Comparing the BMW 135i against the M3 and 335i

By John Webber
Apr 25, 2022 | BMW, M3, 335i, 135i | Posted in Buyer's Guides | From the Aug. 2008 issue | Never miss an article

Photography by David S. Wallens

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Grassroots Motorsports, back when all three BMW 135i was first introduced]

Unless you’ve been making like an ostrich, you’ve heard plenty about BMW’s just-launched 1 Series. Reacting to the heavy marketing buzz that surrounds this car, enthusiasts are getting downright misty-eyed about the 135i, the sporty twin-turbo version of the new car. It’s the second coming of the 2002tii, they say, recalling the small sportster that put BMW on the map a generation ago.

You probably also know that the 1’s big brother, the 335i, heroically donated its potent powerplant and silky smooth six speed so that the 135i might live. Mighty generous, we say. In its own right, the 335i is no slouch, either, even if it’s been forced out of the limelight just a tad.

And then there’s the all-new M3, now with V8 power. This car—the fourth generation 3 Series to wear the prestigious M badge—combines horsepower and handling in a stylish package. BMW rates the 4-liter’s output at 414 horsepower with 295 lb.-ft. of torque. However, this 32-valve, high-revving engine must haul a portly 3600 pounds. Will that hamper the beast?

No matter how you slice it, BMW has three capable sport coupes vying for head-of-the-class honors. Did someone suggest a track test to settle the score? We rounded up an example of each one—coincidentally all wearing a different shade of red—for a little comparison at the 1.6-mile road course at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway. 

We used the collection of curves, straights and skidpads to come up with two different test tracks to help equalize the field. The first was a more open course that was heavy on straights and fast sweepers. Our shorter, autocross-like course made use of tight turns and an especially nasty little right-hand transition designed to upset the cars—along with the drivers. 

To do the heavy lifting behind the wheel, we brought in SCCA Speed World Challenge regular, BimmerWorld owner and Roundel fanatic James Clay. For the past several years James has been building and flogging track Bimmers with success, and he maintains with a straight face that he does it to advertise his business. 

[Project BMW M3: How BimmerWorld Grew a BMW Passion Into a BMW Business]

We figured his track experience with these cars would enable him to lay down consistent times and also give us some really good driving impressions. Turns out we were right. On the downside, James’s smooth driving made everyone else’s look bad. Everyone else included Editorial Director David S. Wallens, Tech Editor Per Schroeder, Club Editor Scott R. Lear and regular contributor John Webber. All, inexplicably, were able to free up time in their hectic schedules for this comparison. Keep reading to find out how our three Bimmers performed for them.

M3: Now With V8 Power

For more than 20 years, the M3 has been BMW’s top banana in the 3 Series range. The recipe has always included more of the good stuff: more power, more brakes, more chassis and, in most cases, a more aggressive profile. 

The latest incarnation of the M3 just went on sale, and American consumers can choose between a two-door coupe and a four-door sedan. Either way, they’ll be propelled by a potent V8.

Driving Impressions

  • James Clay:

Simply an awesome car. The V8 has plenty of power and the wheelbase is long enough so it’s very stable. If it’s understeering a bit, just apply the power to walk the rear end out. On a longer course it really scoots along. The brakes are very impressive; there are a couple of real hard braking zones here, and I was absolutely pounding them. They stayed with me. 

It would be faster with sticky tires, but even with the stock tires it’s quite fast. On the shorter course with the quicker transitions, you can feel the weight a little bit, but they have hidden it well. With so much power, you can plant the car anywhere you want. It’s an absolute blast to drive hard.

  • David S. Wallens:

This car had me at hello. Never mind the awesome power and increased grip; the steering is so much better—better feel, better communication, better turn-in. The M3 is everything the 335i is, but with tons of torque and instant-on power delivery. This car doesn’t need anything for a day at the track. There’s plenty of chassis to harness the power, so it’s easy to control. Okay, so I spun it once, but I was asking for it. Besides, it was a nice, leisurely spin.

  • Scott R. Lear:

This engine should be in everything. It should be in my lawnmower, or powering my house, or simply on display in my living room with a lever attached to the throttle so I can blip and rev it until the neighbors lynch me for noise disturbances at 3 a.m. The torque gives it an instant out-of-the-corner punch that its siblings lack, and the sound it makes at 8000 rpm is worth the extra 15 grand. In a straight line at the speeds where most people drive, the M3 is only a little quicker than the turbo sixes. Even if the M3 were no faster than its lesser siblings, I’d still lust after it.

  • Per Schroeder:

This car is stellar. From a better steering wheel to a glorious howl under acceleration, it’s an amazing beast. I’d probably choose a base M3 over a loaded 1 or 3 Series any day of the week. Of course, I’d probably only drive it on the weekends—that 16 mpg rating would kill me.

