Writing and Photography by Travis S. Check out more of his work on Instagram: @steven_tyler_pjs
Looking at the photos, the two cars are identical. 2011 and 2012 BMW e82 135i M-Sports in Space Grey Metallic. But keen eyes will quickly notice the 2012 features - facelifted front and rear lighting.
Under the hood, both sport the twin-scroll, N55 inline sixes. Closer inspection reveals the dealer-installed Power Performance Kit, as noted by a plaque affixed to the intake boot on the 2012, good for an additional 20hp and 17 lb./ft. of torque.
Inside, the cars both sport black leather seats, premium package, iDrive, and virtually all of the bells and whistles these cars could be optioned with. The 2011 sports grey poplar grain wood. The 2012? The more appealing and sporty aluminum hexagon trim.
This is where the similarities (and minor differences) end. There is one glaring difference I’ve intentionally omitted, until now. The 2011 features the Getrag 6-speed manual transmission (6MT) while the 2012 transfers power via a true, 7-speed Dual Clutch transmission (DCT).
So, when my friend and BMW CCA club member tossed me the keys to both of his 135is (yes he has two of them) to solicit my impressions, I jumped at the chance. Naturally, photographing the pair during a sunrise on the Silver Strand Beach was an added benefit.
I wasn’t without my doubts, however. Coming from one of the most driver-centric BMWs, an e36 M3, I prepared myself to be underwhelmed by the steering and road feel.
First, addressing the commonalities across the two 1s. I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised. While the e36 features a very classic 1980s/1990s BMW steering feel of being numb-on-center but loading up exquisitely, the 135i’s steering was direct and precise. At center it was very responsive and took less input than the e36. With more aggressive driving, it loaded up progressively and predictably.
Before I delve into the DCT versus 6MT debate I’d like to call out that the 2011-2013 135i autos are uniquely among a handful of other non-M BMWs to receive the Dual Clutch Transmission. N54-powered 135is (pre-2011) uses a 6-speed torque converter automatic transmission and the M235i/M240i utilizes an 8-speed ZF auto. It’s a unique niche that the 135i N55 DCT has carved out for itself, which makes this debate interesting.
Jumping into the DCT, there’s no getting around it: this thing is fast. Crackles and burbles of the turbo are intoxicating with every downshift. And that instant, unadulterated response! Wow! It wastes no time seamlessly putting the power to the ground. Surely I could shave a few tenths of a second, if not more, off my novice lap-times.
Next up, I give the 6MT a go. Unlike the stock DCT 135i, this car features the highly beneficial Clutch Delay Valve (CDV) delete, and the pedal throw benefits from a bump-stop.
My first observation is how easy to drive it was, coming from the ZF 5MT of the e36 M3. In normal city driving I hardly have to think or monitor clutch engagement and release on the 1-series. Shifting is precise and shifter throw is also surprisingly short considering the car lacked a short shift kit or long, gooseneck-style knob. Throttle response was snappy and pedal-feel light. Yay for snappy, boo for light pedal feel. I attribute this to the drive-by-wire throttle. There is something to be said about the classic feel of manually pulling on the throttle cable coupled to one (or several butterfly valves). It’s a direct input-output that is precise and offers the driver a direct, symbiotic relationship where drive-by-wire cars fall dismally short.
The manual is still a quick car. Does the DCT feel faster running through the gears, or downshifting and rev-matching? Absolutely. But don’t be so quick to dismiss the manual as a slow alternative. It just takes more effort to maximize output, and real world experience shows there’s very little between these two thoroughbreds.
Moreover, driving the 6MT 135i made it become increasingly apparent that the manual transmission felt like an afterthought in BMW’s development of the 1-series. It almost seems as though it was a band-aid solution to please the manual transmission loyalists. That’s not meant to be a dig. The 1-series represents an intriguing chasm cross-point for BMW. The 135i and 128i are hailed as the last of the BMW purists’ cars where steering feel is brilliant, size is sublime, and road feel is a perfect balance of communicative yet supple.
At the conclusion of testing, I step out of the manual transmission car and state “this car would take me a week before I get into serious trouble. The DCT would get me in trouble in days.”
It’s true: The manual slows your thoughts down just enough that your better judgment weighs in. You need to consciously decide to grab another gear whereas the DCT has already shifted and is busy queuing up the next gear, making it all too easy to reach speeds best-saved for the track. It’s hyperbolic to say that the ‘auto’ is sacrilege or for neophytes. Just like it’s a stretch to say that the 6-speed manual is inferior because its shifts are slower.
After thoroughly driving both cars in a true A/B test, I can confidently attest that both are fantastic to drive. I would be ecstatic to add either to my garage. Ultimately, the decision depends on your intended use.
Will you be driving the car around town, commuting, or otherwise daily-driving the car with occasional spirited drives? Then I would recommend the DCT. The ease of the auto, performance, and lack of needing to clutch it in traffic deserve recognition. I’d quickly get over the lack of a manual during those occasional spirited drives—downshifting the DCT is simply sublime, and in many ways more satisfying than the 6MT and still outperforms the newer torque converter ZF 8-speed.
If this is a weekend car used only spirited driving, then I can see the manual becoming the desired option for those who want true driver-focus and driving engagement, but even then it still represents a bit of a tough sell. Just don’t ask me which I’d choose for the track. That decision becomes one of whether I desire to become a better all-around driver or perfect my lap-time.
So is it true what they say? Can you have your cake and eat it too? I guess that depends whether you have room in your garage for two seemingly identical cars saving your transmission choice on the needs of the drive you’re about to take.
To close this article, you may be asking ‘why does the owner have two of (practically) the same cars? Well, he went through this decision process himself and is now selling one of them. To protect the innocent, I won’t say which is being sold. But if you’re in the market for a 135i either option is a fantastic choice considering low mileage CPOs or after-market warranty examples can be had between $20-28,000.