Ah, spring. A time when convertibles stored away for the winter (at least in the Midwest, where our offices are) end months of hibernation with a spin in the warming weather. If you're looking to join the convertible club, BMW has added a model to the mix with its 1 Series, which is new to the U.S. for 2008. I tested a 128i convertible with the 230-horsepower inline-six-cylinder engine.
The 128i is everything you'd expect from BMW. It offers a robust engine, engaging rear-wheel-drive dynamics and communicative steering. It also comports itself well as a convertible (a coupe version of the 1 Series is also offered). What's bound to make buyers gasp, though, is the price tag for this pint-sized ragtop, which can reach $40,000 easily once some basic options are added.
The 1 Series convertible has a standard power-operated cloth top, as opposed to a power-retractable hardtop like the BMW 3 Series convertible. One of the advantages of a retractable hardtop is that it lets the convertible keep the sleek lines of its coupe counterpart. This is less of a concern with the 1 Series, as the coupe isn't that sleek to begin with; the soft-top convertible actually is a little sleeker (see a side-by-side comparison of the 128i convertible and coupe here). As you might expect in a convertible, rear and over-right-shoulder visibility with the top up isn't as good as it is in the coupe, but it's not terrible, either.
Where BMW excels in convertible styling is top-down looks, mainly because it doesn't allow the rear of its cars to swell excessively to accept a lowered top. This isn't the case with convertibles like the Chrysler Sebring and Volkswagen Eos, both of which have sizable rear ends. You might have to see it in person to appreciate it fully, but there's something instinctively right about the way a 1 Series or 3 Series looks with the top down that makes the others look a little awkward from certain angles.
If you're looking at the 1 Series convertible primarily as a car for Sunday drives, the 230-hp, 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder engine in the 128i should provide more than enough thrust. The inline design of the engine yields impressive smoothness, and the engine also provides quite a bit of low-end power that's appreciated in city driving. BMW also sells a 135i that's powered by a 300-hp twin-turbo inline-six-cylinder.
Less appealing is the optional six-speed automatic transmission, which sometimes executes slow, jerky shifts in the 128i. I'm not a huge fan of BMW's extra-tall manual transmission shifters, but I'd definitely favor the greater control and slick overall operation of the standard six-speed manual to this automatic. You also pay a small highway gas mileage penalty with the automatic; it gets 18/27 mpg city/highway, compared to 18/28 mpg for the manual 128i. BMW recommends premium gas.
BMWs are known for exceptional handling, and the 1 Series continues that legacy. The rear-wheel-drive 128i rewards the driver with nicely balanced cornering performance and a chassis that's entirely comfortable powering out of a turn. Contributing to the sporty driving experience is the steering system, which offers good feedback and requires a little muscle to steer the car. Some people might not like the extra effort needed to turn the wheel — it's not one of those steering wheels you can easily spin with a finger — but I like this setup, and I imagine the enthusiasts that BMW caters to will like it as well.
A big concern with convertibles in general is structural rigidity, which is compromised when you remove the roof. In the 128i convertible, though, there's no noticeable flex in the body, and the convertible's windshield pillars only shake slightly when you hit a large bump in the road.
The 128i convertible I tested featured the $1,300 Sport Package, which features 17-inch wheels shod with performance tires, sport seats, a sport suspension and different trim. Even with this package the ride was tolerable on rougher pavement. With the top up, the cabin is well-isolated from its surroundings, but with the top down at 60 mph it's a little windy in the driver's seat.
Simple elegance is the name of the game with BMW's interiors, which have a modernity to them that isn't found in all luxury cars. The 128i convertible's cabin is a good example of this design concept, as it features mostly plain surfaces splashed with upscale accents, like gray poplar wood trim.
The 128i convertible is a fairly small car, but there's enough room in the front seats for taller people to get comfortable, and headroom with the top up is good. Leather seats are optional, and the sport buckets provide comfortable cushioning and have side bolsters that grip the sides of your torso, which is appreciated when cornering quickly.
There's ostensibly space for four people in the 128i convertible, as it features a two-place backseat, but passengers confined to the back will need either to be short or able to persuade those sitting in front to scoot their seats forward in order to give them more legroom. The 3 Series convertible is a bigger car, but it's not much better.
As of this review, the 1 Series hasn't been crash tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, an electronic stability system and pop-up roll bars behind the rear seats.
128i Convertible in the Market
With its as-tested price of $43,700, the 128i convertible has plenty of competition. That kind of money can buy a stylish Audi TT roadster, a Volvo C70 retractable-hardtop or BMW's own Z4 roadster. If you look beyond the luxury realm, the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder GT and Nissan 350Z roadster are also options, with prices that start at $28,999 and $36,280, respectively. The as-tested price is about $10,000 more than the base price for a 128i convertible, but you're probably going to be hard-pressed to find one without options at your local BMW dealer.
Despite the other models in its price range, the 128i convertible still seems like a lot of money for such a small car. Convertibles are often play cars, though, where price matters less than it would in another segment. If that's what your convertible will be, then the driver's seat of a 128i droptop seems like a great place to pass the spring and summer months.
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