Man, this is one heck of a joyride!
I’m driving Dinan’s 1 Series M Coupe on a closed canyon road up in the San Bernardino Mountains, just east of Los Angeles. It’s a beauty, and I’m talking about both the road and the car.
Actually, it’s more than that. It’s Christmas and my birthday rolled into one, with Fourth of July rockets as the proverbial icing on the cake. Normally, you have to tread very carefully on Southern California’s mountain roads, and you certainly couldn’t go up a curvy, tricky route like this without fear of oncoming traffic in the form of cars, motorcycles and bicycles. Right now, however, I have the road all to myself thanks to a little help from a friend, and I’m flying. I won’t go into the details of how exactly we managed this splendid isolation, but today the mountain is mine, and so is this Dinan-modified 1 Series M Coupe. I feel like the luckiest man alive.
Steeply cambered switchbacks and zigzags, sharp corners, tricky bankings. Short straights with the next quick left looming around giant boulders. Surprisingly wide sweepers followed by steep uphills. The Nordschleife’s got nothin’ on this!
It’s just the right kind of road for Steve Dinan’s latest creation, the sharpened-up 1 Series M Coupe known officially as the Dinan Signature Series S3-R 1M. The car is glued to this incredible pavement, taking everything from the tightest turns to the longest, stretched-out sweepers with wanton ferocity and incredible ease. It’s making me want to drive forever.
Turning an ordinary driver
into a motorized Superman
The S3-R 1M is equipped with a set of BBS CH-R wheels mounted with larger-than-life Michelins (275/30-19 in front and 295/30-19 in the rear), giving it more than enough rubber to hold me on the road. I can straighten my line through a series of curves and sharp corners, hit the gas and—boom!—fly through a stretch of quick left-right-left-rights with a speed that makes my eyeballs pop. Between two extreme turns, I wish this car had a double-clutch transmission with paddle shifters, though the manual six-speed ain’t so bad, either.
As fast as I’m going, I have yet to reach the limit, or so it seems. The Dinan package leaves so much in reserve, with regard to power as well as handling, that I wouldn’t dare to try for 100% without a racing suit, helmet and a lot more insurance coverage. And still my chest tightens, adrenaline pumping like I’m trying to break the nine-minute mark on the aforementioned Nürburgring.
The car makes it feel easy. There is no need to forcibly push the wheel through the corners, no understeer to correct—Dinan’s 1M is almost surrealistically neutral. The breathtaking force of its 450 lb-ft of torque—which peaks at a relatively low 3,300 rpm—brings it into a wonderfully controlled oversteer, in a style you could call elegant and sophisticated. Other tuner cars come close, but this vehicle hits it right on target. It’s a beautifully harmonized work of art.
The steering is light but incredibly direct, and I am tempted (briefly) to hold the wheel with only four fingers. Seriously, there seems to be no apex I cannot pinpoint exactly, no corner-out that I am not able to hit precisely. I’m braking hard before yet another right-hand switchback, and I thank the gods for those seat belts—and for the oversized Brembo brakes that Dinan has installed. This thing drives like a race car, and it brakes like one, too.
The S3-R 1M turns me into a superbly motorized Superman, and I’m convinced it’s hundreds of pounds lighter than a stock 1M Coupe.
“We didn’t reduce weight by much, really,“ Steve Dinan tells me a few days later, when I ask him how he made his 1M feel so much lighter than Munich’s stock version. “Maybe about fifty pounds, not more. We weren’t really after weight reduction.”
His goal, he says, was getting the best overall performance. But, he admits with a grin, the replacement parts all ended up being lighter than the originals.
Most of the weight was reduced, he says, by replacing the stock BMW wheels with those 19-inch BBS wheels. The 9.5-inch wide fronts weigh just 26 lbs. each, and the 10.5-inch rears just 27.4 lbs.—far lighter than the OEM rolling stock where it really makes a difference to handling. The standard BMW exhaust has been replaced with Dinan’s freer-flowing (and lighter) number and the stock suspension with his S3-R 1M Suspension System featuring a lightweight adjustable anti-roll bar in front. I suggest, jokingly, that the optional aluminum pedal covers made it a tad lighter, too, but those few ounces probably don’t matter much when you’ve got 444 hp under the hood.
Handling like it’s been
on a drastic diet
As modest as the total weight reduction may be, Dinan’s 1M handles like it’s undergone a much more drastic diet. At 3,296 lbs., the Mothership’s 1 Series M Coupe was already fairly light, checking in about 250 lbs. lighter than the E92 M3. For me, that made a substantial difference, and the 1M Coupe’s relatively light weight made it feel like a revival of the good old days, when the guys at BMW built cars on the basis of their iconic Fahrfreude (“joy of driving”) slogan. I considered it a minor miracle-on-wheels, because it recalled the sporty vehicles from Munich that could be driven on the track and more or less comfortably on the road, and which mated a sufficient powertrain with outrageously good handling. Until the 1M Coupe came along, that concept seemed to have gone the way of the dinosaurs, having been sacrificed on the altar of luxury-segment market share in the Far East.