  • John Webber:

If the housing market hadn’t tanked, I’d be out looking for a second mortgage right now. Don’t consider this car unless you want muscular looks—the car, not you—and gobs of power with suspension and brakes to match. It also lets out a visceral howl guaranteed to spook small pets. It’s great fun to drive hard, but docile enough to take to the supermarket. Once there, you’ll want to park it in the boonies of the lot, away from the lesser cars, and make the trek on foot to the store entrance. So it’s an exercise machine, too.

Despite the photographic evidence to the contrary, the newest M3 is perfectly capable of zipping around a track with composure. It’s just hard to resist dipping the throttle a tad more than necessary and letting that glorious V8 rev to the stratosphere as the tires turn into low-level cloud cover. On the dyno, the M3 pumped out a tick more than 350 ponies and had a remarkably level torque curve.

BMW 335i: Twin Turbos, No Waiting

Soon after the all-new E90- and E92-chassis BMW 3 Series debuted for the 2005 model year, BMW unleashed the 335i model. While inline-six-powered 3 Series cars are nothing new, this one gets a little twist: two turbos.

The 335i badge can be applied to the rear deck of the coupe, sedan or convertible. We’re waiting to see if BMW can stick one on the back of their 3 Series wagon.

Driving Impressions:

  • James Clay:

It’s a softer car and less sporting. The engine has good power, but it gets a little breathy on the long straights compared to the M3. After several hard minutes, I had a bit of brake fade; I could definitely tell they were getting hot. The tires got a little greasy, which was something I didn’t notice with the M3. I can tell the suspension is working the tires more. On the autocross course, when you need to be so quick between the brake and gas, it really brings out the turbo lag. 

  • David S. Wallens:

I really thought the 135i was going to kick this car’s butt, but I think the longer wheelbase and wider track work in this car’s favor. It was easier to drive on the track because it felt more stable; the chassis just felt more balanced. Since both cars have the same power potential, this one might actually be the better start for a track car. Call me pleasantly surprised.

  • Per Schroeder:

Its longer wheelbase made the transitions easy to control, and you could really use the throttle to play with the car’s attitude. I didn’t really notice the 1 or the 3’s open differential.

  • Scott R. Lear:

When driven right after the 135i, it was impossible not to notice how much more stable the 335i felt when spurred. Thanks to a longer wheelbase and a slightly wider track, the 3 Series is a great platform at the limit. The 335i rolled less, and if anything it was actually easier to place on track than the smaller 1 Series. 

Mechanically they’re shockingly similar, and it’s a bit confusing that the 335i isn’t appreciably heavier than its little brother. It has the same terrific feedback and control as the 1 Series at ten-tenths, and the same terrific highway cruising manners. The turbo six loves turning annoying RVs into distant memories in the rearview mirror. 

Glancing at the side-by-side spec comparison on BMW’s Web site, it’s hard to justify the $6000 bump between the 135i and the 335i. Spending my imaginary used-car dollars a few years from now, however, I think the more useful interior space, sharper exterior looks and more stable track dynamics of the 335i would win me over before the 1 Series. And that’s not what I expected at all.

  • John Webber:

A smooth and composed ride with plenty of power. It feels more firmly planted and predictable than the 1. I like the looks better, too, both inside and out, and it’s plusher. It’s certainly more suited for everyday use, especially if your kids plan on growing bigger.

The 335i is very attractive in person, with aggressive angles and a handsome, sleek shape. Massive brakes are up to track duty even in stock trim; pads and fluid would easily negate any fade issues. The torque peaks early and drops off as the revs rise, but the engine is probably putting out more than its rated 300 ponies at the crank.

135i: New Kid on the Block

For those who say that the 3 Series has gotten too big over time, BMW has produced the smaller 1 Series. After a few years overseas, the car just came stateside in time for the 2008 model year.

While several variants are available overseas—including sedans and five-door wagons—American consumers only get the coupe in either hardtop or convertible guise. Two 3.0-liter engines are available, with the big option being with or without boost.

Driving Impressions:

  • James Clay:

Definitely a shorter wheelbase. It wants to be a twitchier car than the 335, but they have almost compensated for it with a smaller front tire—and it’s not a lot lighter—so in stock trim it wants to understeer. It’s almost like they intentionally used the understeer to take out the twitchiness. It has less body roll than the 335 and feels a bit sportier. Brakes held up well, too. 

Overall, I would rather drive the 135 hard than the 335. I like its smaller package on the autocross; it feels quicker in the transitions. One thing that surprised me: Despite the car’s smaller size, as a taller driver, I feel like I have more room. 

  • David S. Wallens:

It felt to be about the right size—not too big, not too small—but the suspension tuning wasn’t quite aggressive enough for track use. It felt softer than ideal and pushed more than expected. The rear end could be brought around with some throttle, however, but it wasn’t nearly as predictable as the 335i. There is much potential here: This one could be a set of springs and shocks away from being an excellent track car. 

