The arrival of a new M car is almost a religious event here at eurotuner. And yet, it’s mixed with sometimes trepidation, ever since M GmbH started building cars more closely related to their “regular” production brethren.
So when rumors of a 1-Series M surfaced last year, the gossip columns were neck-deep in speculation about what it would be. Our favorite focused on a stripped-out racer with a four-cylinder turbo motor that went for lightweight construction over brute power to achieve the same dynamic goals.
As it turns out, the new 1-Series M Coupe, to use its full name, is an interesting concoction. You could argue it dilutes the M bloodline, and yet it drives as well as you could ever hope from a true M.
The controversy about this car is that, like the BMW X6M and X5M before it, the new 1M derives its power from a production-based engine, rather than a purpose-built motor as seen in the M3 and M5 family to date. As a result, the 1M’s engine isn’t the star of the show. Yet the car can hold its head high among its older siblings.
The BMW 1M has an intoxicating blend of grip, power, braking and sophistication that no other manufacturer can replicate – try as they might.
On paper, the 1M is basically a 135i with M3 chassis parts and software tuning. And yet the sum of these parts feels special as only an M car can.
We had the extraordinary opportunity to drive the car on some of SoCal’s most demanding canyon roads, in both wet and dry conditions, as well as pushing it around Willow Springs Raceway. And like any true M, the Coupe is equally at home pottering in traffic as it is diving on the brakes before charging out of a corner.
In these conditions, the 1M reaches the biblical proportions we’d wished for. There’s a sublime coordination between all the elements that make the car instinctive to drive at absurdly high speeds.
Sadly, limited production capacity at the Leipzig plant in Germany means very few 1M’s will be built. Currently, they’re talking about 1000 cars for the US and its future is uncertain. It could be a one-year model but, if the reception is overwhelming, we suspect they might find a way to build more…
The history of the 1-Series M Coupe can be traced back to the original M1 sportscar in 1979. However, it’s more closely related to the E30 M3 in ’88 (’86 in Europe) and the ’95 E36 M3. That’s because the 1M splits these two classics down the middle, being longer and wider than the E30 but shorter and narrower than the E36.
At 3362 lb, it’s considerably heavier than both, yet with 335hp at 5900rpm and 0-60mph in 4.7sec, it embarrasses its siblings.
The look and feel of the 1M is thanks to another M3 – the latest E9x series 414hp V8-powered monster that donated its Competition Package chassis to the project. As a result, the 1M has the M3’s 19" mesh wheels with 245/35 front and 265/35 rear Michelin Pilot Sport tires. This, in turn, necessitated widebody fenders, which have been flared 40mm at each corner. They certainly give the car attitude on the road and prevent it from looking as tall and cumbersome as the 135i it’s based on.
Additionally, the 1M gets the M3’s mirrors, plus M grilles on the front fenders. There are also unique front and rear bumpers, with the former incorporating an air curtain system. This takes air and passes it over the front wheels to reduce turbulence and was based on a system developed for the BMW Vision concept car.
The rear bumper incorporates quad tailpipes and a plastic diffuser element. There’s also a lip spoiler on the trunk that looks similar to the 135i. However, the 1M gets LED tail lights and LED eyebrows over its angel-eye headlights.
Under the skin, BMW engineers fitted the M3’s rear subframe to accommodate its five-link suspension and M variable diff. It also gets aluminum suspension arms front and rear, although the front suspension is essentially 135i spec. However, you’ll find the M3’s speed-sensitive steering rack and its very powerful brakes replacing the 135i’s six-piston calipers.
You don’t get the M3’s Electronic Damper Control system, so the ride quality is slightly lumpy at low speeds on poor surfaces. However, it’s a tiny sacrifice for the surefooted stability and unwavering control you get at very high speeds. This is old school BMW suspension and they proved they’ve still got it!
However, the 1M does get a few buttons to play with. There’s an “M” Drive Button on the steering wheel, which gives you quicker throttle response, making the car feel more urgent.
Then there’s an “MDM” button on the dash. Pressed once it recalibrates the Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) thresholds, allowing a little more wheelspin and greater yaw angle when the car starts to slide before it intervenes. This is perfect for fast road or track use where you might want some electronic control to keep the car pointed in the right direction and maximize corner exit speed.
During rainfall on our canyon drive, we left the traction control in full command and the warning light was flashing constantly as the wheels struggled for grip. However, we maintained tremendous forward progress without ever losing control.
It is possible to fully disable the DSC, putting you at the mercy of 369 lb-ft. It’s best saved for track days, but it’s nice to know the option’s there.
