Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008


BMW X5 4.8I

By Justin Berkowitz

The vast majority of today’s SUVs and CUVs share the same modus operandi. They’re good for a bus, bad for a car. They’re thirsty, overpriced, overweight and over here. Most now come complete with a market-mandatory third row that’s as about useful as a werewolf at Trader Vic’s. So when I read BMW’s characteristically modest tagline for their new X5 SUV CUV SAV on their official website– “Room for everything except improvement”– I considered myself an honorary Missourian. Ultimate driving machine on stilts? Show me.

The X5 is the very model of a major modern BMW that quotes the stance historical. It’s a tremendously busy design, festooned with strange shapes and littered with unexpected creases and lines. Despite die Bangle Boyz’ attempt to transform the Bimmer’s two-box SUV shape into something more exotic, the marginally longer, taller and wider X5 still looks like a two-box SUV tweaked to look like something exotic. The rear remains especially boxy, tilting its posterior upwards in a distinctly French sort of way. In sum, from twenty feet away, the X5 looks handsome enough.

Stepping inside the X5 is like stepping into a VIP suite at the Bellagio. BMW’s draped and slathered the cabin in thoroughly decadent materials. My tester’s buttery dark brown Tobacco leather (the X5 is built in the Carolinas, after all) is the business. The switches, buttons and mellifluous stereo are sybaritic enough to satiate Audi-ophiles. Trillion-direction adjustable seats flatter the high roller's heiny. There’s a backup camera, heads-up display, a nifty electronic gear-shift lever and enough mouse driven gadgets and alphabet soup safety systems to shame an Airbus. Who could ask for anything more?

Of course my tester weighed-in at $70k. So yeah, you’d better feel like freakin’ royalty inside. In the back, serfs up! Or is that Smurfs? BMW recommends restricting the third row to passengers shorter than 5’7”. Lop another couple inches off that estimation (not literally) and it’s so true it hurts. Still.

The X5 is a full-figured kinda gal, tipping the scales at 5300lbs. Faced with motivating one so heavy, BMW didn’t dick around. The BMW X5 4.8i packs some serious heat. Its state-of-the-art V8 engine blasts-out 350hp @ 6300 rpm and 350 ft.-lbs. of torque @3400 rpm. The powerplant’s Valvetronic system works in conjunction with continuously variable valve lift control to eliminate the traditional throttle and help the engine breathe more easily. Double-VANOS then allows it to steplessly…

Snap the X5’s funky shift lever into manumatic, hold the six-speed autobox in first gear and mash the go-pedal. Two things happen. First, your backside notices how comfortable the seat is. Not for sitting. As a backstop. Second, the big bore V8 rips, snorts, and then rip-snorts down the road. At some point, the engine bellows and screams, filling the cabin with aural menace. The X5 4.8i sprints from rest to 60mph in the low six second range.

You know when they say, doh! I could ‘a had a V8? THIS is the V8 they’re talking about. Just like the old M5, BMW’s burbling bastard just begs to be beaten. To keep the universe in order, to fund the oil companies’ stockholders, you must oblige.

It gets better. On sinewy woodland B-roads, I could easily keep pace with two BMW cabrios, a 650i and 335i. Cough. Yes, my X5 4.8i came equipped with the $3600 Sport Package, blessing it with 19” alloys, Active Roll Stabilization and Electronic Dampening Control. Anyone with an ounce of petrol in their veins will order their X5 this way. The package kept the beast in line as though it was a vehicle half its size, while BMW’s e-nannies let you moon Sir Isaac Newton and flip off gravity.

Again, I don’t like SUVs. Unless I’m heading off-road or towing something heavy, I’d rather put my bike on a train and collect some carbon credits at the other end. As a jobbing auto journo, I have a hard time recommending any vehicle that gets 15/21 [yeah right] mpg. And now that BMW is rolling out an AWD 5-Series station wagon with the automaker’s magnificent turbo I6, it’s hard to make a case for BMW’s politically incorrect gas-guzzling locomotive-on-stilts.

But not impossible. Its own twisted way, the BMW X5 4.8i makes perfect sense. It’s got all the utility of the station wagon PLUS seating for you, four friends, and two employees from Willy Wonka’s factory. Inside, it’s Kubla Khan’s pleasure dome elevated for extra visibility, and that feeling of superiority no pavement scraper can deliver. The X5’s also got all-wheel drive for the snow. And then, then there’s that monster under the hood.

Yeah, that’s it: the engine. The V8’s the thing wherein BMW will capture the heart of a king. I guess they showed me.


