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.

Photo: The Fun One 1
August 26, 2011

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.

Photo: The Fun One 2

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.

Seamless and super-fast

Fortunately, the car comes with the sterling M Differential Lock, which electronically manages torque distribution to the (rear) drive wheels. We’ve raved about the M Diff Lock’s ability to work with M-DSG to achieve seamless and super-fast downshifts with no rear-wheel lockup, and it works equally well with a manual transmission. At Buttonwillow, the differential managed the torque brilliantly, even when I wasn’t perfectly smooth.

Photo: The Fun One 3

The 1 M’s Getrag Type K is perfectly smooth. It’s also easy to use, with short lever travel and solid engagement. The clutch pedal requires more pressure than it would in a non-M car, but it’s not excessive. Better still, its action is predictable, with no weird delay or erratic engagement.

Which is good, because the 1 M Coupe’s incredible engine demands accuracy from everything around it, including the driver. The twin-turbocharged N54B30TÜ delivers 335 hp at 5,800 rpm and 332 lb-ft of torque from 1,500 to 4,500 rpm, with 369 lb-ft available on overboost. Those are impressive numbers on paper, and they’re more so in actual use. We’ve raved about the N54TÜ before, and it’s at its best in the 1 M Coupe, which weighs 253 fewer pounds than the Z4 and 297 fewer than the 335is that also use this motor (but which don’t get the M Diff Lock).

The turbocharged N54 gives the 1 M Coupe a wildly different character than the M3, which is powered by an S65 V8 whose 414 peak horsepower are produced at 8,300 rpm, just before redline. The N54 redlines at a much lower 7,000 rpm, 1,200 rpm after horsepower has peaked. More important to the N54 is torque, specifically its 332 lb-ft at 1,500 rpm, just off idle. Compare that to the S65’s 295 lb-ft at 3,900 rpm and you begin to get a sense of how the N54 makes power, then factor in the 37 lb-ft of overboost that come in for a few seconds at full throttle to help the 1 M Coupe rocket down the straights.

We took our 1 M Coupe to a BMW CCA driving school at Buttonwillow, which was being run in its Race 1 configuration. This is a great layout, but it doesn’t offer a very long straight in which to really get into the overboost. Neither would it offer an opportunity to use the extra time-in-gear provided by the S65’s higher revs, though I’d still peg the S65 as the better track motor. Its naturally aspirated delivery is more predictable and easier to use than the 1 M’s turbocharged power, and it keeps making horsepower all the way to the top while the N54 drops off sharply well before redline.

In addition, the overboost can make the N54 a bit of a handful, especially with Dynamic Stability Control engaged. Run this car in its most conservative DSC setting and the engine won’t respond to full throttle coming out of a corner until the car is fully straightened out, by which time the overboost is kicking in and sending the car lunging forward. DSC does a great job of saving the tires from wheelspin, but it feels more intrusive than it should on an M car, perhaps in response to the need to contain so much power in a car with such a short wheelbase. Fortunately, M Dynamic Mode dials it back to ideal levels, smoothing out the power delivery at the expense of DSC’s safety net. (It’s said to allow 10 degrees of slip angle, and it also permits some really sweet four-wheel drifts when circumstances favor them.)

Photo: The Fun One 4

Photo courtesy BMW

I’m told that the 1 M Coupe’s DSC calibration is fairly similar to that on the M3, yet the light flashes far more often in the smaller car than it does in the M3. Since DSC reseponds to both wheelspin and yaw rate, we’ll have to credit the car’s ultra-short wheelbase for the difference. At 104.7 inches, the 1 M’s wheelbase is four inches shorter than that of the M3 or the 335is. (Interestingly, it’s also 6.4 inches longer than that of the Z4 35is that also uses the N54TÜ—no wonder that car is even more of a handful than the 1 M!)

With its wide tracks—60.7 inches front and rear, 0.1 wider than the M3’s—the 1 M’s footprint looks almost square, suggesting a wild instability. It’s not quite that bad in reality, but it does confer a certain, shall we say excitement, especially at full throttle. It also lets the car get light at the rear when cresting a hill under power, a really fun sensation that again demands that the driver pay attention to the chassis dynamics rather than simply mash the throttle and hope for the best.

There’s a certain satisfaction to be had from driving this car well, a feeling that one has had to do everything right rather than relying on the car’s capabilities to cut a fast lap. As much fun as I’ve had in the M3 over the years, I’ve always felt that I was failing to do justice to its true capabilities, as if the car itself deserved most of the credit whenever I drove especially well. The 1 M demands more skill on the part of its driver, and it rewards him or her with an immense feeling of satisfaction when everything is done just right.

