Many enthusiasts hold that the E46 3 Series is the pinnacle of the BMW formula: a marvelous combination of sporting character and everyday usability in a timeless design. In fact, we heartily sing its praises in our E46 buying guide, calling it “one of the most enjoyable drives available in an affordable used car.”
But there are downsides. For example, the E46 interior can age poorly. Rubberized plastics on the center console and the door cards tend to scratch and flake; headliners are prone to sagging. And there are a few dogs in the range with sub-200 hp ratings that can feel pretty anemic compared to more modern machines.
Fortunately, the next generation 3 Series, the E90, along with its shortened-wheelbase cousin, the E82 / E88 1 Series, largely rectified these problems. Both are terrific cars. And the latter, with its tidy, E30-sized footprint and significantly lower price point, is possibly the last, best way for a budget-minded enthusiast to experience the purity of BMW’s original engineering magic, which has sadly been diluted in most of the automakers’ more recent models.
A note about our “practical” buying guides. These are not collector car guides. (There are already plenty of other excellent sources for that.) Rather, our guides recommend cars that we think make for entertaining, interesting, reliable and value-oriented buys — cars meant to be driven and enjoyed (not stashed away for investment purposes) and that don’t cost a fortune to acquire or maintain.
Developed in the early 2000s, the first-generation BMW 1 Series shares 60% of its components with the E90 3 series. That includes all of the important dirty bits: front and rear suspension, structure, chassis, powertrain, hardware, and electronics. And with an inline six powering the rear wheels (in all US variants), the 1 Series far outclasses its mainly four-cylinder, front-drive competition. Perhaps most importantly, the car received the E90’s hydraulic steering rack, which means that these cars were the last BMWs to steer like proper BMWs, with a Germanic heft and precision that speaks volumes to the palms of its driver.
While the 1 Series was available in five-door, three-door, coupe, and convertible guises across the pond, America received only coupe (E82) and convertible (E88) versions. So if you need four doors or a wagon, it makes sense to step up to the E90 3 Series. Otherwise, why not enjoy the 1ers’ additional agility, afforded by chopping 4 inches off the wheelbase?
And consider this: a low-mileage 3 Series generally costs about 20% more than an equally nice 1 Series with the exact same powertrain. That means two or three grand extra in your pocket (at current market prices) — plus you get the faster, nimbler car.
Moreover, if open-top driving is your modus operandi, the 1 Series convertible offers a four-seat drop-top experience without the added weight, complexity, and trunk intrusion of the 3 Series’ folding hard top.
2008 – 2010
In 2008, the 1 Series debuted in North America in coupe and convertible form, with two engine options: BMW’s N52 and N54 engines. The N52, fitted in the 128i, is of historical note as the company’s last naturally-aspirated straight six. A technological tour de force, it features hybrid magnesium/aluminum construction, individual cylinder throttling using the normal intake valves without separate throttle bodies, and adaptive electric water and oil pumps that enable the engine to warm up very quickly in cold weather by limiting fluid circulation.
Compared to its M54/M52 predecessor, the N52 is not as musical, which some blame on ever more stringent emissions equipment. However, it maintains the preternatural smoothness of BMW inline-sixes, ripping playfully to its 7000 RPM redline without complaint and with a throttle response that today’s ubiquitous turbo-4’s can only dream of.
If when it comes to power you are a “more is more” person, allow us to direct your attention to N54-powered 135i, which in place of Rube Goldbergian valve-throttling, features two turbochargers that help to increase power by some 70 horsepower over the N52, with an equally large bump in torque, bringing each to an even 300. And those are the “official” numbers, which we put in quotes because the N54 is widely believed to be significantly underrated and has been routinely dyno-ed at more than its factory rated output at the wheels. (Perhaps BMW runs its testing in a Qatari summer?)
To complement the extra oomph, 135i’s also came standard with significantly upgraded 6-piston and “BMW” embossed brake calipers — plus a rorty sports exhaust to remind you (and your neighbors) that you got the fast one.
