By on May 5, 2008

128a.jpgMy 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.

128b.jpgAfter 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.

128f.jpgThe 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.

128e.jpgThe 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.

128g.jpgPress 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.

128c.jpgIf 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.

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33 Comments on “2008 BMW 128i Convertible Review: Take Two...”


  • avatar

    Jonny – I also find the “styling” of the 1-series abhorrent. It works slightly in the two- and four-door hatches sold in Europe, but this version is just ugly. And particularly when compared to the rather elegant 3-series coupe from which it draws some of its lines.

    I do find it hard to believe that the inner BMW does not shine through in the 1-series, however. I intended last year to buy a new G35 and liked it very much when I drove it. Yet the 335 was just another notch better; the smoother, torquey six conspired with god’s own handling to pull another $8k out of my wallet and go with the BMW over the Infiniti, despite the rather lackluster interior and non-starter nav system. I had no illusions that it would offer the long term reliability of the Infiniti, either. A year into the 335 and it is still money I’d spend again.

    While I don’t think anyone has awarded it the design of the decade, the 1 with the four cylinder engines has received rave reviews in the press, so it is puzzling to see that when it comes with 230 hp, it turns into a turkey. Ideas?

  • avatar

    Two reviews of the 128i, and neither mentions that the 128i has electric-assist steering, while the 135i has a conventional hydraulic system. Any impact on steering feel?

    edgett: My own sense is that the 1 is suffering as much from high expectations as it’s own shortcomings. On reliability: in TrueDelta’s survey, the 2007 Infiniti G35 is chalking up a higher repair rate than the 2007 3-Series. Though this is largely because of two widespread issues with the seat heaters and sunroof trim, and the 2008s appear to require fewer repairs, I wouldn’t assume that a G35 would be far more reliable than the 3.

    On the 1, it’s in its first year here. But maybe the bugs were worked out in Europe? Time will tell. Sooner rather than later if I can get enough of the things into TrueDelta’s panel.

    http://www.truedelta.com/reliability.php

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    Is a Deathwatch for BMW coming soon?

  • avatar
    Nicholas Weaver

    Michael: I don’t think its just high expectations, its OMFG price! The delta in price between a 1 series and a 3 series is so close, that the question becomes “So why does the 1 exist at all?”

    Anyone who would shell out $44k for a loaded 1 series convertible can shell out $44k for a base 3 series convertible.

  • avatar

    Gottleib:

    Is a Deathwatch for BMW coming soon?

    Don’t be silly.

  • avatar
    seoultrain

    While I agree that the right paddle should upshift and the left one downshift (why should you ever push on paddles?), pulling to upshift and pushing to downshift on the gear lever is the correct orientation. It goes along with inertia, and (I believe) only BMW and Mazda have this right.

    I drove a tiptronic Passat in the past, and almost never used the (backwards) manumatic. It just wasn’t comfortable, and I never got used to it. I now drive an auto Mazda3, and I use the manual function at least every couple minutes.

    I fault lazy engineers who figured (while looking down on the gear lever), “hey, up should be upshift, down should be downshift.”

  • avatar
    ash78

    There is no reason Tiptronics shouldn’t give the driver the option on how they want the paddles/lever to react.

    If Nintendo can offer this sort of option on sub-$100 consoles, surely huge auto manufacturers can do the same.

  • avatar
    Brendino

    a combination only out-dumbed by a fresh-off-the-plane, no-SPF sojourn at an Australian beach.

    Gotta say, I did this one. Promptly followed by stumbling back to my room, sucking down a liter of water, crashing for three hours in the middle of the day, and waking up with seared flesh and a parched throat.

    I feel your pain.

    Another interesting review. Does anyone actually like this car? If it cost 10K less for the same car would there be more than two stars at the bottom? If the 3 series didn’t exist, would people like this more?

  • avatar
    John R

    Meh…$44k?! This sounds like a terrible waste of money.

    G37 w/sunroof and a family vacation, please. Thanks.

  • avatar

    Michael – Thanks for the update on Infiniti reliability. Given the past, however, I wonder more about how things keep working three or four years out. I do think that BMW understands better than most that they will fail unless their reliability begins to approach what Toyota offers.

    I’m also curious about the steering; my S2000 has electric power steering and I think it has about the best steering compromise (between hard-to-steer no-power cars and overly-boosted systems) of any car I’ve driven. OTOH, steering feel also has a great deal to do with chassis compliance, front end geometry and tires.

