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2009 BMW 128i: Rare and satisfying, except fuel economy

Posted by Bill Griffith  April 29, 2009 01:45 PM

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2009 BMW 128i(Bill Griffith/Globe Photo)

BMW has referred to its vehicles as the "ultimate driving machines" for so long the phrase has become as much a part of the company's identity as Mazda's "Zoom Zoom." We'll leave the "ultimate" claim as a debate for another day. It suffices to say that a BMW is almost always enjoyable to drive.

Today's featured vehicle – the BMW 128i – is all of that. The 128i is the smaller, engine-wise, of BMW's two 1 Series coupes. It produces "only" 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft. of torque from the 3.0-liter inline six. The turbocharged 135i bumps both those figures to 300.

Our test car had a 6-speed Steptronic automatic with paddle shifters. It was fun to use the paddle shifters for a short bit, but just popping it in drive and listening to the exhaust tone quickly changing its tune with the crisp shifts was almost as satisfying. My preference would have been the 6-speed manual, but then I don't have to sit in commuter traffic on a daily basis, either.

So, the 128i has plenty of power. It looks great, hardly like the baby, entry-level BMW that it is. It handles great, with true near 50/50 front-engine, rear-wheel drive balance. Unlike the 3 Series, you don't see as many 1s on the road.

So what's not to like?

A few things, especially if you're a bit of a curmudgeon:

The price. Our 128i started with a MSRP of $29,200, plus a destination charge of $825. If you could stop there, we could see this as an entry-level sports coupe. However, an array of ``normal'' BMW options pushed the final price to $41,345. We had the Sport package ($1,300), Premium Package ($3,700), Steptronic with paddles ($1,425), Xenon headlights ($800), and Navigation system ($2,100) as the major add-ons. For comparison, a comparable 3-Series has a base price of $33,600 and would be about $45,500 similarly equipped.

A combination iPod/USB adaptor was $400. That's more expensive than an iPod!

The two-part starting "system" is pretentious. Push the key fob into the dash, and then hit the start/stop button. How about reverting to turnkey vehicles?

The 19 (city) / 28 (highway) EPA fuel economy rating. We averaged 21.3 in driving limited miles. A better combination of power and economy is called for these days.

The back seat. We had three folks to go riding but couldn't convince anyone to take a day trip in the back seat. Why consumers buy a car with such all-but-useless rear seats is a head-scratcher. Don't they have friends? If you buy a BMW it would stand to reason you like to drive and occasionally have the need to carry more than one passenger. I coerced my son – your standard 6-foot, 190-pound issue – to accompany us on a short ride. Mrs. G slid the passenger seat all the way forward, and he endured the contortionist's role for a 20 minute ride with no repercussions but no good words for the experience.

The cup holders. There's a big one – MINI-style – on the passenger side and another tucked half under the center armrest. It's a bit on the sparse side for Mrs. G who's inclined to embark on a three-hour morning trip with hot tea, Diet Coke and a bottle of water, almost always guaranteeing a pit stop.

The rest of the family thought the interior was a bit Spartan, but my feeling was that it was BMW-like.

On the good side, the 128i comes with a four-year/50,000-mile full maintenance program, stability and traction control, brake-fade and drying systems, and rain-sensing wipers.

And the real bottom line, as opposed to the one on the window sticker? It's a blast to drive.

All photos by the author.


2009 BMW 128i back seat


2009 BMW 128i interior


2009 BMW 128i rear


2009 BMW 128i trunk

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32 comments so far...
  1. Is that a Jaguar coffee mug I see? Someone's got good taste.

    I volley back and forth with the 1-series models. Pegged as the reincarnation of the beloved 2002(model, not year) of yesteryear, this has interest but the price is keeping it from being a big seller.

    Still as an owner of 3 coupes, I wouldn't mind making this a forth. Looks like fun and the fact that it does have a cramped backseat only makes it more appealing as a roadster of sorts. A personal cruiser.

