Driven: 2011 BMW 1-Series M Coupe

By John Beltz Snyder

May 24, 2011

—Monticello, New York

While the natural reaction is to compare the 1-Series M Coupe to the 135i, BMW has used the original E30 M3 as the inspiration for this car. It shares proportions with the 1988 M3, being just 4.8 inches wider and 1.3 inches longer, with a wheelbase 3 inches longer. Compared to the 135, it the 1M has the same wheelbase and slightly wider track (2.8 inches in front and 1.8 inches in the rear). It’s 11 pounds lighter than the 135i, at 3362 pounds. It borrows a lot of components from the current M3, including its aluminum rear subframe and suspension, centrifugal M variable differential lock, and nineteen-inch wheels.

The visual changes to the exterior of the 1M Coupe from the 135i are refreshingly subtle. Most notable are the aerodynamic touches, the more widely flared fenders, quad tailpipes, and, of course, the M emblems. Inside, the interior is black leather with contrast stitching, and an Alcantara headliner. The gauge cluster is M-typical, and arches nicely and compactly above the steering column. There’s no moonroof, as BMW opted for the weight and space savings instead.

Under the hood is an all-aluminum, directly injected, biturbocharged, 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine, producing 335 horsepower and, under normal driving conditions, 332 pound-feet of torque (the most powerful six ever put in an M car). Under high load at low revs, the car has an overboost feature, which briefly pumps torque output up to 369 pound-feet for a real kick in the pants. The engine delivers power beautifully, with lots of torque from the get-go, with plenty of on-demand power throughout the rev band. The car accelerates uphill with ease, and with such a forgiving powerband, being in the right gear is a secondary concern at best. Press the M button on the steering wheel if you're looking for sharper acceleration, as the button’s sole function is remapping the throttle response. Leave it off if you’re trying to drive smoothly in the city (is that the helmet rolling around in the trunk?); otherwise, keep the M button poked in case of spontaneous self-expression through the art of easy speed.

The engine sings a beautiful song as you drive. Not nearly as brutal as the demonic howling of the M3, the 1M is tuneful and melodic. At one point we got that special shivery feeling on a downshift into third gear at about 65 miles per hour, placing the tach needle near the 4000-rpm line. The smoothly reverberant exhaust note, held steady at that output, was like the sweet song of a siren. We were hooked. Later, at the track, we would get the opportunity to hear the car from a few hundred feet away at wide-open throttle, bringing to mind a stealth jet, not particularly loud or sonorous, but rich with massive amounts of moving air—a different character than that of the sound within the cabin, but thrilling nonetheless.

The 1M is noticeably different from the 135i upon driving it. The motor pulls much harder, and torque is readily available all over the place. The addition of 35 horsepower and 32 pound-feet of torque make a worthwhile difference (as does the overboost), and help to give the M car a character befitting of a true sports car. The ride, too, feels more sporting than that of the 135, particularly because of the M3-derived tech in the chassis. Compared to the M3’s screaming 414-horsepower V-8, the 1M seems relatively subtle, and the car definitely feels lighter. With more torque and less weight than the M3, the 1-Series M doesn’t require the same high-revving heavy-footedness that its bigger brother demands. A pretty fine balance, if you ask us.

The drive to and from Monticello took us along winding roads through the hilly, wooded area where your author’s Huguenot ancestry settled in the 18th century. Passing stone houses and fields of black soil nestled between meandering, green hillsides, we spent many miles getting to know BMW’s newest M car. Steering the car through turns, we felt an excellent sense of balance, with the car rotating evenly, and the tires sticking firmly to the road. The weighting of the tiller felt natural, and any lack of communication at the wheel was made up for by the clear sensations directed through the chassis. This 1-Series really felt like a true sports car. We could feel the road through the suspension, and it could be a bit jostling over broken pavement—just how we like it for a feeling of confidence when pushing the car hard and fast. Our seats held us in place through the turns, but we wouldn’t have minded some even more aggressive bolstering for our upper torso. That said, the ride and seating did a great job of negotiating the blend of a reasonable degree of comfort with that hard-edged racer feeling. Shifting felt good, with a natural weight and take-up to the clutch, and the shifter being very solid and precise. We could have enjoyed driving through this part of New York for many more hours, but eventually we reached the Monticello Motor Club.

In the pit lane on the south course of Monticello (a ten-turn configuration using half of the full course), we donned our helmet and waited for the two M3s on hand to lead us around the track. After a couple laps getting to know the lay of the land, the track and the 1M were all ours. It took a few laps to really get the hang of the car, and we got a chance to play with some of the settings. Left to its own devices, the 1-Series M’s stability control will intervene quite readily when you start to break traction. We hit the M button on the steering wheel, and tapped the traction control button once for M Dynamic Mode, which allows for a little more wheel spin than standard. Then we were really flying. On a tight right-hander with a late apex, we pushed the car hard, accelerating out of the turn, and the 1M gripped harder than we expected, encouraging us to go faster. The tires sang through the bends, and the steering wheel kept the car headed precisely where aimed. We were surprised with the speed we were able to build between turns, and how much we could hold onto through them. Eventually, and more quickly than we’re used to, driving on the track became more one flowing operation rather than a series of individual turns.