    I was surprised that there wasn’t more reference to the 3 vs 1 in Jonny’s review. The 3 has been pretty well pumped up in the press (rightfully, in my book), so even though the 1 is heavier than we might have liked, I would have expected a better review from a driving perspective. It’s possible that Jonny doesn’t like BMW’s, and that’s ok as well.

    Finally, I wonder about the continued quest for power. My 335 racks up incredible numbers and is really fun on the track, but in everyday driving I rarely use more acceleration than what my ’01, 187 hp 325 could dish out. 0-60 in seven seconds is faster than I can usually use getting on the freeway, as I’m often stuck behind someone who doesn’t realize that pressure on the right pedal actually will cause the car to increase velocity more quickly. This is particularly annoying when entering the freeway behind an AMG Mercedes driven by someone who just should have bought a Cadillac and been done with it…

  • avatar
    Busbodger

    Instead of comparing the three series to the one series – think of it as a different product.

    Do I like this one or the next one. Sort of like asking do you like the blue one or the red one. They are really close in equipment and price but BMW is offering more choice to the customer. You and your friend can have the very same 3-series or you can go the path less travelled and pice the 1-series and some options.

    I really like the 1-series. I like the 3-series too but would likely buy the one series.

    At least BMW isn’t going the American car maker route and trying to sell us the 3-series in 5 different (but very much the same) versions with different badges and names.

    This is the BMW 3-series. This is the Mini-Grande. This is the Bavarian Special. This is the Deutche Träumerisch. This is the Europäischer Zoom. Yes, I suppose they are really the same car and it is true that 100% of the parts are the same but as you can see the wheel design and the color palates are specially chosen for each customer. Oh, and the prices range from $36K to $80K for the special Bavarian black. This black is a deeper black that is found on the Deutche version with is only 99% black.

  • avatar

    ash78:

    Excellent idea that I’ve never personally thought of or read. But now that you’ve suggested it, it seems obvious.

    The only negative I can think of is that they couldn’t then label the paddles, and people might have to read the manual to learn how to program the things.

  • avatar
    romanjetfighter

    Saw 3 1 series on the road so far, all at CSULB. All driven by chicks!

    I love the pics you took.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    I saw a 1 hardtop parked last night. It was very ugly in person. I can’t believe the paddle operation you described. That’s crazy, what were they thinking?
    And driving through Temecula with the top down? You are a masochist!

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    Roman — thanks!

    Believe it or not, shooting the pics is harder (for me) than the writing. But, I’m getting better.

  • avatar
    ton12

    Next time you test drive near San Diego, check out the Sunrise Hwy from I-8. Windy two-lane mountain hwy where you can test handling, elevation change, cornering, and get stunning views of the desert below.
    I’m sorry. What car are we talking about now?

  • avatar
    rpenna

    A friend of mine is married, 3 kids, decent household income. During one conversation she told me her husband’s “dream car” was a BMW 3 series. This is a guy who has driven pickups his entire life and couldn’t tell you the differences in driving precision between a 3 series or an elantra.

    This speaks volumes as to what BMW/Audi et al are selling. They’re no longer producing european vehicles with great driving dynamics at a premium price. They’re in the business of producing vehicles, available at a lower price point, that are now available to a larger demographic than ever before.

    People who drive an Accord or a VW (or a Silverado, apparently) who covet the luxury nameplate now have the option to own their own piece of the luxury image. Those people will tend to focus on that, rather than the irony that their being able to afford this “image” comes at the cost of the image’s exclusivity.

    So, in that respect, the 1 series should get 5 stars.

  • avatar
    richeffect

    I believe sequential shift levers should always downshift when pushing up and upshifting when pulling down.

    It’s how race cars (champ car) have always done it. It doesn’t sound right in descriptive text, but one should think of pushing forward to downshift and pulling back to upshift.

    I hope they sell a ton of them. That way I can pick up a “babied” example for under 10k and flog the thing out on the track in a few years.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    richeffect:

    granted, and I actually didn’t have much a difficult time with the faux-stick (those frigging paddles, though…) — but my point is… get the stick.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    So everybody hates this thing, I guess?

  • avatar
    incitatus

    ash78 :
    There is no reason Tiptronics shouldn’t give the driver the option on how they want the paddles/lever to react.

    If Nintendo can offer this sort of option on sub-$100 consoles, surely huge auto manufacturers can do the same.

