2008 BMW 128i Convertible Review

By Chris Haak

09.15.2008

The BMW 3-series line is obviously the benchmark against which all other entry luxury sports sedans (both four door and two door) are measured.  Witness the rave review that the 335i Sedan received from Autosavant a few weeks ago, or even the more recent review of the Infiniti G37 Coupe that spoke extensively of how well it stacked up against the 335i Coupe.  There’s a reason that Brendan Moore didn’t talk about how the G37 compared to the Mercedes-Benz C350 or Lexus IS350; both of those vehicles are aspirants to the throne that the 3-series reigns from.

What does the 3-series have to do with the slightly smaller, slightly cheaper 1-series?  In fact, a lot, starting with the fact that the 1-series is built on a derivative of the 3-series’ excellent chassis.  The upside is that it’s a 3-series with a smaller, lighter body; the downside is that an already fairly compact vehicle is further shrunken, and the car’s 3-series roots don’t allow for weight savings commensurate with what you’d expect to see in the smaller car.

Like the 3-series lineup in the US, the 1-series lineup offers two 3.0 liter inline six cylinder engines.  Confusingly, neither of the model names associated with these engines have anything to do with their displacement; the 128i features a naturally aspirated engine, while the 135i features BMW’s outstanding twin turbo, direct injection engine.  My test vehicle had the former, so I expected the car to be fairly slow, and its automatic transmission didn’t leave me expecting much speed from the car. It wasn’t a fast car by any measure, but it isn’t sloth-like, either. However, in a world where Honda Accords produce 272 horsepower, a BMW rated at 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque seems a little weak. The engine never wheezed and did love to rev all the way to its 7,000-RPM redline, producing fantastic mechanical sounds throughout its range. The six-speed automatic tried its best to keep the engine in its powerband, but downshifts didn’t happen when I would have liked following a hard right foot application. Responses were sharper with the transmission in Sport mode, and my test vehicle also included steering wheel paddles to effect up- and downshifts without removing one’s hands from the wheel. BMW’s paddles are different than most other vehicles in that they’re affixed to the wheel rather than the steering column, and instead of having one paddle for upshifts and one paddle for downshifts, both paddles handle both duties; push either one backward with your thumb for downshifts and pull either one toward you with your other fingers for upshifts.

Last week, I had the fortune of taking a fast ride on back roads in a 135i coupe with a six-speed manual, and that combination literally made the 1-series a completely different vehicle. While the 128i’s engine has to be revved pretty hard to get any kind of power, but the 135i’s engine pulls no matter where it is in the tachometer. The first three gears were absurdly quick once a very brief initial slowness passed (which wasn’t slow in an absolute sense, only compared to what was to come) as the turbos spooled up. Sixth gear in the manual with the twin turbo six still allowed the car to gain speed at a faster-than-expected clip. The 135i also has the benefit of some M-spec components such as the fattest steering wheel I’d ever held and an M-branded shift lever.

Both 1-series cars felt similarly in terms of handling, though the convertible’s extra weight and lower power output made it feel a little less sprightly than did the coupe with the “big” engine. Steering effort at low speeds was higher in both cars than in nearly anything else I’ve driven, including a Corvette, but it also was among the most precise, particularly at speed.

Externally, the 1-series is something of an ugly duckling in the BMW lineup; as what is (under the skin) a shrunken 3-series, the company tried very hard to make the 1-series its own car, while keeping its own unique style. Shapes and surface textures are somewhat exaggerated, but the most of the proportions are very attractive and aggressive. The short front overhang, trim wheelbase, and wide stance all make the car look good. The convertible top – a tight-fitting black cloth in my test vehicle, offsetting cashmere silver gold metallic paint – actually improves the proportions of the 1-series convertible relative to the fixed-roof two door, because the coupe’s windows are appear to be too large in proportion to the rest of the car. That is not an issue in the convertible, because the soft top leaves the impression of moving the car’s center of gravity to a lower point. The car actually looks pretty good with the top down; during the week I had the car in my care, morning commutes were in the mid-60s and evening commutes were in the mid-80s. I braved one morning of 63-degree commuting with the top down until I decided to only try that in the evenings once things had warmed up a bit. I also was careful to dutifully apply sunblock before each trip, because it’s really easy to cook oneself in a convertible, particularly those of us of the fair-skinned variety. There are benefits of top-down motoring; leaving a parking garage, there’s no need to move the down to badge out – it’s already down! I saw a colleague on the sidewalk next to my lane, so I could just say hello to her, and she could see that it was me in the car in a half second. Most importantly, though, is that you can hear the inline six’s exhaust note with a high degree of clarity. The 128i may not be the fastest car in the world, but the delightful snaps, crackles, pops (and burbles) reminded me nothing of a certain breakfast cereal promoted by elves, and everything of a car that somewhere, somehow, has some racing heritage behind its blue and white logo.