By Justin Berkowitz

BMW’s next big thing is the 1-Series coupe and convertible. Propellerheads are positively dizzy at the prospect of a new, small-ish, rear wheel-drive BMW offering a modicum of practicality, brand-faithful weight distribution and one of the company’s legendary in-line six-cylinder engines. Why it’s the 2002 reborn! Hello? Has the entire enthusiast community been neuralized? They seem to have forgotten the fact that BMW already sells a model answering to this description: the Z4 Coupe. Or, in fact, doesn’t, much. And for good reason: the Z4 is a rolling condemnation of BMW’s evolutionary commitment to ultimate driving, a four-wheeled cautionary tale for anyone blinded by the BMW badge.

If you think the new BMW 1-Series is a bit awkward looking, behold the Z4 Coupe. What's with that droopy line across the car’s doors? Perhaps the designer fell asleep at the table whilst his pencil trailed off into eternity. The diagonal slashes across the Z4’s flanks and face are positively maniacal. At the back, the coupe’s sloping roofline hits the Banglized trunk lid at the same place the rear haunches finish their… haunching. It's hard to say what happened here, but it's not good. It reminds me of the time I asked my four-year old cousin to get ready for bed and discovered him wearing his PJ pants as a shirt.

Mssrs. Style and Panache are MIA. The Z4’s front fascia looks as though a regular front end was mercilessly stretched over the frame. The headlights and grille are so far swept back they seem moments away from bursting, with the rest of the car popping out from behind. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s taking the phallic design shtick a little too far.

That said, BMW nailed the layout and proportions: ginormous hood, cabin out back and a rear deck so small it's a fast back. We’re talking classic sports car shape, in the great tradition of the Jaguar E-Type and Mercedes Gullwing. But so much of the Z4’s exterior is so wrong you wonder how in the world BMW managed to snatch hideousness from the jaws of classicism.

Things get better indoors. Ish. The Z4 offers a narrow, confining cockpit with all the space of a Manhattan condo. Build upwards! The Z4’s extremely comfortable, bolstered seats are screwed so close to the floorboards you wonder if Bimmer’s ergonomic engineers were anticipating the return of the fedora. This average Joe also found reaching the dash knobs a bit of a stretch. Not that you feel any aesthetic or tactile compulsion to do so…

Contemplating the Z4’s monolithic, any-color-as-long-as-it’s black dashboard is like setting your claustrophobia on broil. The obligatory aluminum or strangely colored wood accents lighten the cabin’s atmosphere about as effectively as a drug store flashlight in a darkened amphitheater. Rear visibility is conspicuous by its absence.

Nor do the details delight. The Z4’s component radio header is plopped into an abyss of plastic and sheets of metal/lumber, looking a bit like the face of the Jetsons’ robotic maid. Your hands will be thrilled though, for the Z4’s the steering wheel is the appropriate size, shape and diameter for what lies ahead.

The Z4’s inline six delivers exactly the sort of performance you'd expect from an engine with a well-stocked trophy case. The 3.0-liter engine is neither peaky (a la Honda) nor rpm challenged (as in GM's 3.6). In fact, it's as smooth as Marvin Gaye on a glass stage. Spinning the mill with the Z4's six-speed manual provides genuine joy, while the Steptronic auto (sourced from GM, thank you) is snappy and slick enough to tempt purists to try the commuter solution. Either way, you're playing with 255 horsepower– enough oomph to propel the 3108lbs. two-door from rest to 60mph in a hair under six seconds.

The Z4’s handling dynamics are the car's Achilles' heel, calf and thigh. The car is completely hamstrung by wide, overly stiff run-flat tires and needlessly-aggressive chassis tuning. Like the ill-fated Pontiac Solstice, grip exceeds power to the point of pointlessness. The Bimmer is so completely buttoned down you can practically hear it crying out for catharsis. The Si variant adds welcome feedback and the Z4M adds obscene power, but the standard car lacks any of the low speed or on-the-limit fun enjoyed by Mazda Miata drivers– never mind Boxster bashers.

Considering the Z4’s fundamentals– rear wheel drive, two seats, straight six– this car should be, at the least, a grand grand touring car. The engine and transmission are up to the job, but the car’s tires and suspension are stuck in egg-beater mode. Even worse, the Z4 is even uglier now than it was when the tennis shoe design first tempted sports car lovers. Rather than fix the Z4, BMW has opted to go back to square 1. I have no doubt the new 1-Series will be the better driver’s car, but a moment of silence please for a bold Bimmer that deserved better.

