The One

A driver’s car par excellence, the new 1 Series M Coupe evokes the spirit of the E30 M3 with its tactile speed and simplicity.

The One 1
June 1, 2011

With its heady combination of visceral input, perfect turn-in, outstanding throttle response, formidable power delivery and ergonomic perfection, the 1 Series M Coupe is the most playful, communicative, predictable and soulful new BMW I’ve driven in a very long time.

Built to satisfy customer requests for an “edgier” 1 Series, the 1 M Coupe was designed and engineered to be equally at home—and equally fun to drive—on the Nürburgring Nordschleife as it is on the back roads of North America. Neutral handling was a priority along with tactile, direct steering, and indeed the car does not understeer at anywhere near the cornering forces that can be generated on the street. (We hadn’t tested it on the track when this issue went to press but will have done so by the time you read this.)

Dynamic Stability Control is tuned more liberally than on any modern BMW I’ve driven, allowing the back of the 1 M Coupe to slide a bit even without engaging M Dynamic Mode to raise the threshold of intervention. The standard throttle map is also fairly aggressive, making the faster response available by pushing the M button largely unnecessary. (I didn’t even use it, so good was the “regular” throttle response.)

With its free-revving N54 six-cylinder engine tuned to put out 335 hp at 5,800 rpm and 332 lb-ft of torque at 1,500 rpm, or 370 lb-ft on overboost, the 1 Series M Coupe is certainly quick. With a curb weight of just 3,296 lbs.—143 fewer than a 135i Coupe, 408 fewer than an M3 Coupe—it can cover the zero to 60 mph sprint in 4.7 seconds, 0.3 second faster than the 135i and just 0.2 shy of the M3. Few drivers will find it lacking for either power or speed.

That said, neither of those qualities are really at the essence of the 1 Series M Coupe. Instead, it’s all about driving fun, and to that end its chassis is faster than the engine, as befits the classic M philosophy.

On most tracks and virtually all public roads, it’s more fun to drive a lighter, less-powerful car quickly than it is to drive a bigger but more powerful car below its potential. We had a blast driving the 1 M Coupe like we would an E30 M3 from the late 1980s or a well-sorted 1970s 2002: hard and quick on extremely tight, twisty two-lane roads. The car’s lineage was clear, reflected in every sensation. More importantly, the spirit of the car echoed those earlier Bimmers perfectly.

The One 2

Genesis of the 1 M

We can’t say so with absolute certainty, but an M version doesn’t seem to have been part of BMW’s original plan for the 1 Series. Instead, the impetus to build the car came directly from enthusiasts, specifically those consulted by then-M Brand Manager Larry Koch at events around the U.S.

Koch recalls one event in particular, the BMW Car Club of America’s Oktoberfest in 2008, that he attended with Albert Bierman, the M division’s head engineer. Holding an impromptu focus group following their presentation of the new E92 M3, Koch and Bierman were asked why BMW didn’t build an M version of the 1 Series.

“They wanted an edgier car that was better balanced, and they said that the 135i was probably quick enough but had too much luxury compared to what they were looking for in an M car,” Koch recalls.

Specifically, North American enthusiasts were asking for a modern interpretation of the legendary E30 M3 produced from 1986 to 1991, and Koch pushed the engineers in Munich to build exactly that.

Koch said, “M has a whole bunch of very talented young engineers, but they’re not old enough to have driven the E30 M3! They were saying, ‘Well, yeah, that was an old car.’ But it’s an old car that led to where we are today. It’s the E30 M3’s fun factor that we’re looking for, and it’s a fun factor within the speed limits in the U.S. A car that’s only fun at 130 mph doesn’t do much for a U.S. customer.” (Precisely my criticism of the E90/92 M3.)

Finally, Koch convinced Ludwig Willisch, then chief of the M division, and the M’s younger engineers to actually drive that 20-year-old M3.

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“They all came back and said, ‘Okay, we get it. We understand what you want,’” Koch says. “Figuring out how to make that happen was another question.”

The lack of an appropriate M engine turned out to be the biggest stumbling block to the 1 M Coupe’s realization.