    If your intentions were to get people to go to the car's website, you've succeeded I'm going there now.

    Posted by Riviera April 29, 09 04:26 PM
  1. BMW's flagship cars are fantastic, but everything below the 7 series
    is a solid $10k to $15k overpriced at purchase. The hornswaggle of
    the free maintenance sounds great on the ads, but it costs you more
    than buying the car and paying for your own maintenance for non-warranty
    items.

    The 1-series is a great idea, and it looks well implemented, just poorly priced.
    I'll stick with the 350Z for a personal cruiser, it was $5k cheaper than this
    1-series loadout with significantly more torque and bhp.

    Posted by Phil April 29, 09 05:14 PM
  1. A fair review but one thing was left unstated: the 3 series is a better car for most people, at basically the same price. The 3 is quite a bit bigger, has basically identical engine/transmission/chassis/interior, and is a few dollars more.

    I do question the gas mileage - most people get in the 24-25 MPG range with this car.

    If BMW would only bring over the hatchback version of the 128/135 - as sold in Europe - they'd sell more.

    Posted by Chris April 29, 09 05:40 PM
  1. The exterior shot of this car (top of the page) makes it look like a toy. I liked Griffith's comments about the ipod adaptor costing $400. I looked at a new Lexus RX350 2 months ago and the dealer wanted $1000 to put in the satellite radio and the vehicle was already satellite pre-wired. Are they crazy? The BMW's back seat leg room sure looks small from the picture, even smaller than that of my '04 Audi. I think this car's 19/28 mpg rating is great for a sporty car with 230 hp. I also hate these start/stop buttons in cars. It seems funny that it won't work with the key just in your pocket.

    Posted by High_Taxes April 30, 09 07:37 AM
  1. Wow. That is very little car for $41k! Even if I could justify the expense, I still wouldn't be likely to buy it because they don't sell the hatchback version here.

    I'm sure it's a total blast to drive, though!

    Posted by Thad April 30, 09 08:27 AM
  1. This is where I don't understand goverments mpg's. They must assume all manual drivers have poor driving habits like riding the clutch and putting the car in to neutral when coasting. I have a 128i albeit with a manual transmission, I am NOT a conservative driver. I get roughly 25-26 mpg in combined driving. So I don't know how they got such bad numbers with the automatic given that its rated roughly same mpgs as the manual.

    Posted by TT3 April 30, 09 10:40 AM
  1. If you want a roomier back seat in a small car, buy a 328i sedan.
    If you want great fuel economy, buy a hybrid.
    If you want a smokin' deal for your money, buy a Hyundai.
    If you want a SPORT COUPE (and you actually understand what that refers to), you'd be hard pressed to find many other cars that compare to the driving experience you will get from this car.
    In the end, before you buy it, you have the opportunity to drive and test it out.

    Posted by Alex April 30, 09 12:21 PM
  1. My wife and I own a 2008 328i sedan witha 6 speed manual. We average over 30 mpg on highway trips. Last fall we did 3 hour drive and averaged 34 MPG. City driving is around 26-28 mpg. If the author averaged 21 MPG in the 128i, he must have been a little lead footed. MPG can be affected as much by your driving habits as the type of car you drive.

    Posted by cburdick April 30, 09 06:04 PM
  1. cburdick,

    the 328i is just the German version of an accord with leather seats, you were better off buying a fully equipped Infiniti or Acura for what you paid for that stripped down 328i. Seriously, if you're gonna buy a BMW, buy a real BMW, not a 3 series! Those cars were made for women who have no clue what a real car is but want to buy a BMW, it's like the Jetta in the early 2000s.

    Posted by hiya April 30, 09 08:41 PM
  1. MPG can be affected by driving habits, but it's far, far more affected by traffic conditions. I've had a 328xi for over a year and I'm averaging 18 MPG for the entire time, and more importantly 22 MPH. If you do the majority of your driving in city traffic, your fuel economy is going to be terrible unless you're in a hybrid.

