2009 BMW 128i Coupe Review
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS
2009 BMW 128i Coupe
What is a "sports car"?
The classic definition once was: a two-seat roadster, a car stripped to the essentials for going fast. Which meant minimal weather protection, in purest form not even a folding top or side windows, never mind passenger heating or cooling. Luggage capacity? Not a concern. Practicality? Beside the point.
Sports cars were toys of the wealthy before World War II. In post-war years, with the rise of the middle class and disposable income -- and, in war-ravaged Europe a need to export to the wealthier United States -- the middle-class sport car was born. Evolution and market demand brought full bodywork and almost-functional tops -- and, eventually, roll-up glass windows in place of plastic side curtains. Still, creature comforts were sparse, and luggage capacity minimal. Which didn't matter, as a sports car was a vehicle for enthusiastic driving. Something the sedans of the day were decidedly not, for the most part.
American sedans of the 1950s and 60s are viewed through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia now, but while some were capable of seriously quick acceleration, braking and cornering abilities were dubious at best. European sedans, with a few exceptions, were no better. There were cars in the "Grand Touring" category, with the speed and handling of a sports car and luxurious accommodation, but they were mostly rare and expensive exotics.
Meanwhile a small German automaker was trying to find a niche in the American marketplace. BMW's small two-door 1600 sedan looked like a good start, and the higher-performance TI version could have been even better if it had not run afoul of early emissions requirements. Solution? Right out of the hot rodder's manual: drop the big engine into the small car... Which meant a 2.0-liter, 100-horsepower four, with nearly the same power as the twin-carb 1600TI and more torque. The 2002 (2 liters, 2 doors) was born. As was the modern BMW. The 2002 could surpass any of the similarly-priced British or European sports car of its day in all performance parameters -- acceleration, braking, handling -- while transporting four people and lots of luggage in comfort. If it wasn't the first modern sports sedan -- and honor I'd arguably give to the Alfa Romeo Giulia Super-- it was the most successful, and established the genre.
The 2002 gave way to the original 3-Series in the mid-1970s. And it was the 3-Series that cemented BMW's reputation. But, as seems the way of the world, the 3-Series grew ever larger over the years, and, at least for the more mainstream models, more focused on luxury that performance. More people want to be comfortable than to merely go fast, it seems...
To fill the position vacated by the 3-Series as it grew, BMW introduced the 1-Series. Its 2004 European debut was in hatchback form, reminiscent of the Touring model of the 2002, and it was later joined by two-door coupe and convertible models. A variety of engines are offered in Europe, including a lovely 2.0-liter turbodiesel, but we in the US get the top-of-the-line sixes, the same 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated (128) and turbocharged (135) powerplants found in the 3-Series.
Small two-door car, large engine... does this sound familiar? I owned a 2002 25 years ago, and drove a 128 convertible with the optional automatic a year ago. I've just spent a week with a 128i Coupe with the six-speed manual gearbox and sport package. The 40 years between the 2002 and the 1-Series have brought significant change, but the giant-killer spirit of the 2002 is still alive. It still has the performance of a sports car, and the comforts and space of a small sedan.
APPEARANCE: There will be no question as to the 128i Coupe's identity. Even without a peek at its trademark twin-kidney grille and round headlights the athletic, sculpted look characterized by the strong shoulder line and prominent wheelarches defines it as a BMW. With moderate slops to the Coupe's roof line, it is more of a true coupe in looks than the boxy `02, but a high rear deck promises useful space beneath. It also promises good aerodynamics, with a slight built-in ducktail negating the need for an add-on spoiler. Underbody air management is also very good.
COMFORT: At the reasonably basic trim level of my test car, the 128i has all you need for serious driving, with no distractions. The Sport Package seats are firmly padded for excellent support and comfort, and the leatherette covering is as good as some leather. Anything that can or should be adjustable is, manually, for simplicity and lighter weight. The steering wheel has a thick leather rim for long-term driver comfort, and cruise and auxiliary audio controls. The pedals are arranged well for performance driving. Instruments and controls are placed for quick visibility and use. Both front windows are one-touch up and down; the rear side windows are fixed. No navigation system here, although one is available, and trim is honest but high-quality plastic. Rear seat access is good for a two-door car, and while it's strictly a two-passenger accommodation those two people have plenty of space. A 60/40 fold-down seatback allows large items to be carried when needed. The trunk has plenty of room for normal use, and far more than in any two-seat sports car.
SAFETY: BMW 1-Series Coupe passengers are protected by multi-stage front, front seat-mounted side airbags, and full-length head-protection airbags as well as seats and headrests designed to reduce injury from rear impact. For active safety, Dynamic Stability Control is standard equipment, as are strong antilock disc brakes and excellent handling characteristics.
RIDE AND HANDLING: BMW figured it out with the mid-60s "New Class" that gave birth to the 2002: rigid unibody construction, fully-independent suspension, and as close to 50/50 weight distribution as possible give the best results. The 1-Series, like all current Bimmers, is a development of this. Front suspension is still strut, but is now double-pivot with aluminum components to reduce unsprung weight and improve response. The rear is a multilink design. My test car had the optional (and highly recommended) Sport Package, with firmer springs and shocks and 17-inch run-flat performance tires. Unlike some BMW sports suspensions of the past, it's not overly stiff, and so is comfortable enough for everyday use. Steering effort is appropriately heavier than in an overly-assisted front-wheel drive family transportation appliance, and roadholding abilities are first-rate.
PERFORMANCE: In the day of the 2002, power as found in the 128i was only dreamed of. 100 hp from a carbureted, single overhead cam 2.0 liter was standard, with 130 available in the mechanically fuel-injected tii. The non US-legal Turbo had 170. The 128 engine, the US-spec 1-Series "base model" powerplant, is a 3.0-liter inline six makes 230 hp (at 6500 rpm) and 200 lb-ft of torque (at 2750 rpm), and is wonderfully smooth and flexible. There is more than enough torque to allow fine performance with an automatic, but for best results go for the six-speed manual. Short-shift at 3000 and it feels strong and torquey, sounds lovely, and gets commendable fuel economy. Wick it up a bit, to about 5000, and it really starts showing its abilities. Over that, there is a strong surge of power and a howl that sounds like one of the V-12 ALMS prototypes of a decade ago. I never felt any lack of power -- indeed, the 128i is as overqualified as any premium German sports sedan -- but if you must have more, the 135 has 300 turbocharged horsepower.
CONCLUSIONS: True sports performance meet practical usefulness in the BMW 128i Coupe.
2009 BMW 128i Coupe
Base Price $ 29,200 Price As Tested $ 33,575 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve inline 6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 230 @ 6500 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 200 @ 2750 rpm Transmission 6-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 104.7 in. / 172.2 in. Curb Weight 3252 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 14.1 Fuel Capacity 14 gal. Fuel Requirement 91 octane premium unleaded gasoline Tires Goodyear Eagle NCT, F: 205/50R17 89W R 225/45R17 91W Brakes, front/rear vented disc / vented disc, Suspension, front/rear independent double-pivot strut / independent multi-link Drivetrain front engine, rear-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 28 / 22 0 to 60 mph 6.1 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Space Gray metallic paint $ 550 Sport Package - includes: 17" wheels with performance tires, sport seats, sport suspension tuning, shadowline trim $ 1,300 Heated front seats $ 500 Xenon headlights $ 800 iPod and USB adapter $ 400 Destination charge $ 825