2010 BMW 135i Coupe Road Test Review
SINCE ARRIVING on our shores midway through last year, the BMW 135i coupe has been hailed by many – both here and abroad – as one of the best sports cars to come from the Munich-based company.
Equipped with the same twin-turbo powerplant as the bigger 335i and flashier Z4, the 135i is pitched as a more focused, less compromised vehicle.
Luxury and space take a back seat to power and pace, for a purer driving experience.
For 2010 BMW has added some extra fuel-saving technology to the 135i’s spec sheet. But with a starting price in excess of $72,000 is the pint-sized Bavarian simply a very expensive small car, or a bona-fide performance bargain?
Although many were reluctant to embrace the 1 Series’ unique styling after it launched in 2004, the coupe bodystyle launched in 2007 boasted a broader appeal.
The “startled cat” headlights and the rest of the 1 Series hatch’s front sheetmetal are applied to the coupe, but the bubble-topped roofline and truncated boot are unique and endearing features of the two door.
It might look a tad top-heavy to some, but others could justifiably draw parallels between the 135i’s shape and the 1960s-vintage BMW 2002 – or indeed the first-gen E30 M3.
The 135i is bigger than both of them in width, length and height, however, and although it’s the smallest BMW on sale today, it’s spiritual ancestors were even smaller.
But while it might be small by modern standards, the 135i is no shrinking violet. An M Sports bodykit adds a touch of aggression front and rear, with a deeply-contoured front bumper and a sporty rear bumper with a blacked out diffuser-esque panel and a subtle bootlip spoiler. A flexible chin spoiler sits beneath the front bumper.
Aside from looking good, the front bumper is also a functional performance part. The cheek-vents funnel air behind the 135i’s front wheels, actively helping to cool the brakes, while the central aperture channels more air into the engine’s intercooler and radiator.
The metal window frames that are normally chromed on the 1 Series are finished in black chrome on the 135i, and are matched by a pair of black chrome exhaust outlets under the rear bumper.
The 135i’s Xenon headlamps are equipped with BMW’s circular daytime running lights, while the LED tail lights look fantastic when lit up at night.
The 18-inch alloy wheels are sized perfectly for the 135i’s wheelwells, and their staggered width and optimal offset give the small coupe a purposeful athletic stance.
There are a lot of smooth, flowing curves in the 1 series coupe’s sheetmetal. It’s a character-filled shape. It may be small and missing the outright athleticism of its bigger brother the M3, but the 135i has a more breezy personality that makes it easier to like.
Like most BMWs, the 135i’s cabin is well-built and well-presented.
Being based on the budget 1 Series means the some parts of the dashtop and centre console may not feel as top-shelf as other BMW products, but there’s definitely an upper-class ambience about the 135i’s cockpit.
Boston leather upholstery is standard, and is offset with a choice of Burr Walnut, Poplar or brushed aluminium trim. The door inserts are clad in matching leather, and the gearknob and M Sports steering wheel are also covered in cowhide.
Black headliner adds a sporty feel to the interior, and the cabin feels tight around the driver without being claustrophobic. The cockpit is undeniably small though, and there are some annoying compromises as a result.
The window switches are one. They’re placed too close to the driver’s elbow, and operating them can be uncomfortable.
With space at a premium, storage also suffers. The glovebox is a little small, and there’s only a shallow tray under the folding centre armrest rather than a proper storage box. Both doors have integrated map pockets but there’s only one cupholder in the entire car, and using it means the centre armrest must be flipped out of the way.
Although storage space in the cabin may be lacking, there’s a handy 370 litres of volume in the boot. More cargo room can be freed up thanks to the 60/40 split rear seats, which can be folded down from the boot.
Those two rear seats, by the way, are surprisingly comfortable, and rear legroom isn’t as cramped as some so-called 2+2s that boast much larger external dimensions than the 135i.
Equipment and Features
The 135i sits at the top of the 1 Series range, and its standard equipment level reflects its premium position .
Dual-zone climate control, power windows, auto-on bi-Xenon headlights, rain-sensing wipers, Bluetooth phone integration and a trip computer are all standard.
