From reader-but-not-commenter Paul Stanley (save the comments, B&B) comes a review of what he feels to be the last enthusiast-focused Bimmer — JB
BMW’s neue klasse marked the beginning of an era of driver-focused cars in the 1960s by introducing a lightweight, moderately powered car that sought balance and usability above all else. Perhaps more importantly, it was affordable and not overly complex. The 2002 was a driver’s car, and so was the 3 Series that followed.
Then, in 2008, BMW introduced the 1 Series to the US market.
Touted as part 2002, part shrunken 3 Series, the lowly 1er came to us in coupe and convertible forms, and in 128i and 135i flavors. The 2008 135i was the show stealer with its excellent N54 twin turbo, 3-liter inline-six engine underhood. Producing 300 horsepower and 300 lbs-ft of torque, it blasted through the quarter mile in 13.3 seconds. The limited-run “1M,” not to be confused with the M1, became an instant collectible, commanding crazy prices on the used market.
The lesser 128i, with 230 horsepower and 200 lbs-ft of torque from a normally aspirated 3-liter inline six, was easy for the statistics-oriented driver to overlook. Indeed, it seemed destined to become the new “secretary car” of the BMW lineup. Though it offered a low base price just under $30,000, the 128i was frequently ordered with an automatic transmission and loaded up with convenience options. The sunroof was also a mandatory option on early builds, ballooning the weight and price while decreasing driving pleasure and reliability.
Yet many reviewers knew the 128i was the smart buy of the lineup, even as they lamented the loaded-up state of their test cars. The 128i undercut the 135i by $8,000 while avoiding weight and complexity, singing a sweeter song, and upholding tradition. But unless you ordered one new, what are the odds today of finding one with only the enthusiast boxes checked? Do the used market players have any chance of finding this sweet spot, this 21st century 2002?
Sometimes we enthusiasts get lucky during our idle car browsing, and I got so lucky.
Two days before Christmas 2015, I picked up a 2013 128i. It was painted Alpine White and equipped with only two options, the Coral Red Boston leather interior and the M Sport package. I have finally found my own neue klasse. Yet this one’s at the end of an era, rather than beginning, and I’ve found myself thinking of it as the alte klasse — BMW’s swan song to the purist, if you will.
Eschewing fanciness such as navigation, a sunroof, or flappy paddle gearboxes, this is a car ordered by a driver. The original owner traded it in with just 8,300 miles, apparently succumbing to new-Miata mania. The 1er’s stubby exterior styling enables a cockpit which comfortably accommodates four average-sized adults for short jaunts. My leggy, six-foot-tall wife sits in relative comfort with our six year old on a booster behind her, neither complaining once on a 90-minute drive. Even more impressively, a rear-facing child seat fits perfectly on the deck between the two back seats, meaning this car is just as usable for a small family as the 2002 was for a generation that didn’t need crossovers.
Outward visibility is excellent in all directions, and the lack of Xenons on my car is fine by me, since that would’ve required ordering the premium package as well. The car is a delight to drive, quick enough to be fun but slow enough to let me wind out the gears and hear the straight-six yawp through the BMW Performance intake. A run from 0-60 clocks in just under 6 seconds. The optional BMW Performance brakes were fade free during a seven-tenths mountain drive to Lick Observatory outside of San Jose. And the six-speed manual is crisp and precise, complementing the engine’s smooth, linear nature.
Since the introduction of the 3 Series in 1977, we’ve seen various performance evolutions from the simple E30 M3 up to the current high-tech F80/F82 M monsters. Certainly BMW has moved away from mechanical simplicity and towards electronic wizardry. In 2014, my car’s replacement, the 228i moved BMW even further in that direction, swapping the inline six for a turbocharged four.
BMW can keep their turbocharged fours and their enhanced electronics. I’ll keep this car for myself. The 2013 128i marks the end of an era, and I’m celebrating it on every on-ramp, every mountain road, and every trip down the California coast.