Archive for July, 2008


Good things, small package

“call Vincenzo.”

would you like to call Victor?”

No, call Vin-cen-zo”

vent controls


I didn’t expect a whole lot from the voice commands of the BMW 135i. I’ve heard people say that the brands’ “iDrive” navi-entertainment system was difficult to use, but I didn’t really think so. Spend a good half an hour with it in the driveway and you’ll get the hang of it, but good luck sitting still in this one.

BMW’s entry-level coupe was dropped at my doorstep for the weekend, big faced and tiny assed. Beemers don’t often stun me with their looks, indeed, I’ll praise a BMW nowadays that abandons an attempt to do the whole “round” thing.

No, this one looked good, it had a charming grille and it looked like a decent yet compact BMW of old. This is a redesign of the 1-series hatchback from across the pond, the “luxury hatch” which was just as expensive, but just as quick and with rear wheel drive, which made it something to think about. It sports a 3 litre twin turbo inline 6 and all the fun driver assist acronyms like DSC, DBC, and lest we forget, the DTC. Between that and the iDrive stuff, adaptive headlights, brake drying and fade compensation and so forth, it may all sound very complicated, but it isn’t.

Well, it is  but it isn’t. The short answer is it’s as complicated as you make it. For instance, you can program the shut-off time intervals of the interior and exterior lights when you turn it on or off, unlock it, and so on. You can fine tune the intensity of the air conditioning as well, and I’m not being pithy, I’m talking beyond choosing the exact temperature and fan speed. you can choose the vent intensity, even when you aren’t trying to call someone. I paired my phone via bluetooth, which took 2 minutes and plugged in my iPod in the USB, diddled with the navi for a while and then all was set up. Sit there and do everything once, and you don’t have to worry about it anymore. The iPod stored away under the armrest unseen and forgotten, the phone system found my mobile as soon as it turned on. I never had to think about these things again.

All the  driver assists and stuff goes on behind the scenes as well. You can turn off the traction control if you want, but that’s it. There’s no “sport” mode or suspension adjustments, gear ratios to program, engine power output to dial up like the M series. okay it has “sport” drive but that’s just  ” I want to play with my paddles now” mode.

Since we’re on the paddle shifters, please allow me to lay down a little digression. There’s enough confusion about the whole automatic and “semi-automatic” transmissions as there is. Most companies have their own names for it, like tiptronic, or BMW’s STEPTRONIC, adding more bog to mire the explanation in.  All this basically means is it’s an automatic that you tell what to do. it’s still an automatic transmission that does all the clutchwork and gear selecting, you the driver just get to tell it what gear you’d like. More often than not, it’ll listen but ultimately it will choose to ignore any requests it deems outrageous or just take over when it feels like you’ve forgotten to upshift, downshift. I heard someone refer to it today as ” a simulation of manual control.”

Trickling down from the evolution of a Formula 1 car cockpit are paddle shifters, designed to select gears as fast as the car and mind of an F1 driver. Lambos have the “civilian” version, as do Aston Martin and Ferrari just to name a few, the version with assorted buttons for neutral or reverse, all a bit complex, but mostly mechanical.

Now you’ll see every other Nissan or BMW with a pair of paddles sticking out the neck of their steering wheels, with companies touting their “sportiness”, but they aren’t, for lack of a better term, real shifters. They are paddle attached to the semi-automatic transmission. In these faux setups, they aren’t required, like the ones with actual paddle shift systems, which is what it solely used.

There’s a whole double clutch system as well, but I think that’s quite enough about that for now.

Anyway, the 135i had them as part of the sport package, but they diverted from the usual pattern that the right paddle shifts up, and the left paddle shifts down. I learned this as I attempted to flip the left paddle to 3rd from 4th, but just went straight into 5th, and then 6th when I tried it again. To my surprise, both paddles shifted up when you flipped them. They shifted down when you pressed them with your thumb, something I’d never seen before. This allowed me to shift with one hand via either paddle.

Why? if presumably, paddles are there to eliminate the need to use one hand to shift, keeping both hands on the wheel for complete control and quick reaction time. I did, however, accidentally stumble upon what I think is the reason.

The iDrive. Soraya had a dance recital and I was running late. Of course as it happens, I was running out of gas as well as time but I felt that burning through the remaining liquid was the prudent decision. The BMW darted through highway traffic with ease, and the stretches that allowed 120 mph were just so… calming. When I wrote in my article that this car wants to “Go. Go faster, go forever, just go for the singular purpose of ‘going.'” I was channelling this moment. It was a beautiful serene moment of unhindered speed. Gobs of air being sucked through the Beems’ fat nostrils through twin turbos fueled my flipping though all 6 gears. Every car should have at least one significant moment where it piques your happiness, and this was that moment for the 135i.

Coming off the highway, veins still laced wih adrenaline, I needed to find a side street, and I started zooming and scanning with the navi while coming up to a light. It turned green as I approached, so I downshifted but then accelerated and shifted up. With the pedal. It then dawned on me I was still in sport and the ergonomics of the paddles clicked in my head.

Possibly figuring out the intended purpose of the paddle’s design cemented my disagreement with the whole system. If you’re using paddle shifters, you’re most likely going very fast and shouldn’t be dillying with the radio and so on. I did it and felt dumb about it afterwards. would it have been so difficult to just put it in drive and slow down since I had to divert some of my attention? no, of course not, but I made a mistake and the paddles, as they are designed, have made what I deem an error into a feature.

The BMW 135i is a good car. It’s quick, with lots of low end torque and has the nimbleness to back it up. Its stature seems to appeal to women drivers, but let’s not go into the “chick car” nonsense, I’m merely stating an observation. The BMW does ok on fuel, 18 city and 26 highway according to the window sticker. The voice commands did work surprisingly well, to be honest, save for the aformentioned example. Fully loaded, with all the toys, this one in particular came out to $45,000 and change.

And there’s the thing, its a solid “good.” It’s not bad at all, but it’s not great, either. On everything,  speed, handling, price, MPG, etc. It has that “yes, but..” thing, where all its qualities are counterbalanced by some kind of shortcoming. Are there alternatives? for that price, of course, but it quickly boils down to personal preference and needs. The argument at this price bracket if a competing car is “better” becomes very nebulous.

I will say that everything the car does, it does very well and the car is very, very, very good. But it isn’t “great.”


I’m Behind Again…

I know, I’m overdue. I have 2 posts slow cooking in my “drafts” folder. stay tuned.


-Alex K-