Story of a Panzer – BMW 130i (E87)

In Drives by Mickael

It took me quite some time. To finally get back to my writing boards. But I have finally a good reason for it since a little bit more than four months. You might wonder why it took that long, to just take my computer again and put down all my thoughts on a notepad regarding this car. And the reason is very simple. It’s not a car. It’s not any car. It is my car. My personal choice for a daily driver. And I needed time just to build self confidence that I had made the right choice. You might find this strange but as a car passionate, I always have a small voice telling me “This is not the best version”, “It is missing a lot of optional extras”, “For the same price you could get much better”, and resulting in most of the times by completely blocking the purchase act, or at least make it rather painful and difficult. To make you understand a little bit my personal history, I should at least introduce you to my previous daily drivers and driving experiences, and where it all started.

 

My first experience with cars started quite badly on a Honda Civic which my driving teacher had. After my first failed attempt to get my driving license, I quickly moved to learning on my father’s Audi A3 Sportback 2.0 TFSI Quattro with him around. And I changed driving teacher for a much younger and sympathetic man who had a… BMW 130i. I remember just the first driving lesson with him and the sound of the six cylinder, the hard clutch, direction, and this general BMW-ish feeling and connexion to the road any BMW owner knows, and that I had discovered partly already as a child being passenger in my parent’s BMW X5. My history with the bavarian brand is even older than this as I still have very good memories of my family’s 325 E30 with which we moved to Switzerland. Still, after getting my driving license, I forged most of my experience on the A3. A car which I loved. A forgiving, yet fun and attaching car, perfect for a daily use in Switzerland. The problem was, it was my first car, and I wanted to drive. Too much, too fast, too irresponsibly. And inevitably, it ended up in a barrier, crashed.

I cried. A lot. Blaming the insurance for not wanting to repair the car. And the Audi was replaced by a Golf 1.4 TSI, a car chosen by my sister without me having the possibility to give my input, as I shared the Audi previously with her and had to assume the mess I had made. Then the first car I really bought was not a passionate choice, but a pure practical one when I was in Texas. Knowing I was only going to stay six months, I wanted a car that would not lose too much value, not bring me any issues, and that could sell fast. I went for a Ford Fiesta Sedan. So let’s say that my history with my daily driver cars had not been particularly brilliant for a car geek so far. An Audi A3 that finished destroyed, a boring Volkswagen Golf, and a purely practical Fiesta Sedan. Therefore, when I moved in Germany for my new job, I knew I would take my time. To find a car really worth it. To have a daily driver that could do what the Audi had done so brilliantly for years, if not even do it better.

In my budget I found several cars, which I eliminated one after the other. Renault Megane RS – simply the best traction but fragile, Nissan 350Z – nice coupé but shitty interior, Alfa Romeo 147 GTA – the legendary 3.2 litre V6 but almost all of them were badly tuned, … And finally it always came to the following three cars: the Abarth 595 Competizione, the BMW 130i, and the Mini Cooper S Works. I had such great fun memories as well test-driving Works Mini Coopers that I was several times very close to buy one, as it represented the perfect compromise between the Abarth – too small, and the BMW – too big. And that turned out to be the issue. I actually did not want to make a compromise, so I was down to two, the english was out. The war was now between Germany and Italy. The problem was that I was struggling to find a low mileage BMW 130i, and that the Abarth Serie 4, which had just been launched, was a little over budget, and thus Abarth Series 3 had not decreased much in price. Then, a few additional things made it for the 130i: no Abarth has a cruise control, the Competizione Series 3 would decrease a lot in value, whereas 130i have already had the biggest drop, and the Series 4 I could afford would mean a lot of additional financial sacrifices, and getting only a very standard Competizione with none of the good optional extras such as the carbon seats and the differential. And of course, I had excellent memories driving a 130i, as I have yet never driven an Abarth, and Luca, the only friend I knew owning one had severely not recommended the Italian hatchback. Finally as well, as I was in Germany, I somehow figured out it was probably the better place to own a german car than an italian one. And the BMW had a much higher top speed for the autobahn.

