What was tested? 2008 BMW 128i convertible ($33,100).
Price as tested (including $825 destination charge): $33,925.
It seems like everything in America is ballooning.
Gas prices have shot up like a bottle rocket. Our kids wear size 18 shoes. Our waistlines are upsetting the gravitational field. Our cities are sprawling like kudzu. And our cars are starting to look like blimps.
Consider cars like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra. A few years ago, these were itty-bitty tin cans that you'd barely be able to squeeze into. But now they've grown to be so big that a whole new generation of itty-bitty cars -- the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa -- have replaced them.
The same thing is happening at BMW. The 3-Series, which was once a relatively affordable compact car, has now grown to be so big and expensive that it's entered a completely new class. The last 3-Series I drove cost a whopping $52,000 and felt more like the roomy and luxurious 5-Series than a compact car.
That leaves room at the bottom of BMW's lineup for a new, smaller, more affordable car called the 1-Series. Starting at $28,600 for the 128i coupe, this lightweight car doesn't feel like a watered-down BMW at all. It's 100-percent pure BMW excitement, only in a smaller and cheaper package.
With rear-wheel drive and a powerful straight-six engine, there are few sports coupes more fun to drive than this one. Handling is absolutely superb and is even more enjoyable than the big BMWs because of the 1's light weight.
It's pure joy. In fact, I'd much rather drive a 1-Series on a mountain road than a 5-Series that costs twice as much.
And you know what's more amazing? I wasn't even driving the best 1-Series.
I drove the 128i convertible, which has a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. It makes 230 horsepower, which is more than enough for such a small car.
But BMW also makes the 135i, which comes with a 300-horsepower turbocharged engine. Considering I thought the 128i was plenty fast, the 135i must be ridiculous.
Another impressive thing about this car is that it doesn't feel cheap in any way. Usually when a car company tries to make a lower-priced vehicle, you can see where they cut corners. There's more plastic in the interior, fewer features and more noise in the cabin.
In this car, though, you've got basically the same interior you'll find in the more expensive BMWs. There's an eight-way power driver's seat, for example, when four-way would be perfectly acceptable at this price point. Soft-touch materials give it a premium feel.
As much as I love this car, I've got to point out one downside: the back seat is a joke. And, because the 1-Series is only available with two doors, squeezing your passengers back there is next to impossible.
Prices range from $28,600 for the 128i coupe to $39,100 for the 135i convertible.
Pros: It's just as thrilling, and perhaps more so, than the bigger, more expensive BMWs.
Cons: The back seat is a complete joke.