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Car reviews - BMW - 1 Series - M Coupe

Our Opinion

We like
Raw turbo performance, M-enhanced grip, purposeful driving position, hunkered down styling with flared mudguards and major wheels.
Room for improvement
No dual-clutch transmission option, stiff ride, engine resonance

BMW logo31 Aug 2011

BMW’S diminutive new 1 Series M Coupe is not the smallest car to be graced by the M badge.

The iconic 1980s E30 M3 – the car made famous in Australia by the on-track exploits of ‘Gentleman’ Jim Richards in the Group A racing days – is a few millimetres shorter and narrower than the all-new six-pack ‘1M’, as the 1 Series M Coupe has quickly and unofficially become known.

BMW used the venerable first-generation four-cylinder M3 as inspiration for the new baby boomer, but perhaps it is best to leave the comparisons there as even BMW admits the creaky old timer did not see which way the new kid on the block went at the Nurburgring when they tried a little back-to-back comparison testing.

In fact, the 3.0-litre six-cylinder 1 Series M Coupe can even give the current 4.0-litre V8-powered M3 a shake, despite giving away a couple of cylinders and bunch of kilowatts.

It all comes down to kilograms and turbo chargers, with the smaller, lighter 1M getting forced induction – even though committed natural-aspirationist BMW said it would never stoop to such lowness.

However, we are glad it did, as the $99,900 1M is a cracker, proving that not only can a leopard change its spots, it can morph into a cheetah.

The 1M – we can’t use the M1 tag as that badge was taken by the supercar of the same name from BMW’s race-based hot shop – is roughly based on the next most spirited 1 Series, the 135i Coupe, with its vaunted twin-turbo inline six.

The engineers at M Technik resisted the temptation to mess with the engine too much, simply turning up the turbo wick and playing with the engine ECU mapping to lift the power by 25kW, to 250kW, and the torque by 50Nm, to 450Nm.

They chucked out the standard transmission offerings – six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch auto – and substituted a stronger, lighter six-speed manual gearbox with a stubby gear shift. No dual-clutch auto is available, which is a shame (especially as M3s equipped with such devices are actually quicker than the manuals).

Sensitive hydraulic power steering made a comeback in lieu of the fuzzy electric-assist set-up, but the two most critical areas of enhancement concern the differential – which gets a sophisticated lock arrangement to direct the drive to the rear wheel with the most grip – and the aluminium suspension, which is stolen directly from the M3 parts bin to replace the standard steel stuff.

Fat wheels require equally fat fenders, giving the 1M a purposeful stance and a mighty grip on planet earth.

We drove the 1M on both road and track, and even had the opportunity to drive it back-to-back against the 135i. Like the old M3, the 135i is a mighty fine car, and deserves a high place in the BMW pantheon, but against the 1M, well, no.

Where the 1M turns in with the front-end grip of a race car, the 135i exhibits the tyre-squealing understeer of a great car built by mere mortals. Out of the corners, the difference is even more marked, with that fancy diff and extra oomph placing the 1M into a whole new category.

People who conjecture that the 1M is not a ‘real’ M car can think again.

BMW elected to adopt small and light twin turbo-chargers that spool up rapidly, virtually eliminating turbo lag. Each turbo pumps air into three cylinders, and while the acceleration is not Funny Car neck-snapping, it is sufficient to raise the hairs on the back of that neck.

The familiar BMW inline-six bellow comes on strong, and can even be felt through the soles of the feet as it resonates the floor. These engines were once the benchmark, but now aren’t the most refined powerplants in the BMW line-up. Effective, though, and BMW traditionalists would not have it any other way.

Actually, we wonder if this application in the 1M might be the last hurrah, or close to it, for the inline six, as BMW pursues turbo fours and, of course, its wonderful V8s. But we digress.

Potential owners of the 1M – only about 225 Australians will have that pleasure – will have to resign themselves to a stiff ride as they go about their daily business. Whether you would regard the locked-down suspension as too tight is a matter of taste, but for some, it could become tiresome.

But in typical M Division style, that suspension still works well to keep the car planted in mid-corner bumps, never deviating from the intended course steered by the driver via an extremely fat steering wheel.

The gearshifts are short and concise, but we caught the edge of our left shoe on the footrest when going for the clutch a couple of times in the relatively tight and slightly offset footwell. Another good reason for a dual-clutch transmission, BMW?

The hard and pronounced side bolsters of the leather-clad sports seats come in handy, as mid-corner G forces are something to behold on the sticky, painted-on 35-section tyres.

Remarkably, road noise is well suppressed for a car of this nature where every ounce counts, although the ‘boing’ of stones flicked up in the rear wheel housings betrayed the lack of insulation.

Ergonomics are near perfect for a hard-edged car, mercifully with an extendable seat squab so taller drivers can get under-leg support.

Full marks for the big and excellent LCD multi-function screen, front and centre in the top of the dash, complete with a little verandah to keep reflections and sun glare to a minimum. The sat-nav with its various views is one of the better ones, too.

After BMW took such a beating over its pioneering iDrive system that was blamed for everything from global warming to a rise in street crime, we have come to appreciate the latest iteration that is relatively intuitive (unlike the befuddling Mercedes-Benz variety).

For some reason – contrariness, we guess – the M design gurus chose white-on-grey speedo and tacho instruments, which lack the clarity of the traditional, stark white-on-black of conventional BMW dials.

They also chose that furry fake suede, called Alcantara, to dress up the cabin. We can understand the door trims and gear stick boot getting this treatment, but the instrument binnacle is pushing it.

More aesthetically pleasing is the black Boston leather that makes up most of the interior surfaces, jauntily doubled-stitched in orange contrast thread to break up the unrelenting blackness that extends to the head liner.

The 1M offers accommodation for four, and while the interior spaciousness is adequate rather than generous, the rear-seat passengers in their individual seats get reasonable leg room in a better-than-2+2 configuration.

The 1M happens to be the lowest car in the BMW range, but headroom is sufficient for all but the tallest passengers, thanks to low seating and tallish glasshouse. Likewise, the boot will fit a couple of smaller suitcases.

Aside from the predictably hard suspension, the 1M is a practical, everyday car, as BMW claims all M-enhanced beasts to be. The fact that it is cheaper by about $50,000 over an M3 and yet only a whisker slower in a straight line, points to why the first batch of 125 in Australia sold out before you could say ‘send more, Helmut’.

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