Here’s something that will make your brain hurt: BMW isn’t in business to produce cars. Shocking, right? Like every company, its primary goal is to make a profit, and making cars is just a means to making money. This is what we call capitalism.
For that reason, car companies will produce a model only if they can sell it in sufficient numbers to turn a profit. Often, any enthusiast bent is watered down in favor of features that appeal to the broader public. This is a slippery slope with a shiny new Toyota Camry parked at the bottom. Great car, big appeal, huge profits, but nothing that enthusiasts dream of.
Over at BMW’s M division, the dream has always been preserved — at least to some extent. The first full-fledged M car, the M1, was a racing homologation special; it was almost all dream and no mainstream. The M1 didn’t make it to America (officially), but a few years later, the E30-chassis M3 did, and you can imagine the dealers’ angst: it was 95 percent race car for the street and
5 percent uh-oh, how are we gonna sell this thing? After all, its buzzy four-banger had two fewer cylinders than the sonorous 325i, it was barely quicker in a straight line, and it was vastly more expensive.
BMW was worried that it wouldn’t be able to sell the 5000 M3s worldwide that it needed for racing homologation, but as it turned out, 18,000 of them rocketed out of dealership parking lots — at full opposite lock, one would hope. Through the thick clouds of pungent tire smoke, however, the only thing the corporate guys smelled was money.
The follow-up M3 was a brilliant car, but it was a totally different animal. Whereas the E30 M3 made no sense to run-of-the-mill 3-series shoppers, the E36 M3 was designed to be the 3-series that even entry-level 318i buyers aspired to. To that end, it was 50 percent real M car (the chassis and suspension) and 50 percent make-it-sell-big! That meant other 3-series attributes remained intact: six-cylinder smoothness, automatic transmissions, four doors. Oh, and to keep it inexpensive enough to sell to cheapo Americans, we didn’t get the real M engines, just made-over, bigger-displacement versions of the existing 3-series powerplants.
It worked, and the E36 was a hit in the marketplace when it arrived here for the 1995 model year — but at what cost? Today, the E36 is worth the least of any used M3, and its resale value continues to plummet while the E30’s climbs ever higher. The third-generation E46 — despite receiving an engine built by the M division — is following in the E36’s depreciating footsteps. With each successive generation, the M3 has appealed to more buyers but become less and less special. The used-car market agrees.
Just when we hoped BMW might get M back on track, the unthinkable happened: M — the division that wouldn’t make a version of the 7-series because it just seemed wrong — sold its soul to the accountants and slapped its badge on a pair of immensely profitable 5300-pound SUVs with turbochargers, torque converters, and four-wheel drive. The X5 M and the X6 M made it clear that M had no interest in building a car for the performance junkies who helped its first cars achieve their legendary status. Judgment was final and harsh: there would never be a spiritual successor to the E30 M3. Instead, from here on out, M would spit out cars for the nouveaux riches Joneses who wanted to out-Jones their Porsche Cayenne-driving neighbors.
After two and a half decades of bitching, moaning, kvetching, and begging, scorned M fans finally gave up the good fight. BMW’s corporate guys, sick to death of hearing about that damn old E30, probably heaved a sigh of relief.
They heaved too soon, because the magnificent, V-8-powered current M3 hasn’t sold well, despite its you-don’t-have-to-really-care-about-driving automatic transmission option and the fact that it’s available as a coupe, a sedan, and a convertible. Sure, the world economy did kindasorta melt down, but that hasn’t stopped new
5- and 7-series models from flying out of dealerships. Perhaps something else is at play? Could it be that when the M brand abandoned the very enthusiasts who had preached its virtues to the mainstream world, the mainstream world stopped caring about its cars?
BMW executives would probably answer, “Oh, hell nein!” — but the reality is that they required every engineer who worked on the little orange car in these pictures to drive the E30 M3. At the official press introduction of the newest M car, we were told that the goal for this car was to “recreate the feel and focused driving environment of the E30 M3.”
Well, holy Scheisse, just when we thought M was dead forever, we won! The 1-series M coupe is the most badass, coolest, sickest BMW to debut since the 1988 M3. The bar has been raised, the benchmark has been beaten, and we can finally stop begging for another E30 M3. It might lack the racing pedigree, but the 1-series M coupe is clearly the E30 M3 reinterpreted for modern times.
Want proof? Take a 328i owner on a highway ride in the 1M coupe, and his sensitive ears will bleed from the exhaust’s drone. Even M3 drivers, spoiled rotten by adaptive dampers, will hand over doctors’ notes alleging renal edema from the brutal ride. Best of all, people who don’t deserve to drive any M car will ask where the automatic transmission option is. Nothing makes us happier than to report: there is no effing automatic.