BMW 650I

By Jay Shoemaker

Journalists on this site have complained about how ugly and technologically complex recent BMWs have become. To that list I would also add a jarring ride, an overly aggressive throttle tip-in and jerky transmissions. Don’t get me wrong. In the main, the propeller people’s products still do exactly what it says on the tin: ultimate driving. But these defects make it difficult to drive most Bimmers smoothly, as one can an equivalent Mercedes, Audi or Cadillac (CTS). So when my BMW buddy nagged me to check out the 2008 650i coupe, I wondered: why bother?

The 650i is considerably less aesthetically offensive than its predecessor; Bimmer’s booted bling for a more brand faithful return to understated elegance. They’ve enhanced the 6-Series’ strongest feature– its front end– by subtle tweaking the lower front bumper. The air intake is significantly wider than previous, and the borders at the bottom emphasize the car’s extra wide stance. Above, new LED lights form “eyebrows” over the headlamps, ditching Dame Edna’s glasses for a more austere look.

The biggest improvement lives where the 650i needed it the most: the rear. The “Bangle butt” rear deck has lost some of its mass and rises less steeply from the body. It’s also been slightly sculpted to bring an element of shape and style to what was once a blunt and hideous tail. As a result, the entire car gains coherence and loses affectation. It’s less stunt and floss and more Stirling Moss.

I’ve always appreciated the 6-Series’ curvilinear dash, which envelops the driver like a good cockpit should. BMW now offers an extended leather package (included with the pearl effect cow hide) that covers the 650i’s dash and console with phenomenally plush leather. As an interior accent, it makes the world’s best seating material. The chairs still have annoying limitations to their range of adjustments, but the aforementioned leather and new active headrests helps make them incredibly comfortable.

BMW added a lot of bright work for 2008, with chrome accents on the steering wheel and transmission. Combined with Chateau red seats and carpets, the overall effect is twenty first century bordello. The audio system is superb, but the costly, non-adjustable heads-up display is set too low in the windscreen for easy viewing. The 650i's steering wheel is still pleasingly plump with shift paddles like those found in the 335.

I don’t know why BMW felt compelled to ruin a perfectly good shift knob design. The new electronic shifter is no goofier than iDrive, but not less either. Thankfully, BMW has rendered the iDrive multi-function wart superfluous except for navigation. You can now use six buttons (wasn’t eliminating buttons the point of iDrive?) to program functions which the wart made tortuous (e.g. changing the radio station). Plus, you can press the main HVAC controller and get into the same menus as iDrive. Can we skip to the bit where the wart evolves into history?

The 650i driving experience has gone from the ridiculous to the sublime. On the standard setting, the coupe eases away from rest like a limo. Even with the 19” run flats included with the sport package, the 650i’s ride quality is both firm and velvety. Unlike the previous 6– which provided lingering reminders of each and every impact– the refreshed model detects and dismisses road imperfections with casual ease. A new feature called “comfort stop” helps to minimize twitchiness whilst braking. Put it together and the new 6 has finally found its true métier as an interstate-compatible boulevardier.

That said, it still has stones. The “make your passenger’s head bob like a Halloween apple” setting is summoned via sport mode. Push the button and overly aggressive and jerky shifts are yours for as long as you can endure them. The button also summons the full Monty from a 4.8-liter V8 packing 360 ponies and an equal amount of low down grunt, accelerating this 3,800 pound two-door from rest to 60 mph in 5.4 seconds.

Equipped with the optional active steering system, the 650i’s helm is still somewhat remote, but a lot less clinically detached. Turn-in is more predictable, adhesion limits are high and the learning curve for carving the curves is a lot less steep. That said, one quick bend and you’ll know this heavyweight is meant for long distance love rather than a teenage nervous breakdown. The 650i’s exhaust note signals the car’s sporting character (or lack thereof); it’s authoritative from outside the car and muted and refined from within.

In short, the 2008 BMW 650i is a thoroughly modern GT, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one. There is nothing under $100k which compares, except perhaps the Jaguar XK coupe, which offers less performance and features. The 650i is not just better than been, it’s been transformed into a truly desirable ride. Once again, BMW has proved that evolution trumps expectation


By Jonny Lieberman

To understand the new X6, you must go back a few years to the 2001 X Coupe Concept. This was the first time the world got a look at BMW's vision of a jacked-up sports car that "deliberately questioned existing preconceptions." Nothing whatsoever made it from the concept to the production X6– save a bit of flame surfacing and the chutzpah necessary to give well-heeled motorheads what they didn't know they needed: a jacked-up five thousand pound, four-door, four-seat, all-wheel-drive sports car.

