Piloting the 2008 BMW 1-series Convertible out into a crowded street, top down, I couldn't help but feel a little self-conscious. I'm not much for the attention drawn by convertibles, and this is a shiny, brand-new BMW convertible. No less than three minutes into my journey I'm stopped by someone on the street who yells "Hey, buddy." I'm guessing the gentleman wants to ask about the car so I try to assume the confident poise of someone who might actually buy this particular vehicle, only to have him point out that the fuel door is open. Thanks. At the next stoplight I quickly thumb a message to Mark Arnold, who is following me in another car: I FEEL LIKE A DBAG. According to Mark, I also look like one. But it would be worth looking ridiculous for a vehicle that's supposed to be the spiritual successor to the venerable E30, a car that made no compromises on its way to becoming the ultimate driving machine.
Alas, this isn't that car. Meaning I look ridiculous only for the amusement of Mark. The new 1-Series, at least in 128i trim, is only going to fulfill the desire of a trophy wife lusting after a toy taken from the profits of her hubby's burgeoning orthodontic practice, or perhaps for old men who find the Z4 too two-seatery. BMW is lucky in that, as niches go, that one is large enough to require a specific model. The enthusiast community is the loser here. This new Bimmer is just too heavy, too complicated and too expensive to be mentioned in the same breathe as the much-loved E30.
It isn't obvious by looking at the 128i standing by itself that the smallest BMW is such a porker. BMW's flame surfacing is toned down to Zippo level with only the straight crease across the beltline and the curved line running wheel to wheel as indicators that this is part of the company's Bangleized look. Unlike the coupe version, there's no too-tall greenhouse to distort proportions. In fact, its large eyes and kidney grille entice the driver to hop in and enjoy a bit of fast, topless fun. But once you do get in, that desire quickly turns into annoyance and then boredom.
Before you can even turn the key you... well, you can't even turn the key. You have to push the start button (as nightmares of Vista dance in your head). Then interface with the iDrive system to select the navigation screen, but only after you agree that using a GPS system while driving is bad and subsequently relinquish your ability to sue BMW for directing you into a ditch. Then click the iDrive a few more times to select a radio station and poke at the multiple switches to adjust the sport seats into a comfortable position. All this involves more button pushes and time than it takes me to transfer funds, check balances and otherwise completely reorganize my meager finances at an ATM.
Once you actually start moving even more obstacles appear between you and an ideal driving experience. The six-speed STEPTRONIC automatic transmission our car came with offers a variety of ways not to enjoy the engine's potential power. Assuming you want to do none of the shifting yourself you have the choice between the painfully slow standard mode, which makes quick shifts way earlier than you'd want them, or the sportier mode, which lets you enjoy those precious lower gears slightly longer. Assuming you prefer the hands-on approach, you can bounce the shifter up and down or blip one of the two thumb paddles located behind the steering wheel. Of all the options I preferred the sport setup with the occasional nudge, usually in the wrong direction, of the shifter. The 1-series uses BMW ridiculously unintuitive new paddle set up, both the left and right move forward and back instead of the traditional right for up, left for down. It doesn't sound that bad, but if you've ever driven another paddle-equipped vehicle you'll end up up shifting every time you go to shift either way.
The 128i's normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six is zippy if not particularly powerful, providing 230 horsepower and 200 ft.-lbs of torque. Whatever oomph is there is, unfortunately, is misused by the transmission. Driving fast, in a straight-line, you find yourself a gear ahead of where you'd like to be, grasping for the 7,000 RPM redline which remains nothing but a red-painted promise. It should be no shock then that the 0-60 time for the automatic is 0.6 seconds slower (at 7.0) than the same car equipped with a manual transmission. There's a finely tuned rumble to the i6, but it's merely a tease the transmission can't fulfill.
And speaking of being unfulfilled, the handling is anything but enjoyable. Mark and I randomly met up with a gentleman driver more familiar with the lay-of-the-land who was piloting a radar detector-equipped BMW Z3 and offered to lead us on a drive through some of the twistier roadways of the suburbs. It required a serious effort to keep up with him as the little Bimmer's suspension (borrowed mostly from the 3-Series) fought against the rapid changes in direction. Considering the car weighs in at 3,494 pounds, not even 300 pounds lighter than the much roomier 328i Convertible, there's not the light-and-easy toss-ability you'd hope would be present. The stiff suspension keeps the hefty cabriolet relatively flat when it starts to accrue G's, but at the price of a bumpy ride over less-than-perfect roads.
If you press the Dynamic Traction Control (DTC) button on the dash, things get slightly better. Power comes a bit quicker and, when pushing the car to its limits, there's a little less insistence from the BMW that it knows more than you about driving. But push too hard while cornering and the power suddenly vanishes. It's not so much a nanny preventing you from having fun as it is an electronic compensation for an inherently un-exploitable chassis
This doesn't mean I couldn't enjoy driving people around in the 128i with the top down. The next day I found myself cruising around the smooth roads encircling Wisconsin's Lake Geneva with my lady friend, blasting old school hip hop through the sound system, which made me feel less like a douche and more like a poser, but a content poser. The car is still a BMW convertible and therefore is a stylish and comfortable way to slowly cruise by jealous onlookers. Though perhaps they wouldn't be jealous if they knew how much it costs. This one's got more options than any one person could possibly use, driving the suggested base from $33,100 up to $47,395, a sum King Solomon himself would blink at.
Leaving the Lake Geneva area I defied the GPS and chose a path that would give me a bit more time to experience the car on some unrestricted back roads. Unfortunately, the 128i isn't as refined as the price might suggest. There's so much wind and noise intrusion, even with the windows up, that when we reached higher speeds my passenger pleaded with me to switch to top-up driving so that we could hear our own thoughts and each other. I happily complied because she was both nice to look at and interact with. I wish I could say the little BMW boasted the same characteristics.