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2013 BMW 1-Series Pros and Cons: Why (Not) This Car?

BMW 135is front quarter
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Introduction

Many cars I have trouble writing about, especially within TrueDelta's format, because they're so similar to many competitors that hardly anything sticks out as a high or a low point.

I'm having the opposite problem with the BMW 135is. A Honda Civic (or similar), though about the same size, is much less powerful, front-wheel-drive, and simply not the same class of vehicle. The Nissan 370Z, though significantly closer in appointments and feel, has no back seat. The Audi TT RS is, like the Z, a smaller hatchback, and its even more powerful engine drives all four wheels from a location ahead of the front axle. The car people most often compare the BMW 1-Series to on this site? Its big brother, the BMW 3-Series.

Bottom line: if you want a car like the BMW 1-Series, you want a BMW 1-Series. But do you want one?

1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is front quarter

If a political cartoonist drew a 3-Series... more 1-Series photos

1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is interior

Very BMW. Blue stitching a welcome touch. Textured aluminum trim also nice.

Tested: 2013 BMW 1-Series

2dr Coupe turbocharged 320hp 3.0L I6 6-speed manual RWD

Compared: 2011 Nissan 370Z

2dr Hatch 332-horsepower 3.7L V6 6-speed manual RWD

Why the 2013 BMW 1-Series?

  Compared to the 370Z
Driving position & visibility
Driving position & visibility: Much better Better Worse

You can buy other cars that are at least as quick as the BMW 135is. You can buy other cars that handle at least as well. But good luck finding one with a similarly high and upright driving position. In other BMW coupes and sedans, including the 3-Series, I tend to raise the seat an inch or so for a better view over the make's typically high-mounted instrument cluster. Not in the 1.

Credit (or blame) the 1's unique proportions, apparently the outcome of an experiment in how far a rear-wheel-drive coupe could be compacted and still fit BMW's renowned inline six-cylinder engine and four men of average height. Compared to a 3-Series coupe, the 1-Series rides on a four-inch-shorter wheelbase (105 vs. 109) and has shorter overhangs (overall length of 172 vs. 181 inches), but is a couple inches taller (56 vs. 54 inches).

Not only do you sit higher in the 1, but the windshield is, taller, more upright, and closer. This driving position, the one other BMWs had before they became sleek and luxurious, provides both a more intimate connection to the car and outstanding visibility. (One of TrueDelta's especially petite members loves her 128i because oh how well she can see out of it.) Both benefits make for a more enjoyable and confidence-inspiring drive.

You can't see out of a TT quite as well, though it's far superior to the Z in this regard.  A more prominent hood dominates the forward view in the Nissan. And good luck checking your six The view to the rear is marginal and that to the rear quarters is nearly non-existent.


Handling
Handling: Better Better Worse

Many people don't get the point of compact cars. Well, the point is how they handle. A compact car can (and should) feel more agile than a larger, heavier one.

The BMW 135is could and should feel more agile than it does in casual driving. The fault is with its steering, which is much heavier than that in most other BMWs, much less the typical car today. (You'll encounter similarly heavy steering in the X1 and X3, but very much NOT in the new 3-Series.)

Get a little (or a lot) less casual behind the wheel, though, and both the steering and the car come alive. Steering feedback? More than in other current BMWs, it's here. (It'd be chattier still if the steering wheel weren't so thickly padded.) Pushed, the 135is feels everything good: agile, balanced, tight, composed. Can you use your right foot to help the car rotate through turns? Of course you can, aided by a stability control program and brake-based electronic differential lock unique to the 135is.

The 370Z feels larger, heavier, and less polished. Its much less sophistcated stability control, as much hindrance as help, must intervene often to countract the evil tendencies of its chassis. The 135is is both easier and more enjoyable to drive quickly along a twisting road.

This said, piloting the all-wheel-drive Audi TT RS is easier still. You'd have to do something incredibly stupid to get its rear end to snap around. Another bonus: the Audi's steering doesn't feel nearly as musclebound as the BMW's when you're not getting all fast and furious. This helps make the TT RS more enjoyable in typical suburban driving.

But, as much of a blast as the TT RS is to drive (a big one, I loved my week with the car), its handling isn't as dynamic as the BMW's. Through curves there's a bit more risk in the 135is, but also more reward.


1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is rear quarter Belle Isle

Lots of glass.

