Except for its price, the 2008 BMW 128i Convertible may be the least BMW-like car from the automaker. Oh, it does have all the cutting-edge tech found in BMW's other models, including a pop-up LCD that is surprisingly immune to glare. But where its turbo-charged brother, the 135i, feels glued to the road, the 128i Convertible's wheels seem to stretch away from the car in the corners. And where the 135i leaps forward with smooth and hard acceleration, the 128i Convertible's power delivery feels uneven.
Test the tech: iDrive versus voice
Although we've reviewed many BMWs, we haven't delved deep on the voice command capabilities, mostly due to initial frustration with the system. With the 2008 BMW 128i Convertible, we decided to give it a chance by having editors Antuan Goodwin and Wayne Cunningham see how quickly they could perform various car tech tasks, one using iDrive and the other voice command. This little test is also our farewell to iDrive, as the system is being radically redesigned, the first examples of which we should see at the Paris Motor Show.
Our first task was to program a local restaurant named Town Hall as a destination in the navigation system. Goodwin took the first attempt using iDrive. As the stopwatch started, he quickly went from the main menu into the navigation submenu, and got to the New Destination area. Not finding the points-of-interest database, listed under the Information heading, he backed out and looked at the settings area. From here, he found an Information menu for the navigation system, and entered the name Town Hall in a search box. The search fairly quickly came up with the restaurant, which he selected, completing the task in 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Cunningham, more familiar with iDrive, attempted the same task using voice command. Pushing the voice command button, he said "navigation," and the screen responded by showing the navigation menu. He then said "information," and was shown a list of points-of-interest categories. The car didn't respond correctly when we named the restaurants category, instead going to the time setting. After a few more attempts, he gave up, as the voice command system doesn't let you go deeper than the points-of-interest category list.
Our second task involved playing an album called Under the Black Light from the iPod we had plugged into the car. Goodwin took up the iDrive knob again, going straight to the entertainment menu. He found the various sources, and got to the iPod menu. From there, he found the album listing, and chose the correct one in a blistering 14 seconds. Cunningham attempted to replicate the task with voice command, first telling the car "iPod." As that didn't seem to work, he said "Options," which makes the voice command system say all currently available commands. The car didn't list an iPod command, but did have USB, so Cunningham went to that. The car changed its audio source to the iPod, after which Cunningham tried saying "next track" and "next album." Neither of these commands worked, and the car didn't list any commands for navigating music, so we had to conclude that this task was not possible with voice command.
For our final task, we merely had to dial a phone number with the car's Bluetooth phone system. We had paired a Samsung phone to the car. Goodwin went into the communications menu, found the dialing screen, and twisted and pushed the iDrive knob around until he had entered the complete phone number, taking only 25 seconds. Cunningham went next, telling the car to "dial number," then quickly rattling out our chosen phone number. The car started dialing, getting the spoken number right, in 23 seconds.
We concluded that, while the voice command system is very good for dialing a phone number you happen to know, it doesn't offer complete functionality for other car systems. Goodwin, an iDrive neophyte, stumbled a bit on the navigation task, but completed the other tasks very quickly.
In the cabin
Even though the BMW 128i Convertible is the company's lowest-end model, the cabin materials and design are right up there with the 335i and 535i. The plastic on the instrument panel isn't impressive, but we like the wood trim and the steering wheel. The iDrive controller is a solid metal knob located on the console, while the LCD flips up from the center of the dashboard. We had a number of options to tech up our car, including BMW's $500 Comfort Access System, which is basically a smart key. As in other modern BMWs, two buttons on the steering wheel are programmable, letting you assign various functions to them, such as muting the stereo, closing the LCD, and displaying the cell phone contact list.
The navigation system is the same as in other BMWs we've seen, having the same traffic and dynamic navigation routing we tested in the X6. The maps look good and the system generally works well, although we aren't crazy about its interface. There are only a few options for choosing destinations and the points-of-interest database is limited. The system is reasonably fast for being DVD-based and the map rendering is very good. One thing lacking on the 128i is the dual screen found on the larger BMW models.