It sure doesn't look like a sports car. Nor does the X6 ape the "Patton invades Sicily" SUV template. In fact, the X6 is from The Mars Rover School of SUV design. From certain angles, this futuristic Bimmer is downright ugly. Or worse. And whoever signed-off on those rear three-quarter windows should sign-out of the car designing biz.

From other angles, depending on the sun's position, the X6 has genuine presence. There's no mistaking this mamma for anything else; in a cognitive dissonance, supermodel in the supermarket kinda way. Of course, a lot of the X6's curb appeal stems from its sheer scale. The X6 is enormous. The top of the spoiler is at chest level. The roof is 18 inches higher still. Jeep Liberties are dwarfed while Ford F-150s are cut down to size.

As Mercedes calls the chop-top four-door CLS a "coupe," BMW refers to their quad-portal X5-derivative as one, too. Bimmer's "Sports Activity Coupe" (SAC for short) offers supremely comfortable rear seats for two. Despite the X6's sharply-raked roof, a brace of non-slouching six footers have more than merely adequate headroom. The roof's slope continues to the hatch, yet the X6's trunk can easily hold all four occupants' stuff. Or as the X6's press team translated it from the mother tongue, "Gear for unusual sports." In your face, Xterra.

Considering the fact that the X6's exterior is nothing short of bonkers, the parts-bin interior is a let down. From iDrive (which is getting better), to willfully counter-intuitive turn signals and windshield wipers, to the world's most annoying gear lever, all the crowd (un)favorites are accounted for. Luckily, the SUV's perfectly-executed steering wheel and the sporty seats (with adjustable side bolsters) draw attention away from the haptic haplessness.

Let us not forget the killer interior app: on either side of the transmission tunnel you'll find knee pads. Although they're as soft as you'd expect from the Germans (i.e. rock hard), the pads demonstrate BMW's faith in their two-and-a-half ton whale's on-road performance. As do the donuts; the X6 sports the fattest rubber ever offered on a production SUV (315/20 at all four corners).

Wide tires on a big, heavy vehicle usually mean nothing more than axle hop and long, lurid skids. BMW attacks Newtonian physics with a beer stein full of acronyms: xDrive (all wheel-drive), ICM (integrated chassis management), DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) and DPC (Dynamic Performance Control). The latter, DPC, is the one to watch. In essence, the system shifts rear-wheel torque left to right, all but eliminating understeer and oversteer.

Houston, we don't have a problem. Wet, dry, rocks, dirt, mud, whatever. No sky-high hunk of lard should feel this confident and secure across mountain two-laners. While only auto journos (hi mom!) would take an X6 onto a wet race track, the SAC's intelligent driveline allowed me to drift through corners. Yes the X6's steering is all but D.O.A., making its massiveness hard to plant with inch-perfect accuracy. Yet the soft-roader rewards smooth and gentle inputs with genuine finesse.

The X6 offers sports-oriented SUV drivers two ways to boogie: the beloved twin-turbo I-6 from the 335i or an all-new twin-turbo 4.4-liter V8. The xDrive50i's monster motor generates 407hp and 442 ft-lb of torque (@1750 to 4500 rpm). So equipped, the X6 bellows from zero to 60mph in 5.2 seconds. The xDrive35i takes a bit longer (6.4 seconds) to make the same sprint.

If bragging rights and stop light fights are your bag, by all means choose the double-blown V8. It's one hell of a mill and I look forward to BMW dropping it into any of their sedans. However, the lag-free I-6 gets the X6 closest to the Ultimate Driving SAC. Despite being down on power, the 3.0-liter is plenty punchy. More importantly, the lighter engine shaves 264 lbs. of ballast off the X6's front end, creating a much nimbler and more balanced machine.

Did I just say that?

On the downside, the X6's six-speed slushbox constantly hunts for gears. And I feel obliged to report an observed 12.5 mpg– though I did drive the X6 as if BMW were buying the gas. However, if you've ever been wowed by how well an Infiniti FX or Porsche Cayenne handles, the xDrive35i is going to blow your mind. If you hate sporty SUVs, look away now.

