The 2013 BMW 135is restored my faith in "The Ultimate Driving Machine." Many years ago, I owned a 325is, of the E30 generation, which taught me what BMW was all about. But over the last few years, coinciding with the launch of the X6, the brand seemed to take a turn for the mundane, turning out cars tuned for the mass market rather than enthusiasts. After driving a particularly placid 3-series, I was beginning to fear the worst.
Now, the little 135is has convinced me that BMW still knows how to make a sports car.
Despite the 1 Series being BMW's smallest, entry-level car, it can be one of the most potent, and the best street performer in the lineup. At just over 14 feet long, the 135is comes to the U.S. in a coupe format, and includes two smallish rear seats. The Europeans also get a really nice-looking hatchback version, which BMW refuses to import.
The 135i, boasting BMW's excellent direct-injected and turbocharged 3-liter, six-cylinder engine, was already a little rocket. The addition of the "s" to the model name, something BMW has done occasionally through the decades, turns the car into a tuned-up street racer, with acceleration that won't quit and an exhaust note that will get your attention.
To make the 135is worthy of the extra letter, BMW reprogrammed the engine software, bringing the output up to 320 horsepower and 317 pound-feet of torque. Likewise, a new traction control program allows for a little more play, and the suspension has been stiffened. On the completely unnecessary side, BMW adorns the 135is with little M badges, evoking the somewhat disappointing attempt at an M version of the 1 Series from a few years back.
The model BMW sent to CNET was a purist's dream, with a manual transmission and no navigation system. Although the other transmission option is the truly excellent seven-speed twin clutch, which shaves 0.1 second from the zero-to-60-mph time, it was nice to get some driving time with the manual, which suits the 135is very well.
The gate exhibits what I think of as classic European smoothness. It precisely moves through the gears, but instead of feeling mechanical, there is a well-worn feel to each gear slot, as I imagine the giant gears of a centuries-old town clock would interlock. However, I'm not crazy about the flat-topped shift knob, as it feels too small for an adult's hand. Add an inch of height to it, and the knob would be a perfect pistol grip.
I also rejoiced in the fact that the 135is had no buttons for Sport or Eco modes. Essentially, the 135is is always in Sport, and has no time for normal or Eco modes.
A purist might think, good, this is the way sports cars are meant to be: all mechanical with no technical tomfoolery. But don't fool yourselves, there is a lot of technology at work in this car; BMW just hides it well. First, there is the engine, a real marvel of engineering using precisely programmed variable valve timing and direct fuel injection, which bears as much resemblance to an old, carburetor push-rod engine as a Mac Pro does to a slide rule.
Instead of relying on a limited-slip differential to aid cornering, BMW applies programming to the rear brakes, selectively engaging each one to help the car rotate through the turns.
I was impressed that merely making a fast start, running up the engine revs for a good zero-to-60-mph run, caused the traction control warning to light up on the instrument cluster. Fortunately, traction control never seemed to interfere, and could also be turned off by pressing a button. Holding down that same button also turns off the Dynamic Stability Control, which is not advisable unless you are on a track that you know well.
As for acceleration, the 135is took off quickly, like any well-powered sports car. But its engine programming let it rev up to 7,000rpm, giving me more time in the lower gears. It hit 60 mph in second gear, just before hitting redline, and an upshift to third showed the 135is just had more to give.
Just about where most cars would give up, the 135is got another power bump, seeming to increase its rate of acceleration.
The acceleration was accompanied by one of the best exhaust notes I've heard from a car in a long time. With the window down for maximum auditory stimulation, the exhaust growled aggressively under acceleration. Suddenly letting off the gas pedal resulted in a series of little backfires, as if the 135is had to somehow exhale all that power it had at the ready.
With the windows closed, the car's noise dampening reduces the exhaust note to a low, bass thrumming. It changed tone and tempo with the tachometer needle, making the car seem like an exotic, thereminlike instrument. Really, somebody should sample it.
The beauty of the 135is is that, even with its high-tempo acceleration, it is perfectly drivable in stop-and-go traffic. The manual transmission makes for a little more work when boring driving conditions prevail, but it shifts so well that I didn't mind. When you stop on an ascent, a hill-hold feature steps in to make taking off easier, too.