Driven: 2010 BMW 135i Coupe

By Brandon Turkus

April 06, 2010

The BMW M3 has always been a bit of a performance benchmark. Compared to cars like the Porsche 911, the M3 offered a real motorsports pedigree for a much lower price. Over the years however, the M3 plumped up and piled on the power. From the old days of the exceptional E30 and E36, to the 333-horsepower E46, and on to the big, 414-horsepower V-8 in the E92, the M3 has grown in size, content, power, and price. It seemed as if BMW lost the plot; big and heavy were not M3 qualities.

In 2008, however, the boys from Munich brought the 1-Series over from Europe, and it looked like the prayers of many enthusiasts had been answered. Once again, there was a small, fast, maneuverable BMW available. Although the North American market misses out on the four-cylinders (although we have sampled the 2.0-liter turbodiesel 123d), we do get the two inline-sixes. In the 128i, the naturally aspirated 3.0-liter makes a respectable 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque. This is okay, but the real fun is to be had in the 135i, the spiritual successor to the E30 and E36 M3s, which BMW had just happened to loan us for a week.

The top-dog 1-Series features the same 3.0-liter I-6, but is also equipped with a pair of turbochargers (For BMWphiles out there, we have a 2010 with the N54 twin-turbo, not a 2011 with the N55 single-turbo). That means our 1-Series makes 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque, all while weighing a relatively light 3373 pounds.

During our time with the Bimmer, we traversed a mixture of highways and twisty country roads, and the car never failed to impress. The balanced 135i never seemed to lose its composure, no matter the circumstance. Understeer comes on gradually, and is easily corrected. From our experience with the BMW, oversteer is only ever an issue if the driver asks for it. The suspension is comfortable but still sporting, and despite the short wheelbase, the 135i rarely crashed or shuddered over bumps. The 1-Series really feels like a solid piece of engineering.

Steering is direct, and has a nice heaviness about it. Turning the wheel actually feels like its doing something to the front wheels, with a pleasant, mechanical feel about it. It never feels overboosted or electric. The Bimmer grips the road well, and clearly transmits all the information the driver needs about what is going on outside, mainly through the heavily bolstered seats. The sport steering wheel though, tends to mute the feel of the road, despite how good it is to hold. It’s not that the steering feels numb per se, but it simply doesn’t communicate the car-to-road interaction of the suspension/tires as well as the rest of the driver interfaces.

Sport seats and steering wheel can be had as part of a sport package which is only $1100 get it. The seats are like putting on a favorite sweatshirt, almost infinitely adjustable (our car had manual seats, but power seats can be had in the premium package), heavily bolstered and extremely comfortable over long trips. The steering wheel is heavily padded, small in diameter, and thick, but is finished in very nice, partially perforated leather and feels just right when gripped.

The reflexes of the 135i are all well and good, but it is only a part of the story. The 3.0-liter, twin-turbo I-6 offers a visceral punch to supplement the rest of the car’s abilities. After the slightest amount of turbo lag on initial acceleration, the spooled up blowers start to sing with a mechanical howl. Keep the windows down, the sound is worth it.

Making optimum use of the twin-turbocharged fun is a six-speed manual transmission. It feels good to operate, with gates that are easy to access, and a clutch that feels light and precise in most any driving condition. Unlike some sport coupes, bumper-to-bumper traffic doesn’t result in a sore left foot.

The brakes are strong, easy to modulate, and offer a good sense of security when being pushed. The Dynamic Traction Control system was fine on the bends, but tended to kick in (rather strangely) when accelerating away from a stop over bumpy roads. This makes the driver look like a fool who can’t drive a stick, as the car bucks back and forth trying to sort out how to distribute the power. It is pretty annoying, especially in Michigan, where third world roads are the norm.

The 135i is a fast, compact sports coupe that we’ll always enjoy hustling around some of our favorite stretches of road. There are similarly priced cars that may offer similar performance and competing character− Mustang GT and 370Z we’re looking at you. But the BMW does have a sense of refinement, and German substance that is hard for lesser brands to match. A perfect successor to the M3 legend, it may not be. But a budding legend in its own right? We’d bet on it.

2010 BMW 135i Coupe
Engine: Biturbocharged inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 300 hp / 300 lb-ft
0-60: 5.0 seconds
Top Speed: 130 mph*
Weight: 3373 lb
Base Price: $35,850
As Tested: $38,725

*electronically limited

+ WR Classic Video: BMW 135i vs. Infiniti G37 S