BMW 135I

By Justin Berkowitz

History is bunk. Although cars like the Jaguar XK120, Shelby Mustang and Porsche 911 have become legends, their modern equivalents offer far superior driving dynamics. And greater reliability. And safety. But it is their "soul" that resonates: the combination of icnoclastic style and man - machine zeitgeist. So when enthusiasts (and BMW PR) started comparing the new 135i to Bimmer's venerable 2002, expectations were sky high. The reality is more like a fat guy limbo dancing under a pole raised six feet off the ground.

My paranoid-delusional theory: BMW intentionally botched the 135i. If executed properly and sold with a mid- to upper-20s price tag, the 1-Series would have eaten the 3-Series' breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not to mention the toll it would have taken on sales of the BMW-owned MINI. So The Boys from Bavaria grabbed a 3-Series, screwed it up a bit, kept the hatch for the Eurozone and said "here is your entry level car."

Even a quick glance tells you BMW doesn't believe in reincarnation. The 2002's huge greenhouse dominated its exterior. The 135i is the exact opposite. The new Bimmer's beltline rides absurdly high; an accurate indication of submariner visibility. Even by modern BMW standards, the 1-Series is a bit of an odd duck. The front end is contempo BMW, but the headlights are more cubist X3 than sleek 7-Series. The trunk looks like it's taller than it is deep. There is nothing iconic or beautiful about the 135i. It's a rolling caricature of a virtually identical car.

In fact, the 1-Series' looks like a trash-compacted 3-Series coupe. Yes, the 135i continues Chris Bangle's axles of power flame-surfaced design theme (and how). And yes, some elements are distinctly appealing. The base of the rear pillar, for example, has a lovely retro curve to it. But when compared to the form-follows-function minimalism of its alleged ancestor, the 1-Series coupe is nothing more than an automotive affectation.

The 135i's interior offers a welcome return to basics. Bargain hunters will be well pleased that the materials deployed throughout the 135i's cabin are virtually identical (in quality) to those found in the 3-Series. The 135i's dash design is considerably better. The center stack is oriented toward the driver– a BMW interior hallmark I've missed in the years since BMW realized the orthodontists leasing their cars didn't give a damn.

Dentists' chairs are more comfortable than 135i's standard-issue front seats; even if you include the drilling. The seats' inverse side bolstering places you on top of a leatherette covered hill. Continuing a less noble BMW tradition, righting this ergonomic wrong costs big bucks. That'll be $1500 for leather and another grand for sport seats– which come packaged with Shadowline Exterior Trim, an M-Leather-Wrapped Steering Wheel, Increased Top Speed Limit and all-caps spelling.

The 135i's back chairs will not accommodate anyone: you, me, children, smaller children, junior members of The Lollipop Guild or Jay Shoemaker's chihuahua. The rear accommodations are barely sufficient for a decent-sized backpack, never mind a pair of homo sapiens. Not that it matters. The 135i's front seats are mounted so close together you can't reach into the back. And now, the good news…

Thanks to its 300 horsepower turbocharged inline six, driving the 135i is like strapping yourself to a Flüssigkeitsrakete. Until you get used to the thrust, ramming the tach needle into the red line transforms the neophyte into nothing more than spam in a can, flung at the horizon by God's own right hand. BMW says the zero to sixty sprint takes just 5.1 seconds. I doubt it. It seems much faster. And yet, after a while, the 135i leaves red-blooded drivers wanting more gears, more space and a higher speed limit (see: above). It's too bad the rest of the car is just luggage.

The 135i's dynamics are distinctly "piano like." By this I mean it drives as if there's a piano strapped to the roof. And no wonder, the 135i tips the scales at 3373lbs. (When BMW and Edmunds described the 135i as the 2002's successor, they must have been talking about the 2002 model year 330i.) Even with the mighty mill motivating the mass, despite the fact that it's lighter than the equally powerful 335i, the 135i feels heavy on its feet. Don't get me wrong: there's plenty of grip. But someone forgot to add nimbleness.

The 135i's steering is a big part of the problem; its ponderousness makes turn-in an unnecessarily onerous chore. The 135i's manual transmission doesn't help matters. Like most latter day Bimmers, the clutch is a two-footer that engages with rubbery imprecision. And while the 335i has a most excellent ZF automatic transmission, the 135i does not. The smaller car's French-made six-speed auto is jerkier and more dim-witted than its big brother's cog swapper.

With the 135i, BMW decided to have its cake and ate it too. Maybe that's why the 135i is so fat. I guess BMW couldn't offer a beautiful, affordable, spirited entry level car below the 3-Series, but not have a car below the 3-Series. Rather than "make it fun" or "make it practical," BMW sent us a slightly smaller, marginally less expensive, much less attractive 3-Series. Damn it's quick. But a 2002for 2008 it most definitely is not.

