BF Review: The BMW 1 Series M Coupe

About half-way through our day at the track with the 1M I got behind the wheel of a Competition pack M3. Within two laps it had scrabbled my brain of the conclusion I had already written in my head about the 1M. The M3 was simply a better car. It may not have been faster around the south loop of the Monticello Motor Club race track but it was clearly the more refined and confident car on the track. And then it hit me as I leaving pulling into the pits with the M3. It ‘s ok that the 1M isn ‘t technically the better car. It simply doesn ‘t matter because the 1M is more fun, more toss-able and more of what many of us want in a small M car.

But let’s take a step back for a bit. First off we can all agree that the BMW M division builds dream cars. Whether they are 20 years old and $5,000 or $100,000 and new, they’re meant to invoke emotion and desire. And while that formula is complex, it ‘s been nothing less than obvious over the years.

As BMW finishes development of a 3 or 5 series, the engineers and the M division start crafting their strategy. And that strategy has relied on thoroughly re-engineering the car and adding a naturally aspirated engine that is raucous in all the right ways. The result is uniquely M and one that has served the faithful well over the years.

And yet we have the 1M. In many ways this little Alpine White rocket that sits in front of me as I write defies all logic. It ‘s a little glimmer of hope that somehow was green-lit at the end of a product cycle during the worst economic climate in the past 30 years.

(Video & full galleries after the break)

The 1 Series M Coupe started a scant two years ago as an idea. M executives asked the engineers and designers to simply build a car that they ‘d want to own and drive. And it ‘s these engineers, the ones that crafted the last four generations of the M3 and M5, which created the 1M. They started by leveraging the existing technology of the M3 and then combined it with an engine that had already been massaged by M engineers courtesy of the Z4 35is. Then they went to work redefining how the 1 Series drives at the limit.

It all serves to make the 1M a very different kind of M car. It ‘s not dominated by an engine like most M3s or M5s. Instead it ‘s defined by exceptional handling and an extremely competent chassis that is more than adequately powered by arguably the best inline six BMW has ever made (outside of the CSL).

It ‘s a credit to those engineers who grabbed the best of the M division that this car works so seamlessly. Because after only 18 months of development they ‘ve created nothing less than the most compelling driver ‘s car to come from BMW in years. Through the best use of technology M had to offer along with all the right ratios, components and a dose of attitude missing in most modern cars, M has crafted something undeniably compelling the moment you turn the wheel.

The N54B30TO under the hood is a revised version that originally debuted in the Z4 35is. With several internal updates (piston rings and a lighter flywheel to name two) we expect that BMW is being very conservative with the actual power output of this engine.And you ‘ll be happy to know it revs faster than any turbocharged BMW engine I ‘ve ever had the pleasure of driving. Power starts low and goes seemingly unabated until the 7000 redline. With the M button on and the throttle response sharpened even further, the car has a much more point and shoot mentality than any of the high-revving M3s.

Similarly the 1M ‘s manual transmission has also been revised from its donor car; the 135i. It ‘s been optimized for low friction and quicker, smoother shifting. It also adds a shallow pan for the dry sump system and weighs in at a surprisingly light 43 kg (95 lbs). The clutch has also been suitably beefed up to handle the extra power and torque.

But the parts-bin approach doesn ‘t detract from the drive. The feel and performance of this car silences any critic on that front. After driving the 1M first on the switchbacks and hills of New York State and then at the Monticello Motor Club race track, I ‘m convinced that BMW M has at once created the most exciting M car since the Z4 M Coupe and the best daily driver small M car ever. And it ‘s easily the most fun since the E30 M3. With one important exception… it ‘s much much better at almost everything.

The 1M vs the M3

The 1M ‘s turn-in is eager in a way that the 3,900 M3 can ‘t match. The feel from the re-calibrated (and very well weighted) speed sensitive hydraulically operated steering is hands-down better than that of the normal 135i. Part of that has to do with the much more direct E92 M3 derived ratio; 12.5:1 vs 16.0:1 on the 135i and 15.4:1 on the E46 M3. It all serves to make the 1M feel immediate and more tossable than any M car since the E30. But that direct ratio is also quite livable. Unlike the Z4M it ‘s not the kind of car that constantly demands your attention while driving down the highway in a straight line.

