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Review: 2012 BMW 135i Convertible


Up Front

Last spring, while taking a bunch of cars on quick test-drives back to back, I had an epiphany: Tooling around in a BMW (BMWA) convertible on a sunny day with the top down and the throaty engine growl echoing in your ears is one of the all-time great pleasures of modern-day driving. That realization led me to book the 2012 BMW 135i convertible for a week-long test drive. I came away feeling conflicted.

The joy was there, for sure. The 1 Series convertibles—the 128i and 135i—are like sawed-off versions of the 3 Series convertibles, which are among the best ragtops ever made. Speed, agility and handling are all similar. Drop the ragtop, which takes just 22 seconds, and you get the same rush as you do in a 3 Series convertible.

The 1 Series convertible, however, is nearly 10 inches shorter and slightly narrower than the 3 Series. Personally, I’d have a hard time paying a premium price for a tiny car with such a remedial rear seat. Then again, the Porsche 911 has a remedial rear seat, too, and I love the 911 …. As I say, this little Bimmer leaves me feeling conflicted.

I prefer the 2012 135i convertible to the 128i. That’s because BMW’s super-fast-shifting, dual-clutch, seven-speed automatic is available as an option on the new 135i for just $450 (a six-speed stick shift is standard on both models). You can add a leather-wrapped steering wheel and paddle shifters for another $100. In the 128i, the automatic doesn’t cost extra, but it’s an older, less efficient six-speed Steptronic.

If you haven’t yet tried the new German double-clutch transmissions, test one out. They’re dynamite. They shift faster than any human can, which is why many German cars (including the 135i) are now slightly quicker with an automatic than with a stick. BMW’s terrific speed-sensitive steering system also is available as an option on the 135i convertible for $1,550, but isn’t offered on the 128i.

The other obvious advantage of the 135i convertible is more power—provided by a marvelous a turbocharged, 3.0-liter, 300-horsepower inline six-cylinder engine, the same one that comes in the 335i. The 128i is powered by a naturally aspirated 230-hp version of that engine, the same one found in the 328i.  (In theory, speed junkies who don’t want a ragtop could opt for the limited production 1-Series M Coupe, which is powered by a twin-turbo engine rated at 335 horsepower. A BMW spokesman, however, says the 1 Series M coupe is sold out in the U.S. and “at this stage it would be very difficult to find one.”)

Of course, you pay extra for the 135i convertible, which starts at $44,675 with a stick shift, compared with $37,475 for the 128i, but I think it’s worth the premium. By comparison, the 328i and 335i convertibles, which start at $47,325 and $53,525, respectively, cost nine or 10 grand more.

One downside is that fuel economy drops slightly if you go with the 135i and dual clutch automatic. With the automatic transmission, the 135i convertible is  rated to get only 18 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway, or 20 mpg on average, down from 18/28/22 with a stick shift. The 128i convertible is rated exactly the same with a stick shift but does slightly better than the 135i with an automatic (18/28/21).

The 2012 1 Series doesn’t yet have government crash-test ratings. The convertible, however, comes with pop-up rollover hoops and special head-protecting side airbags, as well as front bags and stability and traction control.

BMW has been doing great this year, with U.S. sales hitting 193,565 units in the first eight months of the year, up 14.6 percent from last year. The gains, however, are mainly from SUVs (the new BMW X3 had a 254.1 percent sales gain through August). Sales of most BMW car models are off, and the 1 Series is no exception. U.S. sales of the 1 Series fell 31.3 percent, to just 5,898, in the first eight months of this year compared with the same period in 2010.

Behind the Wheel

A big appeal of the 135i is its quickness. The car accelerates from zero to 60 in 5.4 seconds with a stick shift and 5.3 seconds with a dual-clutch automatic. The 128i is a full second slower (6.4 seconds) with a stick shift and falls way behind (to 7.0 seconds) with the Steptronic automatic. That yawning time difference is one measure of the superiorty of the dual-clutch automatic.

There’s virtually no turbo lag when you punch the gas in the 135i. Acceleration is very smooth and linear. The suspension, stability, and traction control systems in the 135i are all the same as in the 335i, so handling is very similar—which is to say, fabulous.

BMW upgraded the controls in the 135i for 2012, but the interior still isn’t particularly fancy. Leatherette upholstery is standard, with Boston leather available in a $2,350 premium package. A big appeal of the leather upholstery is that it’s treated to reflect sunlight, keeping the seats as much as 20 degrees cooler with the top down on sunny days.

Statistically, head and leg space are about the same as in the 335i, but the 135i’s cabin feels much smaller. Shoulder space is noticeably diminished. Designers clearly had trouble squeezing cupholders into the 135i’s front seating area: The passenger cupholder is jury-rigged onto the center console, while the driver cupholder is under the armrest, so the armrest has to be in the raised position for it to be used. I’m only 5 ft. 10 in. tall, and with the front seat set for my height, the rear seat had virtually no leg room.

The trunk is kind of puny, too—a mere 8 cu. ft. with the top down.  That’s par for the course, however, for a convertible: The 335i convertible only has 9 cu. ft. of trunkspace with the top down. The 135i’s trunk can accommodate two golf bags with the top down, BMW says—and a pass-through into the rear seats with a protective cargo bag is big enough to hold a third golf bag, or two snowboards.

The exterior styling of the 1 Series is a big negative, as far as I’m concerned. It’s supposed to call up memories of the iconic BMW 2002 sedan, but to me it looks dumpy next to the longer, sleeker 3 Series. The 135i’s exterior was refreshed slightly for 2012, but the changes are barely noticeable. The headlights were altered slightly, and the taillights were given the hockey-stick look found in other BMW models. The hockey stick is now outlined in LED lights, which is very cool looking.

Buy It or Bag It?

There’s nothing else on the market quite like the BMW 1 Series, so it’s hard to come up with direct competitors. The 135i is relatively pricey, however, considering its small size. The 2012 135i convertible sells for an average of $49,066, according to the Power Information Network, about $5,000 more than the 135i Coupe. That’s only slightly less than the 2012 Audi (VOW:GR) A5 Cabriolet ($49,757), which is considerably bigger.

Among Detroit models, General Motors’ (GMChevy Camaro SS convertible goes for $41,079, on average, according to PIN, and Ford’s (FMustang Shelby GT 500 convertible for $57,741. Bargain alternatives include the 2012 VW Eos, which has a retractable hardtop ($34,730), and the Mini Cooper S convertible ($31,973).

If you’re dead set on owning a BMW convertible, the 1-Series is an excellent starter model. It’s worth considering stepping up to the 3 Series, however, if you can afford to.

Click here to see  more of the 2012 BMW 135i convertible.


Thane Peterson reviews cars for Businessweek.com.

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