Quick, fun and extremely affordable, the BMW 130i is an awesome all-rounder and a brilliant bargain buy if you’re after one car that can do it all on a budget. Here’s our guide to buying and modifying one.
First appeared in Performance BMW. Words: Elizabeth de Latour. Photos: BMW, ESS.
Nowadays just about every hot hatch has at least 300hp so something with less than that might seem a little light on firepower, but back in 2005 the thought of stuffing a 3.0-litre straight-six with 265hp into a hatchback was pretty wild, and the resulting car was a serious little firecracker.
A brief history
The BMW 130i arrived in 2005 and was available in SE and M Sport trim levels in five-door form, with the SE being dropped after 18 months. Power came courtesy of the 3.0-litre N52 straight-six, which delivered 265hp at 6650rpm along with 223lb ft of torque at 2750rpm, and that meant a 0-62 time of just 6.1 seconds along with a limited 155mph top speed. In 2007 the facelift arrived and with it came the three-door body style while EfficientDynamics features were introduced, which lowered emissions and improved fuel economy. The facelift model received revised rear lights with light bars, and the car now came with electric power steering in place of the earlier model’s hydraulic setup. The LCI also brought with it a few minor interior tweaks such as a higher quality dash and door cards. 2007 is also when BMW launched the Limited Edition model, of which only 160 were made; all cars were finished in Carbon black with Lemon leather, featured Style 216 multi-spoke 18s and came equipped with sat nav and electric front seats among other things, but only four seats rather than five. The E81 1 Series is a three-door hatchback, while the E87 is a five-door hatchback.
BMW 130i E81/7 common problems
Noisy hydraulic valve adjusters are one of the main issues you will read about. This affected N52 engine produced before October 2008, and the problem appears as a ticking noise when the engine is first started from cold. The noise is the sound of the valvetrain operating as oil has not yet made its way to the lifters after having drained away when the car is parked. It’s more prevalent on cars that do a lot of short journeys and often clears up after a longer drive. The general consensus is that it’s a characteristic of the engine and there don’t seem to be any reports of it actually causing any damage. Electric water pumps fail and it’s a case of when, not if, it will go wrong. A major potential issue is the camshaft bearing ledge problem; it’s not common but it is very expensive to fix. What happens is that the rings that are in the cam bearing ledges, which house the cams, wear down and allow play, which leads to a groove developing on the ledge and allows fluctuations in oil pressure. The old rings have to be replaced with new Teflon items and if the bearing ledges are grooved the exhaust bearing ledge will have to be replaced (about £400 for the part), but the intake cam bearing is cast into the head and that means you might need a new cylinder head in a worst-case scenario.
The standard-fit run-flats can actually do the suspension some harm so if the previous owner hasn’t removed them check for worn shocks and bushings. Worn inner track rod joints can cause the steering to feel vague and anti-roll bar drop-links will cause a rattle or clonk when they are up for replacement.
The 1 Series is known for numerous interior creaks and rattles, with the front and rear door seals especially notorious for creaking. The seats creak, which can be cured by fitting new seat runners or replacing the backrest, as does the interior light housing, the centre armrest and the centre dash vents. Also, check the dash skin around the area where the passenger airbag is located. The biggest concerns are to do with the steering lock and the DSC system. A yellow or red steering wheel symbol on the dash will point to steering column failure. If a reset doesn’t work, try a CAS module software update and if you still have no joy, then the steering column will need replacing.
Water can collect at the rear of the car and come up into the cabin, resulting in damp rear seats as well as numerous electrical problems. If you can get under the car, there are two plugs that can be removed to allow the water to drain away. If the DSC/DTC warning light is permanently illuminated then that will mean either a failed DSC control unit or ABS pump module, the latter throwing up fault code 5E20; both can suffer from water ingress and you’ll need to replace the faulty item. Numerous warning lights and a PDC error means your PDC unit is wet, so you’ll need to get to it and hopefully will be able to dry it out.
Modifying a BMW 130i
A remap won’t give you a massive increase in power and torque but it will make the engine feel a lot more lively and responsive across the entire rev range and owners who’ve had it done say it’s worth it. An exhaust will sound good and Supersprint and Eisenmann both offer rear silencers, priced around the £700-800 mark. BMW’s M Performance silencer is also worth a look, though it’s no longer available new so you’d have to track down a used example. If you want serious power gains then the latest ESS G1 supercharger kit is the way forward; this non-intercooled setup uses an E-Charger G1 supercharger unit running 6-6.5 psi along with larger Bosch injectors and it increases power by 80-100hp, which will transform your 130i into a serious performance machine. The kit costs around £4300 plus 4-6 hours of fitting.