Two satellite navigation systems are offered as optional extras (ours was fitted with the more basic Navigation System Business), and optioning either adds an LCD multi-function display to the dashtop and an iDrive controller to the centre console.
Rear parking sensors are standard, but front parking sensors, a self-dimming rear view mirrors, heated front seats, a sunroof, keyless entry, an alarm and voice-recognition system are cost options.
There's a basic six-speaker radio/single CD system with USB input and 3.5mm auxillary audio jack, however the HiFi System Professional and ten-speaker HiFi Loudspeaker System offer higher-quality sound.
A six-disc CD stacker is available, and it’s an option we’d recommend if ticking the box for the basic sat-nav system. Why? In order to view the map and calculate the route, the basic nav requires the map data disc to be loaded into the audio system’s slot, thus removing the ability to listen to a CD.
Obviously, plugging an iPod or USB memory stick into the stereo is an elegant bypass around the problem, but those with extensive CD collections might prefer the boot-mounted stacker instead.
The 135i’s safety suite is extensive, which is comforting for a car of such diminutive size and prodigious speed.
Front and side airbags for the driver and front passenger work in conjunction with full-length curtain airbags and pretensioning three-point seatbelts to keep occupants safe in a crash.
Helping avoid a crash in the first place is ABS with brake assist, BMW’s Cornering Brake Control system, traction control and stability control.
The centerpiece of the 135i is BMW’s award-winning twin-turbocharged inline six, which also propels the 335i and Z4 sDrive35i
Displacing three litres and equipped with direct injection and variable timing for both the inlet and exhaust valves, the all-alloy six produces 225kW and 400Nm. Peak torque is available from just 1300rpm all the way to 5000rpm, and maximum power is on tap at 5800rpm.
Both turbos operate in parallel rather than sequentially, and power delivery is remarkably smooth, if slightly laggy. The engine redlines at 7000rpm, but all of the twin-turbo six’s power is available well before the tachometer tops out.
BMW’s official fuel economy claim for the 135i stands at 9.2 l/100km and, despite our vigorous driving techniques, we saw an average figure of 10.6 l/100km displayed on the trip computer.
It’s a good result for a three-litre turbocharged performance engine, and one that has in-part been achieved through the introduction of select EfficientDynamics technologies to the 135i.
Regenerative braking is used to top up the battery, reducing load on the alternator and cutting fuel-wasting drag on the engine.
A gearshift prompt in the instrument panel of manual-equipped cars tells the driver which gear to be in to maximize fuel economy. It’s a small addition, but following the prompts yields surprisingly frugal fuel consumption.
The EfficientDynamics technology is claimed to offer a four percent improvement in fuel economy for the 135i. The car’s still far from being a tree-hugger, but with the 135i requiring pricey 98 octane petrol any reduction in fuel consumption is welcome.
A six-speed manual is the standard transmission, with a six-speed automatic also available. The auto gets a pair of paddle shifters to enable the driver to select their own ratio, but BMW’s push/pull layout for the paddles can confuse or frustrate drivers who prefer a more conventional left/downshift, right/upshift arrangement.
Power is directed to the rear wheels only. A proper limited-slip differential is missing from the 135i’s drivetrain, but an electronic substitute helps quell wheel slip by braking the rear wheels independently.
Trackday enthusiasts seeking a mechanical LSD will have to look to the aftermarket, but the e-LSD does a good enough job for street driving.
Balancing the 135i’s power is a set of brakes that are virtually as large as the car is small. Huge six-piston calipers clamp 338mm rotors at the front and two-piston calipers are paired with 324mm rotors up back.
BMW’s Cornering Brake Control assists the driver by redistributing braking pressure when decelerating hard in a corner, minimizing the effect of trail braking and reducing the likelihood of the car spinning.
A MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension layout is utilized by the 135i, and springs, dampers and anti-roll bar rates are unique to the high-performance model.
Linking the engine, brakes and suspension to the tarmac are four Dunlop SP Sport 01 DSST run-flat tyres fitted on 18-inch lightweight alloy wheels. Tyre widths are staggered, with the front tread patch measuring 215mm wide and the rears 245mm wide – a necessity, given the engine’s substantial tyre-immolating torque.