But before we go any further lets get right to the question many of you want to know. Is the 1M a better than the M3? After driving the two back to back on the south loop of the Monticello Motor Club I can unequivocally say it isn ‘t. The M3 is more composed, more refined and easier to drive fast around the short and twisty course. Which is faster? It ‘s very close on this course. But anything with more straights would see the M3 win.

What ‘s better about the M3? One of the most obvious things on the track are the refined electronics that allow the M3 smoother transitions and better composure that make any driver look better than they have a right to. You can also thank the extra wheelbase and significantly better aero for most of that. Then there ‘s the engine note and redline that give the car a track presence that is intensely different from the N54 equipped 1M.

Then you take the first corner in the 1M you ‘re reminded that all the math and aero that went into the faster M3 doesn ‘t necessarily equate to fun. The 1M involves you in the process of going fast in a way the M3 hasn ‘t in over 20 years. With the M3 you can ‘t help but feel that it ‘s 75% the car and 25% you. In the 1M it ‘s closer to 50/50 with you being the deciding factor between looking good behind the wheel and embarrassing yourself. While it ‘s a car that requires a real driver to unlock its potential on the track, it ‘s immediately fun and engaging the second you throw it into a low speed corner.

Driving the two back to back it became obvious that the engineers wanted this car to be more of a throw-back. The MDM feels the loosest of any M car to date with the technology. And with less wheelbase and weight, 1M also rotates more eagerly in corners than any M3 I ‘ve ever driven – including the E30. In speaking with the folks at M it seems structural rigidity plays a significant role in this.

While the chassis requires more finesse and skill than an M3, the engine allows an enormous amount of latitude. Where the M3 requires careful gear selection in each corner to maximize torque, the 1M is extremely forgiving due to the amount of torque on tap at all times.

In fact I could sum it up this way. The 1M is not technically the better car between the two. But more importantly it ‘s the one that ‘s more fun. And it goes on to trump the M3 in almost every way under 100 mph.

On the Track

Lap after lap I threw the 1M into corners gaining more confidence in the endless grip. Between the brakes and the lateral grip I couldn ‘t figure out which was going to give first. But after two hours of pushing the car hard neither was even close. The brakes in particular were shockingly good throughout. With almost 400 lbs less to stop (as compared to the E92) they performed better than any factory M set-up I ‘ve ever driven. Yes they are that good.

So the brakes are exceptional and the grip is epic. But how does it feel? That ‘s the question that I was most curious about as I enter the first corner. As we reported in our various reviews of 135i over the years the standard 1 series coupe will understeer like a fat pig through any corner you could throw at it. The problem has almost entirely solved in the 1M. When pushed beyond the limit the car will gently drift into understeer. There are two things that I found to counter this. First feathering the throttle at the limit will induce lift-off oversteer that can rotate the car appropriately. The second; simply give it some gas. Even with MDM engaged the 1M will neutralize, hunker down and grip like hell.

The 1M may be more nervous and harder to drive fast on the track than the M3, but it ‘s also more tactile and tossable. In short it feels more involved. Sounds like M has been listening to the enthusiasts.

On the Road

While the 1M can dance on the track it ‘s nothing less than sublime on a good road. Driving through the switch-backs of New York State it simply felt like the 1M was breathing in the road at every corner. The suspension is surprisingly compliant with none of the wallow that the 135i. There ‘s no sense of the 3300 + lbs that the 1M carries around thanks to the suspension work done by M. It feels as light as agile as you ‘d hope around hairpin corners and sweepers alike allowing for easy modulation of the steering and throttle.

More than any M car since the Z3 M Coupe the 1M exudes emotion and attitude on the street.And its this brashness than charms you corner after corner. The sum of the steering feel, turn-in and the mountain of torque gives the 1M an old-school point and shoot feel. I ‘d say it ‘s closer to the E30 M3 but (again) the 1M is dramatically faster in every way.