While the 335hp engine might not be the star, don’t imagine the N54B30HP won’t rock your world. Based on the older twin-turbo 3.0L N54, it has the distinction of being the first all-aluminum straight-six in an M car. It’s also the most power i-6 M engine sold in the US, although it can’t compete with the naturally-aspirated 360hp 3.2L i-6 in the European E46 M3 CSL from ’03.
It does come surprisingly close, though, thanks to some elctrickery with a temporary over-boost function in the software. It allows the standard 332 lb-ft of torque to be increased to 369 lb-ft under hard acceleration for several seconds. This is intended to give better overtaking power and gets you out of corners with considerably more haste.
The software is an upgrade from the BMW 335is model, which was tuned from its stock 300hp/tq to 320hp and 332 lb-ft with over-boost to 370 lb-ft.
In both cars, the software is almost seamlessly, although we did notice some hesitation on light throttle when the 1M’s engine was cold.
Some people might be disappointed the car is only available with a six-speed manual transmission – a low-friction version of the 135i’s gearbox with improved cooling and torque-handling ability – but not us!
According to Matt Russell, the M brand manager in the US, this was done to preserve its status as a driver’s car and in order to bring the car to market sooner.
As it stands, the 1-Series M Coupe is available with a base price of $47010. This includes standard Boston leather and 14-way manually adjustable seats. No sunroof is available, saving approximately 35 lb.
Color options are limited to non-metallic Alpine white, metallic Black Sapphire and the exclusive Valencia Orange metallic. The latter looks fantastic in sunlight, but you can’t go wrong with any of these shades.
The interior gets unique grey instruments and M logos. The upholstery is only available in black, including the headliner. In addition to the black leather seats, you get alcantara door panels, door pulls, instrument binnacle, dash panel as well as gearshift and handbrake boots. Everything is finished in contrasting orange stitching for some bright relief, regardless of the exterior color.
If you can get your name on the order books quickly enough, a fully-optioned 1M could cost you as much as a basic M3, yet the little coupe does have limited-edition status in its favor. It’s also more economical but doesn’t have the M3’s stature. Which would we choose? Read on…
1M vs M3
For the 1M trackday, BMW brought two M3s to compare. And when driving the 1M with the M3, the biggest surprise was the torque – the 1M has gobs of it and the M3 has none!
We’d become accustomed to exiting Willow Springs’ high-speed corners in fourth gear, letting the torque spin us along the straights. But doing the same in the M3 left us flat-footed. The V8 needs to be revved hard, and dropping to third allowed it to pull through the gears, ultimately producing higher speeds along the same straights.
The M3 required more work to get the most from it, but it was also slightly more rewarding. It’s greater weight and longer wheelbase gave it more stability. Yet the 1M shares its brakes, track width and is 340 lb lighter, so it has tremendous agility, braking ability and corner speed.
In a straight line, the two cars have identical 4.7sec 0-60mph times and the same 155mph limited top speed. So the M3’s little brother is going to be a real thorn in its side until the new twin-turbo six-cylinder M3 arrives with the new generation 3-Series in three or four years.
Although very few people will be able to own the 1M, it represents a wonderful development of the 1-Series platform and plenty of inspiration for tuners, who can already reproduce most of what this car represents.
Which car would we take home? We’ve wrestled with this question since the trackday. The cheaper, limited edition 1M has better economy and more agility, yet the M3 is the benchmark. Even BMW measures its cars by it! The sound of its V8 with an exhaust is superb, but you have to work the gearbox harder. Is it too much to wish for both?
We crept into Willow Springs with our Project M3 to get our first chance to try it on the track. You can read about the new mods elsewhere in this issue, but we were hoping the upgrades would work in its favor.
Breaking it down, it was perhaps hardest to notice the 20hp increase from the GIAC software, GruppeM exhaust and intake. Everybody admitted our car sounded extraordinary (hear it yourself in our online video) and it revved to redline with tremendous enthusiasm. However, the biggest differences were in the chassis mods. Our wider Continental CSC3 tires on lightweight Forgestar wheels stuck like glue. The bump absorption was also superior to the stock M3’s, which seemed to float slightly on the high-speed undulations. Our H&R coilovers definitely held the road better, with little sacrifice in ride comfort. Finally, the Brembo six-piston front brake conversion was its greatest attribute. We could brake later and harder, and more often than the stock cars, allowing us to gain yards on a leading car in every turn. This combination gave tremendous confidence on the high-speed track and we loved every moment.
Our biggest concern was that a weak link in the conversion might embarrass us in front of BMW executives who were in attendance. However, we were confident enough in our project’s ability to offer them laps of the track, and each returned with a big smile. If nothing else, they loved the sound!
We can’t really take the credit for any of this; we simply selected the best parts. But we’re thankful we work in an industry crowded by so many excellent tuning firms and parts specialists.
Let us know which you prefer and why. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org