Opening the door for the first time, I was greeted by the smell of real leather. Sure, many cars today have “leather” interiors, but most of them don’t smell like a new pair of gloves. Accommodations are, unsurprisingly, snug. However, if it’s just travel for two, that’s not a problem, because the back seat makes a good place to throw a duffel bag or sport coat. The front sport seats have a large range of adjustment and even with my 6’4″ height, I had no trouble getting comfortable, although a human being with legs (regardless of how young or small) would not be able to ride behind me if I am comfortable. The 128i was one of the few vehicles I’ve tested where I did not even attempt to fit two car seats into it; the legally-manded LATCH anchors and tethers are present, but aside from the serious space constraints, there’s also the issue of wind buffeting in the faces of our children at any kind of speed. They like the Sienna better anyway.

The interior of my test car was fitted with nearly every possible option, which included a factory navigation system, which means that it has the infamous iDrive controller. iDrive has been much maligned by the motoring press, but BMW believes in it, and I was told by a BMW representative last week that their owners love it. In spite of what journalists say about it, the company has no plans to abandon it. Over time, it became easier for me to use, but in the first day or two, I was very frustrated with its ability to take simple tasks and make them multi-step projects. When I asked why a touchscreen display couldn’t at least supplement iDrive (as Nissan/Infiniti has basically implemented), I was told that touchscreens create fingerprints on the display, and that further, they cannot be used safely while driving. I’d argue that reading a menu and ensuring that the proper icon is clicked is somewhat unsafe as well. Finally, the location of the iDrive controller (far back on the center console, and far below the padded armrest) made it somewhat unnatural to access, requiring that the wrist be bent downward significantly, and never allowing a comfortable human-computer interface. Incidentally, the 135i coupe that I drove did not have navigation, so did not have iDrive, so it gained an extra cupholder (that wasn’t tacked onto the side of the console like a J.C. Whitney special), but had a radio display that was completely illegible when wearing polarized sunglasses. The iDrive’s display (which folds into the dash electrically when not in use), in contrast, looked clear regardless of the ambient light, and even was perfectly readable with the sun bearing down on the screen from behind the car.

Aside from the car’s relative lack of power and straight-line performance, the only other demerit aside from iDrive is the pricing. BMWs start with fairly inexpensive base prices (considering the incredible engineering that goes into them), but if you like to check a few boxes when ordering your car, be prepared to pay. A lot. My test car’s base price was $33,875 (including destination), but was loaded up with $13,000 in options. Like that cashmere paint (I didn’t, because I hate “gold” cars)? That’ll be $475. Cold weather package? $750. Premium package and sport package? $3,600 and $1,200, respectively. Navigation was $2,100 and the automatic was $1,300. Just adding HD radio and satellite radio (and no other audio upgrades) added $1,470. The bottom line was $46,895, or a dinner for two at Morton’s away from $47 grand. On the pricing question, I looked at the window sticker of the 135i that I keep referring to, and it was around $3,000 less than the convertible, in spite of having the beefier engine. Aside from the convertible top, on my half-hour drive, I only noticed two things that it was lacking: the $1,300 automatic and the $2,100 navigation system.

Then there’s always the question of why the 1-series exists in the first place. Pricing is between $10,000 apart between a 128i convertible and 328i convertible, but when you account for feature differences on TrueDelta.com, the difference is more like $6,000, because the 3-series comes with things (like a folding hardtop) that aren’t even available in the 1-series.  The 3 is, of course, also a slightly larger (and therefore more comfortable car), so the American perception of “getting more car for the pound” probably applies to the 328i convertible.  Did I mention that the 3-series convertible just looks more elegant, sporty, and luxurious?  The 3-series models even get identical fuel economy figures to the 1-series cars with the same engine (my automatic 128i was rated at 18 city/27 highway).  So basically, if you can afford the extra money, go for the 3-series.  If you can’t afford the extra money, go for something else.  If you have to buy a new BMW but can’t afford the 3-series, get a better job.  Or buy a 1-series, without checking (m)any option boxes.

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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2 Comments

  1. I can’t draw to save my life, but I could design a better-looking car. Saggy creases (that don’t match the hard shoulder line), poor proportions, goofy-looking headlamps.

    If you want a BMW convertible, why not the Z4? I don’t know the price difference, and the Z4’s not good-looking either, but it seems a more honest car. It has no back seat, but –judging from everything I’ve read– neither does the 1-Series! 🙂

  2. The front and rear lights are what I hate most about Bangle-era cars. The way it’s marketed in America, really, just get a 3-series. Elsewhere in the world, where we get heavily penalised with road taxes and insurance for cars that go over 2-litres, and where people park on the streets, the 1-series makes a lot of sense. In places where a 116i can cost about the same as a Honda Civic with the same engine displacement, people do buy them. While the 1-series has the BMW propeller up front, that car, as well as the likes of the Audi A3, are bought and used as commuter cars by average people. Engines typically displacing 1.6-2.0 litres, manual gearboxes, cloth seats, manual aircon, sometimes even hubcaps keep the cars within reach.

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