The 135is here before you is a bit of a parting gift BMW gave their customers. You see, the 1 series that’s been on our shores since 2008 and elsewhere since 2004 faces numbered days ahead. It’s already been replaced in Europe by the F20 generation of three- and five-door hatchbacks, although the updated coupe and convertible models that will grace these shores have yet to make an official appearance. When they do, expect them to make their way across the pond and into dealerships post haste.
That doesn’t mean the 135is isn’t worthy of the square footage. In fact, its reputation of being a pumped-up little sportster capable of embarrassing cars with far more horsepower and distinguished pedigrees is fully intact. The same has been said of its little brother, the 135i, for years. With 300 seriously thoroughbred ponies to tote around a scant 3,379 pounds, it proves troublesome in a straight line to muscle cars and dedicated sports cars alike.
The 135is can almost be considered an upgrade package rather than a comprehensively different model – think of it as a going-away present to the original 1-series model. It adds a reprogrammed ECU, a BMW Performance exhaust system, an auxiliary radiator and a bigger cooling fan. Those incremental updates equate to 20 horsepower and 17 lb-ft, bringing the total to 320 and 317 respectively. BMW engineers saw fit to bring the rest of the car in line with the powertrain’s newfound fortitude, so they fettled with the stability and traction control systems in order to loosen the reins a bit for the kind of performance driving the owners of these cars are likely to do.
Equipped with sport suspension and rear-brake based “differential” electronics, the 135is is fairly handy around corners. There’s little roll and plenty of grip, and the steering is typical BMW – weighty and accurate, as long as you’ve got bear claws big enough to wrap your hands around the M Sport steering wheel. If you’re the dynamic type, you’re more likely to spring for the coupe than go for the convertible, although the 135is’s exhaust note is far better enjoyed top-down than top-up. In fact, it brings to mind another 3-liter turbocharged straight six engine that lives on in infamy, Toyota’s 2JZGTE. With BMW’s accessory Performance exhaust system fitted as standard, the note and volume of this 1’s exhaust is among the loudest to come from an OEM in recent memory. It’s a good noise, too, in the manner few other engines besides a straight six can replicate – mechanical and raw, with notes of turbo spool and bypass valve chatter thrown in for good measure. It’s addictive, and begs you to stretch the loud pedal with the top down time and time again.
This 135’s second most endearing feature besides the exhaust system has got to be the 7-speed DCT gearbox. I’ve tried the M-DCT paired with the 4.0-liter V8 in the M3, and while mightily capable that powertrain combo may be, I think the turbocharged straight six of the 135 is actually a better match for the seven speed dual-clutch. Think about it like this – whereas the M3’s 4.0-liter V8 is a bit of a screamer and likes to live in the upper reaches of the tachometer, the N55 straight six in the 135is produces a more constant flow of power and torque seemingly from idle to redline. Although the dyno graph may prove otherwise, the impression is of a billiard-table-smooth powerband. Paired to the 7-speed DCT’s instantaneous shifts, the resulting wave of thrust is completely unbecoming of a convertible that many will incorrectly label a “hairdresser’s car” – and it’s also great fun. That downshifts via the wheel-mounted paddle shifters are accompanied by perfectly matched throttle blips every single time is just icing on the cake.
The 135is has unique 18-inch wheels and gloss-black-dipped mirrors and kidney grilles. That might not be enough proverbial lipstick for some to overlook the 1er coupe’s somewhat gawky proportions, but I’ve always been attracted to the stocky, upright, bulldog-like proportions of the 1-series. The convertible, if anything, streamlines the coupe’s taller greenhouse and visually lengthens the body. With the top down, the 135is might actually be described as – wait for it – comely. Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but if early spy shots are anything to go by, it seems as though the next generation coupe will soften the current car’s tougher lines and replace them with a more 3-series-like grace.
Our test car lacked the modern day tech of a current 3-series, but was far from what you might call a “stripper” – in fact, the only option it lacked was a navigation system. But it’s all laid out simply, more like an E46 3-series than a current generation 3 – fitting, since the 1 debuted around the time the E46 was ending its tenure. The cabin’s still a highly comfortable place to pass time – BMW has the sport seat thing nailed by now, with extendable thigh bolsters that support even the lankiest German (or in my case, Czech) legs. Side bolstering is ample as well, and with stainless pedal caps and the previously mentioned steering wheel, the cabin’s major touch points are solid.
The 135is proves a fitting swan song for the first-generation 1-series line. It shows BMW can still make an irrationally fun, small rear-wheel drive coupe and convertible model that occupies similar market territory as the older E30-, E36- and E46-generation 3-series did. The 135is is fun to toss around, stands out from the crowd, and sounds and shifts like utter perfection. Here’s hoping the next generation is as characterful as the current car.
2013 BMW 135is Convertible:
Base price: $48,845
Price as tested: $53,395
Options on test car: Le Mans Blue Metallic Paint ($550), Premium Package ($2,400), 7-speed Double Clutch Transmission ($450), Heated front seats ($500), BMW Assist with Bluetooth ($650)
Powertrain: 3.0 Liter turbocharged DOHC I-6 with Direct Injection, 7-speed dual-clutch transmission – 320 horsepower, 317 lb-ft torque
BMW provided the vehicle for testing purposes and one tank of gas. Photos by the author.