Insert the key fob, punch the starter and the inline six quickly settles into a smooth, baritone idle. The 135i’s aural signature is understated, quiet even, when at a gentle cruise.
From the driver’s seat, the 135i handles urban roads with aplomb. The abundance of low-down torque enables effortlessly smooth takeoffs from stoplights and the suspension is superb. Damper valving errs on the firm side, but manages to prodice an almost perfect mix of dynamic control and compliance.
Thanks to their stiffer sidewalls, the run-flat tyres jar a bit over bumps though. They also transmit a fair amount of road noise into the cabin, and coarse and broken surfaces make the 135’s interior a little noisy. There is also a bit of wind noise from the wing mirrors.
Drivers who opt for the manual transmission may find the shifter to be notchy and reluctant at first, but you eventually learn at what point in the rev scale that it’s happiest to shift and the action becomes smoother.
Sixth gear is tall, although the shorter differential ratio has the 135i’s engine spinning slightly faster than the non-turbo 125i. Still, for a focused sports coupe, the 135i is a comfortable grand tourer.
Head for the hills though, and the 135i shows its true colours. It’s classic sportscar stuff – old-school RWD principles paired with one of the best engines of our time.
That twin-turbo six is positively silken in the way it revs; it’s never harsh, never strained. BMW claims the engine can launch the 135i from zero to 100km/h in just 5.3 seconds.
The gear ratios are spaced so that redline in second gear sees you at the national speed limit, meaning especially tight mountain roads can be attacked in a single gear. You only need then to concentrate on steering, throttle and braking, using the motor’s ready low-down torque to slingshot the car from apex to apex.
Weighing in at 1485kg the 135i is no featherweight, but the way it floats from corner to corner is just sublime. The inherent balance of the chassis is extraordinarily good, and it allows a moderately skilled driver to teeter on the edge of oversteer without the threat of a snap spin.
The steering is nicely weighted, and neither uncomfortably heavy nor over-assisted. It’s not the most communicative wheel out there, but it gives you a good feel for what the wheels are doing and just how much front-end grip is left.
Being rear-wheel-drive, judicious use of the throttle can also be called upon to help steer the car. Thanks to a near 50-50 weight distribution, it’s a cinch to dial up oversteer and point the 135i’s nose further into a corner.
There is also some security in the knowledge that BMW’s excellent stability control system will step in before things get too messy.
Left on, slides are stopped before they happen and wheelspin is virtually nonexistent. Pressing the DTC button allows a degree of yaw and wheelspin before the stability control cuts in, while holding the button for five seconds completely deactivates the system.
The manual shifter comes alive during spirited jaunts, losing its low-speed recalcitrance and neatly slotting into each gate with just a flick of the wrist.
The 135i simply gets better and better the harder you drive it, and every aspect of its performance – the power, the grip, the feel of the steering – all conspire to put a mile-wide grin on the driver’s face.
Sure, its interior layout isn't the best, and it doesn't have the same badge cachet as an M3, but it's a serious sports car - and a damned good one at that.
The engine boasts bottomless reserves of torque and a powerband that’s unusually flexible for a turbocharged unit.
Coupled with a gearbox that works best when at full tilt and a neutral chassis that delivers huge grip AND a comfortable ride, the 135i’s mechanical package is one of the best around.
Its $72,230 starting price (options will quickly see that number skyrocket) may deter some, as there are faster cars on the market for less money.
But consider this: an FPV F6 won’t handle as tightly, an Evo X won’t engage the driver as much and a 370Z is hugely impractical by comparison.
If you want a car that combines scintillating all round performance with equal amounts of practicality and brand prestige, then the little 135i is, quite frankly, the best package out there for the money. Retailing for half the cost of an M3, the little coupe delivers a mighty bang for a modest buck.
With an uprated model reportedly waiting in the wings (240kW and 450Nm are the numbers promised), the 135i may one day challenge the M3 for the BMW performance crown.