For its diminutive size, the 2011 BMW 135i Convertible squeezes a track-ready monster under its sheet metal, one with a 3.0-liter, twin turbocharged, 6-cylinder engine that pumps out 300-horsepower to its rear wheels and 300-lb feet of max torque available at an astonishing low 1,200 rpm.
That 300-hp may not sound like much in today’s world of 500-horsepower Corvettes and Porsches, but in BMW’s world that torque number is roughly equal to its flagship sport-tuned coupe, the M3; although the M3 has 114 more horsepower from its V8, its torque numbers aren’t much better than the 135i’s. Translation: you’re not going to smoke a Corvette or Porsche on a straightaway, but on a tight and twisty track or mountain road, where gobs of torque are what yank you out of corners, the 135i is arguably faster – and it’s a convertible.
Can real men drive small convertibles?
Before going into the bona fides for this ride, let’s clear up an important point: It’s difficult to get behind the wheel without feeling like you’re borrowing your sister or gay friend’s car. Why? The car is, well, cute. It’s something you could easily picture Natalie Portman scooting around in, not Brian Urlacher – although the Chicago Bears linebacker would fit inside with no issues. Despite the testosterone under the hood, straight males are going to lose some mojo in the eyes of others when they climb inside. This impression was reinforced by the unscientific responses from females — “That’s a cute car” — and males in the neighborhood — “Uh-huh. That’s an, umm, interesting car.” That said, guys who are confident in their masculinity are in for one sweet ride.
A convertible for drivers
Usually the convertible versions of sports cars add hundreds of pounds to the rear in the form of the roof, its motor and the lid covering. Not so with this BMW. Using some engineering jujitsu, the Germans kept the weight distribution to a sweet 49/51 split between front and rear. In terms of handling, that’s one helluva balanced ride, which inspires a mountain of confidence when blitzing into, say, a 15-mph curve on a canyon road at 40 mph. This balance, along with the 18-inch low-profile tires, holds the 135i to the road like a rollercoaster on a 90-degree banked turn. There’s no sound of squealing tires, just the whine of the turbo as you punch the gas to rocket out of one turn and into the next one.
As further proof that this BMW is made for the frequent gear changes of hard driving through the endless corkscrews and switchbacks that make up most mountain roads, the 135i comes with BMW’s new 7-speed double clutch transmission. Mated to ergonomically perfect paddle shifters on the steering wheel, BMW’s transmission is instant and smooth. If you’re a hardcore manual transmission fan, this double-clutch system, which has two gear boxes running simultaneously – one for even gears, one for odd – will rewrite your prejudices. Seriously, it is to shifting as the iPod was to CDs. Once you try it, you’ll realize that double-clutches are the future and you don’t want to be left behind.
For such a small car, the steering wheel feels unusually heavy; maneuvering around a parking lot actually requires some muscle to turn the wheel. But at speed, that heft turns into a direct connection to the road. To add to the performance touches, BMW placed the brake and gas pedals close together to enable one of the easiest heel-toe operations found in a street car. The heel-toe technique has you put the heel of your right foot on the brake and toe on the gas pedal. Going into a corner, you brake with your heel while keeping some pressure on the gas to keep the revs high. As you pull through the apex of the turn, you release your heel and step on the gas. It’s a high-performance feature you don’t find often in street legal sports cars straight from the manufacturer, much less a convertible.
Thrill car, not a frill car
Outside of the sheer fun of driving with the roof down on a sunny day — never underestimate the sex appeal of a convertible – this 135i is short on a lot of the amenities you might expect on a luxury sport scar, especially one priced at $47,400. There’s no navigation system, the stereo controls are dated — although the 10-speaker Harmon Kardon system sounds great even with the roof down. BMW specified a cloth top for this ride, not a convertible hard top, ostensibly to keep the weight down. The heated front seats were a $500 option, the Sport Package (18-inch wheels, paddle shifters, sport seats) and 7-speed double clutch transmission added $2,675 to the sticker, but they’re worth every penny. There’s no adaptive suspension; it starts at stiff and a “Sport” button stiffens it further.
There are seats in the back, but they’re unsuitable for any person over five feet tall. Skip the premium package, which includes a garage door opener, Bluetooth and power seats and you’ll shave $2,000 off the sticker. And the car is small. Unless you’re behind the wheel, you can’t understand why such a tiny car should cost more than $45,000 and get such crappy gas mileage (EPA is 18 city/25 hwy). Over the course of city, mountain and highway driving the 135i averaged 22 mpg. With taxes the 135i costs more than $50,000.
As such, there will be a select group of driving enthusiasts who will gladly shell out the dough for this unusual Bimmer, or make their girlfriends or wives get it. While they cheerfully rack up thousands of miles, they can also relish the chances that the 135i has the chance of becoming a distinctive classic like BMW’s 2002 from the 1970s, beloved by savvy people who know what it can do.