Go ahead. Take one look at it and jump to the usual conclusion. Yeah, sure, it's a four-seat drop-top with the coveted blue-and-white roundels at each end, but don't assume it's only good for running between cheerleading practice and the mall. BMW's new 1-series convertible is a seriously good driver's car that looks even better in the metal than the coupe on which it's based. And Godammit, it's not a chick car!
If BMW's newest convertible were merely a boulevard-cruising frontin' machine, surely its PR team would have flown the first pack of international journalists to the south of France to frolic on the beaches of Nice and simply take in the beauty of its latest sunchaser. Instead, BMW let us have a go on the challenging mountain roads-cum-sheep paths outside of Valencia, Spain. The weather was warm enough to enjoy top-down motoring, cool enough to feel justified in driving with the top up, and the scenery amply majestic for beauty shots. But the roads — oh, sweet Lord — the roads were made for driving. And rather than being handed a set of instructions for a prescribed route, we were given a virtual catalog of available driving roads on which to get lost for the day.
The drop-top version of the 1-series will bow early this spring alongside its hardtop sibling. Two versions of the convertible will be offered — the 128i at launch and the 135i shortly thereafter — that nicely parallel the coupes. If you've been keeping up with BMW's nomenclature lately (and good on ya if you can) you'll know that the 128i will use a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter (not 2.8) straight six that makes 230 horsepower, and the 135i will feature the twin-turbo 3.0-liter six that pumps out 300 ponies. Neither of those was available for our early drive, so we had to make due with the 218-horse Euro-market 125i (which, logic be damned, also uses a de-tuned version of the 128i's three-liter engine) that we were told is virtually identical to our 128i.
Our first clue that the 1-series, even in convertible form, is still intended for driving enthusiasts is revealed in its exhaust note. Deep, mellow, lusty, and refined, it sounds like the meisterwerk of a mad acoustical engineer with a passion for sport bikes. The sonic performance is best at startup, its bassy burble mimicking a Mercruiser outboard churning lake water at idle. Eventually it warms up and settles into a more discreet purr, but even this is worthy of a couple extra laps in the parking garage before departing.
In the free-form traffic of downtown Valencia, our 125i shot through gaps in congestion with no problem. Good for 218 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 199 lb-ft from 2500 to 4250 rpm, BMW reckons the 125i convertible can get to 62 mph (100 km/h) in about 6.8 seconds. Our 128i will make its 230 horses at a slightly higher 6500 rpm, and peak torque of 200 lb-ft will come on at 2750 rpm, allowing for a 0-to-60 mph time, according to Munich, of 6.4 seconds with six-speed manual gearbox (7.0 for the six-speed automatic). To put those numbers in perspective, it took the 1995 M3 the same amount of time to do the 0-to-60 sprint, with its advantage of 10-horsepower, 25 lb-ft, and 275 pounds. The manually shifted 135i will shave a full second off that time, putting it in the same club as the last-generation M3 convertible. No one ever called the M3 a girlie-mobile.
More of the true nature of the 1-series 'vert reveals itself once we turn off the main roads and start making our way into the hills. The body structure is stiff; in fact, it feels almost as tight as the coupe. Only the most negligible hint of cowl shake is present over the worst road bumps, but never to the degree that you can actually witness the gaps between the door panels and the dashboard change dimensions. The chassis is modified for convertible duty, supplanting many of the coupe's conventional steel panels with high-strength steel and incorporating additional bracing that's been engineered to fit into the structure from the outset. The resulting platform is rigid enough to bolt the coupe's sporty suspension underneath, endowing it with the kind of handling that put BMW on the map in the first place. The five-link rear axle with coil springs and gas dampers controls the movement of the drive wheels, masterfully compromising the demands of both ride and handling, while a Mac-strut suspension does the same thing for the front.
Zigzagging the switchbacks as we climb the craggy terrain, our 125i feels magnetized to the road, though with traction and stability control both fully defeated, tail-out antics are a mere heavy right foot away. Riding the more open ridgeline roads, the chassis simply dances to the commands of the steering wheel, throttle, and brake. The electrically assisted power steering reacts quickly and feels naturally weighted throughout its range. The gearchange is just as smooth and effective in the droptop as in the coupe, and for all the hullabaloo over the 135i's six-piston front brakes, the 125i's single-piston grippers failed to be overworked on even these challenging roads. Occasional damp spots in some of the road's more shadowy corners set the run-flat tires free momentarily, but nothing more than a quick countersteer is ever needed to stay on course. Dynamically, the convertible 1-series is every bit a BMW.
