Although BMW’s 1 series was introduced to Europe in 2004, our first introduction to the baby BMW in the United States didn’t come until 2008. BMW offered the 1 series with two inline six-cylinder engines – either a naturally aspirated, 230 horsepower “N52” in the BMW 128i or twin-turbocharged, 300 horsepower “N54” in the 135i. I’ve been particularly obsessed with these cars since their debut and can still remember watching commercials for them after coming home from school in 8th grade.
I’d been searching for a 128i for a few months. After selling my E36, I finally came across the right one. I picked up a 2008 128i, painted Monaco Blue with the “Savanna Beige” interior. It’s a higher-mileage car with 124k on the odometer, which means it’s just imperfect enough for me to not feel too bad about the life I’m about to give it. Not every car responds to life at redline as well as my E36 did, but I’m hoping this little 128i will be the perfect replacement for autocross, track days, and beyond.
My particular 128i came with a SULEV (Super Low Emissions Vehicle) “N51” engine making 230 horsepower. This was a special powerplant that came in vehicles that went to California and a few other markets in the United States. While “low emissions” may seem like a drawback on the surface, the N51 was given the same three-stage intake manifold that the 260 horsepower E90 330i received. That means the N51 engine is just a tune away from making horsepower figures closer to that of the 330i.
Regardless of the specifics, the engine pulls strong to redline in buttery-smooth BMW fashion. Power builds in an incredibly linear manner and doesn’t stop until 7,000 rpm. All of this is good for a 5.8 second 0-60 run and a low 14 second quarter-mile. Torque is still adequate around town. I can keep up with rush hour traffic never needing to rev beyond 3,000 rpm. The exhaust note leaves a lot to be desired for how I plan to use this car, and unfortunately there are not many options for the 128i. However, my plans still do include headers and a catback at the very least.
My specific car has a six-speed manual gearbox, but automatics were also offered with both engines. I truly believe this drivetrain is easier to drive hard than it is just cruising around town. It is effortless to snatch smooth shifts at redline, and rev-matching is just as easy. The pedals are spaced perfectly to make heel-toe a breeze.
The 1 series coupe chassis is dubbed the E82 in the BMW world, and is essentially a shrunken E90 3 series. Almost all of the front and rear suspension is interchangeable between the two chassis. This means that all of the good things we know and love about the 3 series is amplified in the 128i. While my suspension is old and tired, the fundamentals of a sorted chassis are still present. You don’t have to push very hard to make the factory suspension roll (this car doesn’t have the optional Sport package), but the car is still very balanced beneath it all. The front end digs in hard, but eventually gives up leaving you with manageable understeer.
The steering wheel is small and chunky matching the heavy steering feel perfectly. While steering feel is on the heavier side, it’s still a very communicative hydraulic rack as opposed to most modern electric racks. The added confidence in the wheel lets you get on power early, where the rear end squats and moves around just enough to remind you it’s still a rear-wheel-drive car.
The suspension is one area of this car I’m super excited to work on. I’ll be working with Chris Shenefield, owner of Redshift Motorsports, to develop a set of race coilovers for the 1 series. He valves his shock absorbers for track or autocross use first, with custom damping that doesn’t try to play “dual duty” like so many other kits. I am beyond excited to dive in to the potential of this chassis with Chris as we begin this project.
The interior of the 1 series takes a lot of cues from its older E90 sibling. Almost all of the surfaces are soft-touch with very little corners cut, even for a 10-year-old car. The leather extends from the seats into the door panel inserts making for a super comfortable place to spend time. In fact, my “racecar” is more comfortable than my daily driver – but that will change soon!
Part of STX class prep will include replacing my front seats with Corbeau buckets. Not only will it save weight, race seats will also allow more focus on driving, and less on simply staying upright.
The 128i may be one of the last “pure” BMWs in recent history. It’s surely the last time you can get a naturally-aspirated inline-six with next to no technology in the way of your driving experience. As a result, this car should be a great base to expand upon and make into my own little weekend toy. The chassis is the right size, and the N51/N52 has proven to be a pretty reliable powerplant to date. I’m very excited to hone in on all the great things about driving this car, and make them even better!
All photos by Christian Celfo. Check out more of his work on Instagram.