June 6th, 2011

Driven: BMW 1 Series M Coupé

Four hundred and fifty. That is precisely how many of these little 1 Series M cars BMW is planning to sell before each dealer has to borrow a Sold Out sign from the nearest bakery specialising in overly-warm cake products. To put that number in to perspective, it is roughly half the amount of Z3 M Coupes sold in the UK and around the same as the E46 M3 CSL, and when was the last time you saw either of those on the roads?

If it can put its money where its gaping mouth is, it will come as no surprise to see the 1M Coupe being held in the same high regard as the aforementioned cars that almost laugh in the face of depreciation due to their evergreen drivers’ appeal. The decision to produce such a small amount can only mean one or two things: firstly, that BMW have more incarnations up their orange-stitched sleeves, or secondly, they have driven it, then sat back and realised that rather a lot of folks will lust after the 1M instead of the rather more costly M3. Which, although satisfying, would be the sort of business decision so bad they could probably be selected to be on The Apprentice. Having driven the 1M though, I’d like to think it could be both.

Since the (sorry if you were trying to forget) X5M and X6M went into production in 2009, it has been necessary for us to allow the idea of a forced-induction M powerplant into our minds, as the struggle to hit modern-world outputs with natural aspiration becomes otherwise nigh on impossible. With this 1 Series, the M division chose to use a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder engine that was duly nabbed from the already capable 135i, and engineered it to produce a heady 335bhp and 369lb-ft. Combined with a similarly compact shell, the total weight dips just under 1500kg, and this allows a 0-62mph sprint figure of just 4.9 seconds.

As far as visual clout goes, the external design of the new coupe hits just the right notes. Even if you are not a fan of the regular 1 Series Coupe shape, the tweaked bumpers, mirrors and wider track add a purposeful and thoroughly sinister look, especially when viewed through a rear view mirror. To my mind, the E36 CSL-style wheels appear overly large from many an angle and lead to Tonka truck imagery, but in some respects this only adds to the playful and toy-esque appeal of the baby M car.

Since the 1M has received so much attention and sporadic dollops of hype (from the UK in particular), I set off with what was almost a vivid internal image of what I had expected the car to be like to drive, a bit like when you come across a photo of a radio DJ after years of developing a bizarre mental picture. I just hoped it wouldn’t be as wrong as some of those early morning presenters.
Inside, occupants are treated to a semi-conventional 1 Series dash, but placed ahead of massively comfortable sports seats, subtle yet effective orange stitching, and just enough gadgets to keep you happy without seeming like the car has been over-endowed with offensively heavy wiring. Swathes of Alcantara line suitable surfaces, yet nothing has been changed as if to appear less practical; only more sporting. The only letdown is perhaps the numbered plaque, which looks just a little too ‘Regional Schools Sports Day trophy’ for my liking.

On the road, the performance available from near-idle engine speeds is almost laughably urgent, yet the addictive torque on tap seems to carry on all the way to the redline, albeit with a tiny change in rate along the way. I have a feeling I am in the minority here, but the throttle response was a fraction disappointing, with a progression just a touch more obvious than I would have liked, but it is still leagues ahead of what one would consider to be a typical turbocharged nature.

The sheer abundance of mechanical grip however is mightily impressive, requiring one prod of the MDM button and another of the right hand pedal to highlight any wayward action, so it is not intimidating even in wet conditions. A regular hydraulically assisted steering rack sits upfront, and this refreshing choice is immediately apparent from parking speeds, with a spectrum of feedback that is almost long lost from a decade or two ago.

Along similar lines, a conventional manual gearbox is fitted to the back of the straight-six lump. Less weight, less complication, and above all else, the classic drivers’ choice where a fractionally quicker shift is not as important as the feeling of being completely smothered in mechanical involvement. It is another breath of fresh air in 2011, and so pleasing to see that BMW haven’t bowed down to peer pressure from all those paddle-pushers behind the bike sheds.

The output of this the gearbox is channeled to a variable M differential at the rear, which sharpens up during activation of the M Dynamic Mode. A short wheelbase in comparison to its bigger brother may seemingly imply a little twitchiness to the handling, but if anything it only adds generous agility and I’m sure that plentiful miles behind the wheel and inner-ankle knowledge of the power delivery would soon quell any fears if you wanted to start setting records for side window navigation.

The only letdown is perhaps those 19” wheels, as although the firm ride quality is more than livable on a daily basis, I can’t help but feel that losing an inch of alloy to gain a similar amount of sidewall might have brought about better results for the ride without any disadvantage save for subjective aesthetics. I’d also wager a pretty penny or two that those first 450 folks through the doors are not going to be newly stereotypical M3 buyers, and would easily pass the crucial test of why the M is on the wrong side of the number for this particular designation.

In short though, the 1M gives the impression of being compact enough to drive every day around town and transform mundane duties, whilst all the time returning what can only be expected to be one of the best real-world M car economy figures to date. Inside, it bathes the driver in enough luxury to never feel as if it should be a second car, yet provides a driving experience visceral and thorough enough to be a fantastic trackday companion - even if the track is 800 miles away.

Having waxed lyrical about the overwhelmingly exciting prospect of the rumoured CSL version, this 1M is such an impressive feat that I’d be making a beeline towards it anyway if I were in such a position to choose, rapidly tossing 449 banana skins over my shoulder to those in pursuit. As good as a little less weight would be, the most impressive feat of the 1M is the fact that it seems to be the ultimate usable performance car.

Words: James Winstanley

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