BMW 335I

By Mike Solowiow

After testing BMW 135i and 335i coupes back-to-back, I can reveal that there are only two good reasons to purchase the smaller, cheaper car. Either you need a track day machine or you're an idiot. Otherwise, spend the extra bucks and buy the 335i coupe. The 335i coupe is more attractive, more enjoyable to drive, holds its value better and offers far more real road usability than the 135i. If BMW had made the 135i as a lightweight, no-frills, Bahn-burning turbo rocket ship, they would have created a truly unique, desirable automobile. But they didn't.

Walking up to my 135i tester, it greeted me with the usual Bimmer face that I love. Staring straight into its double-kidney shaped aggression, I thought that maybe the photos really didn't do the car justice. Reaching the side of the vehicle, I nearly dropped my Starbucks latte in disgust.

Just three days prior, I was in Germany on an Air Force operation. I saw all manner of 1-Series hatches on the autobahn, in their natural element, looking graceful at over 240km/h. What I saw upon my return was a transmogrified beast. Not quite a coupe, not quite a hatch; a car that took all the worst styling cues from both. I hated it. The baristas hated it. TSgt Gasaway hated it. Ashleigh and Shannon at my apartment tower hated it. It really is an ugly car.

While sharing the same face, the 335i looks like Catharine Zeta Jones by comparison. I'm no fan of Bangle designs, but the 335i coupe is Bimmer's best melding of power and grace to date.

The 135i's dash harkened back to the driver-focused BMW's of yore. Nestling into the exquisite brown leather sports seats, contemplating the simple, elegant design, I nearly forgot about the 135i's hideous outside. Nearly. My only [Jay Shoemaker-esque] gripe: cheap sun visors that would make Hyundai blush. Oh, and the nominal rear seats.

The 335i's cabin can't match the 135i for clarity of purpose. To wit: iDrive. The huge hump protruding from the 335i's dash not only ruins the lines, but it provides bombardiers and other gadget freaks with an irresistible distraction– to the point where I nearly tested my insurance agent's religious tolerance (i.e. "accident forgiveness"). Of course, the 335i also gets props for adult-compatible rear accommodations.

Munich's twin-turbo, 3.0-liter straight six powers both vehicles. This powerplant should be revered as temples of VANOS. Both 300hp engines scream, Siren-like, beckoning pistonheads to pilot them on a wild journey of legendary proportions. The 135i outruns the 335i, but only just. Side-by-side, the 135i pulled away initially, to about a car length, but lost a bit of ground when both cars shifted into second gear (5.2secs v 5.6secs 0 - 60).

Both testers were auto-box equipped. Quick, smooth, and always at the perfect ratio, the cog-swappers nearly made me surrender my manual mantra. As previously reported, the 135i's auto feels cheaper and slower-witted than the sublime ZF-equipped 335i.

Step on the powerful, easily modulated brakes, toss the cars into a turn and you soon realize only one makes the driver look like they know what they're doing. The 335i never loses its composure. Even broken pavement fails to upset the chassis; the harder you push it, the more it rewards. At the limit, the 335i begs for you to push harder. When you do lose it, just dial in some opposite lock and steer with the throttle. The 335i does everything with poise and grace.

The 135i tells a very different story. On the track, the 135i has no rival. The 135i laughs at the STI and Evo's AWD systems, hangs out its rear end around the corners, and then snaps back in line. The fun ends there. On the real road, the 135i continually fights the driver with heavy steering and an extremely twitchy nature. Where the 335i has suspension control over all surfaces, the 135i bucks and snaps like a cheap Kia. The 135i never flatters the driver; it darts around like a fat, over-caffeinated cheerleader. Alternatively, I felt like a hormone-crazed 16-year-old with a freshly-minted license who'd just "borrowed" someone else's 70's car.

At $43k ($36k base), the 135i is not your average enthusiast's idea of "entry level." For about $4k more (options on both the 1 and 3-series are the same price), or 10 percent of the 135i's purchase price, well-heeled coupe buyers can acquire the more spacious and better-styled 335i. They'd give up a bit of speed for a car that makes you look (and feel) like Sabine Schmitt cruising the Nurburgring.

The poorly-packaged BMW 135i proved too difficult (read: unrewarding) to drive in daily situations. If the 335i didn't exist, you could make a pretty good case for the magnificently-engined 135i. But it does so you can't.