Both models were available with either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed automatic transmission. But if you’re in the market for a two-pedal car, we suggest holding out for a 2011 or later 135i since they were available with BMW’s quick-shifting dual-clutch transmission (DCT). More on this later.
2011 – 2013
In 2011, the 1 Series received a mid-cycle refresh (“Life Cycle Impulse” or “LCI” in BMW parlance), with minor styling updates to its lighting and fascias and much more notable changes in the powertrain department: the 135i received a new engine and transmission.
The twin-turbo N54 was replaced by the single-turbo, twin-scroll N55, with the same power ratings as before plus numerous technical improvements that should help to make the N55 less maintenance-prone than its predecessor, which has had some well-documented issues, mainly relating to its high pressure fuel pump and injectors. That said, the N55 is slightly disadvantaged against the N54 in terms of top-end power and overall tuning potential, so if you’re planning to turn your 135i a track monster the N54 is likely a better way to go.
Perhaps even more critical to drive quality was the replacement of the torque-converter 6-speed automatic with BMW’s DCT, a 7-speed dual-clutch robotic transmission, which was otherwise only available in the M3, 335is, and Z4. This transmission has been well-received by owners who understand that, like other automated manuals, it behaves a bit differently from a conventional automatic, and so some progress up a learning curve is required. While these transmissions don’t “creep” as smoothly as traditional automatics, they do afford lighting fast, rev-matched up- and downshifts and are generally so proficient that many consider them a better option for track work than even a 6-speed manual. Forum chatter suggests that DCTs are holding up very well despite their complexity. The only recurrent issue seems to be an occasional leak from an electrical connector at the top of the transmission, a relatively minor issue that requires removal of the connector to rectify.
We should also note that two special-edition 1 Series variants were made available in North America. In 2011, BMW released the limited-production 1M, which was basically a 135i with a chip tune and suspension components from the E90 M3. Be prepared to spend $50-$60k on one of these, if that’s your sort of thing.
And in 2013, BMW shipped the 135is to America’s shores, featuring a louder exhaust, slight power increase (to 320 hp), and very thin-spoked 19-inch wheels with about a rubber-band’s worth of tire wrapped around them. Plus a small “135is” plaque was affixed to the dashboard. The premium for these can be surprisingly modest, so they are definitely worthy of consideration.
Like any used car, a secondhand 1 Series is best purchased with extensive records documenting a history of consistent care and maintenance. In particular, you’ll want to note that around the 75k-100k or 5-6 year mark, the N52, N54, and N55 engines all tend to require a host of replacement parts, including the electric water pump, spark plugs, and perhaps coil packs, as well as a notorious battery replacement that requires “coding” to the cars’ computers. It’s a bonus if you find an example where this work has already been done. Also, oil filter housing gaskets, head gaskets, and oil pan gaskets can leak oil, so be sure to look for telltale wet spots/stains around these points.
Generally favor cars that have received regular oil changes, preferably at least once annually. While BMW claims that oil can last up to 16,000 miles with their “Condition Based Service” computer monitoring, many owners opt for changes every 6 months or 8,000 miles for optimum engine longevity. Such well-kept examples are the best ones to pursue.
As they say, with great power comes great responsibility, and the N54 and N55 motors are no exception. Being direct injection engines, they are known to build up carbon deposits on the valves, which will eventually require cleaning with a walnut blast. And as noted earlier, the N54 had some teething problems in its first few years with high pressure fuel pumps and injectors — and in some cases even turbo failure. Although these issues may have been sorted by 2009 or 2010, it probably best to choose a 2011+ model with the less complex and seemingly less failure-prone N55 single-turbo motor.
Outside the engine bay, the rest of the E82/E88 chassis is quite stout. However, at around 100k miles you should expect to replace most of the suspension and engine/transmission bushings, as well as the dampers for good measure, to ensure that the signature BMW driving dynamics are kept intact.