1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is instrument panel

Without nav, no iDrive. Everything is close at hand. Climate controls easy, radio controls not.

Powertrain performance
Powertrain performance: About the same Better Worse

If all you're after is handling, then the 135i (or even the 128i with sport package) handles about as well as the 135is. The other 1ers lack some of the chassis electronics, but their tuning is the same.

The primary extra the 135is brings to the table is a bit more horsepower. The turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six that (officially) produces 300 horsepower in the 135i is kicks out 320 in the 135is. I say "officially" because independent dyno tests have found that BMW under-rates the 135i's engine. It might already be good for 320 horsepower. This also might be the case with the 135is. But tests elsewhere have found little difference in acceleration between the two models.

One thing is definite, though: the 135is has an upgraded cooling system, and so is the better choice for especially hard driving (e.g. on a track).

Make that two things: even if the 135is isn't significantly quicker than the 135i, it's pretty darn quick, capable of getting from a dead stop to 60 mph in about five seconds. So are the 370Z and TT RS. In fact, if you're willing to pop the clutch with the engine near the redline, the Audi will take advantage of the additional traction provided by all-wheel-drive to get to 60 in about four seconds.

But drive them with a modicum of care for durability and all three cars are close enough in straight-line performance at quasi-legal speeds to call this area a draw. If the 135is lacks anything in sheer grunt (the 360-horse Audi, though down half a liter, feels torquier), it makes up for it in the superior smoothness, flexibility, and sound of its engine. The BMW also has the slickest shifter of the three.


Front seat support & comfort
Front seat support & comfort: Much better Better Worse

You simply can't find a much better driver seat for a combination of long-distance comfort and support during aggressive cornering than the one in the BMW 135is. The seat feels firm and substantial, but with enough padding that church pew metaphors will remain far from your mind. The side bolsters are power-adjustable, so they can be snug when you want them to be snug, but not otherwise. Neither of the other cars has adjustable bolsters, and the Z's are too widely spaced for my average build. The BMW's seats also felt the most comfortable to me.


Materials & workmanship
Materials & workmanship: Much better Better Worse

The 1-Series might be among the cheapest BMWs, but it still has the look and feel of a BMW. As it ought to, "cheapest" being very much relative in this case. People tend to have certain expectations when a car costs nearly $50,000, and the 135is meets them. Virtually everything feels reassuringly solid (and likely is, judging from the car's 3,300-pound curb weight). Most of the materials are very good if not excellent. Blue stitching in the 135is helps relieve the black interior of an otherwise oppressively dark ambiance.

The granitic Audi's interior is more spartan. The Z has a much larger number of cheap-looking and -feeling interior bits, and it generally doesn't feel as solid as the other two cars.


Why Not the 2013 BMW 1-Series?

  Compared to the 370Z
Exterior styling
Exterior styling: Worse Better Worse

Sorry, I don't have much to offer you in the "why not to buy" area. The BMW 135is has a few reasons the typical person wouldn't buy one, but all of these apply at least as much to any close substitute. So we'll cover these in the neutral zone.

When compared to its closest peers, only one downside stands out, and a highly subjective one at that: unlike the TT, the 135is is not a beautiful car. It's unusual proportions are not nearly as sleek as the Z's. Rather, if a political cartoonist had his way with a 3-Series, the 1-Series could well be the end result. It's stubby, It's funny-looking. It's odd.

But these unique proportions also have a certain charm, especially when combined with the curves of a late Bangle-era BMW, big, twin-spoke alloy wheels, and black trim bits unique to the 135is. Check out the rocker panels in the photos. Their extreme curvature wasn't produced through a fish-eye lens. It's actually there.

English bulldogs aren't pretty, either. But people love them.


Other features of the 2013 BMW 1-Series

  Compared to the 370Z
Quietness
Quietness: Better Better Worse

Evaluating this threesome, Charles Dickens might have written of the BMW 135is, "it was the quietest of the cars, it was the loudest of the cars." You'll experience far less road noise in the 135is than in the other two. Between this and the pervading sense of substance, the 1 seems a proper luxury car. But you will hear plentiful engine noise in the 135is, nearly all of it from the sport exhaust unique to this model.

When cruising the exhaust drones. Lift off the accelerator and it snaps, crackles, and pops. This enhances the driving experience when flogging the car through some twisties. But when casually cruising through a subdivision you'll receive evil looks, perhaps even a shout or two to slow down. Bystanders' ears will inform them you're hooning the car, even when you're not. If your mission requires stealth, the 135is isn't the right car for your mission.


