic 75 mph, while simultaneously providing no torque to accelerate away from angry Sequoias bearing down on the back of my exposed head.
In short, the 128i Convertible was more taxing than Denmark.
South of Temecula wine country, just when I was ready to drive straight into a tree, I spied a delightful road wending its way up a mountain. I knew I needed photos. More importantly, shade. Yup, I'd discovered a gorgeous one laner. The up-‘til-then dreary-beyond-belief 128i suddenly, surprisingly, sprang to life.
The 128i's chopped chassis– stolen from the larger 3-series– is a miracle of modern engineering. Attack a corner and you can feel the Euclidian perfection of the Bimmer's suspension at work. The car's frame seems to bend as you turn the wheel– in a good way. Straighten out and the mini (no caps) BMW does the same. It's not a Porsche Boxster, but it's not so very much not a Boxster, either.
Additionally, with the Steptronic transmission set in shift-myself mode, the 128i's 230 horses and 200 units of torque left nothing to be desired, even for a self-professed lead foot.
Unfortunately, if you let the tranny choose gears on its own, it's utter trash. Let me back up. It's not the transmission itself that stinks. Rather it's the slushbox and the electrowhizbangery working together that ruin the 128i. Push the (yawn) starter button. In default mode, the lightning-quick throttle response featured on every BMW worth its roundel is notable by its absence. Instead you're treated to confounded CAFE-related hesitancy and near-constant upshifting. So that's terrible.
Press the 128i's DTC button (Dynamic Traction Control) and it "rewards" you with a slightly quickened throttle response plus some sort of respite from the all-conquering handling nanny. However, the computer shifts and shifts and shifts. If you slide the gear lever to the right to activate DS (Drive Sport), the autobox holds the gears all the way to 6500 rpm, just 500 spins short of redline. BUT– lift off for a corner and the gearbox is as clueless as last year's Miss South Carolina.
The solution: keep it in DS, but pretend-row the gears yourself by either pushing und pulling on the stick or flapping the paddles, right? Wrong. First of all, if you push up on the stick you're upshifting. Just kidding, you're actually downshifting. The paddles are even more backwards. Pull the right paddle towards you and it upshifts. Yank the lefty and… it also upshifts. You need to push on either paddle to grab a smaller gear. Trust me — you will mess this up, probably when you need it most.
If the 128i came with a third pedal and a proper stick, would I buy one? Absolutely not. Our tester stickered at $44,375. For just $3k more I could grab a Shelby GT500 Convertible. It's not only an infinitely superior tanning machine, but the thuggee Ford doesn't look like a pregnant, pygmy hippo. Case– and roof– closed.