“They certainly weren’t going to put the V8 in it,” says Koch, referring to the M3’s S65. “There was a discussion about using the S54 engine [from the previous-generation E46 M3], but that engine was no longer homologated for emissions. You could redevelop it for the U.S., but you’d wind up taking two or three years. By that time, we’d lose the window.”

Fortunately, BMW had another engine sitting on the shelf: the N54B30T0 already developed for the current Z4 35is and 335is models. Not only did it comply with U.S. emissions standards, it also put out power that exceeded the M-spec S54’s 333 hp at 7,900 rpm and 262 lb-ft at 4,900 rpm. Better still, it did so at more user-friendly engine speeds.

A modern-day E30 M3

With an engine available, the next step was determining the 1 M Coupe’s character, a far more elusive pursuit. The car needed the kind of chassis mods that would give it the edginess that enthusiasts desired as well as the playful personality of the older M3.

“We focused on saving weight to get the performance we needed rather than adding a bigger engine. Weight begets weight,” Koch says. “It’s not about horsepower, it’s about fun-to-drive, and that’s what the E30 M3 was all about.”

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In developing the chassis, the M division was able to utilize a number of off-the-shelf components from the M3 Competition Package (ZCP)—namely its wheels and brakes, plus a few other components.

“I’m sure they had to do a lot of massaging and engineering work, but it came back pretty quickly,” Koch says. “When they took it to the Nürburgring, my understanding is they only did two or three test sessions and had it nailed down. When you think about it, this went from a discussion in 2008 to a production car in spring of 2011. For a turn-around time, that’s really short!”

The speed of the development process was further aided, no doubt, by the simplicity of the car’s specification, and by the limited number of options available. Only three exterior paint colors are offered: no-cost Alpine White or $500 Valencia Orange and Black Sapphire metallics. All 1 Series M Coupes share the same Black Boston leather interior with Alcantara trim and orange stitching. (Fortunately, BMW did away with the wear-prone Alcantara steering wheel, opting instead for a standard leather wheel.) Manual seats are standard, with power seats available as part of the $2,400 Premium Package along with an iPod/USB adapter and autodimming mirrors, among other things. Power seats reduce headroom by 10mm, negating some of the advantage of the car’s lack of a standard or even optional sunroof.

The 1 M Coupe gets BMW’s Variable M Differential Lock—the wonderful limited slip differential that debuted on the E46 M3—connected via the driveshaft to the excellent Getrag Type K six-speed manual. Because the car’s production run will be limited to about 2,000 this year, with just 1,000 examples allotted to the U.S., the Double Clutch Transmission was deemed too expensive to offer even as an option. Plus, Koch says, “We decided we wanted to make this a modern day E30 M3, and the E30 M3 only came with a manual gearbox.”

Designed for the Nürburgring

Along with DCT, the 1 M Coupe also omits another M division staple: Electronic Damper Control. Instead of adjustable suspension, the car uses conventional springs and dampers. Fixed-rate suspension saves weight, of course, needing none of EDC’s hydraulic pumps and computer control units, and it’s also much cheaper, both when new and at replacement time. It’s also refreshing in its simplicity—I’ve never really liked EDC, mainly because I don’t like having to adjust the suspension on the fly—and it can offer more predictable performance when the spring and damping rates are well selected.

I was warned before driving the car that ride quality is firm, and it is. But it’s not firm the way most non-M BMWs are these days, because it rides on standard rather than run-flat tires and thus retains a bit of sidewall compliance. Nor is it firm in the manner of an extremely track-oriented aftermarket suspension that sacrifices travel to lower the car and reduce body roll. Instead, it’s firm in a way that feels perfectly damped for aggressive driving, and which offers superb feedback. The suspension feels perfect for the chassis—firm and responsive without being at all harsh or uncomfortable.

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Its rates were selected for optimum performance on the Nürburgring, which is smoother than most U.S. roads but not without its irregularities. That should make it perfect for lightly traveled U.S. backroads as well as most North American racetracks.

