Executive wheels: Not such strange bedfellows—BMW and Subaru

2011BMW_135i_Convert_ext.jpg                                2011Legacy_2.5_GT_ext_.jpg

2011 BMW 135i Convertible
2011 Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT Limited

As I have said many times over the years, the automotive world is divided into two groups: BMW people and Mercedes people. Everything else, or almost, is just a variant of that or a model selected because one can’t afford either a BMW or a Mercedes. BMW is performance first, then luxury; Mercedes is just the opposite: luxury first and then performance. They differ very little on either score – just a matter of taste and degree – although lately it seems that BMW is trying to up the luxury ante, and Mercedes is selling itself as performance.

I think people who buy VWs really want a Mercedes, and people who buy Audi really desire the BMW. Lexus is a Mercedes alternative. Acura, a stand-in for BMW. You can go down the list of makes like this until you get to Chrysler, which is, well, transportation.

Something else is emerging, however, to create a third option: Subaru. I have long liked Subaru, but I would never have even made the comparison to BMW/Mercedes, or indeed broken it out in its own category, until this last couple of years. Subaru has luxury, it has performance, and it has something those German automakers and their would-be’s lack: value. In this day and age, once you cross a certain threshold in how your car looks and performs, value is becoming a key consideration.

That’s why I decided to link these two automobiles – the BMW 135i and the Subaru Legacy 2.5 GT – together in a review.

The “1” Series BMW is almost an afterthought, something launched, in 2004, to fill in a gap. Used to be that of the standard BMWs, the “3” series, in production since the early 1970s, was the entry-level BMW. Over the last 10 years or so, however, BMW has moved the “3” series much more upscale (actually, they have moved all their models much more upscale), and now the once lowly “3” can run anywhere from $33,650 to over $58,000, and good luck finding one in any showroom that is anywhere near $33,650. So the “1” became the old “3” – entry level, yes, for BMW, but also, since cars have gotten larger and more powerful over the years, the “1” is actually the old”3.” They tell you that the “1” ranges in MSRP from $29,450 for the 128i Coupe to $40,650 for the 135i Convertible, so it is, I suppose, an entry level of a sort, but I drove the Convertible and after the add-ons it was over $47,000.

Now, I remember writing a few years ago that while I very much liked the then-new “3,” I was horrified that it was priced so close to $50k. Now that I’ve had a “1” in that price neighborhood, horrified doesn’t approach my reaction.

And that’s too bad really. Other than being somewhat sticker shocked, I must say this is a very nice car. It’s a BMW, it drives beautifully, and it handles like a dream. The 135i is equipped with a 3.0-liter I6 engine putting out some 300 hp, and like all BMWs it feel like more than that. This car can scream if you want it to, and it is rated at 18 mpg city/25 highway. Inside it’s all BMW, but as the line’s entry-level model there is none of the pretentious and over-engineered electronics you’ll find on the most expensive models. It is, of course, way above basic, but it is relatively straight-forward. The seats are that excellent BMW stiff leather that keeps you awake on long drives, the feel of the steering wheel is like it is a part of your mind and an extension of your arms. The dash is handsome and easily readable, and the climate control, sound system and the rest of the console menu items are easy to use. The stick shift in this model, and the clutch, are excellent; stiff, with a ton of feel, but very intuitive to use. Like all BMWs, this one likes to operate at higher RPMs, and can be almost awkward at very slow, neighborhood speeds. When you let it out, it really sings.

The convertible top, a cloth top, is so easy to put up and down it’s amazing. The trunk lid folds up backward to accept the top, then hides it all away when you’re cruising the boulevard. I had the car in relatively cold weather, so I just notched up the heat, wore a sweater and a jacket, and did the top-down thing, receiving a ton a quizzical, if not envious, looks. The convertible has drawbacks, however. When the top is up, the car is amazingly quiet for a rag-top, however like most convertibles it is very difficult to see out of the small back window or over your right shoulder. You really have to take special care. Also, because the top stores in the trunk, there isn’t much storage space back there; it should be noted that even in the “1” Series sedan, the trunk isn’t exactly a traveling salesman’s dream.

