Take all the best memories you have of the original BMW 3-Series and the 2002, the now-almost-legendary model it replaced. Add what you remember about the original M3 as a quintessential performance coupe, with great suspension and performance. Recall how these pioneering sports coupes offered a reasonable ratio between price and performance. But alas, as the 3-Series advanced in years and added weight and girth, all of those attributes receded into memory. Until now.
After a marvelous spring day in the coastal hills of northern California with the high-performance BMW 135i coupe and its sunny cruising counterpart, the 128i convertible, we can report that BMW has brought all of those great motoring capabilities back to life in the new 1-Series.
The basis for both of these models is the 125, marketed in Europe in a five-door hatchback model as an entry-level BMW and powered by BMW's base 230 horsepower six-cylinder engine.
The opportunity for the introduction of this line into North America, where BMW carefully protects its reputation for premium high-performance automobiles, was the addition of the 300 horsepower twin-turbo version of the inline six to the 3-Series coupe last year and the development of the convertible body style on the 125 chassis.
Put these together, and you've got the perfect bookends for BMW's reappearance in the $30,000 price range, which it had vacated as 3-Series prices pushed north.
Starting out on a foggy, chilly Monterey morning, we grabbed the keys of a 135i coupe, pausing briefly to note that the designers had compressed all the BMW styling cues -- kidney grilles, purposeful front end, and edgy cutlines -- into a neat package.
The 135i comes standard with functional M-style aero panels that actually increase downforce and cool the brakes. In a bow to the 2002, a sharp ridge runs from the bonnet opening to the taillights just under the greenhouse.
Without the aero styling, the convertible is smoother and softer in profile, more sensual and less menacing in its appearance. Sharing many of the same panels and hard points as the original hatchback and the coupe siblings, the belt-line is slightly higher than a designer might prefer for a convertible, Nevertheless, it doesn't detract from the pleasant appearance of the convertible, and with the soft-top up, the car is pleasingly proportioned.
Looking at the car as a whole, it does have a somewhat quirky appearance. It's a little bit stumpy, but that's not unusual for a car of this size. We just think it could be a little bit more slender in some areas.
After a quick blast up Route 1, we headed inland on the twisty roads over Hecker Pass into the Almaden Valley south of San Jose. Within minutes, it was clear that the new BMW 1-Series is going to be a hit.
The freeway onramp provided an opportunity to feel the 5.3 second zero-60 speed as we merged into the morning rush. Slipping down a gear, it was easy to get get from 55 to 90 to slice through pokey freeway traffic, but the real fun was still ahead.
After clearing the morning bustle of small-town Watsonville, we climbed the switchbacks through the coastal hills, controlling the car's sure-footed balance and responsive turn-in directly, rather than having it filtered through some electronic engineer's idea of correct cornering.
By the time we hit Route 9 north up out of Saratoga (a road so well-known it has its own write-up in Wikipedia), we were totally in synch with the handling and gearing. We were in performance-car heaven as sweeping curves were punctuated by climbing switchbacks. Corners that should require second-gear were shoved behind us in third as the turbos of the engine sang pushing out 300 pound-feet of torque.
My only unfulfilled wish was with the shifter. While perfectly adequate, the throws are long, making the shift changes seem out of character with the tautness of the handling and power. It's a safe bet that a short-shifter for this car is already in some online aftermarket catalog, since the six-speed transmission is shared with the 3-Series offerings.
With the sun now high in the sky and the temperatures within range of the climate control system, we swapped into a 128i convertible with the 230 horsepower naturally aspirated engine and six-speed automatic. In all respects, this package is the cruising complement to the track-capable 135i.
Not that there is anything wrong with an auto-box convertible. On the contrary, with the soft-top down, the grass green on the hills -- a spring-only phenomenon in the Golden State -- and the wild mustard already in bloom, those same tight curves above steep valley drop-offs could now be enjoyed as scenic vistas, rather than road-course apexes.
Though not offering neck-snapping acceleration, the non-turbo engine is more than capable of sustaining freeway speeds, even on steep uphill climbs, as we confirmed on precarious Highway 17 between San Jose and Santa Cruz. The same suspension that allows high speed handling on the 135i provides sure-footed stability in the 128i, counterpointing the smoothness of the automatic gearbox.
As we paused on Skyline Drive, a bikers' mecca above Silicon Valley, to catch our breath admire the crystal-clear view over Stanford north to the towers of San Francisco and the Oakland Bay Bridge, we had a chance to survey the interior. After all, aotmotive satisfaction isn't all about driving performance.
The rear seat, about the same size as in BMW's Mini Clubman, isn't going to encourage long trips with another couple, but the combination of trunk space and an opening through the rear seats will allow two golf clubs or skis and equipment to be carried with ease.
Our one real issue with the interior we had with some of the test cars is the shiny embossed metal trim accenting the console and dash. Luckily, there is another trim material available (shown in our gallery), and it's a heck of a lot nicer looking.
Overall, the 1's interior is excellent. We haven't see anything else this good in this class. Not only does it have a nice feel, it looks great too. All BMWs share a similar interior design theme. On the $100,000 M6 it's a bit underwhelming, but on a $30,000 sports coupe it's absolutely fantastic.
The interior is everything the BMW owners have come to expect, trimmed in functional black with purposive switches and knobs. The infamous BMW iDrive does come standard if the navigation option is checked, but We expect most 135i buyers will prefer to just toss an aftermarket nav system into the glove compartment for trips into uncharted territory.
The iDrive has gotten better over the years -- at least it can be programmed by the owner to do standard things easily -- but it doesn't seem to fit the 135i. A puristic sports car like this could do without the unnecessary gadgetry.
Dynamic Stability Control and Dynamic Traction Control are standard, but set for a higher threshold than typical handling-meister systems, so we didn't even bother to switch them off. Even with spirited driving, they didn't intrude but it was nice to know they would be there to keep the car from going off the narrow road if we did hit a batch of early-morning moisture in a shady turn.
In many ways, the 1-Series scores well in the technology department for its restraint. Unlike BMW's larger vehicles, electronics play a minor role, rather than a major one.
This won't be just an entry point for budget-conscious admirers of the blue-and-white Roundel. We think it's going to appeal to enthusiasts who still prefer to do their own driving in an appropriate machine rather than relying on high-tech wizardry to master a car too heavy or powerful for their capabilities.
We can't wait to see how the 135i coupe does on the track. It may be the vehicle of choice for a whole new group of drivers to improve their driving skills and satisfy their need for speed within the growing track-day motorsports hobby.
Words by Gary Anderson; photos by Mark Elias