For that reason alone—not to mention the vastly reduced brake pad and tire expenses—I’d pick the 1 M Coupe over the E92 M3 as my ideal track day BMW. I’d probably cut faster laps in the M3, but I’d have more fun in the 1 M Coupe. Its lighter weight gives it a more playful demeanor than the dead-serious M3, and its combination of a short wheelbase with big power make it genuinely challenging to drive well. Do everything right, however, and the experience is sublime.

So, too, is the experience of driving this car on a twisty back road, where its agile chassis and abundant torque confirm its position as the most fun BMW on the market today. Where an M3 feels underutilized at anything short of race pace, the 1 M’s playful nature makes it more fun to drive at saner speeds, with no sacrifice of sensation.

Photo: The Fun One 5

Sublime track performance and stellar back road entertainment—we can’t ask for much more in an M car, and the 1 M Coupe delivers.— Jackie Jouret

Second opinion: Fitting into the M car lineage

BMW’s press department seems rather obsessed with drawing parallels between the new 1 Series M Coupe and the fabled E30 M3 of 1987-1991. Photos of both models parked side-by-side were included with the initial press release for the 1 M, and the 1980s icon invariably comes up several times during any discussion of the newest M car with BMW reps. We’ve even been told that every BMW M engineer who worked on the 1 M was required to drive the E30 M3 owned by BMW Classic for inspiration. 

Given the nearly fanatical reverence for the E30 M3 among BMW enthusiasts, it’s hardly surprising that BMW M would use it as a sort of historical benchmark for its latest product. However, once you’ve looked past the fact that both cars share prominent fender flares and a relatively compact footprint, it’s hard to see how these two machines from BMW M GmbH could really be any more different.

The E30 M3 street car came to exist solely because of the homologation requirements imposed by Touring Car racing; as a result, its specification was dictated exclusively by the needs of its competition-based brethren. An enormous percentage of its mechanical components were therefore altered from those of a standard 3 Series, right down to its bespoke four-cylinder S14 powerplant that was never shared with any other model (with the minor exception of a few thousand examples of the E30 320is for Italy and Portugal).

Photo: The Fun One 6

Photo by Tom Plucinsky

By contrast, the 1 M Coupe will likely never participate in any kind of factory-backed racing effort. Instead, its purpose is to lure younger and (slightly) less affluent buyers into the M brand by offering a smaller and cheaper alternative to the current M3, which has grown fairly large and expensive over four successive generations.

With that as its mission, and given the fact that the 1 M had to be developed in under two years and with an extremely limited R&D budget, BMW M had no choice but to dive deep into the corporate parts bin. The 1 M’s twin-turbocharged N54B30TÜ six-cylinder motor has therefore been borrowed from the Z4 sDrive 35is, while the vast majority of its chassis components are shared with the current M3. Nonetheless, the end result is an absolutely superb new M car, albeit one that behaves very differently from any M3, old or new.

All bark, some bite

This last point was made abundantly clear after multiple laps in both the 1 M Coupe and the E90 M3 ZCP at Willow Springs Raceway, where BMW of North America held the car’s West Coast press launch. The fact that BMW was bold enough to unveil this car on a race track speaks volumes about its massively improved handling dynamics compared to other E82 variations. This very fast and very technical course would have made mincemeat of the 135i, its softly sprung, understeer-prone suspension unable to resist surrendering to terminal understeer at the onset of the very first corner.

The 1 M, on the other hand, is more than up to the challenge—and with 332 lb-ft of torque under your right foot (plus 37 more lb-ft on overboost), but fewer than 105 inches between the front and rear axles, it was indeed a challenge to keep this stubby little coupe pointed in the right direction in some of the track’s more technical sections.

Photo: The Fun One 7

Before we elaborate, however, a few words about that mighty N54TÜ powerplant: Though it isn’t technically an M motor at all (even if BMW M was involved in tweaking the intake, exhaust and software to its own specifications), that distinction is entirely moot once you fire it up and start accelerating out of pit lane. The new exhaust is loud and assertive, even at idle, and its sound builds into a rich, multi-layered timbre that’s nothing like the raspy whine of BMW M’s old naturally-aspirated sixes.

The turbos seem to spool up the very nanosecond your foot hits the pedal, with a much heftier initial wallop than in other N54/N55 applications, and the razor-sharp throttle response would have been inconceivable from a turbocharged motor just a decade ago. And oh, such glorious torque! No other M car has ever pulled with this kind of force from such low engine speeds, which can be both exciting and a bit frightening (often simultaneously) in a machine that has an inherent predilection for wanting to swing its back end around.