But, as I said, the overall downside to this car is the price: MSRP of $40,350. On my test-drive model the standards are impressive: dynamic stability control, 4-wheel ventilated anti-lock disc brakes with Dynamic Brake Control (wonderful brakes), xenon headlamps that turn the corner with you, HD radio and a full AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system, a 4-year/50k miles full maintenance program and limited warranty, 4-year/unlimited mileage roadside assistance, and power everything. They added on special grey metallic paint for $550, a $1,950 Premium package with universal garage door opener, power front seats with lumbar support, Bluetooth, and a digital compass mirror; a $1,100 Sport Package with 18″ alloy wheels, sport seats, sport steering wheel with shifter paddles, and iPod and USB adapters; a 7-speed double clutch transmissions for $1,575; and, $500 for heated front seats. With $875 in destination charges, the bottom line is $47,400. For a BMW “1” Series.

So that brings me to the Subaru. I have always liked Subarus, but like most people I had issues with the image: chick cars, gorp-eater cars, cars for people driving 30 mph in a 35 mph zone, bad styling, a little tinny. But solid, long-lasting. Then two years ago they finally made the decision to take the Outback trim off of the Legacy Wagon and simply call the wagon the Outback. The sedan is now the Legacy, exclusively, and the new styling is impressive. Last fall I reviewed the 2011 Outback, which is essentially the same vehicle as the Legacy and you can read that review here. {pagebreak:Page 1}

2011Legacy2.5GT_int_.jpg                                              2011_BMW_135i_Convert_Dash.jpg

The Legacy sedan itself is a very impressive car that offers a high degree of value along with great styling and in some cases, like this 2.5-GT, impressive performance. I remember telling the many people who asked “What is that car?”, that it was really a BMW for a lot less money. In the Legacy line for 2011 there are 7 trims, ranging from the 2.5i with a 2.5-liter H4 engine with 170 hp, carrying a MSRP of $19,995, to this 2.5 GT Limited, with a 2.5-liter H4 turbocharged engine turning out 265 ho, with a MSRP of $31,395. In between there are a couple of 3.6 models (Premium and Limited) with a 3.6-liter H6 engine with 256 hp. They all, of course, feature the Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, which is excellent.

To say I was impressed with the GT Limited is an understatement. Very quick and fun to drive, this model featured a 6-speed manual transmission which was very easy to shift and use, and that offered a lot of driver feel. Believe it or not, this car was every bit as good looking as the BMW, and it was nearly as performance-driven. This is a sports car with AWD, with a mileage rating of 18 city/25 highway. Quiet inside – very little road noise – comfortable, solid, well-built – this is just one great car. The front bucket seats are terribly comfortable, great for a long drive, and the back seat has as much leg and head room as you’ll find in a mid-sized sedan. Like most other models on the road today, the new Legacy (which debuted in 2010), is larger and much more substantial, nothing like what you think of Subaru. Plus, it has one of the largest trunks in its class – plenty of room for luggage, golf bags, etc. When you first open the trunk it is, in a word, surprising.

The thing I’m getting at here is that car for car, the BMW versus the Subaru Legacy, I preferred the Subaru straight up. But when you look at the value, there is no comparison. Like I said, the base price here is $31,395 – and all they added on was the $725 destination charge for a bottom line of $32,120. This includes, as standard, the following: AWD, Vehicle Dynamics Control, 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, air bags around, anti-theft alarm and immobilizer, tire pressure monitoring, fog lights, 18″ alloy wheels, front McPherson strut suspension, dual bright exhaust tips, dual-zone climate control, power everything, Bluetooth, 440-watt Harman/Kardon 9-speaker audio (wonderful), heated seats, mirrors and wiper de-icer, leather-trimmed seats, power seats, a huge power moonroof, XM satellite radio, and more. On the Limited, nothing is added on. Except for the convertible, it had everything that the BMW featured, for $15,000 less money. If you got the BMW in a coupe, as equipped, the difference would be at least $10,000, and it wouldn’t have four doors nor AWD.

So there really are now three kinds of people in the automotive world: BMW people, Mercedes people and Subaru people. Frankly, I like driving all three and for the most part all three make wonderful cars. But all things considered the truth is that the Subaru Legacy is, without question, the best automobile for the money on the market today.

RATINGS: BMW 135i Convertible, 3 wheels (out of four).
Subaru Legacy 2.5GT Limited: four wheels.

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