The smallest and least expensive car from BMW’s M division gives nothing away to its larger M3 sibling
BMW 1 Series M Coupe 3.0-litre twin-turbo direct injection in-line six-cylinder, six-speed manual transmission, 250kW/450Nm (500Nm with overboost): $99,990 (Manufacturer’s List Price)
I’m flat stick down the back straight and the red needle on the speed dial is showing 190km/h before I drill the brake pedal and wipe off some speed before the tricky right-hand dip.
This is BMW’s latest M car, the BMW 1 Series M Coupe – a seriously quick bit of kit, on or off the track.
It might be the smallest and least expensive car from BMW’s special M division, but don’t think for one moment that it gives anything away to its larger BMW M3 sibling, because that would just be plain wrong.
Unlike the M3 Coupe, which is also available with double-clutch transmission with paddle shifters, the 1 Series M Coupe is only available with a proper old school six-speed manual gearbox. While that might present a problem for some, performance car enthusiasts will rejoice. It’s practically a badge of honour these days to drive an exclusively manual car in this extra-special factory-tuned segment.
From the rear profile alone, there’s absolutely no mistaking this model for a BMW M car. The wheel arches, both front and rear, are a dead giveaway. They’re massively wide and photos simply don’t do justice to their width. They also do a pretty good job of hiding the standard fit 19-inch wheels from the M3 Competition Pack, which are shod with super sticky Michelin 265/35 series rubber. Tyre sizes are mixed on the 1 Series M Coupe, so under the equally beefed-up front arches, sits a pair of Pilot Sport 245/35’s. Not only is the wheel size the same as the M3 Competition Pack, but so is the tyre width itself. Even the side mirrors are designed off those from the M3.
The quad pipes do as much to give the game away too, as they’re of decent diameter and chrome tipped. Up front, the M Coupe has an equally aggressive profile with a deep front apron and multiple intakes that serve to both cool and reduce high-speed turbulence around the car.
I’m not sure about the 1 Series M Coupe colour palate though, as there are only three choices, Alpine White (flat colour), Sapphire Black and Valencia Orange. The orange is a bit out there for me, so it would have to be between black and white, but the black is metallic and will set you back $1700 for the privilege. That said, if you’re that worried about colours on the 1 Series M, then you probably haven’t driven the car at this point, because that’s the last thing you’ll be thinking about once you’re behind the wheel. If the truth were told I’d probably take one in hot pink if there were no other choice. On second thoughts…
Inside the ‘M’ treatment continues, but it’s not as flash or extroverted like the exterior styling. At first glance, you might even call it austere, but the beauty of the 1 Series M Coupe is in the detail. The standard Boston leather seats with contrast orange stitching are superior to those in most other performance machines on the market and that includes a few supercars we’ve driven. It’s the degree of side bolster and being able to alter the level of bolster that is able to hold you firmly in place during high-speed circuit laps, but they’re also comfortably supple too.
Thankfully, spots of Alcantara trim with the same orange stitch subtly offset the grey plastic surfaces inside the 1 Series M Coupe. It’s certainly acceptable and the materials are of high quality, but a few more metallic highlights inside this cockpit would go a long way to creating a more upmarket appeal commensurate with its $99,990 price tag.
One thing that the 1 Series M Coupe is not short on though, is creature comfort kit. In fact, it’s one of the best standard feature inventories that you’ll find in this segment and what’s more, all the good stuff is here too. There are Adaptive headlights with Bi-Xenon beams and turning lights, rain-sensing wipers, auto lights-on, daytime running lights, two-zone automatic air conditioning with solar sensors, electric driver’s seat (heated seats are optional), rear vision mirror and side mirror automatic anti-dazzle function, Navigation System Professional with 8.8-inch high-resolution screen, harman/kardon sound system with Bluetooth phone and Voice Control.
The piece de resistance inside this cabin (besides the pews) though, must go to the package of both the M leather steering wheel and the beautifully tactile M shifter. These two items alone are deserving of special mention. The leather used on the thick-rimmed steering wheel is especially grippy and of huge benefit when pushing hard on track through the more twisty sections. But what makes this piece of equipment an authentic M wheel more any other feature is the small M button on the right-hand-side ... but more on that shortly.
About the only thing missing from the standard kit list is ‘Comfort Access’, BMW speak for a proximity key. It simply means that you don’t have to reach into your pants and pull the key fob out to open the doors or start the car. It’s one of only eight optional extras on the 1 Series M Coupe, but at $1500 a pop, it seems a bit on the high side for a feature that is pretty much standard fare with most luxury marques these days.
Despite its explosive on-track performance, the 1 Series M Coupe also doubles as a perfectly practical four-seat daily commuter. And why not. It’s dead easy to drive as we found out, with an initial drive program that included some peak hour crawling on our way out of Melbourne.