By Jonny Lieberman

My plan: drive the metallic blue BMW 128i Convertible down to San Diego. I could've clichéd down the coast, stopping off in Yorba Linda to do donuts in the parking lot of the Nixon Library. That's what a sensible person would do. But the true masochist always chooses the route less traveled. So, straight from the heart of Hollywood, I loaded up the Bimmer's minuscule trunk, saddled my semi-potent Deutsche-steed and set off through the seriously Lynchian Inland Empire. Unseasonably hot, 97-degree late-April weather be damned.

Within 60 miles, it was clear I was the one who was damned. Perching on leather seats without a roof on a cloudless day is a combination only out-dumbed by a fresh-off-the-plane, no-SPF sojourn at an Australian beach. Sure, I could have pulled over and raised the 128i's lid. But I'm a journalist damn it! Heatstroke is who I am and what I do.

After building the bridge on the river Kwai, I left the 215 in Upland. Could the BMW 128i really be this awful? Seriously; 60 miles had never felt so tortuous. I could only justify the misery by telling myself that the hot, windy, loud and uncomfortable ordeal was good practice for my upcoming LeMons race. But in reality, there is no way a $100 Volvo could be this bad.

I consulted the Geneva Convention over something frozen and caffeinated. I pressed on, top folded. The [optional] 740k-way adjustable sport seats were hateful devices. Though I can't say they lacked a peel; I was literally stuck to the material. The 128i's steering wheel is so fat it's fatiguing to hold. At 85 mph, wind noise was five drums past bombastic. The radio was useless and the air conditioning was out of breath before it finished the first set of reps.

The 128i Convertible's gearing and its 3.0-liter inline six conspired to place the car into a dead zone at a slower-than-traffic 75 mph, while simultaneously providing no torque to accelerate away from angry Sequoias bearing down on the back of my exposed head.

In short, the 128i Convertible was more taxing than Denmark.

South of Temecula wine country, just when I was ready to drive straight into a tree, I spied a delightful road wending its way up a mountain. I knew I needed photos. More importantly, shade. Yup, I'd discovered a gorgeous one laner. The up-‘til-then dreary-beyond-belief 128i suddenly, surprisingly, sprang to life.

The 128i's chopped chassis– stolen from the larger 3-series– is a miracle of modern engineering. Attack a corner and you can feel the Euclidian perfection of the Bimmer's suspension at work. The car's frame seems to bend as you turn the wheel– in a good way. Straighten out and the mini (no caps) BMW does the same. It's not a Porsche Boxster, but it's not so very much not a Boxster, either.

Additionally, with the Steptronic transmission set in shift-myself mode, the 128i's 230 horses and 200 units of torque left nothing to be desired, even for a self-professed lead foot.

Unfortunately, if you let the tranny choose gears on its own, it's utter trash. Let me back up. It's not the transmission itself that stinks. Rather it's the slushbox and the electrowhizbangery working together that ruin the 128i. Push the (yawn) starter button. In default mode, the lightning-quick throttle response featured on every BMW worth its roundel is notable by its absence. Instead you're treated to confounded CAFE-related hesitancy and near-constant upshifting. So that's terrible.

Press the 128i's DTC button (Dynamic Traction Control) and it "rewards" you with a slightly quickened throttle response plus some sort of respite from the all-conquering handling nanny. However, the computer shifts and shifts and shifts. If you slide the gear lever to the right to activate DS (Drive Sport), the autobox holds the gears all the way to 6500 rpm, just 500 spins short of redline. BUT– lift off for a corner and the gearbox is as clueless as last year's Miss South Carolina.

The solution: keep it in DS, but pretend-row the gears yourself by either pushing und pulling on the stick or flapping the paddles, right? Wrong. First of all, if you push up on the stick you're upshifting. Just kidding, you're actually downshifting. The paddles are even more backwards. Pull the right paddle towards you and it upshifts. Yank the lefty and… it also upshifts. You need to push on either paddle to grab a smaller gear. Trust me — you will mess this up, probably when you need it most.

If the 128i came with a third pedal and a proper stick, would I buy one? Absolutely not. Our tester stickered at $44,375. For just $3k more I could grab a Shelby GT500 Convertible. It's not only an infinitely superior tanning machine, but the thuggee Ford doesn't look like a pregnant, pygmy hippo. Case– and roof– closed.


