The 2011 BMW 1-Series M Coupe is certainly special, a one-off offering from the M-division that has raised suspicion from purists and excitement from badge fans. But what exactly makes it so unique? Is it because by being based on BMW’s entry level 1-Series a new M-car is more affordable than ever before? Or is it because of the 1M’s turbocharged engine and M3-borrowed running gear? Or maybe because it will be built for just one model year with only 14 units making their way to NZ? Or does it just go totally hard? Car and SUV had a chance to pilot the new 1-Series M on a rapid-paced voyage of discovery for the answers.
It hasn’t been an easy birth for the 1M, some have labeled it a parts-bin car because of its extensively shared components with others saying it’s cheapening the M range with its budget 1 Series donor body. But neither of these accusations is accurate. True the 1M is the new lightweight of the M Division stable but it’s quick, feisty and can throw a heavy punch when provoked.
Power comes from BMW’s N54 twin-turbo inline six-cylinder petrol engine. It’s 3.0-litres in displacement and is a hotter version of the engine that was used in various BMW vehicles before the newer N55 motor. But this engine isn’t outdated and produces 250kW of max power and a whopping 450Nm of torque. That’s 50Nm more torque than the current model M3 and with a kerb weight of 1,495kg it’s around 100kg lighter. Peak power is reached at 5900rpm, low by M-car standards, but max torque comes on from just 1500rpm. With this twin-turbocharged engine the 1M breaks away from the screaming high rpm nature of its M-division ancestors in favour of more flexible power delivery. It’s quick out of the blocks too, with a 0-100km/h-sprint time of 4.9 seconds and will push on till it reaches a limited 250kph top speed.
The 1M is undoubtedly a car built for the enthusiast driver, as evidenced by the only gearbox option being a conventional six-speed manual. Working the third pedal is a dying art but for a contemporary hot rod like the M1, it remains the best choice.
Helping put power to tarmac is a rear-differential and 5-link rear suspension borrowed from the current M3. Other shared pieces include huge brakes, speed sensitive rack-and-pinion steering and lightweight 19-inch alloy wheels.
Adding the components from the larger M3 required the 1-Series body to be widened significantly to accommodate the increased footprint and larger wheels. The resulting pumped out wheel arches give the 1M pit bull terrier stance and eye-catching road presence. Elsewhere it’s a good-looking compact coupe with a high-waistline and blackened out kidney grille. Further clues of its dynamic ability can be found at the front bumper with its huge triple-ducting air dam that feeds the engine while reducing drag. At the rear quad exhaust tips stick out like shotguns and massive fat tyres leave no doubt that this one angry little monster. The 1 Series M will be built in just three colours, white, black and Valencia orange. The white hue on our test subject showcased the 1M’s bulky stance and the optional motorsport striping added to the sense of occasion but won’t appeal to all tastes.
In the cockpit the 1M is all business, Alcantara trim with orange stitching features on the dashboard and gauge binnacle. High quality black plastics surround thoughtfully placed switchgear. With the new 1-Series due next year the 1M’s interior is starting to show its age but treats like a chunky leather wrapped wheel and bespoke M-Division instruments provide special detailing. Despite the 1M’s lightweight performance focus, BMW hasn’t removed any cabin luxuries. The familiar iDrive system controls vehicle settings, info and entertainment through its dial and 8.8-inch colour display. There’s satellite navigation, a 6-speaker stereo with hard disk storage, rear parking sensors, cruise control, adaptive headlights and air-conditioning.
The 1M’s leather front seats are a delight; they’re comfortable and have adjustable bolstering for excellent lateral support. They offer a wide range of adjustment and look great with horizontal paneling and thick orange stitching. The rear seat is a more Spartan affair, with space for two but legroom and visibility is limited. You wouldn’t embark on a long-range road trip with four in the car, but the rear seat is definitely capable of occasional use. Cabin storage isn’t bad, there are door bins and a small glovebox but the centre armrest sitting above the cupholders is an awkward layout. There’s practical space to be found in the boot as well, enough room for a large suitcase or two sets of glove clubs.
On road the 1M is exciting and engaging. The twin-turbo engine hustles the coupe along with effortless strength and a raspy war cry rings through the exhaust pipes. The high torque output and subsequent all round flexibility give the 1M a user-friendly character. Regardless of gear or speed if you open the throttle the engine responds and it will be mere moments before you’re at full noise. Acceleration is delivered with linear precision and with minimal turbo lag but keep the 1M on point and matching the quoted 9.6l/100km fuel economy figure will be impossible.
The six-speed manual box is smooth and easy to use. The stubby gearstick has a short throw that’s easy to place and while the clutch pedal is on the heavy side it functions predictably.
Dynamically the 1M is defined by awesome balance and agility. Even on tight corners it will push through at speed and offers a tenacious level of grip through the wide rear driving wheels. The steering feels heavier than most new cars would dare but allows the 1M to really be muscled around the bends. It’s also highly direct with intensity to its feedback that builds a connection between driver and machine. A cabin-located M-Sport button changes the throttle mapping to a more aggressive setting and further tightens the steering.
When pushing hard, the 1M’s Dynamic Stability Control can prove intrusive but it can be disabled either partially or entirely. Push the stability control button once and it will swap to its MDM setting. In this mode the 1M feels much more free with enough play at the tail to be fun but the DSC will still pull the coupe back straight, unless you really overcook it. Hold down the stability control button longer and it will be completely disengaged, but with all that grunt on tap you better know what you’re doing. The MDM setting is the perfect measure for the enthusiast driver and really helps make the 1M an endearing machine.
In terms of ride quality the 1M is expectedly firm but isn’t punishing enough to deter owners from using it as a daily driver. Its compliance is surprisingly competent, the 1M isn’t easily unsettled and only large bumps and dips will be jarring in the cabin. Wind noise is minimal, engine noise is welcome, but coarse road surfaces can draw out significant tyre roar from the fat treads. That said, the 1M mellows back nicely during cruising and isn’t the type of performance car that’s always as hypo as a Fanta sculling five-year-old.
While safety features aren’t what will attract buyers to the 1M, it’s well covered with modern tech. There is an arsenal of airbags including front, sides and overhead bags. There are also the usual electronic aides like stability and traction control, ABS brakes, seatbelt pretensioners and an engine immobiliser.
So what’s the verdict on the 1 Series M? It’s without doubt the most exciting and unique machine that Car and SUV has road tested this year. It’s not simply M3 Junior, it has a character and a performance style that’s particular to the 1M. In fact, in the hands of an average driver, who’s pushing point-to-point the 1M would be equally as quick and possibly more enjoyable than the big bro M3. Despite its entry-level donor car, nothing feels budget on the 1M the interior appears basic but is comfortable and user-friendly. Exterior styling isn’t perversely overdone but still lets everyone know that they’re looking at an M-car. A class act all round, it’s a shame the 1M will only see a very short production run, because BMW are on to a winner.
What we like:
- Raw power with flexibility
- Exciting and safe driving dynamics
- M-Car pedigree at a more accessible price
- Staunch wide body styling
What we don’t like:
- Interior is starting to look dated
- Just a handful of units coming to NZ
Who will buy this car: Those who want to snap up a little piece of M-Car history. The M1 may also turn the heads of some M3 buyers.
Cool Factor: Extreme. It goes hard, it looks tough and it’s exclusive. Few other cars will earn you as much street cred as BMW’s 1 Series M.
Words and Photos: Adam Mamo