The car as a whole was designed with the track in mind, and this is significant. BMW has come to recognize that there are precious few places one can safely explore the limits of a high-powered road car in North America, especially now that speed enforcement is apparently being used to generate revenue for cash-strapped state and local governments. Not surprisingly, high-performance driving events at the racetrack are becoming more popular.

Prior to discussions about the 1 M Coupe, Koch said, “I don’t think they [BMW management in Germany] really understood that. I took a couple of people from M to some club events, and I’d ask the members who among them had been on the track in a BMW within the last 12 months. Between 50% and 75% raised their hands. You could see that bell go off with the managers.”

The 1 M Coupe is essentially track-ready, from its Nürburgring-tuned suspension to its Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires. I might swap those for R-compound tires if I were using it exclusively on the track, but I’d stick with the sizes that work so well on the street—245/35-19 on 9 × 19-inch wheels front and 265/35-19 on 10 × 19-inch wheels at the rear. Otherwise, I wouldn’t change a thing, certainly not before the sweetly damped stock shocks wear out. Nor would I remove anything to save weight, since the 1 M Coupe is already fairly decontented.

“The idea is that someone who wants a track car can buy it,” Koch says. “The standard equipment level is pretty low. We did that on purpose.“

Get one now, before it’s too late

As all of that implies, the 1 Series M Coupe is a serious yet playful car for serious yet playful drivers. Think of it as BMW’s answer, at least in concept, to the Porsche 911 GT3. Current M Brand Manager Matt Russell, who succeeded Koch last year, says he was “silenced by the seriousness” of the 1 M Coupe on his first drive in the car.

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“I knew it was supposed to be playful, which it is, but the seriousness—the way it handles pitching movements—I was amazed that it is so heavily damped,” he says. “I haven’t felt a BMW come out of the factory with such serious damping in a long, long time. The stocks feel like level three of EDC in an M3, a very serious setting. In a shorter wheelbase car—and the wheelbase is a full four inches shorter than an M3’s—it has a very pronounced effect, like a rocket-powered roller skate.”

That suggests a certain trickiness, or at least the need for considerable attention and skill on the part of the driver, a point on which I’d concur. As I mentioned earlier, the 1 M Coupe’s handling is nearly neutral, with none of the understeer that plagues the 135i.

“The presence of a staggered tire setup suggests default understeer, but that’s not the case when you drive the car. It just keeps turning in,” Russell says.

Still, some understeer is necessary for safety, as the E30 325i-racing Russell points out. “At very high speeds, 100-plus, it’s better to have the front step out first rather than the rear.”

If we could liken this car’s handling to that of a recent BMW, it would have to be the S54-powered M coupe, the E36/8 sold in 2001 and 2002. Another pure driving platform, that car demands considerable skill on the part of its driver to achieve a quick pace, just like the E30 M3 of a decade earlier.

Like both of those cars, the 1 Series M Coupe is a driver’s car par excellence. As such, and especially given what will probably be low production numbers, it’s an instant collectible, one that will retain its value far in excess of an ordinary BMW. If you want one, don’t wait. Given all that’s been happening with CAFE requirements, safety regulations, the globalized oil market and quite frankly the preferences of most new BMW buyers, this is the kind of car that might not come around again.

The clock is ticking. Valencia Orange Metallic recommended.

Also from Issue 100

  • Special content for a special issue
  • 1982 320is: Like new! Lo miles!
  • Not for U.S.: the 57-mpg 320d EDE
  • A chat with BMW NA product guru Rich Brekus
  • From 7 cars to 15: How the lineup has grown
  • Joji Nagashima, designer of Z3, E39 & E90
  • How BMW Classic was born
  • A bit of ’30s racing history—with Nazis!
  • World champion John Surtees and his 507
  • Ludvigsen recalls BMW in the ’50s & ’60s
  • Utterly outlandish: the Project Goldfish V16
  • Roy Hopkins' Targa-winning 2002
  • Fat and fast: Vorsteiner/Active M3
  • Bill Auberlen's 25-year career with BMW
  • Latest news from the BMW racing scene
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