The more I think about the 1M the more I realize there is simply nothing to compare it to in the history of the M range. It ‘s between the E30 and E36 in size and near the E46 M3 in horsepower. But thanks to the torque it’s clearly faster than the first three generations of M3 and arguably faster than the E92 on the right track. Now add in the short wheelbase (the Z3 and Z4 are the only M cars that have a shorter one), the quick steering ratio and you have a car that stands on it ‘s own in M history.

And where does that leave us? There isn ‘t a car that I ‘ve driven that I want more than the 1M. Simply put, I loved this car today. I loved it on the track as well as the road. It ‘s an M car that I could live with day to day but is special and rare enough to be revered for years to come.

Dr. Kay Segler ‘s promise has clearly been fulfilled with the 1M. It feels young and full of the kind of enthusiasm that is infectious. It ‘s exactly the kind of thing I want in my life and in my garage.

More importantly the 1M signals that M GmbH still knows how to make a great back to basics enthusiast car. In fact after my initial drive, I think they may have just made one the best ever.

You can read more of our 1M coverage in the BimmerFile 1M section (and don ‘t miss our 1M design analysis).

Track Gallery

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Official Photography

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  • JonPD

    Hands down Gabe one of your best reviews ever, great job!

    I do adore the 1M for all it is, it may not invoke the same feeling that I get with most ///M”s but that might not be a bad thing anyways.

    • It will simplify how you view M… trust me.

      • JonPD

        Actually Gabe something I think ///M had to do. Love or hate the /Momsports I think they really started dragging ///M off the path so was very happy to see them come up with a simplified ///M. Either way this is going to be one heck of a car, almost makes me wonder if I have choose well with going to another car. Sure does not diminish the fact I appreciate what the /M Engineers were trying to do.

  • Mark B.

    Great…I cant wait for mine to arrive next week hopefully.

    One question… Were there any issues with heat? I had heard the the 135 had some issue with overheating on hard track days.

    • Anonymous

      No issues with heat at all. After dozens of laps with ambient in mid 70s it was at 250 on the gauge- mind you there was no back straight to cool even more.

      Impressive as far as thermal management goes.

      • Agreed. If the needle moved after three hours of track time I couldn’t tell.

  • Amit

    God the wait for mine is getting even more unbearable with my ED set for end August. The last time I was so infatuated with a car was when I was waiting for the new MINI, constantly checking MotoringFile for the latest updates, now it’s BimmerFile! This time around though I’m not getting one of the first cars and it’s killing me. Great review as always Gabe, I was really looking forward to your report as we tend to have a similar car and track history.

    • Try having driven the car and still having to wait for September production.

      • Amit

        lol…that’s some serious blue balls. Are you planning on doing the ED? I’m instructing at Circuit Mt-Tremblant tomorrow your review has inspired me to take the e30 M3 instead of the MINI. My future AW 1M is going to look so amazing along side my Salmon Silver M3 can’t wait to do a photoshoot.

      • Milittle74

        You think you like it now, what until you park it in your garage.

  • rick

    you guys care to comment on colors after spending time with all three? also, how was really world gas mileage (just curious)?

    • In person I prefer Alpine White of the three. They all look good but Black hides the details of the 1M and Valencia is a little garish (and too metallic) for my tastes.

      MPG was impressive. I was at 21.9 after the 1.5 hr drive on twisties and 8 laps on the track. I can’t remember what it went down to after than.

      • rick

        that’s really interesting, i remember owners reporting 17 at times for the 135, am I wrong? 21.9 is really really good for a car with this amount of power.

  • Elegiac

    Probably the best review I have read thus far. Encouraging to hear the engine pulls strong to 7K. From reading your analysis, it seems the 1M offers a more organic and engaging experience than the M3. Which is great news because that’s what I’ve been hoping for. Now I’ve got to find some way to occupy myself for six months until my allocation becomes available.

