Racing on a budget doesn't have to mean driving something old or slow. With the prices for used 135i Coupes hovering around $30,000, this could be your next track car.

May 31, 2012
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SINCE THE ECONOMY’S NEAR-COLLAPSE IN 2008, DOWNSIZING HAS BEEN A WAY of life for most of us. Even those who were still doing well saw fit to scale back a bit, toning down the expense and ostentation in favor of something more appropriate to the mood of the day.

Miami residents Alberto Esquenazi and William Brand—a used car dealer and a producer of TV commercials, respectively—weathered the downturn just fine, but both wanted to scale back their automotive expenses. Rather than stop racing altogether, they decided to downsize, Alberto from an M3 and William from an Audi R8 V10. While that formula might lead some people to a Spec E30, both Alberto and William decided that the 135i Coupe would be their best bet for a fun, fast racer.

“The M3 is just too heavy,” Alberto says. “The 135i is a better-handling car.”

We’ll see about that in a moment, but one thing is indisputable: The 135i is far less expensive, with low-mileage models available from around $30,000 from either a BMW dealer or a private-party seller. And while the car’s handling is a little underwhelming in stock form, plenty of aftermarket fixes are available, and so are plenty of options for getting more power out of the N54 engine in the 2009-2010 cars or the N55 fitted to 2011 and 2012 models.

Enlisting the hot-rodding and race-prep services of Miami’s Active Autowerke, Alberto and William have taken full advantage of the 135i Coupe’s potential for performance. Whether that’s enough to turn these underrated coupes into M3 killers we’ll soon find out, because along with the two 135i Coupes, we’ll also be driving Ricardo Fernandes’ E92 M3 here at Homestead Miami Speedway. This car, too, has been modified by Active Autowerke for full-on track duty, and it’s already won a few trophies in 2012.

Before we get to Ricardo’s M3, however, let’s have a look at this pair of 135i Coupes, which look like twins but are actually quite different beneath the skin.

The N54 advantage

William’s car is a 2009 135i Coupe, powered by the brilliant N54 twin-turbocharged six that was introduced in 2006 to much acclaim and more than a few technical problems with the car’s fuel injection and cooling systems. Most of those were fixed during the engine’s production run, and those that weren’t were cured when the N54 was replaced in 2011 by the N55, a single-turbocharged six. BMW claimed an identical crankshaft output of 300 hp and 300 lb-ft for both engines, but the N54 always felt zippier, and it was no surprise when a hot version of this engine found a home in the high-performance 1 Series M Coupe, Z4 35is and 335is even after it had been replaced by the N55 in the more pedestrian models.

According to Active Autowerke’s Karl Hugh, a stock N54-powered 135i delivers around 262-265 horsepower to its rear wheels, which equates to around 308 hp at the crank (assuming a 15% parasitic power loss through the drivetrain). That’s a little more than BMW claims, whereas the N55 tends to fall slightly short at 250 rear-wheel horsepower or 294 crankshaft hp. The N54 typically delivers around 218 lb-ft of torque and the N55 some 217 lb-ft.

Also from Issue 108

  • 25 Hours of Thunderhill 2011
  • BMW Technology helps Bryan Clay jump farther
  • Pressure sensitive: Non-U.S. M550d sedan
  • Buyer's Guide to the E36 325is, aka M3 Lite
  • MKO of Germany's wild V8-powered 2002
  • The legendary 700 RS of Hans Stuck, et al
  • Baur 323i TC1 Cabriolet by Koko Manouelian
  • Before electric i cars, BMW built hydrogen 7
  • Monterey, Pebble Beach, Legends of Autobahn
  • BMW Wins Sebring! Jonathan Summerton
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