I was able to snag a few laps on the track at Buttonwillow in BMW’s short-wheelbase ankle biter a few years ago, and I liked it…a lot. And now, driving the Dinan version has opened my eyes still further about how a superlative small car can become even better following the application of some intensive development. Indeed, a bout of nostalgia may have driven Steve Dinan to give the 1M a little love: He used to race a Z3 M Coupe, among other great little Bimmers, and he felt the same tug at his heartstrings as I did driving the 1M Coupe. In effect, he’d found the perfect platform for his art. As skilled as he is at bringing out the best from the big BMWs, this one seems to have inspired something more.
It feels like a genuine masterpiece.
“It took eighteen months from concept to the car in front of you,” Dinan tells me. “We wanted to show what can be done with the 335s and the 135s and the N54 engine configuration, and the 1M was the coolest car to demonstrate that.”
It couldn’t have been easy to improve on the superb handling of the factory-built 1M Coupe, I say.
“Well, we’re not just making springs like everyone else,” Steve explains. “We take a more holistic approach. We make the bump stops, work on the spring purchase, bearing mounts and shock mounts, and we enhance the travel so when the car is lowered the bump stops aren’t bottomed out.”
Dinan’s team fitted the 1 M Coupe with the company’s complete coil-over suspension system, including height-adjustable threaded collars, springs, bump stops and end links with variable camber plates for maximum adjustability. The system is finished with Dinan’s 32mm lightweight tubular adjustable front anti-roll bar, spherical monoball front bearing kit and precision rear toe links.
“It improves grip and ride quality dramatically,” Steve says. “You can’t just buy four springs and two sway bars and make a car handle like that. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
The same goes for the work done on the engine. Dinan’s Signature S3-R 1M features Stage 4 performance engine software and the large-compressor twin-turbo upgrade with updated wastegates. Also included are the stainless steel exhaust, a carbon fiber cold air intake and a high-performance air-to-air intercooler with double the volume to reduce pressure drop by 0.7 psi.
To cool things down even further, Dinan replaced the stock oil cooler with a high-capacity unit that sits in the right front intake vent, and which again has twice the volume of the stock unit. In combination, those parts boost power and torque immensely, from the stock output of 335 hp and 332 lb-ft (369 lb-ft on overboost) to the aforementioned 444 hp and 450 lb-ft.
Another nice touch, albeit a more cosmetic one, is the checkered-flag livery on the right front and left rear fenders, which echo the graphics on the E36 M3 Lightweight. Other than that—and the epic tire size, of course—Dinan’s 1M declines to make a spectacle of itself. It does sit way lower than the stock version and wear some sexy carbon fiber mirror caps, but other than that it comes on slyly.
Working like a car company
The result of all this R&D is an amazingly well rounded piece of machinery. Unlike most tuner cars, the S3-R 1M offers balance and harmony that are downright OEM-like.
“We work like a car company,” concurs Steve Dinan.
Proof of that laudable aim is found in the everyday usability of Dinan cars. Where most tuners just hormone-up an existing product, Dinan sells his vehicles as fully conceptualized and developed automobiles. On the way back from the mountains, the S3-R 1M behaves with civility on SoCal freeways. The exhaust that had roared so enticingly on the mountain passes has quieted to a refined burble. The only indication of this car’s increased performance is the additional information it provides about the state of California’s infamous road surfaces, but that’s a small price to pay.
Speaking of which, bring money. Dinan modifications don’t come cheap, despite Steve’s assurances that his company works hard to keep prices down. The S3-R 1M under my butt—including the engine work, modified suspension and such niceties as the aluminum pedal set—will set you back a little bit more than $16 grand over the price of a 1M Coupe, and the 19-inch wheel set and the Brembos are extra ($2,800 for the wheels, brake prices vary by configuration). So are the carbon mirror caps and the rear spoiler. For your money, however, you also get a four-year/50,000-mile warranty, which is unique in the aftermarket industry.
Dinan has sold ten S3-R 1Ms already. That’s a small number compared to the 200-300 cars the company sells yearly based on the 335i and 135i, but it’s remarkable nevertheless, proving yet again that Dinan does indeed work more like a car company than a tuner.
Then again, maybe not. They’re all hardcore car guys in Morgan Hill, he claims.
“We get do get sucked in by really neat cars,” Steve says, adding with a big smile: “It’s not always about the money, you know. Sometimes it’s just about the fun.”