    Posted by Jeff May 1, 09 10:27 AM
  1. Who pays $2000 for a built in nav system when a $200 portable unit works just as well and can be moved from car to car?? I can't believe car builders/dealers still sucker buyers like that.

    Posted by WVW in West Newton May 1, 09 03:47 PM
  1. I think you need to look at the 1-series with a very subjective eye. I think most people, mostly to do how the media presented, expected an entry level BMW. In a way, it is BMW's entry level car, it's the cheapest (barely). But it was never supposed to be considered an "entry level car". This is not a Honda Accord (not that they haven't jumped in price). Not justifiying the price here, I think it's a little steep. But what you're getting, at least in the 135i, is a cheapman's (and some would argue better) M3. The car is like a bare bones sport coupe, which is really what the M3 should have been. The argument will always stand that you can get a loaded G37, etc for the price of a decently equipped 1-series. But when you figure that most BMW sales are done via lease (straight from the mouth of a BMW salesman), and that they have some of the most competitive leases around, then the big dollar picture is SLIGHTLY less relevant. I still think the E36 3-series (1999-2005.5) was the best of the small BMW's. They seemed to have just gotten too bloated and laden with useless features for my taste. Not that I would turn down a new M3 :)

    Posted by boss8120 May 1, 09 03:51 PM
  1. The #9 post by hiya stated "the 328i is just the German version of an accord with leather seats, you were better off buying a fully equipped Infiniti or Acura for what you paid for that stripped down 328i. Seriously, if you're gonna buy a BMW, buy a real BMW, not a 3 series! Those cars were made for women who have no clue what a real car is but want to buy a BMW, it's like the Jetta in the early 2000s."

    I have never owned a BMW and would personally prefer owning an Audi or Porsche to a BMW, but Car and Driver has made the BMW 3 series a "10best car" for many years. Google car and driver, then click on "2009 10best cars" to see. Here's an excerpt of what they wrote for 2009:
    "What are the key elements of automotive perfection? From our perspective, the list of qualifications includes eager responses, supple ride quality, smooth power, supportive seats, athletic proportions with limited front overhang, attractive styling with familial features that endure through the generations, a car that is always entertaining to drive.

    For us, the sum of those attributes is epitomized by the BMW 3-series. Not only is this true for 2009, the addition has been coming out the same way now for 18 years: a string of consecutive 10Best Cars appearances that’s unique in the 27-year history of these awards. "

    Based on the experts who test all these vehicles at Car and Driver as well as many other auto magazines' articles, it's blogger hiya who is the clueless driver. Of course, there are faster and more furious cars for less money, but it's the total package that counts to most drivers, women AND men.

    Posted by High_Taxes May 1, 09 04:01 PM
  1. The 1-series has been the entry-level economy car in Germany for several years now; I was there a couple of years ago and one could get a basic model for a bit over $20,000. These entry-level models exist for all German cars, even Mercedes has an inexpensive "A Class" model that would compete in price with what is left of the American sedans (though of much better quality). The problem is that the Germans refuse to import these cars because they're afraid it would "tarnish" their premium name appeal, and would also cut into sales for the higher-priced models.

    When BMW decided to introduce the 1-series in the US, they upscaled the entry-level intent so much that it effectively became a similarly priced alternative to the 3-series. This is why the pricing seems ridiculous to us (which it is), the 128i should not be more than the low $20,000 range.

    It will be interesting to see what the Germans do now that the American auto industry has self-destructed...

    Posted by blumenbach May 2, 09 06:10 AM
  1. Having just finally seen the 1 series up close for the first time...I must now have one. I have owned a 325iX for almost 17 years and it handles flawlessly. I drive hard, fast and on the track when possible. I have never out-driven my little buggy. And now I can get the same power in a smaller model? Sign me up. OK - I'll take it for a test drive first.