It’s not that the 1 M is some kind of untamable hooligan. On the contrary, there’s plenty of grip from those beefy 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 2s, and the active M differential works wonders in the tighter corners. Plus, the brakes (also borrowed from the M3) remain strong and fade-free lap after lap, which is immensely reassuring. It’s just that the 1 M is far quicker to rotate on its axis than other modern M cars, which gives it a lively agility that can feel a little unsettling at first, especially with all that torque itching to be unleashed.

The trick is to roll on the throttle smoothly and judiciously, while avoiding any sudden steering inputs. Provided you’re smooth and steady all the way around, the 1 M will remain calm and unflustered. Get into all that boost too early, however, and the instantaneous surge of torque has the ability to unsettle the rear end in several of the lower gears.

With such a brawny motor in such a playful chassis, the 1 M does not inspire the same level of confidence as an M3, at least not right off the bat. You have to learn the nuances of this car, gently explore its limits, and then become acclimated to its particular tendencies before you can find that satisfying groove. That’s easier said than done on a high-speed track like Willow Springs, where even small errors in judgment can have massive consequences. Once you learn to trust the car, however, the 1 M reveals itself as a proper driving machine that can attack and conquer all nine challenging corners with ease. Of course, it’s nice to know that the M Dynamic Mode will still provide some degree of electronic intervention if things go totally awry. 

Change of pace

The 1 M has been an incredible amount of fun, but now it’s time to switch over to the E90 M3, which BMW NA has brought along specifically to highlight the on-track distinctions between these two M cars. This one has the optional DCT gearbox, which works brilliantly on the track and allows me to concentrate a bit less on selecting the right gear and a bit more on analyzing just how drastically different the M3 responds to this challenging circuit.

For starters, there’s that glorious V8 motor. Compared to the torque-rich N54, it actually feels a bit underwhelming at first, but its exotic soundtrack goes a long way towards compensating, especially once the revs start spinning into the stratosphere. It’s only once you remember to keep the tach positioned within millimeters of the rev limiter that the M3 begins to feel legitimately quick, and even then we wouldn’t be surprised if the 1 M just barely edged it out through the quarter mile. Around Willow Springs, however, I’d put my money on the M3 being the faster car, at least in the hands of all but the most experienced drivers.

It really all comes down to confidence, and the M3 has it in spades. From the very first corner, its chassis provides a sensation of total control that is incredibly difficult to shake. Partly, it’s the way the power builds in one consistent arc, culminating right at the top of the rev range. Mostly, however, it’s the fact that the M3 feels so completely planted and secure no matter what is happening on the track. Its margin for error is simply much greater than in the 1 M, or at least that’s the impression you get from the sheer competence of its chassis. You can really push the car to its edges, knowing that it doesn’t require you to nail every apex with surgical precision, nor will it threaten to head for the tire barrier if you lift off the throttle a bit too suddenly in the middle of a high-speed sweeper. This doesn’t mean that the M3 is any less rewarding for a skilled driver (after all, its ultimate abilities are still well beyond the reach of anyone besides professional racers), just that it possesses an intrinsic tolerance for driver error that allows less-seasoned pilots to explore the car’s limits without fear of ending up in the Armco.

The 1 M is a brilliant machine and a very welcome addition to the M range. Despite sharing the majority of its components with other BMWs, this is very much a unique product in its own right, with its own distinct set of characteristics. Sure, it’s more compact and sprightly than the latest M3, but don’t think for a second that the 1 M is somehow a reincarnation of the legendary E30. This is an entirely new type of M car, a vehicle unlike any other to emerge from the Garching workshops, and those who intend to use it for track duty should be forewarned that it delivers one heck of an exciting drive. That said, I suspect the 1 M will actually shine brightest on winding backroads, where agility and fun are far more important than outright speed.

If track driving takes ultimate priority, however, then the E90/E92 M3 remains my current BMW of choice. Its combination of a charismatic motor and an unflappable chassis is just too hard to resist, especially when the two work in such perfect harmony. Much like every M3 produced over the past 25 years, its power is so closely matched to the ability of its chassis that one never seems to overwhelm or underwhelm the other. It’s this elusive balance that truly defines every M3 and gives it an enduring appeal. And it’s also what makes the current version the true and rightful heir to the E30 M3 legacy, both in name and in spirit.— Alexander Palevsky

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
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