By Jay Shoemaker

BMW enjoys vast reservoirs of consumer goodwill. How else can you explain the German automaker’s ability to flourish despite recent engineering and design faux pas? General Motors would have been a lot further along in its death spiral if it had introduced indigestible shapes, indelicate Bangle butts, interminable run-hard tires, unfathomable iDrive and the ubearable SMG transmission. And so, the M3. Does the new M3 Coupe restore the roundel’s rep, or does it signal another misguided attempt to perpetuate the ultimate driving “lifestyle?”

If you consider a gold Rolex Datejust restrained (which, in a way, it is), the M3 is a subtle-looking car. With the aforementioned flame surfacing adorning the base 3-Series, BMW’s M people headed to the ‘hood for inspiration. The M3’s power dome and flanking indents compete with its gaping maw and steal-me side mirrors for bling props, whatever that means. With a black carbon fiber roof, the overall effect is inconspicuously ostentatious.

The M3’s cabin remains cleanly styled and elegantly proportioned. The Coupe’s sports seats are exactly what the 1-Series ordered, but didn’t receive. The armrest is a welcome upgrade, while the anthracite headliner continues to provide hush, hue and aroma. My tester’s fox-red (a.k.a. borderline bordello) Novillo leather added to the eau d’M3. Optional carbon fiber leather is the Fran Drescher of trims (far more appealing than it sounds). The M3’s steering wheel is the same diameter as my wife’s wrist, and just as pleasing to hold.

Unfortunately, I find the manual M-cars virtually impossible to drive smoothly. And that means the new dual clutch M Drive transmission. And that means the $3250 Technology Pack. And that means… iDrive. It’s still a riddle wrapped in an enigma powered by Intel (for all we know).

The M3’s stubby M Drive transmission stalk looks both alien and intimidating. It offers a “comprehensive range of choices:” five shift programs (in automatic mode) and six shift programs (in manual mode). Only the country that gave us Werner Von Braun could imagine that a driver needs 11 shift modes from a seven-speed automated manual transmission. When would I have time to sip my latte, nibble on my croissant or check my Blackberry?

But wait, there’s more! How about programmable adjustments to the suspension, steering and throttle mapping? RTFM uber alles baby.

Ignoring Stendhal syndrome, I fired-up the M3’s small block V8 and reveled in its raspy bark, anticipating what 414 ponies might achieve with 3704 pounds to motivate. I chose comfort suspension and the quickest shift program, left the power button off and kept the steering in normal. Throttle tip-in was limousine smooth, with a slight hesitation; I imagined that I felt the clutch engaging during this process. And then… auf wiedersehen pet.

To say the M3 is ferociously quick is to say you don’t mind revving the 4.0-liter V8 to 8300 rpm. Why would you? Like Ferrari’s entry-level models, the sounds coming from the M3’s mill on the way to peak power make the journey half the trip– as in LSD (and I don’t mean Limited Slip Differential). In absolute terms, we’re torquing 4.6 seconds to sixty. In the real world, it’s a gut punch sandwich with a side of sideways.

That is, of course, once you turn off the M3’s DSC. Even with Nanny in attendance, the understeer-at-the-limit M3 clips apexes effortlessly. With its weight-balanced, highly evolved chassis and fearsome stoppers, the M3 is both a track day weapon and an everyday supercar. If there’s a chink in the armor, it’s the uber-3’s over-light (yet laser precise) steering. It’s a damn shame that Bimmer’s ceded the world’s best helm feel honors to the Sultans of Stuttgart (a.k.a. Porsche).

Once I’d programmed the M-Drive button appropriately, I could instantly switch from relaxed trundle to max switchback attack and back. Using the paddles, you can shift from automatic to manual mode simply by flipping the handle to the right. the cod slushbox isn’t as transparent as Audi’s DSG paddle shifters; I still felt like I was working an automated manual rather than something truly automatic, but it’s still highly livable.

As was the M3’s tolerably firm ride. That said, my tester came with 18” wheels mounted with PilotSport non-run-flat tires– which contributed as much to the M3’s ride comfort adjustable suspension. Even the softer shoes were noisy at speed, but their performance and relative spinal-friendliness made the sonic disturbance a minor inconvenience. Besides, the M3’s sound system’s excellent– and offers six more programmable buttons (which allow you to circumvent iDrive.

In my more relaxed moments with the M3, I began to wonder whether I had found the perfect GT. Only the model’s meager fuel economy and commonplace design prevent this conclusion. In the end, BMW’s seemingly bizarre technology won me over. AMG has a lot to worry about. Over to you Justin…