    Posted by solazoth May 3, 09 05:39 PM
  1. I'd pay extra for the 1-series, especially w/ that 3.0 engine (and the 135i? Yes, same thing - that engine in a 1 is just FUN).

    People don't understand that in Europe, these cars are sold as economy vehicles first...you can get a stripped down mercedes benz e-class w/ cloth seats and no moonroof. Here, they are positioned as luxury vehicles, but it doesn't change the fact that you have to add on the options. Japanese luxury cars, by contrast, were made for Americans and weren't even sold in Japan until recently (lexus & acura were exclusive to USA until recently). As they were made for luxury first, of course many options on a BMW will be standard in a Lexus.

    When it comes down to it, buying new you're always going to pay a lot, especially for a marquee brand. Buy CPO & save yourself thousands if you can't stomach $40K for a 1-series.

    The back seat & cupholder complaints boggle the mind. The reviewer stated:

    "If you buy a BMW it would stand to reason you like to drive and occasionally have the need to carry more than one passenger."

    Really? Even the SMALLEST BMW they make with a rear seat? I think not. These are driver's cars and most people who buy a 1-series coupe do NOT, in fact, expect much in the way of company in the rear seat. This is not a family car nor is it marketed as one.

    As for cupholders, this has been a pet peeve of many used to Japanese & American vehicles for a long time, but guess what? It's not going to change. These vehicles are made for the autobahn where you have to - you know - pay attention to what's going on instead of hooking into a bluetooth headset and throwing your "coffee, water, and tea", as the reviewer said, into the car. Three drinks for one passenger, and you're complaining that the smallest bmw you can buy (short of a two-seater) doesn't have enough cupholders? I just don't understand that mentality. If I buy a 1-series it's for driving first, and convenience second. The 3-series used to be that way too and has grown a bit, so BMW is filling that void w/ the 1.

    Bottom line, this must be a great car if the complaints are about an iPod adapter and cupholders.

    Posted by FJ May 4, 09 11:21 AM
  1. hiya

    "the 328i is just the German version of an accord with leather seats"

    You can't be serious. Have you even driven a 3 series or an accord? One is RWD and the other is FWD.

    Posted by kdilkington May 4, 09 11:32 AM
  1. hiya - have driven both, the BMW 328i is much better than any Accord ever sold. The power doesn't even go to the same axle - bad comparison.

    Phil, your $5K extra would cover: brakes, oil changes, and just about anything else that's not related to you getting into an accident - for 48K miles. To have a BMW intead of a Nissan at that price - and especially the 1 vs. the Z - I'll take the BMW & pay the $5K extra. If you're that impressed by your Z's HP and torque, fine, but it still isn't going to hold up the way a BMW will.

    Posted by FJ May 4, 09 11:57 AM
  1. Nice motor. Expensive price tag.

    Posted by pc May 4, 09 02:42 PM
  1. I'm assuming hiya's statement about the 3-Series being like an Accord is an expression on how frequently you see them. BMW is 'like' Honda in that there are way too many of them to be distinct.

    The 3 Series looses something by being the perrenial best seller. And for that I think the 1-Series is preffered over a 3 Series. The 1's are the connoisseur's choice and the 3's are practical. An arguement could be made for both.

    I would have chosen the 1 Series.

    Posted by Andy May 4, 09 03:47 PM
  1. I'm sure it's a blast to drive. It's awkward looking, though. Don't care for the design.

    Posted by David May 5, 09 12:57 AM
  1. #16's comment re: cupholders is ridiculous. BMW didn't even have cupholders until the mid-late 90s... but they had ashtrays. Geez, here I am on the autobahn smoking away and yeow!... I dropped my cigarette! Glad it wasn't coffee.!
    And now that BMWs do have cupholders... most of them are useless; usually too small and cheaply made. I had a 94 740i with no cupholders. My current 98 740i has a useless cupholder near the bottom of the dash that's about an inch deep. Virtually nothing fits in it. BMWs are great cars... they just don't how to make cupholders!