As we pushed the car ever harder, it never once threatened to lose its composure. The car was indeed faster than us, and it was clear that the potential for speed extended our confidence in our own abilities. We experienced remarkably neutral cornering, with almost no oversteer or understeer—just a controlled sideways pull as the tires fought (and won) for grip. For lap after hot lap. The brakes, which are borrowed from the M3 but are fighting against significantly less weight, are very strong, and allowed us to wait longer and brake harder before turns as we mustered the courage. Never did we feel the brakes begin to fade (thanks surely in part to being required to take a cool down-lap after every three laps). The instructors in their M3s could not say the same. Overall, we simultaneously felt both humbled and heroic, perhaps taking corners faster than we ever had, and yet not being able to truly challenge the limits of the 1M.

Perhaps the only fault with the car we experienced on the track was that it was too good. It made speeds that would seem insane in another car feel completely sensible. Then we watched as a member of the BMW team took a few laps with the traction control completely turned off. Smoke rose from the tires at every corner, with some scary-to-watch twitches and adjustments being made as the car got real loose. Another journalist mentioned that, in hopes of getting his heart racing, he turned the nannies totally off for a couple laps. He reported the experience to be thrilling, yet intimidating enough that he probably drove slower than with the car in M Dynamic Mode. It seems that when the going gets too easy, the 1M has the ability to make them tough, if you’ve got the stones.

The 1-Series M coupe starts at $46,135, and is only available with the six-speed manual transmission. It comes in three colors: Alpine White is available at no extra cost, and Valencia Orange and Black Sapphire Metallic tack on an extra $550. The black interior is the only interior, as BMW claims it to be the best to reduce glare for the driver. We recommend the Premium Package for $2400, if only for the power seats which make it easy to get your seating position precisely right for hard, three-pedal driving. That also comes with auto-dimming mirrors, lumbar support, Bluetooth, iPod adaptor, and ambient lighting. Also available is the Convenience Package for $2700, which includes navigation, rear park distance control, anti-theft alarm system, and the Comfort Access system, which allows you to keep the key fob in your pocket when driving. Stand-alone options include heated front seats, Harmon/Kardon surround sound, satellite radio, and BMW Apps.

Overall, the BMW 1M Coupe is a great car to drive fast, especially if you’re not a hardcore racer. With forgiving driving dynamics and a safety net of non-invasive stability technology and lots of grip, it would make a great car for the track novice, or for those of us who have to get our kicks on public roads. More advanced drivers are going to like the effortless power and great handling capability, as well as the rear-drive, nanny-free antics of which the 1M is capable. Some people may dig the leather interior, xenon adaptive headlights, rain sensors, and slick M badges. We like it simply because it allows us to go really damned fast.

VS: Chevrolet Corvette

If you’re already spending $46K on a rear-drive sports car, a base Chevrolet Corvette is a pretty tempting option at just $3,000 more. That gets you a 430-horsepower V-8 and some serious American heritage. If you want raw power, that would be the way to go. If you want a bit more refinement, and the peace of mind that comes along with driving a grippy, great handling car that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to kill you (or if you have a driveway that that isn’t perfectly flat), definitely opt for the German.

VS: Nissan 370Z Nismo

For a tighter budget, the Nissan 370Z Nismo is a pretty compelling car at $40,580. Again, you’re going to have to enjoy very raw driving dynamics. The BMW just feels like the more complete package, and is less grueling to pilot at high speeds, particularly on real-world roads. Also, another thing the 1M offers that neither the Z nor the Vette do is a back seat.

VS: Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR

The Evo rivals the 1M in terms of its ability to attack fast corners with composure, thanks in no small part to its sophisticated all-wheel drive system. Plus, it does the gravel and snow thing like a champ. Still compared to the 1M, the Evo is less powerful (at 291 horsepower), thirstier for fuel (17/22 mpg), and its ride is a lot less forgiving on broken pavement. Saving nearly ten grand isn’t so bad, if you don’t particularly crave the purity of the rear-drive, 6MT setup.

2011 1-Series M Coupe
Engine: Biturbocharged inline-6, 3.0 liters, 24v
Output: 335 hp/332 lb-ft (369 lb-ft with overboost)
0-60 MPH: 4.7 sec
Top Speed: 155 mph*
Weight: 3362 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 19/26 mpg
Base Price: $46,135

*electronically limited