Pros: Smooth and powerful engines; nimble handling; sophisticated ride; decent fuel economy; much-improved optional iDrive interface
Cons: Tight back seat; polarizing styling; pricey once options are added
The 2012 BMW 1 Series coupe/convertible is BMW's entry-level car, but you'd never guess that from the way it drives. The 1 Series based on the 3 Series platform, for starters, so it shares many of its bones with Germany's quintessential sport sedan. It has 3 Series engines, too, and now that the 328i sedan has switched to turbocharged 4-cylinder power, the 128i is one of the few BMW models left that still features the wonderful normally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-6. If that's not enough juice for you, a turbocharged version of the inline-6 comes standard in the 135i. And, thanks to its relatively compact dimensions, the 1 Series has sports-car nimbleness in the corners.
Where the 1 Series falters, perhaps, is in the way it presents itself. The coupe looks substantial and athletic from some angles, but others lay bare its top-hat greenhouse and sagging lower side panels. The convertible shares those side panels, and its vinyl top looks awkward when up. Moreover, while the 1 Series has a perfectly nice interior for this price point, it's a step or two behind the 3 Series in interior design and quality.
But then, the 1 Series isn't trying to be a car for everyone. The idea was simply to build an entry-level car that performed like a true BMW-and these days, the 1 Series might be the truest BMW of them all.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 BMW 1 Series coupe and convertible are available in two forms: normally aspirated 128i and turbocharged 135i. BMW briefly offered a 1 Series M coupe with all sorts of performance upgrades, but it was a limited edition. The standard 128i includes 17-inch alloy wheels, automatic headlamps, fog lights, heated mirrors and windshield washer jets, a tilting and telescoping steering column, height-adjustable front seats, leatherette upholstery, push-button start, dual-zone automatic climate control, cruise control, Bluetooth, and iPod/USB connectivity. A sport-tuned suspension is an option. The 135i adds mild exterior styling tweaks, the turbocharged engine, 18-inch wheels with staggered-width tires, sport-tuned suspension, adaptive xenon headlamps with washers, a sunroof (coupe only) and power lumbar support for the front seats. Most of the 135i's standard luxuries can be added to the 128i.
Being a BMW, the 1 Series offers a dizzying array of packages and accessories. There are two different Sport packages (which include sublime sport seats), a cold weather package and dealer-installed items such as lowering springs and roof-mounted cargo boxes. Notable stand-alone factory options include a Harman Kardon audio system, and BMW's iDrive infotainment system with navigation.
The standard front seats in the 1 Series are surprisingly nondescript, displaying none of the thoughtful contouring that generally sets BMW seats apart. But we love the optional sport seats (manual on 128i, power on 135i), which feature a full range of adjustments and some of the most satisfying side bolsters you'll find at any price. The view forward from the driver's seat is classic BMW: simple gauges, good visibility and mostly straightforward controls. We've even come around on the once befuddling iDrive system, because it's much easier to use these days (see "Technology," below). The only real strike against the interior, aside from a design some might consider boring, is the entry-level materials. We'd put them closer to a Mini Cooper than to a 3 Series in quality.
The 1 Series is shorter and narrower than the 3 Series, which is fun when you're driving but not so fun when for people being ferried around as back-seat passengers. Unlike the two-door 3 Series models, which have offered adult-grade rear passenger space for a long time, the 1 Series barely has enough room back there for kids. Not surprisingly, the trunk isn't big, either: the coupe's measures 10 cubic feet, while the convertible offers 8.5 cubic feet with the top up and about seven cubic feet with the top down.
Speaking of the convertible, we have no complaints about the way the standard power-operated vinyl top operates. It goes up and down with reasonable swiftness, and it's an integrated system, so there's no need to get out and mess with a separate tonneau cover like in a Chevrolet Camaro.
A welcome change for 2012 is the addition of Bluetooth (formerly a $650 option) along with iPod/USB connectivity, which is thankfully standard across the board. Also, we're pleased to report that the available iDrive system (provided only with the navigation option) has improved dramatically from the days when it was everyone's favorite technological whipping boy. The screen is wide and crisp-one of the best on the market-and the simplified interface employs a number of physical buttons alongside the console-mounted knob for direct access to common pathways. Furthermore, iDrive is now hard drive based, so processing speeds are much higher, and you can store eight gigabytes of music on it.
Performance & Fuel Economy
All 1 Series models are rear-wheel drive and start with a six-speed manual transmission. The 128i is powered by a 3.0-liter inline-6 that generates 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. This engine is on its last legs, having been replaced by BMW's new turbo four-cylinder in just about everything else, but that doesn't mean you should avoid it. On the contrary, it's one of our favorite engines, delivering its surprisingly strong acceleration with an almost eerie smoothness. If it's big-time power you're after, though, there's no doubt that you'll want to step up to the 135i, which cranks out 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque from its turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-6. The 135i retains the 128i's refinement but adds a serious wallop when you give it the spurs. It's one of the quickest cars you can buy for $40,000.
The optional automatic transmissions vary by model. The 128i is eligible for a six-speed conventional automatic at no cost, while the 135i offers a seven-speed dual-clutch automated manual transmission for a very reasonable $450. We approve of both: the six-speed has been doing duty in numerous BMW products for years, while the seven-speed cut its teeth in the otherworldly BMW M3. The standard six-speed manual is still the purist's choice, though, providing the company's trusty long-throw shift action via a stubbier gearlever than BMW's norm.
For fuel economy, the 128i is EPA rated at 18 mpg city/28 mpg highway with either transmission (18/27 mpg for the convertible), while the 135i coupe gets an even better 20/28 mpg with the manual (19/28 mpg for the convertible) but just 18/25 with the dual-clutch gearbox.
The 2012 BMW 1 Series comes with standard stability control, four-wheel ABS and six airbags (front, front side and full-length side curtain). The U.S.-market model has not been subjected to any crash testing.
It's a sign of the all-around goodness of the 1 Series that we can't decide which model we prefer to drive. The 128i coupe is the closest BMW comes right now to offering an elemental sporting car: it's compact and very athletic, and it has one of the most satisfying engines in the world, even if that base inline-6 isn't exactly bursting with power. On the other hand, the 135i's turbocharged thrust is undeniably addictive. No matter which model you settle on, expect an unusually supple ride, even with one of the Sport packages.
The choice between convertibles is easier. The added weight tangibly taxes the base engine, so we'd recommend the 135i. The convertibles don't handle as well as the coupes, however, with the latter boasting sharper steering response and less body roll.
Other Cars to Consider
Infiniti G37: The G37 convertible has a folding hard top instead of a vinyl roof, and both coupe and convertible models are bigger and brasher than the 1 Series.
Ford Mustang: The comparison may seem unlikely, but the Mustang's handling has improved by leaps and bounds lately, and you could easily get into a V8-powered Mustang GT coupe or convertible for 1 Series money.
BMW 3 Series: The two-door 3 Series lineup hasn't yet adopted the latest redesign, but it will soon, so now might be a good time to look for a deal on one. The engines are the same-the two-door 328i retains the inline-6 for 2012-but the styling is better inside and out, and the convertible has a folding hardtop. Of course, the price is higher, too.
We'd stick with the 128i coupe and add only the regular Sport package (not the overpriced M Sport package). That would put us at an MSRP of about $33,000, which is more than six grand cheaper than the 135i coupe's starting price. Not bad for one of the best-driving sport coupes we've encountered.