    Posted by Larry M May 5, 09 08:50 AM
  1. It looks like a pregnant cat with its belly dragging on the ground.. My last BMW was a 2001 325ci. I'm afraid I won't buy another until BMW finds its mojo again..

    Posted by john cain May 6, 09 09:07 AM
  1. My 2009 silver 328i is my second BMW, the first being a 2003 330xi. I am a working man and do not have money to throw away, nor do I wear designer clothes or choose products for their labels. I do however, understand that things like forged aluminum suspension components simply cost more, as does the time spent balancing reciprocating engine components to the degree that BMW does. So, the BMW engine is as smooth at 6,000 rpm as it is at 2,000, but the same cannot be said for the Infinity/Nissan/name your brand. Quality costs money; if you want features, choose a loaded Altima and enjoy!

    Posted by Fireflyer239 May 24, 09 07:47 AM
  1. @blumenbach, and @andy, and @hiya
    It's true, BMWs the models of diff BMWs here are certainly more selective since it is a 'luxury' car brand here. In Europe, BMWs are frakkin everywhere (even more than here!), and there are more 'entry', or shall we say 'reasonable/economical' priced versions. It would be great it it was more like an Altima here-- then we could all afford something that is well designed and fun to drive! Too bad we are all shareholders in Detroit now instead...
    It sounds like Hiya might need a Hummer, not a 7series BMW, to compensate for his lack of other attributes.

    Posted by JA July 25, 09 01:12 AM
  1. I bought my 128i in April and couldn't be happier with it. Great acceleration, great handling and just all around fun to drive. I agree that the back seat is a joke, but I never intended for anyone to ride back there anyway.

    Posted by Steve James July 29, 09 12:58 AM
  1. Just bought my 128i and I love it. Cup holders are fine and as for the back seat; who cares.. I'm either driving or a passenger. I didn't buy this coupe for the back seat and what a marvy drive it is.

    Posted by Colleen July 29, 09 09:33 AM
  1. Cup holders....who cares???????

    Posted by AudiS4 August 17, 09 09:59 PM
  1. Well i sat in the back seat of one of these with a driver thats 5'10" and im 5'8".
    I know the average person is taller then me but i was comfortable the back seat, it wasnt that bad

    Posted by Joe August 21, 09 12:29 PM
  1. I got my brand new 2010 128i BMW for $29k with the Navigation, ipod/usb, and upgraded hi-fi sound system. Then again i bought it through a special military car sales program while I am here stationed in Europe. But the start out price with no upgrades was around $25k. The car is being built as we speak in the Munich factory in Germany, USA specd, with california emissions. That $29k also includes the transport cost to send it here to me in Italy. Not a bad deal at all if you ask me ;)

    Posted by anon September 19, 09 10:22 AM
  1. AudiS4...cupholders a a huge deal, especially after living here in Europe for a while where all european cars have none, and you stop to get food, and you have to shift and steer at the same time since manuals are predominant. There is a reason for cup holders.

    And the point of a back seat in these is if you have to take more than 1 person, you can. It's your car and you are driving. If people want to bum a ride, they can deal with a small back seat.

    Posted by anon September 19, 09 10:25 AM
  1. I'm not entirely sure where this guy got any of this information. I sat in an '09 128i at the dealership and had plenty of room in the back seat. I'm 5'9" and 175. Now i'm not 6' (i'd hardly call that "average" anyway) but i had enough room to spare with the seat adjusted for me driving. Gas mileage is another thing. I think they're a little lead footed. They're barely getting the estimates -- and they're almost always low.

    I can deal with missing cupholders. I think if you're bringing 3 drinks with you, you need to pick one and stick with it and put the rest in your bag, mum.

    seems like this was written by someone wanting a completely different car but given this one to review.

    Posted by pplsfotografer October 1, 09 05:02 PM
 

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
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