If you haven't noticed an abundance of current M3s on the road, you can't be accused of not paying attention. They're just not selling that well. When we first drove the V-8-powered monster from Munich, we were told that this M3 would sell twice as many units as the previous, E46-chassis car.
BMW has sold only half as many, and we're more than halfway through the product cycle. In other words, the broad selection of E90/E92/E93 sedan/coupe/convertible M3s, with their manual and dual-clutch automatic transmissions, might not sell as well as the coupe-only, manual-only -- technically, the SMG was an automatic, given its lack of clutch pedal, but it did a lousy job of appealing to automatic-transmission buyers -- E46 did.
Why? Well, the world economy did kind of fall apart -- and the cheaper 335i is enough of a rocketship for most BMW fans. And let's not forget the new 335is, which, on your daily commute, makes a pretty powerful argument against buying an M3.
There's another issue. The M3's engine has grown from four to six to eight cylinders. Its weight and refinement level have grown, too. You could be forgiven for thinking that the current M3 might be just closer to an M5 in concept than it is to the original M3.
The M3 is one hell of a machine -- one virtually without flaws -- but it's moved substantially away from the original in price, size, and refinement that it's struggling to find an audience. What are those guys and girls buying? Well, BMW hopes they haven't bought anything yet, because if all goes well, they'll be standing in line to buy the new M-version of the 135i -- the 1-series M Coupe.
Because we get the 1-series only in coupe form, it's not the most practical car. Small coupes just never are. (The European-market hatch would have fixed that, but American buyers continue to make it clear that hatchbacks don't sell.) If it's not going to be practical, a small car needs to be either incredible looking (the 1-series is cute, but far from incredible) or incredibly fun. And though the 135i sure is an enjoyable car, it's not quite up to the fun levels of, say, a Porsche Cayman, which is better looking to boot. After spending a full year with our Four Seasons 135i, we loved it, but still couldn't decide whether it was a budget Porsche Cayman or just a way-too-expensive a small car.
We now have the answer. Not for the 135i, mind you, but for the forthcoming 1-series M Coupe. Suddenly, this little car makes perfect sense.
For obvious historical reasons, BMW can't call it the M1, but before you deride the name, remember we've also had the Z3 M Coupe and the Z4 M Coupe. It's not an elegant name, but it's at least consistent.
And frankly, after seeing those fender flares, I wouldn't have cared if BMW called it the 1-series M Steaming Pile of Scheisse. And -- like you -- I still haven't seen the Real Thing yet. Even though BMW invited us to Munich to preview the 1-series M Coupe, they didn't actually show it to us. Neither the exterior nor the interior. They also didn't tell us much about it. They basically handed us the keys and smiled.
So here's what we do know: the car is about 3.2 inches wider than a standard 135i -- but it looks like it's a foot wider. The front of the prototypes we drove has some deceptive elements on it making it hard to see what the new front fascia will look like, but there's carbon-fiber in there. And lots of intercoolery and radiatory bits.
Underneath, there's a single exhaust running to the back, which then enters a single muffler that, on the later prototypes, has four outlets. The production car will have four. The suspension links are aluminum and look curiously like the ones you'd see on a current M3. So do the enormous, cross-drilled rotors and the big black calipers hiding behind the gorgeous wheels. Remembering that the 1-series shares its basic design with the 3-series, strapping M3-like goodies onto a 1-series wouldn't be much of a stretch.
If you don't notice the big, finned rear differential when you're looking at the car, you will the second you drive the car.
But what you'll notice first? It has three pedals and a stick. Thank the Lord Baby Jesus, praise Allah, and/or send money to your local televangelist -- the Germans have finally gotten the message that those twin-clutch transmissions, awesome they may be, aren't a substitute for a row-it-yourself stick.
The shifter's throws are super-short, slightly notchy and accompanied by substantial resistance, just like they're supposed to be. The clutch takeup is perfect (just like in every other BMW), and the in-line six makes pretty noises from idle to redline. No surprise there. None of the prototypes wore a final-production exhaust system, and they were all quieter than, say, a 335is, but I spent a half-hour begging for more sound while a grinning German engineer told me to be patient. "Throw a microphone in the damn intake tract and a speaker under the dash if you can't get it to pass drive-by regulations," I whined. "Anything for more of that music -- intake, exhaust, whatever.."
Apparently in-line six noise is a drug and I'm a junkie. I own it; I'm fine with it.
The engine itself is another variant of the N54HP -- the high-output version of the old twin-turbo 3.0-liter straight-six that we've seen in, among other things, the Z4 sDrive35is, 335is, and 740i. No final numbers have been announced, but I was told to expect 340 PS (335 hp) and around 332 lb-ft. The engine apparently has no internal modifications, and retains its 7000-rpm redline -- and its desire to run hot. The oil stabilizes at 120'C, like the 135i, but those extra coolers in the front of the car will surely keep temps from rising above that point.
I would moan about this not being a "real" M engine if it weren't so damn good in the first place. The purist in me says that this car, wearing an M badge, should have an 8000-rpm normally aspirated derivative of this motor. The rest of me tells myself to shut up.
The ride is stiff, but like the M3's, never ever punishing. Without a single pothole on the drive, it's hard to tell for sure, but it wouldn't surprise me if the 1/MCoupe rode better than a 135i Sport Package, just like the M3 rides better than a 335i Sport Pack. Firm, mind, you, but not unnecessarily so. There is zero body roll (and if you look at the cornering pictures, you'll see that's no exaggeration) or brake dive. A sport-package equipped 335i wagon (hotness!) that we were following was heaving and scrambling around corners and pavement ripples that the 1/MCoupe barely noticed. Traction, thanks to the diff and the big tires, is practically never-ending. And when the rear brakes loose (which I managed only once before turning stability control back on, lest I get yelled at), the 1 is as easy to manage as an M3.
Tires are Y-rated Michelin Pilot Sport PS2s, 245/35-ZR19 front and 265/35-ZR19 rear. We weren't told exactly what the steering rack was, but its quick ratio and light low-speed effort outed it as an M-rack.
The interior of our prototypes was (mostly) standard-issue 135i. However, I was told to expect lots of goodies there, too. One of the cars had aggressively-bolstered M seats, so you can count on those, as well as the usual M jewelry treatment -- dead pedal, steering wheel, shift knob, gauges, etc. I was also told to expect a few surprises that we don't usually see on M cars -- nothing functional, just visual candy. Getting this particular candy out of the engineers was like taking candy from a fat kid. A strong, hungry one. Damn. We'll have to wait and see.
Likewise for the final specs and for the final exterior styling. And the price -- though BMW says it'll slot between the 135i and the M3. Duh, obviously. Think $45,000.
We'll drive the final-specification 1/MCoupe in May 2011, right before it arrives in U.S. dealerships. If there's not a waiting list already, it's because y'all haven't driven one yet. (In other words, place your order now.)
M-boss Dr. Kay Segler told me a few days before the drive that "the 1-Series M Coupe's goal is to be young. fresh, and attainable." Had those been the goals of the M3, I imagine we wouldn't have the 1/MCoupe now. And we also wouldn't have the awesome, outrageous, and fabulously unattainable M3 GTS. (It isn't coming to America, and if it did, we couldn't afford it anyway.) But if 40 is the new 30 and Gaga is the new Madonna, then 1-Series M Coupe is the new M3. And that's just fine.