BMW 1 Series Brings Back Size, Fun, of Old-School 3 Series

March 5 (Bloomberg) — What would you expect out of an entry-level BMW? Expect good news, because once in a while, less really is more. Once in a while, a car wows you.

North America finally sees the release of the 1 Series, and it has two forms: the spirited and almost affordable 128i ($29,375 and up), and the rip-roaring driver’s dream, the 135i ($35,675 and way up). It also comes as a convertible.

Everyone and his brother owns a 3 Series, yet the latest generation looks plumper and overly mature to my eyes, a former up-and-comer who’s now a comfortable exec. Previous iterations were leaner, hungrier.

Next to the 3 Series coupe, the 1 Series is more than 8 inches shorter, almost an inch and a half narrower, and several hundred pounds lighter. BMW folks call it the “spiritual successor” to the 2002 model, a lithe coupe of the late 1960s and ’70s that was the predecessor of the 3 Series.

The 1 Series is certainly in step with BMW’s design ethos, from the double kidney grill and long hood to the high shoulder line running down the body. The coupe looks more dynamic and proportional than the convertible, yet the interplay of soft and hard lines on the body is appealing, a blend of masculine and feminine traits.

Dealer’s Options

If you were hoping for a “cheap” BMW, well, keep hoping. While the 128i will be the brand’s entry car, the pricing begins at almost $30,000 with a manual transmission (the automatic is an extra $1,275). And buyers may be hard pressed to find a base model on dealer lots without options — luxury makers’ dirty little pricing secret. (The same can be said for many other supposedly entry-level autos, such as Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class.)

Still, expect to pay as much as $6,000 less than a comparably equipped 3 Series.

The 128i has the same 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine as the 328i, with 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet torque, and it makes zero to 60 mph in 6.1 seconds. The suspension is good if not exactly racetrack-ready. The interior is a bit grim, all business and no fun (I blame the weak dollar — the European makers have to cut costs somehow).

I test the 1 Series in central California, alternating between mountain roads and Highway 1. (Hey, it’s all in a day’s work.) A convertible 128i with a six-speed manual is decently invigorating and will keep most drivers well entertained. Cresting a hill at an extralegal clip, the Pacific Ocean sparkling to my right, I can feel the salty wind blowing on my face. Man, it’s fun. The 128i is still hungry, not nearly so self-satisfied as the 3 Series.

Convertible Premium

The soft-top convertible is, of course, heavier and slower than the coupe, and it comes at a premium of more than $4,000. In either form, the 128i can be a winning commuter on weekdays and play toy on weekends.

Then there’s the 135i, equipped with the same 300- horsepower twin-turbo six cylinder as the latest 335i. Lighter car, same power — the physics of speed are obvious. From the first time you get cozy with the gas pedal, it’s clear the engineers were looking to have some fun for themselves.

The car makes sweet, easy work of the curving high-altitude roads found inland, and it makes me think of the previous- generation M3. The specs aren’t entirely comparable, yet I believe the two could tangle.

Scorching Speed

Let’s just say that Bimmer’s estimate of 0 to 60 in 5.1 seconds is conservative. One of the car magazines clocked it at 4.7 seconds, the same ballpark as the older M3. More importantly, the 135i has the same drive-it-like-you-stole-it attitude — a tire scorcher that pretends to be businesslike and conservative.

The fantastic M-designed suspension is light and sure, and the 50-50 weight distribution makes it both forgiving and easy to manipulate (and screech) around corners. It also has a better braking system than the 128i.

And yeah, it looks cooler, thanks to the M aerodynamic kit, with a big air intake on the front apron, a rear diffuser and side skirts (all those bits of cladding that make the car look like a “Star Wars” storm trooper).

Not that all is perfect. It may have four seats, yet those missing inches will be felt by rear-seat passengers. The cup- holder is stuck on like the most after of afterthoughts. And though it’s plenty comfortable, two big guys up front might occasionally rub elbows.

And with the $36,000 tag, it’s hard to think of the 135i as a starter car, exactly. Add options and you’re easily in the $40,000-plus category (and the convertible starts at about that). No, this car falls more in line with a sports-car splurge.

Which I’m perfectly fine with. If the 128i is the bright new assistant, then the 135i is the rising star that middle management never saw coming.

The 2008 BMW 1 Series at a Glance

Engines: 3.0-liter six-cylinder with 230 horsepower and 200 pound-feet of torque; or twin-turbo six-cylinder with 300 horsepower and 300 pound-feet of torque.

Transmissions: Six-speed manual (standard) or six-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 in 6.1 seconds (128i) or 5.1 seconds (135i).

Gas mileage per gallon: 18 city, 28 highway (128i); 17 city, 25 highway (135i).

Price: $29,375 (128i coupe); $35,675 (135i coupe).

Best features: A leaner version of the winning 3 Series.

Worst features: The price of the 135i isn’t exactly “entry.”

Target buyer: Someone looking for either his first BMW or first road scorcher.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)