2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupé Review and Road Test

If you thought turbos on an M car was heresy, think again.

Please don’t accuse me of writing an unbalanced review. Upon reading it, you might think I’ve gone a bit mad, or that I’ve suddenly been added to BMW’s payroll. Although the latter would be nice, I can assure you that neither scenario is true. When it came time to craft this review I began to realize the challenge that lay ahead of me.

The problem is BMW’s 1 Series M Coupé is good. Like, properly brilliant, shockingly good, good. So I had to work hard to find any flaws to discuss with you, and I came up with the following: Accessing the power window switches requires an awkward reach. The backseats are more like nicely upholstered cargo shelves. And there is the name, which to some sounds a bit silly and complicated. I understand why they went with it though; they couldn’t have used the M1 moniker. No, that nomenclature is reserved for the vaunted supercar of the past, and might one day be resurrected for a flagship supercar to battle the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini.Note to BMW: build that car please.

But I digress. Enthusiast drivers will not care about the demerits I’ve just mentioned anyway. They realize that any of those gripes don’t interfere with the car’s mission whatsoever, and that is to deliver an un-distilled shot of driving nirvana.

Although the butch factor is softened somewhat by the winter wheel and tire package, rest assured the 1M means business

So what makes this car so incredible? Like any good dish, we must deconstruct the recipe to find out.

Take the body and interior of a 1-Series and underpin it with a whack of chassis parts from the M3 (according to BMW, that model’s 1988 E30 ancestor serves as the inspiration for the 1M); suspension, differential, brakes, wheels and tires. Take the transmission from the 3 Series range and bolt it to the three-litre turbocharged six from the Z4. M die-hards will be quick to notice that this is the first M car to get a non-M specific engine. That saddened me too, but only until I drove the thing. Has the raid-the-parts bin strategy worked? In a word, yes.

The 1M (remember it’s not a M1) is one of those cars that allow you to draw a rather quick conclusion that it is an instant classic. Like that original M3 from the ’80s that it traces its lineage to, I don’t doubt for a second that it will secure its place in the annals of history’s incredible cars. It’s just a bit shocking that you would say that about a car that wasn’t designed from the ground up to be an M product.

Let’s start with the interior. During my road test a number of people remarked that the interior looked too plain, and not special enough for an M. I’m afraid I don’t agree. The whole point of this car is to be a hugely competent performance car, not a luxury tourer. If you complain about not having special aluminum accents on the dash or a high-resolution screen to display what song is being played or where you are going, than please just buy a 135i. The gauges are typical M, as is the gloriously fat steering wheel. There are splashes of suede that are subtle reminders you aren’t in an average 1 Series. Despite the lack of power adjustment, I found it easy to find a perfect relationship with the controls. Perhaps every automaker could save huge amounts of R&D dollars if they’d just copy these seats. Not only are they extremely comfortable, they offer terrific lateral support.

Trademark quad exhaust tips anchor a rear end that’s flanked by swollen fender flares. Lined up against a regular 1 Series, the difference is stark

Basically, the cockpit of the 1 Series M is entirely devoted to deliver the best driving experience possible.

Fire up the inline six and two things become immediately apparent: First is that the engine comes to life with a convincingly gruff voice–it’s much louder than in any other application. Next you prod the throttle, and realize that the M engineers still managed to imbue it with that high-strung, quick to rev and fall character I thought might be gone in the switch to forced induction. I am quite happy to report that this is not the case. Despite the gruff voice and flypaper flywheel, it might just be the smoothest mill in the M family; from idle to redline, it’s as smooth as heavy cream.

Put it into gear and give it some throttle and just try and stifle the wild grin that spreads across your face. It may be lifted from a non-M product, but it sure doesn’t feel like it. Its 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque are impressive, but what’ll really impress the guys is the overboost feature. If the ECM determines conditions are ideal, it’ll allow for more aggressive boost parameters. What this means is that for about five seconds, the driver will have 369 lb-ft of torque at their disposal. That shoves the 1M forward with startling force and incidentally matches the torque output of the E39 M5-and that had a five-litre V8.

