The 2013 135is isn't the quickest or most sophisticated car in BMW's lineup, but its size and athletic demeanor make it one of the brand's most entertaining models for everyday driving.
The 135is is about as back to basics a performance coupe as you'll find in BMW's range these days, a reminder of a time when the brand was more about the driving experience than luxury goodies. There is no adjustable suspension. Don't want BMW's iDrive control system? No problem.
Essentially, it's you, a slick-shifting six-speed manual and a turbocharged inline-six engine — and the results are magical.
The 135is is the most performance-oriented version of the 2013 1 Series, positioned above the less powerful 135i and 128i models. This position is reflected in the coupe's $44,175 starting price, which includes a $925 destination charge. That's nearly a $4,000 price premium over the 135i coupe, and the upcharge is similar for the convertible body style. We tested a 135is coupe with an as-tested price of $48,245 (see the Monroney sticker); to see how its specs compare with the Audi TTS and Infiniti IPL G, click here.
What Makes an 'is'
Performance-oriented exterior cues help distinguish the 135is from the regular 135i, but they aren't as extreme as the ones on the now-discontinued 1 Series M. The overall look is aggressive without being over the top; features include unique 18-inch alloy wheels, black strakes in the twin-kidney grille and black mirror caps. The 135is sounds different, too, thanks to a louder performance exhaust.
The 135is isn't just an exercise in unique styling, though, as the car also gets a more powerful turbocharged inline-six engine that's rated at 320 horsepower — 20 hp more than the 135i.
For an engine with a lot of low-end torque — 317 pounds-feet at 1,300 rpm — I expected stronger off-the-line performance, especially in a car with a curb weight of 3,373 pounds, which is relatively light by modern standards. You don't really feel the engine's power until the tachometer needle swings past 3,000 rpm. The turbo six-cylinder enjoys being revved — and it must be if you want to experience its considerable potential; BMW cites a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds with the manual transmission or 4.8 with the optional dual-clutch automatic.
Our test car had the standard six-speed manual. The shifter is precise, and it didn't feel excessively tall, like some BMW shift levers. The clutch pedal is firm underfoot, but not so heavy that commuting in traffic was a nightmare.
Clutch engagement is predictable and smooth, but matching engine rpm when downshifting was tricky due to the gas pedal. The problem is that there's a half-second or so delay between pressing the pedal and when engine-rpm jumps, and this lag makes it difficult to consistently blip the throttle on downshifts. It's the biggest issue with this manual-transmission drivetrain.
Thrifty fuel economy probably isn't a key requirement for 135is shoppers, but it is a side benefit. The coupe achieves an EPA-estimated 20/28 mpg city/highway with the manual transmission and 18/25 mpg with the automatic. The turbo six-cylinder takes more expensive premium gas, but that's the norm among luxury-badged performance cars.
Ride & Handling
If you want to know why car enthusiasts rave about BMWs, a quick drive in the 135is will answer a lot of your questions. Typically, their enthusiasm is centered around handling, and that's where the 135is really excels.
The 135is is proof that you can't fool the laws of physics. The 1 Series coupe is small by modern standards — roughly the size of a BMW 3 Series from the 1980s — but its tidy dimensions are an incredible asset when it comes to handling performance and help establish the car's stellar driving feel.
It's not just that the car stays relatively flat when cornering, which a lot of performance cars manage to do, but that it feels magnetized to the road throughout the turn, with the weight of the car over the outside rear wheel.
This performance comes courtesy of the 135is' M sport suspension. The setup yields a firm ride that produces quick reactions to bumps, but even on some of the worst roads in Chicago, ride quality was never harsh or punishing like it can be in some sporty cars. You'll have to be the judge as to whether the setup is too high strung for you, but I appreciated the connected feel it delivered.
The steering is an important part of the 135is' driver-oriented formula, too. The car has a thick-rimmed M-style steering wheel that feels great in your hands. There's an appealing weightiness to it, and it provides a direct, undiluted feel for the road that perfectly complements the suspension.
Modern cars have an amazing amount of technology. Even though the 135is is packed with its share of features, when compared with other new BMWs the standard cabin looks remarkably simple. The center console, for one, has a parking brake lever, the manual shifter and … that's it. There isn't an iDrive controller or any of its associated buttons (it's optional), and neither are there rocker switches for the Driving Dynamics Control that other BMWs incorporate. For a driving enthusiast, the interior's overall focus on the most important controls — the shifter, steering wheel and pedals — is refreshing.
The other thing that's refreshing about the 135is is its great natural visibility. The past few years have seen the rise of safety features like blind spot warning systems that are designed to counteract the increasingly prevalent problem of cars that are hard to see out of, whether because of high belt lines, tall trunk lids or thick roof pillars. This technology is often a poor substitute, and the 135is proves that when you give the driver enough visibility in the first place, these features are less important. The 135is has enough glass in the right places to give you the visibility you need when checking for traffic around you.
Sport bucket seats are part of the deal with the 135is. They're comfortable, though not especially wide, but the bigger issue is how far you have to reach for the seat belt, which is attached to the B-pillar. I'm 6 feet 1 inch tall, and it was quite a reach for me; it would be even harder for shorter drivers who sit closer to the steering wheel. If you thought those motorized seat belt assistants that some cars have are gimmicks, you won't after a few days in the 135is. Other cabin shortcomings include tiny cupholders and an audio system display that blacks out completely when wearing polarized sunglasses.
There's room for two in the backseat, but it's tight for taller adults. It's not so much the seat cushioning, which offers decent comfort, but more the lack of both headroom (my head was touching the roof) and legroom.
Neither the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety nor the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has crash-tested the 1 Series, and the model's limited sales volume means testing at a future date is unlikely.
Standard safety features for the 135is coupe include antilock brakes, an electronic stability system, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for front and rear occupants. The car also has adaptive headlights and brake lights. For a full list of safety features, check out the Features & Specs page.
135is in the Market
The less-is-more mantra doesn't always make a lot of sense (Who really wants less bacon?), but as an admitted handling snob, I submit it has a certain appeal when it comes to cars. The 135is is fun in a way that only a small, light car can be, and these types of cars are getting harder and harder to find — in the BMW lineup or elsewhere. It's a driver's car that doesn't sacrifice everyday comfort, and that's why it's great.
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