The Fun One

Driving the new 1 Series M Coupe on the track at Buttonwillow—and pitting it against the venerable E92 M3 at Willow Springs—reveals a challenging but rewarding BMW created expressly for enthusiasts.

August 26, 2011
The Fun One 1
The Fun One 2
The Fun One 3
The Fun One 7
Photo courtesy BMW
The Fun One 5
The Fun One 7
Photo by Tom Plucinsky
The Fun One 7

It’s being produced in small quantities, but the 1 Series M Coupe is a very big deal. In fact, it may be the most important new BMW of the 21st century, because it proves that the company is still building cars for enthusiasts. Quite frankly, that’s been somewhat in doubt lately, as each successive new model has grown larger and heavier, rendering the driving experience ever more remote.

In one fell swoop, the 1 M takes that development in the opposite direction entirely. It is, quite simply, the most fun car BMW sells in 2011. It quickly earned a place on my list of favorite late-model BMWs along with the E86 Z4 M Coupe, the E36/8 Z3 M coupe, the Z3 3.0i, the Z8, the E46 330Ci ZHP and of course all M3s. None of the cars on my list weigh more than 4,000 lbs., and most weigh closer to 3,000 lbs.

At 3,296 lbs., the 1 M is only 66 lbs. heavier than the Z4 M Coupe, 165 lbs. heavier than the Z3 M coupe of a decade earlier. These days, when an M3 checks in at 3,704 lbs. after gaining hundreds of pounds with each successive generation, it’s heartening to see the 1 M Coupe tip the scales at 408 lbs. less—and to undercut even its 135i sibling by 143 lbs.

Lighter weight has a beneficial effect on virtually every aspect of the driving dynamic—aiding acceleration and braking, sharpening direction changes, etc.—and it generally equates to more fun. It also improves tire and brake wear, something a cheapskate like me can really appreciate. Even after four hours of track time at relatively fast (and extremely hot) Buttonwillow Raceway, the Michelin Pilot Sport 2s on our 1 M Coupe test car were in fine condition, good for the drive home as well as another weekend at the track. More likely than not, an M3 would have shredded its Michelins under the same conditions, yet the 1 M Coupe’s never even got greasy.

Neither did the brakes begin to fade, though I’ll admit to being a bit conservative when braking from the fast straights into the slower corners—not only to preserve the brakes but also because of the extra time needed to execute a smooth downshift with the 1 M’s manual gearbox. There’s no paddle shift option here, just a shift lever on the tunnel and a clutch pedal on the floor.

Although that makes the 1 M Coupe a relatively simple machine in the classic M-car tradition, the decision to stick with a conventional manual is probably less philosophical than economical. (BMW also nixed an Electronic Damper Control option in favor of fixed-rate suspension—here a set of Nürburgring-tuned springs and dampers are perfect for sportive driving.)

I hadn’t driven on track with a manual gearbox for quite some time, but I thoroughly enjoyed clutching-and-shifting for myself again even though shifts are much slower this way. They also take a bit more finesse—something that could be applied to the 1 M Coupe in general—to avoid tying the rear axle in knots when downshifting, especially from high-speed straights to slow-speed hairpins.

Also from Issue 102

  • E92 M3s from Active Autowerke, Martino Auto
  • Too heavy 2011 528i isn't much fun
  • New N20 four and future six-cylinder tech
  • 2001-2006 3 Series buyer's guide
  • Darren Yoo's stylishly modified 335i
  • Dinan turbocharged six-cylinder E21 3 Series
  • 1956 503 convertible and coupe road test
  • De Silva's BMW M10-powered Elva race car
  • BMW at Hilton Head Concours 2010 and 2011
  • Latest BMW racing news
  • All the tech that's fit to print
Buy Bimmer 102 cover
Resource ad 209x257 web
Like Bimmer on Facebook   Facebook