These are not flaws. The 1-series M coupe doesn’t have any flaws. It’s one of those rare cars that’s so good that it shrugs off flaws: if there’s something about it that you don’t like, it’s because you don’t get it. (That’s not entirely true — the power-mirror controls take a long second to think about whether to grant your request to adjust their position. Highly annoying, yes, but we suspect the pause was programmed in so that the littlest M can remind you who’s boss.)
Don’t want your car to be in charge? This is not the car for you. No likey feeling the bumpies? Sorry, bud, this is a driver’s car — it’s just firm, it never crashes over bumps like a 135i. It’s perfect. The noise is too much? It sounds like music to us, especially at full throttle, where you should be most of the time. No automatic? Oh, go buy a 7-series, ya big lazy sap — this car requires the use of its six closely spaced gears, selected by a delightful short-throw shifter and a long-travel clutch pedal.
This little coupe doesn’t tolerate laziness very well. If you turn off the stability control, you had better be playing your A game, because the 1M coupe will bite you. It doesn’t do understeer. Nope, not one bit. Stop paying attention to the position of your right foot and it’ll do a power slide in the middle of a fifth-gear corner. At 100 mph. In the dry. Closed race course, professional driver. Scratch that — borderline incontinent driver.
Incontinent, perhaps, but also absolutely exhilarated. An M3 equipped with the Competition Package is just as well balanced but is far easier to control at the limit thanks to its longer wheelbase, adaptive dampers, and normally aspirated engine. That last point is key: the M3 V-8’s torque is metered out by the gas pedal in 295 perfectly sliced increments, each measuring 1 lb-ft. The 1M coupe’s straight six can twist out an additional 75 lb-ft practically anywhere in the rev range, all of which hits the rear axle like a turbocharged slap on the ass. The 1M coupe is slightly quicker in a straight line, and its silken six is remarkably lag free — for a turbocharged engine. It can’t, however, be compared with a normally aspirated engine that has eight throttles for instantaneous response.
While we’re discussing what’s under the hood: the 1-series M coupe’s engine was lifted almost unchanged from the 335is and Z4 sDrive35is. Yes, it’s true that it’s not really an M engine. No, we don’t care. Nor should you. It’s too good to fault.
Engine and transmission aside, the 1M coupe’s running gear is taken straight from the M3: it uses the same front and rear suspension, steering rack, and brakes. The wheels and tires are from the Competition Package M3. The M3’s far wider track necessitated fender flares, which contribute to a truckish 0.37 drag coefficient. Despite that, the 1M will, of course, easily achieve its 155-mph electronically limited top speed. But unlike the M3, whose speed limiter can be increased to 280 kph (174 mph) in Europe, the 1M coupe will not offer a higher speed limiter.
Why? Dirty secret: it wouldn’t reach 174 mph. Score one point for the M3. But if we were choosing which M car to buy, we’d be standing in line for a 1-series M coupe. Yeah, it’s $14,065 cheaper than an M3 coupe, but that’s not why. We love the newest, smallest M because it’s exactly what an M car should be: it wasn’t designed to appeal to everyone, but instead to make a small and select group of car nuts very, very happy and to inspire a new generation of BMW enthusiasts, just like the E30 M3 did. Production constraints will limit the number of 1Ms sold here — BMW estimates 800 for the U.S. market.
It’d be great if BMW makes money on the 1-series M coupe, but frankly we don’t care, because, more important than making money, BMW has reached into the parts bin and crafted a masterpiece. The E30 M3 finally has a successor. Please welcome the stupidly fast, wickedly tempered, awkwardly named, possibly perfect little son of a benchwork.
2011 BMW 1-Series M coupe
PRICE $47,010/$50,460 (base/as tested)
ENGINE 24-valve DOHC twin-turbo I-6
DISPLACEMENT 3.0 liters (182 cu in)
HORSEPOWER 335 hp @ 5800 rpm
TORQUE 369 lb-ft @ 1500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
STEERING Hydraulically assisted
SUSPENSION, FRONT Strut-type, coil springs
SUSPENSION, REAR Multilink, coil springs
BRAKES Vented discs, ABS
TIREs Michelin Pilot Sport PS2
TIRE SIZE F, R 245/35YR-19, 265/35YR-19
L x W x H 172.2 x 71.0 x 55.9 in
WHEELBASE 104.7 in
TRACK F/R 60.7/60.7 in
WEIGHT 3339 lb
Test Results //
BMW 1-Series M
0-60 mph 4.5 sec
0-100 mph 10.8 sec
-mile 13.1 sec @ 110 mph
30-70 mph passing 5.3 sec
Peak acceleration 0.76 g
Cornering L/R 0.97/0.99 g
70-0 mph braking 156 ft
Peak braking 1.16 g
0-60 mph 4.7 sec
0-100 mph 10.8 sec
-mile 13.2 sec @ 110 mph
30-70 mph passing 6.4 sec
Peak acceleration 0.70 g
Cornering L/R 0.96/0.93 g
70-0 mph braking 161 ft
Peak braking 1.16 g