A Steering Wheel Spacer Transformed My BMW 128i’s Driving Experience
This simple modification does a lot for achieving the perfect performance driving fit.
One of the saddest truths about modern cars is that they're not always designed with tall people in mind. Even in cars like my BMW 128i, which has a telescoping steering wheel, I’ve had some trouble getting comfortable on account of being six-foot-three-inches tall. But there's an aftermarket solution in the form of a spacer that brings the crucial input of steering nice and close for tall folks, which greatly improves precision and makes life a lot easier in general.
I threw down my own hard-earned cash on 949 Racing's Xtender Steering Wheel Spacer which the Lake Forest, California-based company recently started offering for many BMWs and other cars built in the past 30 years—a big chunk of this market is fellow 1 and 3 Series enthusiasts who are in the same predicament as yours truly. Here's what's involved with the Xtender's installation, as well as how it behooves anyone looking for a better, more performance-oriented interior fit.
Installation Is a Breeze
Removing the steering wheel on BMWs made over the past three decades is a simple process, it's just important to remember two crucial aspects: disconnect the negative battery cable before beginning, and don't rip the wheel off in your face. The former is because the airbag must be removed, and the latter requires loosening the bolt holding the wheel on, yanking on the wheel until it's loose, and then fully unthreading the bolt. Steering wheels have very fine splines that can be stubborn to break loose after years of being on there, plus regular temperature changes that cars experience.
BMW utilizes a genuinely simple method for removing the airbag, which involves disconnecting two spring clips with a long, skinny screwdriver and then just pulling it off. Once that's off, then the wheel is removed, the sturdy aluminum spacer mounts up to the back of the wheel, and the two then bolt onto the column. Special wiring pigtails are included to account for the increased wiring distance to the airbag, as well as a longer, more sturdy bolt. BMW put notches in various components to ensure the wheel lines up straight, however it can take a little effort to mesh the aftermarket splines with the factory ones—it's important to be careful and take one's time. We then used an impact on its lowest torque setting to then gingerly tighten it down.
Impressions and Benefits
The Xtender brought the wheel 2.5 inches closer to my chest, which made the fit absolutely perfect for my wingspan—essentially lined up with the middle of my thigh, and now I have the ability to steer with my hands rather than over-extending and steering with my shoulders.
Having the wheel nice and close will make it easier to catch and control slides on track, as well as put less effort into my steering action. Concentration can now be focused more on my line, braking, etc. Plus, I won't have to worry about smacking my legs with my hands if a lot of steering correction is required. The distance is more comfortable for normal daily driving, too, as it feels like I can put more leverage on the wheel in tight quarters, and it feels overall more confident on the highway. Finally, the turn signal and wiper stalks are further away so that I won't accidentally smack either in a performance driving scenario.
For some solid visual representations of ideal performance driving fit, this video is great:
I didn't have any trepidation about the spacer affecting safety, meaning potentially having it too close, as it's in the same position to my body as somebody who's significantly shorter than me with the stock range of fitment. Plus, it's not like the wheel is now right up against my chest.
Combined with my M Sport seat from the UK and Schroth Quick Fit harness, I've achieved a comfortable, performance-oriented fit with my 128i for less money than buying one aftermarket, tall-guy-friendly FIA-rated racing seat, plus all necessary mounting accessories. It's so nice to tilt the seat back, have my knees at the optimal distance and angle from the pedals, and now have the wheel within a comfortable distance as well.
The way the spacer mounts up isn't 100% flush against the column, but that's not a concern of mine as the benefits far outweigh this minuscule aesthetic change, and there's no doubt it's on there nice and tight. According to 949 Racing, because this piece is designed to fit a myriad of BMWs, the fitment won't always be perfect. If I really wanted to, I could make my own OEM-looking shroud to cover the gap.
Like every little incremental change I've done to the 1er, I'm even more excited for my next visit to the track. I'm dreaming of the day I put a proper limited-slip differential in this scrappy little coupe and have more confident control over the wheel when things go both joyously, and unexpectedly, sideways.
More Adventures With This BMW 1 Series:
- My First BMW 128i Wrenching Experience Went Strangely Well
- How I’m Setting Up My BMW 128i for the Track
- My BMW 128i Really Woke Up With an Aftermarket Intake and Exhaust
- BMW 128i Spring and Damper Upgrade: What I Learned and Recommend
- Here’s How My BMW 128i Performed on the Dyno With an Intake and Exhaust