I went to see a first low mileage 130i sold at a BMW dealership, but apart from its low mileage, and the M exterior and interior pack, it had none of the important extras I was searching for: leather interior, automatic climate control, and cruise control mainly. Choosing this one would have been a non-sense compared to an Abarth. The BMW dealer did not want to negociate a dime, so I forgot about this one and went back looking at Abarth. Around a week later, another low mileage example comes in for sale, and how lucky am I, roughly 70 kilometers only from where I live. Sold by a turkish guy, because apparently here all turkish people drive BMWs (and in Switzerland it’s Portuguese), it had actually almost everything I was searching for, even including the old fashion CCC navigation system which folds in a very James Bond-ish way. The only two optional extras it was missing was the ski trap in the boot and the sunroof. But most importantly, it was black. With all the nice black accessories. Black front grille, black tinted rear windows, and the black window frames. I added a free one-year warranty and four winter tyres with rims to the negociation and I found myself proud owner of this 2005 BMW 130i M, after 3 months and a half of search.

So why the 130i ? Why not a 135 Coupé with more mileage ? Why not wait a bit, spare some money, and get a 1M ? For the same reason that makes an M5, or E63 AMG so attaching. The 130i is completely understated, as you can almost not tell whether it’s a 116 diesel with the M Pack or the mighty 130. It has this magical recipe I love : massive engine in a small body. A recipe which does not need to be proved since the dawn of automobiles, with cars such as the Alfa Romeo Bimotore, AC Cobra Shelby 427, and Aston Martin V12 Vantage. And in contrary to a 135 or 1M, it has a naturally aspirated engine, which for someone a little old-school (not to say prehistoric) like myself, is way better than these linear variable geometry turbos that end up everywhere now for the sake of environment. For me it is as well much more collectible because this was the first 1 Series ever, the E87 has the – love it or hate it (and I am from the lovers gang, of course) – Christopher Chapman design, which was heavily supervised by Chris Bangle. This design era for BMW was one of the most interesting upon my opinion with the birth of the E53 X5, 5 Series E60 and first generation Z4. The 130 is the first and only one ever equipped with the naturally aspirated legendary 3.0 liter six cylinder in line N52B30 engine in its most powerful configuration, developing no less than 265 horsepower and 315 Nm of torque. And of course, it is a proper BMW, which means, it is rear-wheel drive, and still the only hatchback on the market to propose this configuration. Then of course, mine is equipped with the manual gearbox, because this is how we want our cars. Demanding, and not Playstations with pallets for people who do not want to use their left leg. Finally, With no speed limiter at 250 km/h, because its top speed of 262 km/h was close, it means you can actually overtake C63 AMGs or M3s on the german highway in a small hatchback, and trust me, it’s priceless.

 

I have done over 18’000 kilometers with it and it shows now over 79’000 in total, which for a twelve years old BMW is still not that big, but no doubt that as I am enjoying driving it way too much, it will increase a lot more in the upcoming months and years. The first week was really tough. I was just driving every day, for fun, for the sound of that engine, for the way it goes round corners, for the torque. It was horrible, because I was tired, exhausted from after work in the evenings, knowing my body was shouting to myself to go home and rest, and I jumped in the 130, press the Start Engine, and… I was back home over 3 hours later and 200 kilometers more on the odometer, while I live only 2.5 kilometers from work. It was like this every day. And on the first week-end I doubled that of course, which resulted in over 2000 kilometers covered after the first week. I was already falling in love. With the car itself, but falling again for the BMW products in general as well. I had forgotten just how good their cars are for someone who enjoys driving. But I needed more. I was somehow afraid that the 130 would replace the A3 in my heart and head. So for good notice, I continued driving it, just not as much, which was better for my finances as I did not want to ruin myself in petrol. I needed to be sure.