The more aggressive front end is well suited to directing cool air towards the massive binders. Aerodynamics are better too

Massive fender flares needed to accommodate wider front and rear tracks and big bumpers give the impression that the internals of the 1M are trying to break free of the body. Which they are

The engine’s inherent brilliance is further sharpened when the driver hits the M button on the steering wheel. When that happens, you feel the car surge forward ever so slightly, and you get the sense that various mechanical muscles are tightening in anticipation of spirited driving. It’s not as sophisticated as the M button on the M3’s steering wheel; that one changes steering, differential lockup and variable damper behavior. That said I never felt short-changed in the 1M.

To tame the brisk acceleration you’re gonna need some healthy stopping power. Luckily, the aforementioned brakes from the M3 are ultra resistant to fade and are modulated with such ease and intuitiveness. I perused some reviews of the 1M online and there seems to be a consensus that the brakes are too jumpy at the first few inches of travel–I cannot say that I found them to suffer from such an affliction. They’re near perfect.

The suspension is another hand-me-down from the M3. Underpinning the 1 Series, it shows no loss of precision and/or grip. In fact, the suspenders do such a great job conspiring with the impressive diff (again, M3 sourced) to generate cornering speeds that verge on the astonishing. Our winter tire-shod tester coupled with a lack of a racetrack to properly explore the stratospheric limits were more than enough just cause to show restraint. If you think having such high performance suspenders on a car would cause your fillings to fall out because of granitic ride quality, well, you’d be wrong.

The simple fact is the 1 Series M is hugely competent as a daily driver. The suspension that makes you look like a hero at the track will not beat you up during the commute. Despite the shorter wheelbase and unyielding tire sidewalls, the 1M was kinder to our kiesters than some sport-leaning luxury cars we’ve sampled. Clutch take-up is accurate and light and deliberate throttle calibration use means you can seemingly dole out each individual horsepower as situations dictate. Could this be the most civil M product ever? Even fuel economy is impressive when you’re not opening the taps too much.

The 3.0 N54 Turbo has been sent to the M skunkworks and emerged an engine fitting of the badge. Seriously, who does an inline-six better than BMW?

I mentioned earlier that the 1 Series M is a descendant of the original M3, a car that has rightfully earned its place as one of the all-time greats. The only thing separating the 1M from this illustrious status is the passage of enough years to make it a classic. I firmly believe that this car will be mentioned with reverence and awe for years to come. Fellow rivals Mercedes-Benz and Audi make cars to compete with the 1 series M (TT-RS/C63) but they somehow fail to capture the dynamic magic M engineers have so boldly bestowed the 1M with.

Inside, thanks to gratuitous applications of the “M” logo and Alcantara, drivers will never forget that they’re at the helm of something special, even while stationary

Before I end my love-in with the 1 Series M, I have to take a minute to pump the tires, so to speak, of some of  my fellow scribes. This year at AJAC TestFest, the 1M beat the Porsche Cayman R for Sports/Performance Car of the Year (Over $50,000) honours—in fact, the margin of victory was one of the biggest across all 11 categories. Beating a dedicated sports car like the Cayman R would be high praise for many manufactures and after driving one for the better part of a week, I respectfully submit that they were bang-on, that the 1 Series M is more deserving of the crown. It is more accessible and is less one dimensional (the Cayman is almost too highly focused as a track toy) than its Stuttgart adversary.

Think I can’t go on more about how good the 1 series M is? Consider this–of all the fantastic cars I have driven this year, the 1M has emerged the best.

2011 BMW 1 series M Coupé Specifications

Price as tested: $53,600

Body Type: 2-door, 2+2 passenger coupe

Powertrain Layout: Front engine/rear-wheel drive

Engine:  3.0-litre inline 6 turbo, DOHC, 24 valves

Horsepower: 335 @ 5900 rpm

Torque (lb-ft): 332 @ 1500-4500 rpm (369 lbs/ft with overboost feature)

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Curb weight: 1,525 kg (3,362 lbs)

Fuel consumption: City:  11.1L/100 km (21 US mpg)

Highway: 8.3L/100 km (28 US mpg)