Car Swap #3: 2012 BMW 135i (aka E82)

This was an enlightening swap. Short summary: BMW created the "sports sedan" category, and this is a great exemplar that reminded me more than a little of my dad's 1972 BMW 2002tii. Excellent all-around transportation, plus fast, sporty, and fun. But it's not as fast and sporty as the 911 Turbo.

So the 2012 BMW 135i on paper looks kind of similar to my 911 Turbo. They both have 6 cylinder turbocharged engines. They both have two doors and four seats. They are both German. They have about the same exterior dimensions. They both have red interiors.

But the driving experience is totally different.

The BMW is a sports sedan. Which means the car rides higher, the seating position is higher, the overall experience is "regular car, but better, faster, nicer, more fun." Great handling, great motor that revs freely and sounds great, good 6 speed gearbox, plenty of power ... but it's still a sedan, rather than a full-fledged sports car.

Don't get me wrong, I really liked it. Really. I immediately thought of several city-dwelling friends for whom this would be the perfect car. And unlike so many soul-less sedans churned out by the millions, this one is really, really fun to drive. Putting significant power (302hp) in a smaller, rear-wheel drive car is a good idea.

Here are the reasons why both enthusiasts and regular people should like this car:
  • Almost no turbo lag (turbo lag is the delay between hitting the accelerator and getting the added power of the turbocharger). Everyone likes this -- you get the mileage of a sensible engine most of the time, but the power of a less sensible engine when you step on it, without even knowing that there is a turbocharger making the magic possible. Unless I was paying close attention, I couldn't feel the turbo kicking in. (In my 911 Turbo, in contrast, you really know it when the turbo comes on.)
  • Modern amenities, good user interface. Modern nav (tho every current cell phone is better), bluetooth, folding mirrors, this car has all the good stuff. And the interface is pretty good, without too many buttons and clutter that you don't need. 
  • "Hill assist." This prevents the car from rolling backwards for a few seconds when you're on a hill after you come off the brake pedal. Oh my god, in a city like SF, with its stop signs on every hill crest, this feature was a godsend. I think no manual transmission car should ever be made without it, ever again. Amaze.
  • It's fast. Those 302hp, plus the 300lb-ft of torque, makes this a very fast car with plenty of acceleration. 0-60 in less than 5 seconds fast (that's faster than the Ferraris of my youth). And first gear is tall enough to be useful (unlike in my 911 Turbo). The engine is eager, and it sounds great.
  • It's comfortable. OK, so the car I drove had the M Sport package, which includes the well bolstered, totally adjustable Sport seats, but they were very comfortable, once you dialed them in. And the cabin is a nice place to be, without excessive distractions from the task of driving (even if there is a bit more plastic in there that I'd ideally like). And I love BMW's red interiors.
  • Good clutch. I'm now excessively focused on clutch feel, since my 911 Turbo has terrible clutch feel. The clutch feel in the 135i is very good, not too heavy, but with good feedback at the friction point. Like a Miata. :-)
What didn't I like? Well, I thought the brakes were a bit grabby. And I know reviewers complain about understeer in aggressive cornering (I didn't try any of that). And while the gearbox was very smooth, I would have liked a bit more of a notchy and mechanical feel, as well as slightly shorter throws. But this is all nit-picking. It's a great car. Get one, before they start becoming collectible as the last BMWs with real soul. (If it were me, I would get a convertible, in white, with red Boston leather interior. Because California.)

What about my 911 Turbo? Well, here's how I would sum it up. The 135i is a great sports sedan and a damn fine car for the real world. But the 911 Turbo is a real sports car. You sit lower, you feel bonded to the road, you have an ungodly amount of power ("face melting" is how Jennifer describes it), and you have a much richer engine note (coming from behind you!). Where the 135i is the top end of sports sedan, the 911 Turbo is the bottom end of supercar.

In short, driving the 911 Turbo is more of an occasion than the 135i, at least in my book.


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