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      05-24-2008, 09:39 AM   #127
Second Lieutenant
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Drives: '08 135i, 2010 VW Sportwagen
Join Date: Sep 2007
Location: Near Cincinnati

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And here is the text of the Times piece.

May 25, 2008
Less, Yes, but Not by a Lot

THE BMW 3 Series has taken a page from the Marlon Brando playbook. As the legend increases, it grows more weighty, complicated and expensive.

The sight of a BMW sticker has become as shocking as that first glimpse of Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now”: bloated with options, 3 Series coupes approach $50,000, and the convertibles march toward 60 grand. Let’s not even mention the new M3, a $56,000 car that some dealers inclined to piracy are marking up to more than $80,000.

And while BMW’s new compact 1 Series has moved into the yawning gap below the 3, it is hardly a Hyundai-style bargain. Still, prices that start at $29,375 for the 128i coupe (and $33,875 for the convertible) at least nudge the BMW welcome mat in the right direction.

Just as important, the 1 Series doesn’t give off a whiff of impostor luxury, as did the defunct Mercedes C230 coupe or BMW’s 318ti hatchback. The four-seat 1 Series looks and feels legit. It shares its terrific engines with its pricier 3 Series and 5 Series brethren: a 3-liter in-line 6 with 230 horsepower for the 128i, a whip-cracking, twin-turbo 3-liter 6 with 300 horsepower for the 135i.

Perhaps leery of the skepticism that often greets entry-level luxury cars, BMW isn’t promoting the 1 Series’s price, stressing instead its pared-down size and spunky attitude.

BMW has tried to connect the dots between the 1 Series and its renowned 2002, the boxy, big-hearted sport coupe sold here from 1968 through 1976. Executives use the word “distilled” a lot, positioning the 1 Series as a lighter, purer spirit.

After spending a week each in the 128i convertible and 135i coupe, it’s clear that this worldly, full-featured duo has almost nothing in common with the bare-bones 2002. Yet these smaller-scale BMWs deliver a wicked performance kick. That’s especially true of the 135i coupe, which Car and Driver ran from stoplight to 60 m.p.h. in 4.7 seconds. That’s faster than many pure sports cars, including the Porsche Boxster S and Nissan 350Z.

Even the open-roofed 128i with a six-speed automatic transmission — the heaviest and ostensibly least sporty version — proved a starting player, not some bench-warming convertible. (Adding the 300-horsepower engine adds $6,000 to the convertible’s base price, bringing it to $39,875). For either version, the softtop powers open or closed in a swift 22 seconds.

With its short rear deck, tall roof and pregnant-guppy midsection, the 1 Series looks a bit squooshed from some angles. But it’s still a handsome car and one whose essential Bimmer-ness can be spotted from 100 yards away.

The 1 Series trims 8.4 inches from the 3 Series in length, 4 inches from the wheelbase and 1.4 inches in width. That makes this BMW a bonbon for urbanites. With its tight turning circle, the 1 Series proved especially maneuverable in the double-parked mayhem of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

What the 1 Series doesn’t deliver is the weight loss you’d expect: the 135i coupe’s 3,373 pounds is only about 200 less than the comparable 3 Series. Thanks largely to its lighter fabric top, the convertible saves a bit more weight, 3,494 pounds versus 3,792 for the 328i hardtop convertible.

Despite the heft, both coupe and convertible sparkle on the road with quiver-free structures; a nearly perfect 50-50 front-rear weight balance; and the satisfying handling, shifters and brakes that are at the heart of BMW’s appeal (and arrogance). Muscular and perfectly pitched, the coupe’s twin-turbo 6 put on a masterly performance in the rolling Catskills of New York. With each effortless run up its 7,000-r.p.m. scale, it reminded me why BMW gets away with its high ticket prices.

Inside, the 1 Series is comfortable but more intimate than its higher-numbered siblings. The driver and passenger perch closer together, their legs constrained by narrower footwells. Visually, the car offers mild relief from the cabin monotony that’s taken root at BMW. The 1’s switches, gauges and seats are familiar, but the dashboard shows some new curves.

