A BMW only a mama could love

A BMW only a mama could love
The 1-series compact coupe (in 135i and 128i trim) is the latest in a fairly robust line of cars from BMW. (BMW)
Let's begin with a verity, an undeniable truth that is evident from 3 feet away or from the cold distance of outer space: The new 1-series BMW is ugly. Seriously ugly. Ugly with X-wings locked in attack formation. Spare me your E.H. Gombrich or Helen Gardner. I know an ugly car when one blows past me at 100 mph.

Ugly cars are unusual, for very good reasons. Auto companies are vast organizations, with billions of dollars invested, and tens of thousands of employees, some of whom can actually see to pick out their own ties. Also, in an age of computer-aided design, virtual modeling and rapid prototyping, ugly can usually be rooted out and burned at the stake before the first tooling is purchased. Usually.
BMW review: A review of the BMW 135i in the March 19 Highway 1 stated the car's twin turbochargers were arranged sequentially. The turbochargers are separate. —

The 1-series compact coupe (in 135i and 128i trim) is actually the latest in a fairly robust line of ugly cars from the Werks. The coupe model follows three- and five-door versions that have been hugely successful in Europe and the rest of the world since 2004. The styling is a vestige of what BMW then called its "flame surfacing" design vocabulary -- though it has less the incandescence of fire than the weary drape of wet canvas. Or old skin. That's it. The 1-series looks like it needs a jowl lift to repair its prolapsed cheeks. Or perhaps a truss. With the downward bowed accent lines running along its flanks, this car looks like it has suffered a high-speed hernia. Meanwhile, I search the stars in vain for a reason the designers gave this car a notch-back design -- so that there is a discernible trunk in the back -- when it so plainly aches for a fastback. And, yes, one wonders how BMW Design could have let a talent such as myself get away.

Well, then, to recap: ugly. But I'm not so superficial that I would write off the 1-series with some subjective rant about styling. Oh, no. I have other reasons to torpedo this car.

I've always been an advocate of small, premium cars, such as the Audi A3, the Volvo C30 and the Mini Cooper S. And, over the years, as the 3-series has grown into the fully rigged gold-plated showboat it is, I have longed for a smaller, lighter, simpler BMW, something along the lines of the old 2002, or even the 318ti that sold in the U.S. from 1995 to 1999.

Who wants a poor man's BMW? A poor man, that's who.

So, what did I have in mind? I'd like a BMW a foot shorter than a 3-series, half a ton lighter and $10,000 cheaper. I'd like it to have a four-cylinder, high-pressure turbo engine, a six-speed gearbox, and I'd like the whole thing dipped, Achilles-style, in a track-ready minimalism.

And the new 1-series isn't it.

The 135i is, officially, smaller than the 3-series coupe: 8.9 inches shorter and 1.4 inches narrower. But that loss of dimension doesn't really get you much except a crick in your neck. Our topped-off 135i test model weighed a portly 3,420 pounds, a mere 137 pounds less than a similarly equipped 335i Coupe.

The reason? It's basically the same car squeezed into an undersized sheet-metal Speedo. The engine -- the unspeakably smooth and ridiculously potent 3.0-liter twin-turbo -- is the same. The front strut suspension and rear multi-link suspension are the same. Ditto the level of upfit and equipment levels. Virtually every interior component, in all its premium, czars-of-Russia glory, has been lifted from the 3-series parts bin. The result is a smaller car that weighs the same. This is not, generally speaking, a good thing.

Worse yet, the 1-series really isn't much of a value proposition. Our test car priced out at $42,325, which is only $4,525 less than an identically optioned, better equipped and infinitely more attractive 335i Coupe. I suppose there are other cost-of-ownership issues such as insurance and so forth, but I think you'd have to be slightly mad to choose the 1-series over the otter-sleek and beautiful 3-series. Perhaps only if you can't reach the pedals in the bigger car.

A little shopkeeping: The 1-series will come in coupe and convertible form; automatic or manual transmission; turbocharged, as our test car, or with a naturally aspirated version of the 3.0-liter in-line six cylinder putting out 230 hp and 200 pound-feet of torque. The base price for the 128i coupe is $28,600, more if you want windows and tires.

The convertible 128i starts at $33,875, and the 135 ragtop fetches $39,875.

Is the 135i fast? Is Eliot Spitzer sleeping on the couch? It's completely and utterly bonkers with acceleration. Squeeze the throttle in first, second, third gear, and it feels like a great big rubber band being launched off the world's thumb. Huge, billowy bursts of get-gone narrow the view to a blurry vortex. The numerologists at Car and Driver recorded a 0-60 time of 4.7 seconds and a quarter-mile estimated time of 13.3 seconds. That means the 135i is quicker than the last-generation M3, which was clinically psychotic.

Meanwhile, the 135i's engine sound is so ferocious and bittersweet, so carnal and wicked, somebody ought to name a heavy-metal band after it: Velvet Chain Saw.

It's all about the engine: The two turbos are plumbed sequentially so that the small, low-inertia turbo is always spinning and the larger one is ready to pinwheel as rpm climbs, which means engine response is immediate and immense. Like all BMW gas engines these days, it's direct-injection for better efficiency and emissions. And it has wide-authority variable-valve timing, which is to say, the motor doesn't have "peak torque" caused by mechanical and volumetric limitations; instead, it has a mighty torque mesa, a great savanna of twist. Max torque of 300 pound-feet comes on at just 1,400 rpm and stays maxed until 5,000 rpm. Passing acceleration is comparable to, oh, a Ferrari.

Fantastic brakes, awesome steering (hydraulic, whereas most of the BMW line now has electric power steering assist), stupendous grip and dynamic balance. I love the mechanicals of this car. Well, I loved them before they got jammed into this ugly Size 8 Birkenstock.

2008 BMW 135i

Base price: $34,900

Price, as tested: $42,325

Powertrain: Twin-turbo direct-injection 3.0-liter SOHC in-line six with variable-valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; rear wheel drive

Horsepower: 300 at 5,800 rpm

Torque: 300 pound-feet at 1,400 to 5,000

Curb weight: 3,420 pounds

0-60 mph: 4.7 seconds

Wheelbase: 104.7 inches

Overall length: 171.7 inches

EPA fuel economy (premium only): 17 mpg city, 25 highway

Final thoughts: The faster it goes, the better it looks.