Thus far we've left the top up, and out of nowhere the co-driver comments, "Oh my God, I totally forgot we're in a convertible!" The cloth top is very quiet from the front seats, the air moving silently over the canvas. On the Autoroute, the roof stays drawn tight as a drum, even as we reach speeds of around 100 mph. There's no buffeting, no "whoop-whoop-whoop" of loose material, no apparent ballooning of the roof. A short stint in the back seat reveals a bit more wind noise than up front, particularly at the rear pillars, but not enough to drown out the conversation going on ahead. A steel hardtop would have likely eliminated this mild intrusion, but the added weight, total loss of cargo space, and potential styling disaster would not have been worth it. And besides, BMW wouldn't have been able to offer our car's optional shimmery top material, which incorporates glossy threads into the anthracite-colored canvas. The resulting black denim effect is reminiscent of a pair Roberto Cavalli jeans, though at just $100 more than the standard cloth top, far less expensive.
Once we're out of the mountains, we peel the top back for some fresh air. We pull to the side of the road, press the button with the "top open" icon, and wait just 22 seconds for the cloth top to disappear beneath its shell. The top can be raised or lowered remotely by holding the "lock" or "unlock" buttons, respectively, on the key fob. No levers to release, no boots to fit. BMW has even allowed for the top to be opened or closed on the fly. You can initiate the raising or lowering of the top at speeds of up to 25 mph, and the operation can be completed while going as fast as 31 mph. No more holding up traffic with your last-second decision to go topless as the light is changing to green.
Since we're already stopped, we dig the windblocker out of its storage case in the trunk and pop it in place. Doing so takes only a minute but renders the back seat useless. However, it significantly reduces the rush of turbulent air into the forward half of the cockpit, thus permitting conversations at a reasonable volume while keeping chilly air off our necks and shoulders.
The cockpit is a true driver's environment virtually identical to the coupe's, with a minimalist dashboard, pop-up nav screen, and excellent sport seats. Unfortunately, that also means there are no additional locking storage compartments. Whatever personal effects you leave in the car will either have to fit in the glovebox (good luck) or be moved to the trunk.
Some other concessions have been made for the convertible, however. The climate control system, for instance, includes a program for top-down driving that takes into greater account solar intensity and outside temperature. A further nod to open-air motoring is the optional leather upholstery, which uses solar-reflective dyes to keep the surface temperature of the leather up to 20F degrees cooler than conventional hides when the sun is shining on it.
From the driver's seat, it's difficult to discern the convertible 1-series from the coupe version, at least until you look in the rearview mirror. The glass rear window is the largest possible size that will still stow away when the top folds. While a plastic window might have offered a larger opening, it wouldn't have provided for electric defrost, and we all know how miserable soft windows are to maintain. Visibility suffers only slightly compared with the coupe, mostly because the fully retracting rear quarter windows are considerably smaller than the fixed panes of the hardtop. Unlike so many of the new breed of convertibles, the 1-series' trunkline is relatively low, so when you do look in the rearview mirror you're not just seeing your deck lid.
The back seat is unique to the convertible models, being not only narrower by necessity, but also more upright to make room for roof stowage. The seating position is comfortable enough for adults to endure short trips, with armrests built into the side panels and just enough headroom for a six-footer. Legroom is at a bit of a premium, but anyone needing a family-size convertible probably won't be looking at the 1-series.
The trunk provides more storage than it would lead on. With the top retracted, there is 9.1 cubic feet of space available, shaped to swallow a pair of carry-on suitcases and a couple large duffle bags. With the top up and the protective storage tray swung out of the way, and additional 1.6 feet of space is liberated, making way for larger cargo. The rear seat can be ordered with an optional pass-though opening that's large enough for a pair of snowboards or other similar loads, but at the expense of the rear passengers when it's actually being used.
Literally exhausted (and perhaps a bit queasy) from the non-stop chicanery of the Spanish countryside, we pull off to catch our breath and snap some pics. On the narrow streets of the tiny village in which we've stopped, the parked 125i looks confident, perhaps even smug, in its ability to tame the tarmac. Lacking the helmet-like roofline of the coupe or the boot-like profile of the hatchbacks, the lines of the convertible are the purest iteration of the 1-series design. The creases and folds that have so far made the 1-series such a love-it-or-hate-it kind of car actually seem to be ironed out a bit on the 'vert, and you can see echoes of the 2002 in its dominant beltline.
When the 128i convertible bows in late March or early April, it will no doubt find its way onto many Super Sweet 16 birthday wishlists. And as unfair as that may be to such a capable driver's car, we'll probably have to live with that stereotype. Perhaps the 300-horsepower 135i will have enough cred to dispel the myth. Repeat after us: It's not a chick car!