Perhaps more than any other car in its range, the 2009 BMW 135i carries the weight of customer expectation on its shoulders. Supposedly the antithesis to the soft, the bloated and overcomplicated cars dominating BMW's range for the majority of this decade, people want the 135i to herald a return to the simple, well-engineered driver's cars the company became famous for. And with a 300 HP twin-turbo inline-six mounted longitudinally in a small rear wheel drive coupe, on paper at least, it looks like the 135i could be that car.
I'm certainly hoping so. The former owner of two E30s (a 1990 325is and a 1992 325iC), I've been left out in the cold by recent BMW products. Those E30s represented, to me at least, the perfect blend of sportiness and luxury. Just big enough for two people (four in a pinch) to ride in the supportive and comfy leather-clad, manual adjusting Recaros the E30 was almost two cars in one. You could choose to cruise around in a nice, classy looking luxury car or you could put the hammer down and out-drive Porsches on mountain roads. At 2865 lb (coupe) they were light. At 168 HP and 164 lb-ft they were, for the time, fast and even by modern standards they were torquey and smooth. More importantly, they put nothing between the driver and driving, they were real, honest to god, sports cars. So hopping into the 135i on my way out of New York, I was really hoping to be able to recapture the sense of driving involvement BMWs since that time have slowly lost. Initial signs were good. Very good. Surprised by the amount of instantaneous power on offer, within 500 feet I had the car sideways on a highway on-ramp, my girlfriend's motion sick sister screaming in the back seat. The engine dominates initial driving impressions, overwhelming you with its torque and smoothness. Powerful enough to hussle the 4894 lb behemoth that is the BMW X6, here, in a car only a fraction of the size, it's incredible. Driving it north on I-87, 3,000 RPM is enough to belt you into three figure, license-losing speeds much faster than expected. Delve into the higher RPMs and it feels M3 fast. BMW still knows how to build great engines, and this is probably the best of them. Things settle down when you readjust yourself to how quickly the 135i can gather speed. Inside the cabin, the little Bimmer is a nice place to spend time. Only a little bit bigger on the inside than an E30, it's luxurious in the front seat and offers rear seat passengers just enough space they'll shut up and stop complaining — eventually. Back when I was in school, I'd sneak out early every Sunday and take my E30 for a spin around a secret country route. Not able to do that every weekend now that I'm all grown up and Ray expects me to get work done, I nevertheless have a similar place that I go in the Catskills anytime I'm handed the keys to something fast. I took the Audi R8 there, the BMW M3 and the Jag XKR too. And that's where I'm headed in the 135i. Out of all of them, this is the one I'm most excited about. The power, the size, the badge, this is the car for me. At least that's what I thought until I got up there. The backroads in the Catskills are narrow, tree-lined and gravel strewn. To go fast you need to have ultimate confidence in your car. That confidence comes through feel and feel is something the 135i doesn't have. The steering wheel is dead around center, before firming up when turned. But it's weight, not response that you're getting. With all the silly nannies switched off, the 135i will oversteer with the best of them. But up here you need to know before that happens and in this car you don't. Nor does the car reward driver input with involvement. I hate to say it, but the 135i is a fast, but ultimately, boring car to drive. So here you have everything that should make a great a great BMW: the longitudinal six, rear wheel drive, small dimensions. But in the 135i you get the impression that those are more branding elements than something engineers have included for their fundamental rightness. Creating a car with the packaging compromises of a performance vehicle, but none of the things that would make those compromises worthwhile. Is the 135i the simple, well-engineered driver's car that will recapture the hearts of enthusiasts everywhere? I'm sad to report that it isn't.