I never cared much for the old BMW 1 Series. It has almost a depressed look to it, like it’s upset because it knows it looks like BMW haphazardly shrunk a 3 Series in Photoshop, and that it was destined to be overlooked on dealer lots by yuppies dead-set on scoring a good X3 lease deal.
Despite how it looks, the 1 Series was widely praised by auto critics. Say what you will about BMWs, or their engines, but they rightly regarded as some of the best drivers’ cars out there. Yes, you may have to take the car to the shop every other day (in case you were unaware, the letters BMW stands for Breaks Monthly or Weekly. I invented that. I think.) But when the car is running properly, it’s fantastic to drive.
Just about every BMW owner I know has a love-hate relationship with theirs, including me. I love driving the M5, but I’ve already had to get an oil cooler leak and an input shaft seal leak fixed in the few months that I’ve owned the car, thank God for its warranty.
When I owned a 2009 BWW 335i a a year and a half ago, it didn’t create any problems for me. However, I did only own the car for three months before I sold it. Then one day, I was sitting in a coffee shop, wondering why I just paid $4 for a five-cent coffee, when I ran into the person to whom I sold my 335i. He looked at me, trying to appear pleasant, but couldn’t hide the intense resentment bubbling inside him. He somberly mentioned that he had to take the car in for some expensive repairs right after he bought it from me. That’s the game, player.
Having driven many BMWs, I thought that the 1 Series would be more of the same. Still fun to drive, but perhaps nothing special. As far as I was concerned, BMW employees had to quickly throw together a 1 Series and sell a few to lock in a bonus for the year.
But I was wrong. The 2011 BMW 135i that Centex Sport Imports recently put on sale was not just good, it was great. It’s one of the most fun Bimmers I’ve ever driven, and is a better car to drive around town than both my previously owned 335i and my current M5. Who would’ve thought!
Better yet, you can get this twin-turbo inline-six demon these days for under $30,000, easily—this one happened to be under $20,000, if you can believe it. Just swallow the pill of having to fix things weekly or monthly and you’ll be fine.
You’ll need to manage expectations, like you would when buying a 50-year old-house in the best part of town. The location might be fantastic, but a rat might be eating your protein bars at night leaving empty wrappers everywhere (this actually happened in a property I used to own). Word of advice: if you’re living in an old house, only buy the cheap bars.
Anyway, unless you’re in Texas, bigger is not always better. As fun as the M5 is, the bulkiness of the car does impact its maneuverability. The 335i is smaller in size and of course the 135i is even smaller and lighter. All of this helps magnify the amount of fun you can have in taking one U-turn after another under freeways—which I did one too many times with this car. The 135i is more agile and has less body roll than the 335i which gives you more confidence to throw the car around tight bends.
The 135i I was driving had the M-sport package which comes with better suspension that improved handling a bit, but I’m sure a regular 135i would be just fine.
With so many of today’s cars being mammoth-sized, you’ll welcome the small 135i, especially if you live in a crowded city. It’s easy to work your way around heavy traffic and shove the car into tight spots. Parallel parking is a breeze with the 135i.
Later in its life, the 135i’s automatic got replaced by a dual-clutch transmission (DCT) from the Z4 and other models. As much as I like shifting myself and feeling manly about jamming gears from second to third and so on, I enjoyed the DCT just as much. Because the transmission shifts quicker than what you can accomplish with a manual, there’s no interruption in power delivery as you keep the go-fast pedal floored. It’s incredibly smooth.
Now if you’re thinking that you’d rather do a weekend in county jail than drive an automatic, then keep in mind how awful stick shifts are in traffic. The constant lurching between first and second gear in bumper-to-bumper traffic is enough to make you want to find a dark dungeon to crawl into.
The DCT provides welcome relief here. Just leave the car in auto mode when you’re stuck behind minivans, but once you’re actually able to drive, use the paddles to exponentially increase driving satisfaction and enjoy all 300 horsepower, 300 lb-ft of torque.
The 135i is plenty fast but could easily be made even faster with a tune upgrade. That’s the nice thing about turbos—the 335i I owned had 50 HP more than the stock 300 HP with a simple Dinan tune. Why not get some extra horses if it’s easy to obtain? Get 1M-like power without paying the massive 1M premium by tweaking a few computer parameters.
My old 335i had basically no exhaust noise. The acceleration provided by the 370 lb-ft of torque was as drama free as a lunch-and-learn on geese flying patterns and robbed me of any auditory excitement whatsoever. I loved the much improved exhaust note on the 135i which had a throaty, aggressive growl. Being able to hear the turbo-whooshing was a nice treat.
If I knew the 135i was this good, I could’ve easily gone with this one instead of the 335i found a way to tolerate its unappealing design. Even outside of BMWs, the 135i is one of the best used cars you can buy for under $30,000.
For such a great car, it’s a shame that BMW didn’t spend more time making it look better. All they really needed to do was take the classic BMW 2002 look and modernize it. Then it would’ve been perfect.