– Sports-car handling
– Sports-car acceleration
– Sports-car fun
– Hard ride quality
– Cramped rear seating
– Very expensive
The 1-Series hatchback was unceremoniously launched years ago, touted as an entry-level BMW for young people who can’t afford the 3-Series. Years later, the same young people voted with their wallets, skipping the undesirable One and saving up for the Three anyway, at least in this region. BMW is now trying to rectify that expensive blunder by expanding the 1-Series line-up with a two-door coupe and its soft-top variant. A more powerful set of engines were also thrown in for good measure. Which brings us to our 135i convertible tester, easily the most ‘funtastic’ car we’ve driven in months.
The looks aren’t anything to write home about. While the 3-Series is perfectly proportioned, the two-door 1-Series was forced to stay short in keeping with its sub-compact categorisation, looking like a cartoon version of the M3. The 18-inch alloys don’t appear as big as they should on this tall car, but the googly-eyed geek gets sportier bumpers than the hatchback to make it more manly. The blacked-out exhaust tips protrude from one side of the rear bumper, as a true dual exhaust setup isn’t possible due to space considerations. Oddly enough, after a few days slapping this car around, we actually started to like its looks anyway.
Stepping into the cabin reveals the same business-class mood as any other BMW. Unfortunately, the 1-Series is also bestowed with the same dull interior design as its larger siblings, reserving all the funkiness for their Mini brand. The cabin is largely similar in design to that of larger BMW models, suffering only from reduced width and truncated length. Swaths of leather upholstery cover the sporting seats and door panels, with soft-touch materials and wood on all upper surfaces, broken by hard plastics on top of the instrument-gauge binnacle and all panels below eye level.
Front passengers are perfectly comfortable, and while rear passengers can fit in the back with enough headroom, their knees will push against the front seat-backs and converging side-panels press on the hips. The long doors and sliding rear seat offer painful rear access, but it is much easier to do it with the roof down. Putting the roof down reduces the sub-compact trunk space by less than 10 cm in depth, with a large foldable wind-deflector and a first-aid kit already taking up some real estate. Other in-cabin storage spaces are limited to some small door pockets and a decently-sized glovebox. There are two cup-holders, one being too small and another that looks like it was stuck on as an afterthought, protruding into the front passenger’s legroom.
Other features include an iDrive multimedia and navigation system with pop-up screen, digital a/c, power seats with adjustable thigh extensions, basic cruise control, keyless entry and start, multiple airbags, HID headlights, and a fully-electric nicely-upholstered cloth roof. The a/c is about average in December afternoons, given the porous roof. We are getting used to the dial-controlled iDrive, although it is still a hazard while driving. BMW did try to ease things with short-cut buttons on the dash, including a system that lets you preview radio stations by just touching the radio channel buttons before actually pressing one. All electrics worked perfectly, except for one tail lamp that flickered on and off at will.
The smaller dimensions can still pack the 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-6 under the hood, and that turns the 1-Series convertible from a sissy boulevard cruiser to a geeky muscle car. With access to 306 hp at 5800 rpm and 400 Nm of lag-free torque from only 1400 rpm, mating this epic engine to such a small car produced spectacular results. Our 0-to-100 kph run with the automatic-geared tester gave us a mind-blowing 5.1 seconds with the traction control off. The car squealed, twitched and wagged its tail slightly as it took off, but a steady grip on the wheel is all that is needed to blow the doors off many other sports cars. The 6-speed automatic shifts gears quickly and efficiently, and even comes with paddle shifters to flick off some near-instantaneous manual changes, although it does shift up by itself when it hits the redline. Even with a lot of high-jinks, fuel economy is respectable, averaging 13.6 litres per 100 km.
The exhilaration continues with the handling. Saddled with 215/40 front and 245/35 rear tyres, all on 18-inch alloys, the rear-wheel-drive 135i has oodles of grip. At 1685 kg, the 135i is embarrassingly heavy for its size, weighing almost as much as the larger 335i, but its extra-short wheelbase tightens up handling to extreme levels. Combined with stiff suspension tuning that dials out body roll to barely-noticeable levels, the grippy 135i simply turns where it is pointed and keeps on going, making it hard to force a high-speed slide even with the stability control off.
Leave the electronic nannies on, and the drive is dumbed down to ridiculous levels, as power is magically reduced in the middle of tight turns long before tyre squeal even makes an appearance. The throttle response seems to have a tiny delay at very low speeds, although it is instant at higher speeds. We also experienced the “active steering” feature for the first time, which makes low-speed parking easy, as the steering wheel reaches full lock in less than one turn from centre, while the ratio becomes more relaxed at high speeds to avoid sneeze-induced direction changes. While the system is perfectly effective, it did seem to reduce some of BMW’s traditional steering feel, bringing it more to the level of less-focused Mercedes AMG models. The firm steering remains largely sharp and precise though, just like the brake pedal that accurately manages the large ABS-assisted discs.
Such edginess comes at the cost of ride comfort, of course. Since the suspension isn’t of the variable air-doohickey variety, the standard shocks are uncompromisingly firm. The ride is perfectly fine on Dubai’s smooth highways, but hit one of the numerous construction diversions around town, and the uneven temporary roads take a toll on your back. The bumps also occasionally reveal the slightest of body vibrations, but it is a roofless car after all. Wind noise becomes excessive after 100 kph with the roof up, drowning out any road noise from the run-flat tyres. With the roof down, you can still shout to your passengers, as long as the windows are up.
BMW continues its uncanny tradition of instilling world-class handling in each and every one of its models, and the 1-Series convertible continues that ideology. It is a pure sports car in disguise, held back from its true focus by an overload of luxury gadgets and weighty electronics. It also looks nowhere as expensive as it really is, which would be a downer for fashion-conscious yuppies, but that just leaves more of these cars for enthusiasts who will truly enjoy it.
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