2009 BMW 128i Convertible

The return of the "affordable" European drop-top

2009 BMW 128i Convertible
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To my mind, one of the greatest pleasures of driving can only be experienced in a convertible. I love the feel of the wind rush, and the open sky above my head. In the spring, I revel in the way the faint perfume of lilac bushes catches my attention, or the aroma of freshly cut grass. On a clear, crisp, fall afternoon, the distant scent of burning leaves is a delight to my olfactory sensors. On a midsummer evening, just after the sun has set on the horizon, but it’s still light outside, there is nothing like the sensation of the breeze on your arms after the heat of midday has passed, and before the comparative chill of night comes on. And, of course, glancing up at the stars on a clear night while traveling on an unlit two-lane road is a treat I never tire of.

FAST FACTS

1. The 128i comes with a naturally aspirated 3.0-liter inline-six engine that makes 230hp and 200 ft-lbs of torque.

2. Prices range from $34,000 all the way up to $47,500 or more.

3. Available as a 128i Coupe or Convertible, BMW also offers a more powerful (300hp) 135i Coupe and Convertible.

I’d rather spend time driving a 10-year-old Chrysler Sebring Convertible, than drive a Ferrari or Lamborghini coupe. Of course, I’d rather spend time in a Ferrari or Lamborghini convertible, but alas, I’ve resigned myself that I’ll never have the money to indulge in that dream.

When I was a kid growing up in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, virtually all car models had a convertible offering, from the barge-length, luxury Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, to the modest Ford Falcon. But with the rise in popularity of air-conditioning, (and the lower pricing of that option as it became more common) the sales of convertibles waned, and the last American drop top, a Cadillac Eldorado, left the factory in 1976, presumable never to return.

Fortunately in late 1982, Chrysler, which was working its way back from a government bail-out, came out with a rag-top K-car, the LeBaron, a model that helped create a buzz for Chrysler and helped them back from the brink of extinction. It wasn’t a great car, but it was the only game in town, and best of all, it was priced for the masses. The success of the LeBaron convertible prompted other manufacturers to get back into the game, and since then more manufacturers have brought out convertibles to serve the growing demand for fun open top driving. Unfortunately, most of the convertibles on the market today cater to the well healed driver, so dropping the top requires a fat wallet. Today a base Chrysler Sebring Convertible starts at over $28,000 with a 4-cylinder engine. A base two-seat Mazda MX-5 Miata at $21,305 is the only “everyman” rag top, but you really need to spend about $25,000 for one that properly equipped.

ENTER THE 1 SERIES

In 1986 BMW brought out the 325i Convertible as part of its entry-level model lineup. It was an instant hit with buyers, and while priced at the upper end of affordable, it was still within the reach of a lot of buyers. But with each new generation, the 3 Series convertibles kept getting larger, more powerful, and contained more luxury amenities. The result was that the car was just becoming too expensive for the average person to afford. The 2009 328i Convertible now starts at $45,950. So now BMW has finally brought the 1 Series Convertible to the US, which has been available in Europe since 2004, to fill in the entry level spot in their lineup.

The BMW 128i is powered by a 3.0-liter, 230 horsepower inline-six. You’ll get 200 ft-lbs of torque at 2750 rpm, but with a curb weight of 3,571 pounds, you won’t get any neck snapping performance out of this powerplant. BMW claims zero to 60 times of 7 seconds, but it feels slower. The 6-speed Steptronic transmission works smoothly, and has three modes; Sport, which features higher shift points for more lively response; Drive, which features BMW’s Adaptive Transmission Control, which adapts to your driving habits, and Manual, which allows you to use the steering wheel mounted paddles to select the gear you want.

Fuel economy is so-so, with a pretty-decent highway rating of 28 mpg but a not-so-good city rating of just 18 mpg.

TIGHTLY SPRUNG SUSPENSION

The steering feels a bit numb when powering through corners, and while the suspension is tuned for aggressive driving, it is hampered by the surprisingly intrusive cowl shake with the top down. Broken pavement exacerbates the problem, and that BMW “vault-like” build quality is noticeably absent. That doesn’t mean that the 128i is not enjoyable to hustle though tight corners. Body roll is minimal and the BMW DNA is there, it’s just that if canyon carving is your thing, this certainly isn’t the sharpest knife in BMW’s drawer. The two seat Z4 would be a better dance partner for that, at nearly the same starting price. Dynamic Stability Control is standard in case the driver gets in over his head on snow covered or gravel strewn roads. The ABS brakes work well and also feature Dynamic Brake Control.

The 128i rides on relatively tall 205/50R17 tires, which helps to provide decent comfort on smooth roads, but larger bumps will send some shivers through the cabin and up the driver’s spine. The short 104.7-inch wheelbase is a factor there, too.

CRAMPED INTERIOR

The 128i’s interior is a bit cramped, and the leatherette front seats are comfortable, and well bolstered, but it’s best if the driver isn’t too husky. The layout of the controls is straightforward, and easy to operate. The rear seats are just a rumor for anyone above the age of 11. There just isn’t much space to bend your knees and place your feet on the floor. So just think of it as a contoured package shelf. The seats do fold forward to allow access to the trunk.

The 128i is built off the European hatchback model, so it has tall doors and a rather upright windshield. With the modest rake of the windshield, it gives the 128i a nice open feeling. The downside of the tall doors is that unless you’re rather tall, it makes it uncomfortable to rest your left elbow on the top of the door while driving.

The cockpit is rather breezy even with all four windows in the up position, so driving on the Interstate makes relaxed conversation a chore. Installing the wind deflector helps quite a bit, but hey, it’s a convertible, so you can’t really complain about the wind. That’s the whole point of the car, right?

While the 3 Series has gone to a hard convertible top, the 1 Series keeps the cloth top. That means that the convertible mechanism takes up less space in the trunk, so that you can shoehorn two sets of golf clubs into the space, provided those golf bags are of the compact variety. The soft top, which has a nicely finished headliner, also means that you get a bit too much wind noise in the cabin at speed. Again, that’s a trade-off one must expect with convertible ownership.

STYLING: DISTINCTIVELY BMW

The exterior styling is distinctive, with a handsome sharp crease running along the car above the door handles, and a bold U-shaped character line above the door sills. The headlights look a bit large for the front face, but the look grew on me. And even if the dual kidney shaped grills didn’t grace the front end, you’d know it was a BMW.

THE VERDICT

The BMW 128i Convertible is a good car, not a great car. And even though it is the entry-level convertible for BMW, it still starts at a rather pricey $34,000. But even that number is very misleading, since you’d be hard pressed to find one at that price anywhere except on the BMW website. My test car topped out at over $47,500. Even if you back out the $2,100 navigation system, and $750 Cold Weather Package, and the $800 Xenon headlights, you’re still looking at writing a check for almost 44 Large, which puts it in the overpriced category. A Volkswagen EOS with the Luxury Package is only $35,200, and gives you quite similar performance and handling, has less cowl shake, and comes with a hard convertible top, to boot. It doesn’t, however, have that blue and white propeller logo on the hood.

POSITVE

Crisp styling and BMW nameplate
Good, if not great handling
Usable trunk space

NEGATIVE

Very pricey once you get to the options
Intrusive cowl shake
Cramped cabin

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