And how not be convinced and not to fall in love with this car ? The 130 is unique. The driving position is perfect and everything is placed at the most appropriate place for driving. I have always said that in terms of driving pleasure there were only two brands mastering absolutely perfectly this art. BMW and Ferrari. And the 1 Series confirmed that again, by the best of the demonstration. The six cylinder is a masterpiece from magnesium and aluminium which provides the perfect combination on instant available torque and unctuousness or flexibility for grand touring. In concrete terms, this means you enjoy just as much cruising at 3000 rpm than flooring every horsepower at 6500 on a twisty country road. What I really like as well about this car is its vintage old-school feeling it provides. The direction is heavy, the gearbox when cold will ask you some additional efforts, the clutch will make your left leg fitness day unnecessary, and the suspension a little hard. But that gives the perfect communication between you, the driver, and the car. You feel that the 130i is trying to send you tons of little messages, not brutally, but still showing you what is happening on the road and in the car itself, which makes you really feel involved in driving. Of course, you have to put a little more effort, but the pleasure it rewards you with is completely worth it.

The only issues I have had are rather minor for a car passionate like me. The small petrol tank of 53 liters combined with the high average consumption of 11 liters for 100 kilometers (and I am rather driving environmentally friendly compared to the previous owner which was doing a 13.4 average). The very small boot and rear passenger space are as well a drawback from the rear-wheel drive transmission setup from BMW. Oh, and there’s this old 2005 navigation system, which is not that bad (it did not lose me as much as I thought it would) but the display is so awful that actually you will lose yourself trying to understand where to go, but I do not really care because these defaults are minor, and as well contribute to the charm of this car. The rear-wheel drive brings an additional issue called getting stuck in winter if there’s more than 5 centimeters of snow and a slope, whatever the slope angle. Even with the winter tires on, do not think you will be able to escape it, because you just won’t. A good method for getting back in movement I have found is to disconnect the DTC, and let the rear tires melt the snow to find some tar underneath and recover some traction, but I admit that I have not yet been to ski with it, and that given my experience with this car and even just a little bit of snow, I will avoid using it for this.

Although, the good thing about rear wheel drive with such a short wheelbase is that it is very fun to drive. It rolls up corners more than it drifts and with all driving aids on won’t tolerate almost anything, but simply disconnecting the DTC gets you just the right balance to get a consequent yet safe drift fun. I have not yet tried though to disconnect everything but I will for sure one day when I bring it to one of the nearby tracks such as Hockenheim, or Nürburgring. So a full black german car, with a big noisy engine, that could drive fast to win a blitzkrieg against a lot of cars on the highway or on country roads, demanding some efforts to drive, and that consumes almost just as much as a tank, I think you can now guess why I decided to call it, rather appropriately I think, the Panzer. And I’ve been travelling a lot with my little Panzer, living the automotive way as best as I could and taking it to various places around Europe. Experiencing it on all types of roads, from German highways to Hamburg to Swiss mountain passes, through cruising in the Côte d’Azur, I can say it fits everywhere and will make you feel at home whatever the place. If you’re suddenly tired or bored of the six cylinder engine sound for a reason that I personally could not imagine nor understand, you could still turn on the radio, or connect your iPhone through the AUX input and listen to your music. It is very versatile, but of course is more at home on country roads or on the autobahn than stuck in a city or in a traffic jam. And from the reactions of all my friends who have driven it, all of them seemed very convinced that it is a fantastic little car.

The 130, or how I like to call it, my Panzer, has not replaced my beloved Audi A3, and I doubt any car will ever be able to do it because of what I lived with it, but the BMW has managed to make me forgive myself for that accident which destroyed it. The 130 has shown me a new path to automotive happiness, throughout the best experience possible: driving. It has contaminated me again with the urge to travel. To go somewhere. To leave for the unknown. Out of time. Unlimited. Free. And it’s only the beginning…