  • Per Schroeder:

The 1 Series was initially my favorite, as it seemed to offer the best value and performance. However, after a few laps, I realized I didn’t like the way it transitioned so quickly from understeer to oversteer. As a result, I found it very hard to balance at the limit of adhesion.

  • Scott R. Lear:

BMW is guilty of adding on the pounds with their newer cars, but at least they still know how to give the driver heaping doses of feedback when the tires are pushed to their limit. When the car’s rubber started getting hot, the balance shifted from nearly neutral to moderate understeer, but fiddling with the pressures should be a quick fix. 

Body roll was exaggerated by the car’s narrow track, and the short wheelbase made the 135i a bit twitchy compared to the others. Off the track, the 1 Series is every bit as comfortable and competent as its bigger brothers, at least for the two front-seat passengers.

  • John Webber:

This car is harder to drive fast, but no doubt more rewarding once you get it figured out. It seemed to pull slightly better than the 335. Inside, I liked the cozy cabin but found that the narrower footwell was a little tight for size 12 feet. I do like the aggressive-looking front treatment, but I’m still getting used to the taller greenhouse and stubby trunk. BMW, why is this sunroof standard? Seems like a great way to lose 50 pounds.

Next to the 335i, the 1 Series looks a bit awkward. It lacks the muscular stance of its big brother and has some jellybean contours. Not surprisingly, the torque and horsepower curves were nearly identical to our 335i.

Making your choice and writing the check

None of these coupes were even breathing heavily after nearly four hours of hard use—not that we expected them to be. In fact, each one displayed normal oil and coolant temperatures during the entire day. If there were any casualties, they were the front tires on the faster—and heavier—M3. We’d say that any of these cars will survive a full track workout.

Based on our enjoyable time with this seductive trio, we came to some conclusions. First, the serious enthusiast with enough bucks simply must have the M3. It’s the best track car of the trio, yet doesn’t sacrifice any street manners. The fact that it’s available with four doors could help justify it as a family car, too.

Simply put, the M3 is a modern muscle car wearing a silk shirt. It does everything right and looks mighty sweet, too. Without exception, M stands for Maximus. The price could be its only downfall, although it’s a lot of car for the money. This one starts at $56k, including the $1300 gas guzzler tax. You can then toot the price up as high as you want. 

Back in the real world, the choice between the 335i and its smaller brother is not nearly as clear. BMW did an excellent job with the 135i, and the car has a bright future. The company says they plan on selling 20,000 1 Series coupes (that figure also includes the 128) here in the States during 2008. 

The fact that the 135i is heavier than expected wipes out much of its anticipated performance advantage. Our pro driver was faster in the 1 than the 3, but the mere mortals at our test day felt more comfortable in the larger, longer car. The 335i is also quieter, roomier and more practical for a family. Most of our testers also thought that it was a more attractive car.

Once price is figured in, the decision gets more murky. A base 135i starts at about $35,000, and you can load it up past $42,000 in a flash. At that pricey number, you can almost slip into a base 335i at $40,880. Of course, if you start pumping up the price of the 335i, you will start getting within squinting distance of a base M3—$53,800 for the sedan and $56,500 for the coupe. That’s how they get you.

One thing is for sure: By squeezing yet another quick and agile coupe into their lineup, the boys from Munich have not made things easier. But isn’t that part of the fun? 

Let’s say you’ve done your research. You’ve finally made your choice between the two excellent turbo coupes, and in our view, neither would treat you wrong. You’re at your BMW dealership with your hand on the door. Here’s our parting advice: Do not drive an M3.

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View comments on the GRM forums
philacarguy New Reader
4/25/22 1:43 p.m.

I've got a 2013 135i, msport version (not a full M).  I bought it used about three years old. It's my second/3rd car, still under 35,000 miles.  I totally love it.  Plenty of power and usable RPM (really, how often do you need to be able to go more than 69 mph in second gear?), great brakes, handles well for street use.  I really like the small size - no need for a bigger car.  I tracked it once.  Yes, it could use different pads, tires, springs, shocks, etc for track use.  However, my conclusion was that then I'd have a lesser street car. 

Prior bimmers include a Z4 3.0 (nice, but too noisy for highway use) and an 1999 M coupe.  Yes, I wish I'd kept the clown shoe, but it was chipped, lowered and as such was a fun street car that was only good for short rides.  It was exhausting as a highway car.  My normal habit is to get bored every 2-3 years and move on to something else, but i struggle to think about finding a replacement for the 135 that fits the requirements of small, somewhat light, powerful and competent (and not ridiculously expensive).

My track needs are satisfied by the Triumph GT6 I vintage race.  

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