The BMW 130i handles well out of the box but the stock combo of run-flats and overly stiff suspension on the M Sport model doesn’t do it any favours and there are plenty of chassis upgrades that are worth doing. If you just want a quick fix then a set of lowering springs and some dampers would be a good place to start and for £600 that would make a significant difference to how the car feels, or if you’ve got a bit more cash to spend you can grab a set of BC Racing coilovers for around £900. UK BMW specialist, Birds Auto, spent a lot of time developing a number of chassis upgrades for the 130i and while they’re not cheap if you’re after the best possible handling upgrades, they’re definitely worth a look. The B-Series Sport Suspension kit uses specially valved Bilstein dampers and matched Eibach springs to offer the perfect combination of a good ride and exceptional handling, and it costs £1102.80. You can also buy the B-Series uprated anti-roll bar kit for £480, which features a 90% thicker rear anti-roll bar and a 10% thicker front item, which combine to remove understeer from the handling equation. A Quaife ATB LSD is also a very worthwhile investment as it really helps the 130i put its power down, and is an essential purchase if you supercharge the car – the LSD costs £1102.80. You can also buy the suspension kit, ARBs and LSD together as the B1 Dynamics Package for £2347.20, saving yourself a bit of money and giving you an awesome handling upgrade in one go.
In terms of wheels, if a previous owner hasn’t already got rid of the run-flat tyres then that should be at the top of your to-do list and in terms of wheel size, 19s go on no problem and for many they offer the perfect blend of looks and performance, filling out the 130i’s arches nicely without ruining the handling. An 8×19″ ET40 and 9×19″ ET46 setup with 225/35 and 255/30 tyres will fit, as a guide. If you want to upgrade your brakes you could fit the E8x 135i’s six-pot front calipers – they’re a direct fit and only require the backing plates to be trimmed, or you could get a K-Sport six-pot BBK for around £900 or an eight-pot setup for under £1000, which is a lot of stopping power for
As for styling, a quick glance at the MStyle website will show you that there is a lot to choose from out there – probably the best-looking styling options are the 1M-look items such as the bonnet, front bumper and front wings, and the M2-look front bumper is also pretty cool. There are numerous roof spoiler and diffuser options available as well, so you can really give your 130i that personal styling touch and really make it stand out from the crowd.
Performance BMW’s pick
Your choices come down to whether you want three or five doors, whether you want the SE or the M Sport and whether you want a manual or an auto. Obviously, it’s all about personal preference and how practical and comfortable you want your 130i to be, but for us, a manual three-door M Sport would be the one we’d want sitting outside our house. The three-door is still very practical but looks better and while the M Sport does have a very stiff suspension setup (more on that later), the more aggressive styling and additional equipment are worth it.
BMW 130i prices
The BMW 130i price range starts from under £4000 and stretches to £7500. The cheapest example was a 125k-mile manual Le Mans blue five-door M Sport car, while for £4500 we found a five-door auto with 74k on the clock. SEs don’t have the M Sport appeal which means you can pick up low-mileage examples for not a whole lot of money – we spotted a well-specced auto with just over 58,000 miles for £5400 and one with just 42k on the clock for £5500. For the same money, you could also get yourself a three-door auto M Sport with 115k miles, while £6250 could get you into a 65,000-mile auto five-door M Sport. If you fancy an LE, the cheapest one we found was up for £6750 with 81k miles.
If you’re looking for a fun, affordable and practical all-rounder with some strong modding potential then the 130i is an excellent choice. There are a few potential problems to be aware of but none of the common issues are major ones, and you shouldn’t need to have too much cash set aside to keep your 130i happy and healthy. When it comes to modding there are a lot of options out there, whether you’re just looking for some simple handling and styling upgrades, or whether you want a supercharged, 1M-look monster. For the money, the 130i is great value and an excellent and affordable used purchase and it’s a machine you’ll have a lot of fun with.
BMW 130i tech specs
Top speed: 155 mph
0-60mph: 5.9 secs
Consumption: 34 mpg
Gearbox: 6sp man
Length: 4239 mm
Width: 1934 mm
Weight: 1385 kg