They were tempted to badge it M1. But the original M1, codeveloped with Lamborghini, was a much more special machine, a successful brand-shaper, exquisite and expensive enough to qualify as a true supercar. The 2012 BMW 135i M coupe is, on the other hand, a straightforward 1-series derivative -- more straightforward, in fact, than M3, M5, and M6, all of which boast a bespoke engine.
The go-faster 1-series instead makes do with the tweaked twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six we know from the Z4 sDrive 35is. Rated at 335 hp and a peak torque of 369 lb-ft with overboost, the compact M coupe will have no difficulties eclipsing the 135i, which delivers 300 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque. Since the 135i is 180 pounds lighter than the corresponding 3-series, the hottest 1-series should neatly plug the performance gap between the 135i and the M3.
According to a source from within the M division, the newest arrival can sprint from 0-62 mph in 4.6 seconds, thereby losing only 0.2 second to the 414-hp M3. The top speed is in both cases electronically limited to 155 mph, but extra money may buy a higher 175-mph limit together with a professional driver-training course. While a six-speed manual is standard, the seven-speed dual-clutch offered in the 135i should also be available for the 340-hp version. Also part of the M parcel is a lowered suspension setting featuring stiffer springs and tauter dampers. Whether the torque-vectoring M differential makes it into the 135i M is, at this point, still subject to speculation.
A ride in a new car never tells the full story, but five laps in the 1-series M coupe left me sufficiently breathless to kneel down in awe and start counting the pennies. True, the twin-turbo straight six does not deliver quite the same punch as the big brother's higher-revving, normally aspirated V-8, but the boosted engine offers more mid-range torque and is positively physical. The throttle response is ultra-brisk in sport mode (there is no shift-speed adjustment or power button as in the M3) and the suspension feels confidence-inspiring, even from the right side of the car. The brakes are sufficiently powerful to turn this passenger's stomach inside out. When you hit the M button, the character of the wide-body 1-series shifts from hot to flame-throwing spicy. Although stability control can be completely deactivated, the loosened M Dynamic Mode permits sufficiently lurid second- and third-gear tail slides without removing the safety net altogether. There is no doubt about it: affordable and energetic rear-wheel drive has not been this much fun in a long time.
Although the DNA of the Bavarian bonsai crackerjack is closely linked to the 135i, the 335-hp edition will be dressed up substantially to qualify for the prestigious M badge. Visual upgrades include deeper side skirts, a redesigned front bumper with larger air intakes, a new rear apron incorporating four chromed tailpipes, small lateral air vents in the front wings, a more sculptured bonnet, a revised BMW kidney grille, a trunk-mounted lip spoiler and eye-catching fender flares made of carbon fiber. The M coupe wheels -- shown here in an optional black finish -- are shod with 245/35ZR-19 footwear in the front and with 265/35ZR-19 tires in the back, with our pre-production mule running on shaved Michelin Pilot Sport rubber. The M also gets a bespoke and very tastefully appointed interior. The instrument cluster features new white-on-black dials, gray faces, a variable rev limit and a speedometer stretching to 300 kph (186 mph). Once the engine has warmed up, the yellow warning sector climbs to 6500 rpm while the redline is set at 7000 rpm. Other fresh details are carbon-fiber door and dashboard trim elements, a signature M steering wheel, and more supportive sports seats.
The M coupe marks the final metamorphosis of the 1-series coupe launched in 2007. While the European hatchback versions will be replaced next year, the two-door models are due to live on until 2012 (coupe) and 2013 (convertible). In Europe, the small M's rivals include the upcoming 350-hp Audi RS3 Sportback and the 2013 Mercedes A22 AMG powered by a supercharged 330-hp 2.2-liter four-cylinder. But in America, where we expect the 135i M to cost about $45,000, there are no clear competitors. BMW will reveal the 135i M in March 2011 at the Geneva auto show with sales starting shortly after.