The Good: Great engines and handling of the 3 Series at a lower price
The Bad: Tight rear seat, optional equipment really jacks up the price
The Bottom Line: A new, entry-level BMW that doesn't skimp on features or performance
I had a lot of fun last week. My test drive of the new '08 128i convertible from BMW (BMWG) happened to coincide with the first sunny days of early spring, so I spent much of the week zipping around New York and Pennsylvania alfresco. And I'm happy to report that it is a great little car. Really great.
The idea behind BMW's 1 Series, which is being transplanted to the U.S. market from Europe, is to provide a somewhat more affordable entry-level model than the 3 Series without sacrificing features and performance. Basically, the 128i convertible is a diminutive version of the BMW 328i convertible that's 9 in. shorter and has a 4-in.-shorter wheelbase than its larger cousin. The 128i also has a ragtop, while the 328i has a retractable hardtop, so it weighs about 300 lb. less. That gives the 128i a lighter, more agile road feel than its larger cousin.
In addition to the 128i convertible, a 128i Coupe and a 135i Coupe (comparable to the 335i Coupe) are already on the U.S. market. A 135i convertible will arrive in dealerships in May.
The new 1 Series models promise to be lightning fast, because—even though they're smaller and lighter—they have the same engines as the equivalent 3 Series models. Like the 328i, the 128i is powered by a 3-liter, 230-hp, in-line six-cylinder engine that generates 200 lb. ft. of torque. In the 135i, as in the 335i, the 3-liter six-cylinder engine is double-turbocharged, raising its horsepower rating to 300. That engine generates 300 lb. ft. of torque starting as soon as 1,400 rpm.
The 1 Series is far from cheap, but the new models are much less expensive than their 3 Series equivalents. The 128i Coupe starts at $29,375 (as opposed to $33,175 for the 328i Coupe) and the 128i convertible at $33,875 (as opposed to just under $44,000 for the 328i convertible). The 135i Coupe and convertible start at about $6,000 more than their 128i equivalents.
The one real criticism I have of the 128i convertible is that (as with other BMWs) adding options really jacks up its price. For instance, a Premium Package that includes wood trim (light burl walnut or gray poplar), auto-dimming rear-view mirrors, eight-way power adjustable front seats, and a garage-door opener adds $3,600 to the base price. A navigation system costs $2,100, Boston leather instead of the standard leatherette upholstery $1,450, active steering $1,400, and a six-speed Steptronic automatic transmission $1,275.
Moreover, the fuel economy of the smaller 1 Series models is only modestly better than that of the 3 Series. For instance, the 128i convertible is rated to get 18 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway, just 1 mpg better than the 328i. (In 295 miles of lead-footed mixed driving in the 128i convertible, I got a respectable 23.2 mpg.) Premium gasoline is recommended in both the 1 Series and 3 Series.
It's too early to tell how well the 1 Series will sell, but it should give BMW a needed boost in a tough market. The new models were on sale in the U.S. only for the final 10 days of March, yet the company sold 1,496 units. That's a tiny fraction of what the 3 Series sold—11,226 in March, down 0.3%. But a spokesman says BMW expects demand for the 1 Series to be very strong: "We expect sales to be production-constrained rather than demand-constrained."
Behind the Wheel
The key question about the BMW 128i convertible: How much interior space do you lose compared with the larger 328i? The answer: Head, leg, and shoulder space in the front seats is about the same. The main loss of space is in the rear seat, which is more cramped than in the 328i. There's plenty of room for small children to be comfortable, but most adults won't have enough legroom unless the front-seat passengers scrunch up and move their seats far forward. So, if you usually travel with one other adult, or if you're just starting a family, the 128i is spacious enough to be practical, especially as a second car.
Luggage space is far better than in many other convertibles. Even with the top down, the trunk has 8.5 cu. ft. of usable space (enough, BMW claims, for two golf bags), and a bit more when the top is up. The 128i convertible's rear seats don't fold down, as they do in the coupe, but there's a large pass-through between the trunk and the rear passenger compartment. There's also a storage bag that extends into the backseat area and, the company says, can accommodate a golf bag or two snowboards.
The 128i's top goes up or down automatically in just 22 seconds and can be raised or lowered when the car is under way as long as it's traveling slower than 25 mph. (I tested it many times, and it works even in a strong breeze.) It's worth considering spending the extra $1,450 for the Boston leather upholstery because it has BMW's Sun Reflective Technology. Pigments worked into the leather diminish heating of the seats, keeping surface temperature in blazing sunlight as much as 20 degrees cooler than it otherwise would be.
Because they have the same engines and mechanical guts as the 3 Series, the 128i and 135i should have about the same astonishingly good performance as the 328i and 335i. BMW says the 135i accelerates from zero to 62 mph (zero to 100 kmh) in 5.6 seconds, while the 128i is about a second slower. However, buff books such as Car and Driver contend that BMW's performance estimates are "notoriously conservative," and figure the 135i will do zero to 60 in 5 seconds or less, compared with about 6 seconds for the 128i.
I have to say that I found the 128i convertible noticeably slower than the 3 Series coupes and sedans I test-drove. I timed my test 128i with an automatic transmission at about 7.2 seconds in zero-to-60 runs, which is plenty fast for most people but about a second slower than the time I got in the 328i Coupe. Then again, I have never given the 328i convertible a full test. It may just be that the convertible versions of each model are a bit slower than the hardtops (though why that would be I'm not sure).
Otherwise, the 128i's handling is similar to that of the 328i. Steering is precise, and the suspension is sporty without being overly harsh on bumpy back roads. The Steptronic automatic transmission shifts with virtually no hesitation and can be operated in manual mode via steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The driver's seat is well bolstered and holds you in place even during very fast cornering. All in all, the 128i, like the 328i, is one of the best-handling cars on the road.
Buy It or Bag It?
If you have your heart set on owning a BMW convertible, the 128i is a terrific bargain—but only in relative terms. The 128i convertible's recent average selling price, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), is $41,175, compared with just over $50,000 for the 328i convertible.
The main alternative model to consider, in my opinion, is the Audi A4 convertible. It's about the same size as the 328i, yet costs an average of $45,285, according to PIN—about four grand more than the 128i convertible and five grand less than the 328i convertible. Like the 128i, the Audi A4 has a ragtop. (Audi is a unit of Volkswagen (VOWG).) Another less expensive alternative is the Volvo C70 convertible, which has a retractable hardtop and sells for an average of $42,011. (Volvo is owned by Ford Motor (F).)
Budget shoppers may also want to consider the Ford Mustang ragtop convertible or the Volkswagen Eos. The Mustang, which sells for an average of $34,335, according to PIN, is a fun car but isn't in the same class as a BMW in terms of upscale features and handling. The VW Eos, which has a retractable hardtop, is more comparable to a BMW and sells for around $32,000.
If you can afford to splurge, however, check out the new BMW 128i before buying anything else. Dollar for dollar, BMW's 3 Series models are among the best cars I've ever driven. The 1 Series is much the same. It just comes in a smaller package.
Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show to see more of the 2008 BMW 1 Series convertible.