Ride smoothness
Ride smoothness: About the same Better Worse

The BMW 135is has firm springs, ultra-tight dampers, and barely-there tire sidewalls (the tread sizes are 215/40YR18 front, 245/35YR18 rear). Minor potholes can feel like they're taking out a tire and wheel. Thankfully the rock-solid body structure and well-padded seats keep the ride on patchy pavement from seeming downright harsh. I couldn't live with the ride quality of some of the cars I've tested, but I could live with this one.

The Audi rides more smoothly as long as you don't set its adaptive dampers to "sport," The Z's ride is better than the BMW's on some roads but worse on others (its shorter wheelbase makes it more prone to rhythmic bouncing over regularly-spaced expansion joints).


Rear seat room & comfort
Rear seat room & comfort: Much better Better Worse

The Z has no back seat. The TT has one into which only children or unusually short adults can fit, and these only if the people up front cooperate. But, at 5-9, I can actually sit behind myself in the 135is. I don't have much room to spare, but the seat itself is actually fairly comfortable. Given the size and handling of the car, this is almost a "why to buy." But compared to larger cars it's a "why not."


Fuel economy
Fuel economy: Better Better Worse

The EPA rates the BMW 135is for 20 mpg city, 28 highway. The Z (18/26) and TT RS (18/25) fare a bit worse. In my driving the trip BMW's trip computer reported averages around 23 in fairly casual suburban driving (high teens when I couldn't stay out of the gas) and about 30 on the highway. Quite good given the car's performance.


Price or payments
Price or payments: About the same Better Worse

The 135is is a fancy, higher-performance variant of a BMW. Skip the options and the sticker will read $44,145. Most will have at least the optionis on the tested car (metallic paint, heated leather seats, proximity key, Bluetooth) and so list for $48,245. Additional options include nav and premium sound.

A regular 135i equipped as close as possible to the 135is lists for $2,650 less. BMW fans tend to find this price more than fair for the sport exhaust, additional engine cooling, power bump, stability control tweaks, and special appearance bits. People who want to avoid the loud exhaust and/or who won't be tracking the car will find the 135i the smarter buy. Don't especially care for the appearance tweaks of the M Sport Package? Then you can shave another $900 from the price of the 135i.

A 350Z Touring equipped as close as possible to the tested car lists for $41,640, a sizeable $6,605 less. But you simply cannot get many features on the Z. No power seats, No sunroof. No power-folding auto-dimming mirrors. No rain-sensing wipers. No split-folding second-row seat. No second-row seat, period. Adjust for these feature differences and the gap shrinks to only about $2,100. Compare the 135i instead, and the feature-adjusted prices are nearly even.

The TT RS has been a limited-edition model more akin to the 2011-only 1-Series M Coupe than the 135is. So it's going to cost you, assuming you can find a dealer who still has one (2013 is the second and final model year for the car). With metallic paint and heated seats, a TT RS lists for $59,020, $10,775 more than the tested 135is. With the Audi's all-wheel-drive counterbalancing the additional creature comforts of the 135is, the feature adjustment is nearly a wash.

All in all, while the 135is certainly isn't cheap, it seems fairly priced when compared to its closest competitors.


Conclusion

With its high, intimate driving position, communicative steering, and tight suspension, the BMW 135is retains the character that made BMWs popular with driving enthusiasts, but that has been lost from the larger cars as they've been engineered to appeal to a broader and broader market. While the steering of the 135is is a bit heavy for around-town driving, the harder you push the car the better it feels. And you simply can't find such a high, open-yet-intimate driving position in other high-performace cars.

I must confess that I've saved the worst thing about the BMW 135is for the very end of this review: 2013 is not only the first model year for the car, it's also the last. A 135i is nearly as good, but is also in its final year. If you want the mix of attributes that put BMW on the map, and you insist on buying new, you'd better act fast.

1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is engine

Smooth, sweet, and powerful. (Though the sport exhaust can be overly vocal in casual driving.)

1-Series Reviews: BMW 135is trunk

Like the rear seat, serviceable. Could be worse.

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2013 BMW 1-Series pros and cons, according to Michael Karesh: the best reasons for buying (or not buying) the 2013 BMW 1-Series. Join TrueDelta to post your own impressions.
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