Besides lighter weight, the coupe’s critical edge over the convertible is a slightly larger back seat and a remarkably generous trunk for such a compact car. On a drive from New York to Rhode Island, the trunk accepted two wheeled carry-ons, a portable playpen, a stroller and a backpack. The rear seats fold down to extend the storage space, and a folding pass-through lets you carry skis or other long items.

The convertible demands more sacrifice for al fresco adventure. The rear armrests and backrests are somewhat bow-shaped to make room for the convertible top, chopping into shoulder room and hip space. Except for a brief boulevard cruise, the convertible’s back seat is not a happy place for large adults. The trunk has less practical space, too, especially when the top is lowered.

Neither car can match the 3 Series’s back seat, which was modest to begin with. But at least the comfort access option ($500) improves access to the rear; you press these electric switches on the front seats to slide them forward.

Yet on both models I tested, the manual lever that pivots the front seatback had a sticky mechanism, often resisting an initial attempt to pry it open.

The 135i coupe and convertible get performance equipment at no charge that is a $1,200 option on the 3 Series, along with standard Xenon headlamps. Those items include a sport suspension tuned by BMW’s M performance division, along with striking 18-inch wheels with higher-performance run-flat tires. To handle the extra power, 135i models also get larger standard brakes.

(For $1,000 more, the 1 Series buyer can get a package that includes sport seats, a thicker M steering wheel and the flat black “shadowline” trim that replaces chrome around the windows).

The 135i’s no-charge performance equipment improves high-speed handling but makes the ride choppy. With its short wheelbase and huge wheels, the 135i coupe took a toll on occupants over torn-up freeways and potholed streets. It recalls the first year of the X3 sport utility, whose cement-mixer ride was softened after consumers complained. Let’s hope that BMW will tame this suspension as well.

It’s rare that you thank an automaker for fewer standard features, but the 1 Series spares owners from the least satisfying dishes on BMW’s electronics menu: iDrive, the systems control knob that i-drives owners mad, is optional, and so is Active Steering, which automatically adjusts the steering ratio for easier slow-speed maneuvering.

Yet even the cars I drove weren’t fast enough to escape the options list: Stuffed with $9,000 in add-ons, my 128i convertible snuck past $43,000. The 135i coupe, from a base price of $35,675, reached $42,895. (At least BMW, alone among luxury automakers, still covers the cost of scheduled maintenance — everything from oil changes to worn-out brakes — for four years or 50,000 miles.)

Buyers who skip $3,600 premium packages and other nonessentials can keep the performance high and the price within reach. For the twin-turbo coupe, you could omit the frou-frou but keep the sport package, the lovely Monaco Blue metallic paint ($475), the iPod adapter ($400) and the seat sliders and hold the price to an acceptable $37,575.

While recent BMWs have set off styling debates akin to hockey brawls, it is the 1 Series’s pricing that has people talking. In arguing that the car is overpriced, some critics in the press have made questionable contortions — for instance, comparing 1 Series convertibles with stripped-bare 3 Series hardtops.

The critics’ ambivalence on the 1 Series has surprised me, because it seems to represent all the things that driving enthusiasts clamor for. Compared with the 3, the 1 is smaller, lighter, faster and about $6,000 less. Yet it’s not so tiny that it becomes a two-seat, no-trunk plaything. What’s not to like?

If you were expecting any twin-turbo, 300-horse BMW to perform like the previous-generation M3 — and do it at a Volkswagen price — your expectations may be seriously out of whack. I suspect that if BMW had actually decided to offer a stripped-down 1 Series for $25,000, the same critics would be excoriating BMW for cheapening the brand.

And if apples-and-oranges is the game, chew on this: The last 335i convertible I drove cost $58,000. The 128i convertible I tested cost $43,000. Both are fun, four-seat droptops, differing mainly in size and space.

One valid comparison has noted that the beautifully styled base 328i sedan can be had for roughly the price of the twin-turbo 135i. For those who prefer a roomier car with four doors, the choice of the sedan becomes obvious.

But the 1 Series is among the quickest, best-handling compact coupes and convertibles on the market. For small-car fans, it is something to aspire to, and it will persuade many to stretch their budgets. In other words, it’s another BMW.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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