Review: BMW 128i Convertible

BMW 128i Convertible – Click above for high-res image gallery

BMW's 1-Series does not smirk at you and say "don't hate me because I'm beautiful." No, this small Teut is easy to deride on appearance; one look has you hating it because it's not beautiful while so many of its past brethren have been classically handsome. Whether it suits your taste or not, the 128i convertible we borrowed is unmistakably the work of the wizards of Munich. So, it's definitely a BMW, and it's being described as a reincarnation of the legendary 2002; does it measure up?

Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

The short answer is no. The 128 is nothing like the 2002. It is, however, reminiscent of the E30, the yuppie-starter-car during the coked up '80s. Comparisons to past greats break down when taking into account what modern consumers expect, and the 128i is loaded up better than an E32 7-series. At nearly $44,000, our 128 was filled right up to the windowsills with gear, all of it adding to the experience in a good way, while adding to the curb weight in a bad way. Wearing the Cold Weather, Sport, and Premium packages leave the driver wanting little, though the additional extras our car wore weren't unwelcome. At roughly 3500 pounds, it's not as bad as the punditry has made it seem, but the 1 series could stand to lose 500 pounds. Heavier and better equipped than its forebears, the 1 can't match those cars in terms of driving purity, but delivers them a sound drubbing in performance and modernity.

We had the opportunity to street park the 128 behind an E30 325 droptop, and the cars are comparably sized. The comfortably snug dimensions don't feel claustrophobic, though the older cars like the 2002 feel more scooped-out. Buttoned up inside the 128, door panels actually curve away from you, controls fall at hand without fouling any movement, and space is comfortable, if not generous. Rear seat passengers get stuck with a lack of legroom and a narrow bench, but even with the top up, the upward bow of the roofline affords more headroom than you'd think. This is the size the 3 series should have stayed, obviating the need for the 1 series.

Sliding into the excellent sport seats, and snapping the Comfort Access fob into its slot, it's hard not to snicker at the "Year One of the 1" inscription on the bezel as you stab the start button with an insouciant finger. Special touches like that indicate that BMW's trying awfully hard to make this car a prefab legend. We weren't expecting the world - it's very difficult to improve on the slightly larger, possibly cheaper 3 series that this 128 is based on. At best, we thought the 128i would be the New Beetle to the 135's TT. Half a revolution from the 3.0 liter inline six dispelled any notions that this is anything other than a proper BMW. A solid bark emanates from the back as combustion events happen in well-balanced 120-degree intervals. A BMW six is always a thing of aural beauty, and the ripping-linen snarl this engine delivers is on par with the most celebrated coloratura.

BMW is synonymous with deft handling, and the 128i does not disappoint; apexes are easily clipped, the car is an extension of the driver's body, and positioning the car involves little more than thinking and looking - the vehicle just winds up perfectly placed. Grabbing hold of the chunky sports leather steering wheel with half-annoying, yet responsive paddle shifters for the Steptronic automatic plugs your hands in to the well-oiled chassis that feeds back in a most delightful fashion and operates with smooth precision. For all the handling accumen, and even with the Sport Package, the ride/handling tradeoff is liveable. Rolling the big tires over high-frequency pavement aberrations will give your gut high-frequency jiggles, though. Cowl shake is present, as it is in any vehicle given a roofectomy, though quite minimal. The windshield frame only dances over bumps, and never does the feeling of solidity drain away. The weight doesn't amount to a hill of beans out on the road, either.

The 128's nomenclature denotes that a 3.0 liter naturally aspirated engine delivering 230 horsepower is bolted between the front wheels. We don't get it, either - and BMW further obfuscates engine fitment by naming the twin turbo version of the same vehicle the 135, while it still gulps atmosphere with six 500cc lungs. Our inner acceleration junkie finds it easy to understand the 135 and its 300 horsepower, but the 128 is wholly satsifying and exceptionally well balanced. Acceleration is strong, handling superb, enjoyment high. Unless you need to kick up a dust storm like the Tasmanian Devil, go with the 128. It's a rare automatic transmission that deserves praise for its enthusiast-friendly manners, but the Steptronic, especially in sport mode, is brilliant, even downshifting where appropriate. We're not sure we'd have enjoyed this car any more with a manual. No, we're not pensioners with bad knees, it's just that the auto tucks out of the way and doesn't interfere. Either way, 128 or 135, auto or standard, you can't lose with the powertrains.

Annoyances are mostly minor once you get past the looks and price. Some of the controls are initially confusing. For example, after a day of only being able to upshift, we discovered that the thumb switches deliver downshifts, while pulling on the paddles give you a higher ratio. It's not a proper left for down, right for up, but it's close enough. The horribly tedious audio system is also frustrating. Let's say it again: a knob for volume, a knob for tuning. How annoying to grab the right side knob, only to find it will just cycle through your presets. To actually manually tune, it's a two-step, small-button process. The audio system does sound good and offers an optional auxiliary input and a usb connection. iDrive is available, but our car was thankfully not equipped with the soul-sucking interface to Hell. Ergonomics and markings are a bit inscrutable, with strange pictograms, and some hidden controls. The cruise control, for example, hides quite effectively in the nether region behind the steering wheel on the left.

Visibility is another sticky wicket when the roof is closed. The glass rear window is smallish, and the C-Pillars are convertible-big. Top down, it's like piloting a speedboat; 360-degree vistas are available with a twist of the neck, and we dropped the lid every chance we got. While the seats are fantastic, the Gray Poplar wood trim our car wore is awful, leaving the impression the interior had a wildfire recently. The small but useful trunk has a pass-through with integrated ski bag thanks to the Cold Weather package, too. The folded roof encroaches very little on boot space, making the 1-series a car you could take to the grocery store alfresco, and possibly betters the 3-series convertible's trunk useability.

The price is what everybody is choking on, and the car we drove was a hair over $43,000, a veritable fortune, with options and accessories left to go. The extra stuff like Bluetooth, BMW Assist, HID headlamps, sports steering wheel, even the automatic and the premium package, none of it was necessary to enjoy the sublime chassis and plangent engine. In the New England climate, we'd definitely want the Cold Weather package, and the Sport Package adds the 17" rims, starchier suspension tuning, divine seats, and Shadowline trim - all desireable. A 1-series outfitted with a restrained option sheet can be had in the high $30,000s, though still flirting uncomfortably with $40K. Everyone has been saying "for the money, you could get the 3-series." True, and the 3-series coupe is a prettier design. The even-prettier-still Z4 also occupies the same pricing territory, but after driving the 128, the 3 would feel a half-size too large and the Z4 lacks the occasional rear seat. The 128 really is right-sized, and it does something different than the 3, something we found rather charming, if also rather dear.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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