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.