    Great ideea. I love it, and not only that but there are dozens of things that I would like to be able to customize.

    It will never happen in US. What if some yahoo sets it’s paddle shifters up as his heart desires and then gets into an accident because the dumb way he set it up did not really work that great on the road. The yahoo ends up in the ER and then sues the heck out of BMW. I’ll bet you he’d win without problems. Too many lawyers, too little common sense for something like that to become a reality in this country.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    A Bimmer again.

  • avatar
    James2

    Is this an article an argument in favor of dropping the 800-word limit?

    While 1,600 words might be a tad overkill for the average editorial/review/etc. how about considering a 1,000-word limit, so –especially in the case of the always-subjective car review– the writer can better express him/herself.

  • avatar
    GS650G

    I think the price kills it for me. They should leave all the whiz bang shit at the door and just make a great little car with a bit more ultimate driver machine and a little less computer driving machine.

    It’s clear Jonny had his hands full getting any life out of this ride, and that’s inexcusable for a 45K car.

  • avatar
    omnivore

    Wasn’t she Miss Teen South Carolina? A quibble, I know, but think of all the extra sorostitute jokes you could make!

  • avatar
    davejay

    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.

    I have to say, the downshifting-is-forward approach (also found on manumatic Mazdas) actually makes more sense to me; if you’re braking and downshifting, conceptually you don’t have to do work to push the stick forward, and if you’re accelerating and upshifting, same thing applies backwards. It’s mostly a matter of taste, though.

    The paddles neeing to be pushed forward, however, that is just asinine. There’s no good reason for that, except for minimizing the number of downshifts that a driver does themselves (to reduce warranty repairs, perhaps?)

  • avatar
    dgduris

    OMfG Lieberman!

    It has been f’ing 40 here in RI. Ask RF.

    And like you had it so hard driving to 619, where is was, undoubtedly, 60x degrees.

    Oh! The Bimmer – yeah – well they did it right in the 80’s and 90’s. After that, it’s all lease, devaluate, sell and make $ on the margin created by the 1990’s brand-building. Thanks, RWR. Sorry WJC: had nothing to do with you. Munich, look forward, the tii is so – Yikes – 40 years ago!

  • avatar
    seldomawake

    Hm. Does anyone like it? If so, would you please explain why?

  • avatar
    MOSullivan

    Reliability data for a car on the market less than a year is meaningless, unless it’s terrible. That’s the trouble with this sort of data — people want information when a car is new and there isn’t any. By the time there is solid data the car is well into its production run. Buyers end up looking in the rearview mirror and hoping a new model is no worse than the one it replaces. That’s an assumption I would not make about the 335i or the 135i. The twin turbo motor is a different animal from BMW’s normally aspirated ones. Two turbos and a lot of heat present long term maintenance risks, and not only with respect to the turbos and the engine. BMW has a history of heat related failure of plastic components in the engine bay (rad cores, expansion tanks, water pump impellers).

  • avatar
    pfingst

    I finally saw a 1-series in person. It just looks fat with those strange bulges on the doors, near the ground. What a disappointment.

  • avatar
    BEAT

    No thank you I will WAIT FOR THE NEW CRX from Honda at least the CRX is going to be another awesome car for my generation

  • avatar
    skygreenleopard

    rpenna:

    You mention that BMW is selling out by having people like your friend, who normally drives pickups and can’t tell the difference in driving a 3-series and an Elantra, lusting after your BMW.

    Are you kidding me? You’re elitist enough to insist that BMW, who used to make a lauded premium product, used to be appreciable as a luxury product. Now, however, you seem miffed by the fact that a common man seems to know that BMW makes a great car. You appear to be less upset by the actual 1-series than the fact that people can actually afford something like the 1- or 3-series. I thought you liked BMWs for their driving prowess. Why do you seem to resent the fact that their “image” is more commonplace, now? Your snobbery belies your “appreciation” of a true car.

  • avatar
    dte525

    My issue with the 1 series is that they tried to distinguish it from the 3 series. The only problem with this is that the 3 series, in my opinion, is a perfect design. The curves and edges make the car whatever you are looking for when you buy it. By this I mean, the car can be sexy, mean, sporty, classy, luxurious, or whatever else you will. So now BMW goes ahead and takes this perfect car and takes away about half of the good characteristics to create the 1 series. All just to distinguish. And this just the design alone. Not to mention the other faults.


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