Driving fun made simple
Few four-seat sport coupes are built more for the sheer joy of driving than the 2008 BMW 128i. The 1 Series is a well balanced, good handling, and joyfully powered performance machine that engages the driver from the press of the start button to the setting of the parking brake. The BMW 128i harkens back to the original DNA that made Bimmers what they are today. In building the 128i, BMW takes the base roots of its family tree and distills them to simplistic driving perfection garnished only with a few basic amenities to maintain driver comfort.
Unfortunately, the 2008 BMW 128i will largely go unnoticed as its profile winds through the sea of automobiles already heavily populated by the very similarly styled 3-Series. But enthusiasts will recognize it, even more so if they've ever been behind the wheel. This is because the 128i is the purest form of the BMW experience built in years, a car built to be driven with little else in mind... including back seat passengers.
The drivetrain of the 2008 BMW 128i is what makes this a diver's car. The 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine has a healthy growl when put to the test, but doesn't overpower the passenger compartment. Yet it puts out plenty of grunt, and combined with the 6-speed manual transmission is capable of delivering that power to the pavement seamlessly and efficiently. The two components operate together in perfect harmony as if they were one – the perfect marriage of gearbox and powerplant. A responsive throttle and well-tuned clutch further compliment this mechanical union and are the optimal interface for man and machine.
Snapping the shifter through the gears is a joy and we found ourselves giggling as we approached red lights instead of dreading them as they offered yet another opportunity to bring the little Bimmer from a standing stop to rocket speed. Downshifting is as much fun as upshifting because keeping the 1 Series wound up guaranteed maximum throttle response and instant acceleration gratification from any speed. If the 128i transmission had a flaw it was at low speed shifts where occasionally the shifters stiff preciseness that performed so well in hard driving, would result in a loss of direction midshift and an occasional missed shift.
Balance is the one word that describes the incredible handling of the 2008 BMW 128i. It's obvious looking at the numbers that this car was designed around the 300 horsepower engine found in the 135i, which results in a nearly perfect 49.2/50.8 front to back weight distribution. But the 47.7/52.3 distribution of the 128i isn't too shabby either and is a pea that won't be noticed by any but the most attuned automotive princesses. This is a car that begs to be driven hard around corners, daring the driver to find the outer limits of adhesion, but you would really have to push this car hard to find even a hint of lost traction.
We pushed the 128i hard on the straights right up until the last second before pitching into a corner. This made for a lot of brake dust on the 17-inch wheels, but we never experienced any brake fade.
The steering is light and precise and with near perfect weight distribution the little coupe can be tossed from left to right and back again without ever losing its composure. In fact it dares you to throw more its way. BMW whetted the appetite for curves of our 1-Series by including the performance suspension in the Sports Package. The ride is rigid – as a sports car should be – but never punishing, providing optimal road feel and driver connectivity, but still providing a comfortable yet firm ride.
If you are looking to the 1 Series to stand out from the crowd, you may want to keep looking. There is little to distinguish it from a 3-Series BMW, other than overall size. It even varies little in weight than its bigger brother, coming in only slightly lighter. It's just not a car that will announce its pro-driver characteristics to the world, other than it still says BMW. A car with this kind of capability deserves it's own distinctive design.
The interior design of our tester was simple. No iDrive, no navigation, or any of the other over-the-top gadgetry that's so common in many European performance cars. BMW has kept the 128i simple and left it to do what it does best without electronic encumbrances: drive, and drive well. Still, it includes a few creature comforts such as heated and electrically adjustable seats including adjustable lumbar support, an auto-dimming rearview mirror and an iPod and USB adapter. The 1 Series just limits its amenities to those that truly benefit the enthusiasts, not the status seekers who need a laundry list of goodies to impress their friends.
The rear seats however do leave something to be desired: more room. As one road test editor put it, "the rear seats are exquisitely useless." An adult under 5-ft. 10-in. might fit on the passenger side in the rear if the front passenger were willing to suffer an equally uncomfortable lack of leg room as the rear, but other than that it's space best left to the kids. The rear seat is made further inhospitable by the lack of a center arm rest. There is a piece that folds down from the seat back, but it is little more than a rectangular chunk of upholstery-covered foam that's attached with Velcro, not hinged, covering the trunk pass-through.