BMWBLOG Test Drive: 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe

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My in-laws stopped by today to show off their new Honda Accord; V6, four doors, automatic, it’s a nice, well built, comfortable car . . …

My in-laws stopped by today to show off their new Honda Accord; V6, four doors, automatic, it’s a nice, well built, comfortable car . . . if you’re looking for transportation. And that’s just it, BMW builds cars for folks that want something more than transportation. Making arguably the best set of sports sedans and coupes available, BMW is known for its focus on the driver’s seat. And then there’s the M cars.

M has always been special, right from the beginning with the epic M1. And the 1M continues the tradition established by M of taking driver focused cars and honing them to a razor sharp edge. The new 1M doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Since I own a 135i, I feel pretty comfortable in relating how the 1M compares to its, now, ‘little’ brother.

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The 135i is no slouch, quick, agile and capable of comfortably devouring two lane highways with aplomb. But if there’s a criticism of the 135i it would be that it is more motor than chassis. It’s a bit soft – maybe too compliant for some tastes. Fortunately there are a ton of aftermarket mods for the suspension and, in my case, Continental ExtremeContact DW tires and Koni FSD dampers have gone a long way to enhancing the feel of my 135i. But there’s more that can be done . . .

“…the 1M continues the tradition established by M of taking driver focused cars and honing them to a razor sharp edge.”

And that’s just what the M group has been up to. The brilliant little short wheelbase 3 series that is the 1 series is a good starting point for the newest M car. The 1M benefits greatly from all of the wonderful M suspension bits from the M3. It sharpens the 135i and does so without too great a penalty in ride quality.

The trip to the Monticello Motor Club facility put about 80 miles on the 1Ms over mixed-quality twisty back roads on the way to the track. You notice the difference in spring rates over really broken road surfaces, but this car is still capable of soaking up a lot of road imperfections without jarring fillings loose from your teeth. This is not a Lancer Evo setup (another brilliant little car), which elicits grins for the first ten minutes on back roads and then grimaces for the remainder of the trip as the truly ‘too stiff for street use’ suspension reveals itself.

And then there’s the motor, what on paper appears to be a simple reuse of the Z4 35is tuned N54B30 is actually more than that. The Z4 35is uses the seven speed DCT box and is tuned for that gearbox. The 1M, using the six speed manual, gave way to different engine tuning to optimizes it for the manual gearbox.

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They found some idle torque laying around in the engine mappings and put it to work. And then the driveline components had to be enhanced to take the increased torque delivery and it’s all capped off with the M3 limited slip differential. And, as an added bit of urgency, the final drive ratio is ‘shorter’ (numerically higher) in the 1M than the 135is. That was discovered as 60 mph on the 1M in sixth gear was at a noticeably higher RPM than in the 135i (and the ratios in the gearbox are shared from the 135i to the 1M).

On the highway the one minor quibble I have with this car is that the exhaust drones a bit at constant speed (around 60 – 70 mph). But man oh man does it sound good when you put your foot in it and when you lift (when it breaks in there’ll be an even more wonderfully sonorous burble on lift throttle). But, unlike other reviews I’ve seen, I have no complaints regarding the steering weight.

The combination of M front suspension bits and the Michelin Pilot Sports have enhanced the steering feel. Much more info is being passed up into your hands from the road surface in the 1M than the 135i. But it isn’t harsh by any stretch of the imagination.

So on the road, you can throw a couple of kids in the back, the spouse in the passenger seat and head out on vacation. It works just like a 135i in that regard with just a bit of a compromise to comfort in the suspension.

But, once the commutermobile duties are dispensed with, and you pull the helmet out of the bag, this car comes alive! Press the M button on the steering wheel to liven up the accelerator mappings and then go into M Dynamic Mode via the center stack button, make sure you’re strapped in tight, and head for the apex of turn 1.

“At track out, you can take it right to the edge of the pavement and keep it there; it doesn’t wiggle or wander.”

The suspension has been tuned to eliminate roll and the beefy front tires (and wider wheels) have all but banished the understeer felt in the 135i to a faint memory. And, like all M cars, the steering is quick and ultra precise. You can put this car exactly where you want it. At track out, you can take it right to the edge of the pavement and keep it there; it doesn’t wiggle or wander.

And then there’s the brakes – yes the floating calipers aren’t as visually compelling as the fixed six pot fronts on the 135i, but boy howdy do they work! And the cross drilled rotors do a good job of dispelling heat. No brake fade was encountered (although I wasn’t using the binders as heavily as others).

I availed myself of some instruction from Allison Duncan, an instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School. And with her help explored some of my limits as well as the cars. The 1M is more car than most will ever be able to take advantage of. It’s limits on the track are way beyond mine, but fortunately, when I did get a bit ham handed, the 1M never bit back.

“The 1M on the track is addictive. It’s a combination of great sounds, great chassis, and a thoroughly well matched powerplant to the car.”

I was having some fun trying to do well in a double apex corner, and a couple of times I came in too hot and had to stay on the brakes a bit longer (a bit past turn in to be honest) and trailing brake isn’t the recommended method for this car. But it just shrugged it off, scrubbed more speed and when I got off the binders it had no problem turning in and getting me through the corner.

The 1M on the track is addictive. It’s a combination of great sounds, great chassis, and a thoroughly well matched powerplant to the car. It’s shorter wheelbase makes it just that much more nimble than larger cars and all of that torque, available almost off idle this will make the 1M a killer on any track with a surfeit of slow speed corners. This thing is nasty quick, it just digs hard out of the corners. Go wide open throttle and you’ll get the additional torque from the overboost function for about five seconds, enough to propel you headlong into the next corner.

But it all comes back to how easy this car is to drive. It’s forgiving, sure footed, exceptionally quick, with a brilliant set of brakes and great steering and steering feel. If you ever intend to do track days (and especially if you’re a track day junkie) this car has to be at the top of the short list.

And that gets us to the issues of price and availability. At a base price of $47,010 in the US, this is about as inexpensive a route into a high performance car as you’ll find. It has the ability to shine on the track and yet more than adequately serve as daily transportation. As to availability, well we know that BMW has said they’ll make at least 800 for model year 2011 (with no word on production beyond the 2011 model year). That’s at least 800, more can be made depending on demand.

“It’s forgiving, sure footed, exceptionally quick, with a brilliant set of brakes and great steering and steering feel.”

What may limit demand is the fact that the 1M only comes with a manual transmission. Couple that with the fact that only three exterior colors are available (one being an arresting orange, pun intended). And you can get the interior in any color you want as long as it’s black (and leather at that).

But the 1M is an intoxicating blend of chassis and engine that has to be experienced on the track to be understood. It has M tires, M suspension, M tuned engine, and M brakes.

So what do we say, is it an M car? Absolutely!

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