  • Wskunz

    Took delivery of my BSM 1M on Monday, Gabe describes the car to a “T”, I own 3 MINIs, 2 of them JCWs, plus a Corvette and if I can keep my wife out of the car, this will be my DD. We have never argued which car each will drive until this beast came home, now it is a constant topic of conversation dividing up the driving time. Not a bad place to be 🙂

    Bill

  • Anonymous

    Gabe and I have been discussing this car for over two years at this point- we both put the car through the paces at the track and both of us shared much of the same opinion (something worth noting).

    We both can’t wait to expand further during a BimmerCast and if you have specifics not answered already let us know here in the comments or via the contact link- we’ll do our best to get them answered.

    -M

  • Adam

     Well written Gabe, been looking forward to your review more than alot of others out there.  Over-all though it seems that for all the imagining you did about the car a great deal of it was true.  I’m completely sold on this car and if I do see one floating around for sale my heart will race.

    Hopefully you’ll get your Alpine White beauty out to some Windy City BMW events, TireRack, Road America, and just enjoy your M.

  • Anonymous

    What’s the point of all this greatness if you can’t readily buy one?

    • BimmerRod

      I totally agree with this post!

  • If it wasn’t for the unbelievably horribly stigma associated with BMW’s and M cars here in the northeast…I’d be driving an 1M right now.  Since I’m not moving anytime soon [ever]…I’ll continue along with my Alta boosted JCW Mini.

    • goat

      Gene – I agree with the “stigma” aspect… it is pretty bad in much of urban Ontario too. For me, the response of other drivers to my – ahem – “rather brisk” driving went from “friendly cooperation” when I had my red JCW to “passive-aggressive un-cooperation” with the red bimmer. Is it worth it? Yes, for the RWD, turbo-straight-six power, and slick gearbox alone.   

    • Anonymous

      what exactly is this stigma?

      • Anonymous

        I am not sure of that either- I live in CT/NY and when I get gas people tell me it’s a great car and it must be fun to drive. It’s not a Rolls or Bentley, seriously people it is an everyday dime a dozen car in some areas of the country. I pass 10 a day easy an see more Panamera’s at this point.

        If you choose to live your life based on what other people think, who’s life are you living? Just my take but seriously should I be concerned that I wear expensive shoes (Mephistos) bc they are amazingly comfortable but Joe down the street may think they are overpriced and look funny? Heck no, I am wearing my shoes and loving every minute of it- same goes for my car.

        • Adam

          Good point Michael I agree for the most part, I work in a suburb of Chicago which is quite affluent.  On a daily basis I see a Lotus Exige, serveral high end AMG’s, two F430’s, a Gallardo and an occasional GTR.  The amazing thing is when I talk to these folks non of them cared what they looked like or what other people thought about them in it.  If you look at me I’m a young Sicilian guy in a slammed and blacked out G35, some people say I’m a typical guido for spending 3-Series M-sport money on a Nissan with posh badges and while I wish I had bought the 335i 6-speed I was looking at, peoples thoughts on my car are secondary to my own.  I will admit though that its a stupid car, has alot of sqeaks and rattles in the interior, kinda thirsty for a 6-cyl, horrid in the snow or wet and no cheaper to insure or maintain than a BMW.  So maybe some opionions are correct at least bout  my car.

  • goat

    Ah now here is THE review I was waiting to read! Well done Gabe… I sensed from your prose (and the photo of the upstate NY roads) that this is a VERY satisfying car on the back roads. Also, the fact that Michael and you had very similar impressions only underscores that this is the car M needed to make for enthusiasts. The gallery photos are great too; worth repeating: this car has haunches not seen since the 993 generation P-car 911.  🙂

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  • Rubbish

    Watching this vid is like watching someone who loves soccer and decided to tape himself playing around with a ball. Only, this guy doesnt know how to play soccer so it kind of sucks and its not worth watching, even if your into soccer, balls, shoes, green grass etc… The guy driving this 1M is obviously enjoying himself but its evident that he doesnt posses the skills to pick the correct line…

    • It’s a press video made by BMW meant to visually show off the car.

    • It’s a press video made by BMW meant to visually show off the car.