I first saw the 1-series M coupe in late 2009 in a cordoned-off garage of the Motorsport division headquarters in Garching, Germany, near Munich. The black prototype featured silver and gold BBS wheels, a set of highly extroverted air dams, and the then-stock 1-series interior. The real car looks a lot better, inside and out. The front air dam and rear spoiler aren’t too flashy, but the reworked fenders, swollen to accommodate the wider front and rear track and ultra-fat, nineteen-inch wheels, are subtly purposeful. That’s the case, at least, in the white or metallic black livery; choosing the metallic orange, a hue exclusive to the 1-series M Coupe, turns up the visual wattage significantly.
M division chief Dr. Kay Segler originally was concerned whether the market would take the 3000-or-so units his distribution squad had in mind. Now, one and a half years later, the car is going on sale [now, in Europe, next month in the United States], and it’s clear that BMW could sell a lot more; the U.S. market, for instance, will get fewer than 1000 examples of this one-year-only model.
It’s not hard to understand the excitement. The turbocharged 3.0-liter is mated exclusively with a stick-and-clutch six-speed gearbox, and has been taken from 300 hp and 300 pound-feet, to 335 hp and 332 pound-feet of torque (370 pound-feet with overboost). That exceeds its output in the 335is, but in the smaller, lighter 1-series, the result is M3 performance: 0-60 mph in 4.7 seconds, 155-mph top speed — this at a price ($47,010) that’s just $3000 more than a 335i coupe.
We first drove a test mule on the Ascari racetrack in Spain. In terms of sheer grunt, the 1-series M was actually superior to the racy (Europe-only) M3 GTS also on hand. Where the M3’s 4.4-liter V-8 needed to give its very best to cough up 325 pound-feet of torque, the 3.0-liter straight six could dish up 369 pound-feet without making a fuss.
Equipped with exactly the same suspension as the M3 with the Competition Pack, the compact M car felt notably more steering-nervous, corner-greedy, and surface-affected than its bigger brother. The shorter wheelbase, the pumped up chassis and the wide tires (245/35/R19 up front, 265/35/R19 at the rear) injected an almost hyperactive degree of agility.
Although this model cannot be ordered with the active steering available in the 135i or the M3, the standard limited-slip rear differential (BMW’s variable M differential lock) creates a steering effect of its own. Whenever sharp turn-in and full throttle coincide, the rear end bites like a Bavarian cobra, sending the car on a slightly more apex-oriented trajectory. This trait can curl toenails not only through second-gear kinks but also on autobahn bends taken at an indicated 170 mph, when even mild correction maneuvers overload the g-force sensor inside your brain.
The smallest M car has vivid steering, although the feedback through the wheel is colored with recurrent tugs and kicks. More disconcerting is the somewhat blurred dialogue between the BMW’s stability control and limited-slip-differential systems. While the electronic watchdog likes to act as a scrambler, blowing little bubbles into the torque stream, the limited-slip differential tries to rivet the tires to the tarmac.
The result is a twitchier-than-expected behavior at the limit. To add a second dimension of interference, the very firm spring and damper setting permits a fair bit of pitch and enough yaw to alter the flight path over uneven ground. Thus, the fastest 1-series bobs and jiggles more than such a focused driving machine should. While this restlessness is barely notable on smooth surfaces such as a racetrack, it is an issue on patchy back roads tackled at aggressive speeds.
What the 1-series M coupe does remarkably well is indulge in various octaves of power oversteer. In the wet, the DSC’s M Dynamic mode easily induces a tail-happy attitude. With DSC off, you almost wish for side window wipers so you could look more clearly into the shocked eyes of oncoming motorists. With maximum torque available from 1500 to 4500 rpm, there is always enough second-gear oomph underfoot to smoke the Michelins, which don’t grip particularly well when cold. All of which proves the point that when your prime goal is to stage a private drift challenge against your alter ego, rear-wheel drive and a friendly tire dealer are the two essentials.
Still, on the smiles-per-mile charts, the 1-series M coupe can’t be beat. It is a challenging piece, a triple-X-rated driver’s machine for semi-professionals. Its handling balance provides an open invitation to indulge in latent oversteer, and provides an opportunity to separate the men from the boys. It is an absolute hoot on the track and an addictive plaything on your favorite twisty back road.
2011 BMW 1-Series M coupe
Base price: $47,010
Engine: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged I-6
Power: 335 hp @ 5900 rpm
Torque: 332 lb-ft @ 1500-4500 rpm (370 lb ft w/overboost)
Transmission: 6-speed manual transmission
L x W x H: 172.2 x 71.0 x 55.9 in
Wheelbase: 104.7 in
Curb weight: 3296 lbs
Cargo capacity: 10.0 cu ft
Tires, F,R: 245/35/R19, 265/35/R19 tires
Wheels, F,R: 19 x 9.0, 19 x 10.0 in