No matter what 1 Series you select, you’ll be getting the nicely-weighted and precise hydraulic steering BMW was once known for, the balance and handling neutrality of 50/50 chassis weight distribution, plus a sweetly smooth and torquey inline six under the hood. Your decision will come to whether you prefer the last pure expression of the BMW formula: a naturally-aspirated 128i coupe with the 6MT, or the power, sound, and performance of a 135i.
Gearheads will naturally be steered to the 6MT in either case, but from 2011 on you can rest assured that a DCT-equipped 135i would lack for nothing in performance. Car and Driver clocked a DCT-fitted 135i coupe at 4.6 seconds to 60 mph and 13.2 in the quarter, meaning it would give a Coyote-engined Mustang GT something to think about in the straights and something to fear in the corners.
We strongly recommend the sport package equipped (or so-called “M Sport” in 2013) cars because they have sublimely supportive and bolstered seats, shapely steering wheels, and, on automatic transmission cars, metallic shift paddles behind the wheel. Unfortunately, they also make an already stiff ride even stiffer and lower, which renders the standard-equipment run-flat tires intolerable. Therefore, the first improvement that ought to be made to any 1 Series upon purchase is to replace the RFT tires with Michelin Pilot Super Sports or equivalent summer tires. You can go further, if you wish, by replacing the heavy – and surprisingly bend-prone – stock wheels with high-quality lightweight aftermarket units, for example from Enkei or BBS. This easily saves 10-15 pounds per corner, improving acceleration, handling, braking, and fuel economy.
Stay away, if possible, from examples equipped with navigation, as these systems were outdated in 2012 and have not aged well. Plus the nav unit adds an unsightly hump to the middle of the car’s otherwise beautifully simple and highly-functional dash.
Estimated Market Values
$26-30,000 is the top of the mountain of 135i values. This should afford you an as-new example with mileage of 10k or under, all available factory packages, and perhaps Dinan or other performance-enhancing accessories besides. This price point will also net you an excellent-condition 135is – well worth a look if you covet its greater exclusivity, special-edition wheels, or assertive exhaust note.
$20-24,000 affords you a 135i with slightly more miles, in the 15,000 – 35,000 range, but still in outstanding overall condition. In this same ballpark, you can nab one of the very best low-mile 128i examples out there.
$17-20,000 gets you a great 135i with 40k-60k miles, including a 2011+ model with the preferable N55 and/or a dual-clutch gearbox. Or you can opt for a final-year 2013 128i coupe or convertible with about half that many miles.
For around $15,000 you can find a like-new 128i with only about 50k miles. Or, if you really need the extra power, you could source a 135i with slightly higher miles (70+k).
As the miles creep up, the cost differential between the 135i and the 128i tends to flatten out. For $10-13,000, you should be able to find a very nice version of either, perhaps with a few dings or other signs of wear but still perfectly presentable and with plenty of miles left.
For less than $10,000, you’re mainly looking at examples with 100k miles or more. But with a well-documented service history, a higher-mileage car is nothing to be afraid of. Just be sure to have it thoroughly inspected by a specialist prior to purchase so that you know exactly what you’re getting into.
The Bottom Line
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but arguably the 1 Series’ weakest point is its looks. Critics note that its shape is slightly too tall and too short, with a “fat cat” droop in the middle of the doorsill that never quite looked right.
But one thing’s certain, you won’t be thinking much about how the car looks when you’re behind the wheel. Whether you want to rev match manual downshifts on BMW’s last atmospheric straight six or hammer the straights with the wind tousling your hair in a 300 hp 135i vert, it’s hard to go wrong. For less than the price of most new compacts, you’ll be piloting one the best BMWs ever made.
Just be sure to utilize the Klipnik community to help you find the nicest one in your price range.
Photos courtesy of BMW.
About Gabe Chapman
Gabe works in marketing on the East Coast and has been a car guy since his parents bought him his first Car and Driver subscription at age 10. He currently drives a 2009 BMW 328i.