Hit the starter button and you’ll be rewarded with that angry snarl that’s so typically characteristic of an M-tuned in-line six. Don’t mind the heavier than expected clutch either, it needs to cope with up to 500Nm of torque and within a few minutes you will have re-calibrated your left foot pressure in any case.
I can’t think of a six speed manual box that’s as easy to use in traffic; you need only apply fingertip force to changing gears as well as exceptionally short throws.
The cars feels light on its feet and in some respects similar to the E46 CSL, although that car was 110kg lighter again than the 1 Series M Coupe, which nonetheless weighs in at a relatively lean 1495 kilograms.
Of course, the 1 Series M Coupe is far more civilised than the hard-riding CSL due to excellent NVH management over what were some fairly ordinary road surfaces on our way to the State Motorcycle Sports Complex at Broadford in Victoria.
It was wet too and yet the rear-wheel drive BMW remained marvellously stable even during tight turn-ins with a decent dab of the throttle on the exits. That’s testament to both the car’s beautifully balanced chassis and the BMW’s proprietary M differential lock. Interestingly, the Dynamic Traction Control activated only on a few occasions despite motoring along a reasonably solid pace.
Every time I get out of a BMW press car, I say the same thing: 'these things are engineered with the best steering setup, feel and response rates of any mass-produced series production luxury car'. The 1 Series M Coupe, like the M3, amplifies those characteristics further with pinpoint accuracy and a super quick response to the slightest steering input. All you’ll be thinking about at this point is how to raise the finance and how quick you can get hold of those funds. And that’s before we’ve even reached the track and played with the M button. That's M for a much more aggressive throttle response and engine note.
I’m also praying the rain stops and the weather miraculously dries up or somehow it has missed the track. The word from colleagues overseas who have driven the car is that the 1 Series M Coupe is blessed with crazy levels of grip and traction.
Noticeably absent from this twin-turbo six is the traditional turbo lag. I prod the pedal time and time again trying to induce the typically nasty feature of turbocharged cars, but there’s always a decent response to throttle input. That’s because looking at the torque curve, there’s 450Nm (500Nm if you leave your right foot into it) on tap from just 1500rpm or 400Nm from 1200rpm. Either way, it’s a shed load for a car of such minimal proportions.
Miracles do happen. The rain had not touched Broadford, so this place is now sacrosanct when it comes to launch programs. It’s quite a technical track with two decent straights and plenty of tight corners and elevation.
Geoff Brabham and his team of highly accomplished BMW Driver Training instructors would ride with each of the journalists as soon as we completed a few sighting laps with them and a driver’s briefing.
There are three 1 Series M Coupes on track and 1 specced-up 135i Coupe to compare with, and all cars are on stock road tyres.
Within a few moments we are blasting out of pit lane and you can immediately feel the overboost come on song even in first, which, like second, is quite a short gear ratio. Corner one is a tricky double apex, which you take in third gear down from fourth at the end of the straight, but I'm back on the throttle in no time and the grip in this high-load corner is momentous.
My immediate reaction is that the 1 Series M Coupe’s grip level at speed is indeed huge and quite honestly, it’s hard to believe these tyres aren’t at least semi slicks as opposed to full tread road tyres, such is this car’s ability to carry speed into such demanding corners.
It gets even better. No sooner are we are back on the throttle down the slightly longer back straight and shifting into fourth at 6000rpm, which is precisely the point of peak power (250kW). This diminutive M car is seriously quick – I mean 180-190km/h down what is still a relatively short straightaway with elevation and the car is rock solid stable. Super hard on the brakes before turning into a downwards into a twisty section and you’re already thinking we can take that quicker on the next lap. At this point you start to wonder just how quick thing can attack these corners and the fact that it feels more like bona fide racer than any ‘made for the road’ Coupe we’ve ever driven.
It’s not just the outright speed and handling dynamics that impress either. The back straight has a depression and at 190km/h the lightweight suspension, which is virtually carried over from the M3 (as are many other parts on the 1 Series M Coupe), completely absorbs the force without affecting the car’s tracking line.
The three M cars did not get five minutes of downtime in what was close to a three-hour on-track session, and yet every time we got into another car, the grip was still there, as were the brakes. Absolutely spellbinding performance and utterly addictive is this 1 Series M Coupe.
Our turn had come to climb into the optioned-up 135i Coupe for a few laps as a back-to-back comparison with the M car. In it’s own company this is ordinarily a very capable sports coupe with the same base engine as the 1 Series M Coupe, but with power reduced by 25 kW.
On track though, the difference between the two cars is beyond anything you can imagine. It’s not that the 135i isn’t a decent performer, because it surely is as a daily drive. The simple fact is that the 1 series M Coupe is so extraordinarily good on the road or track that the 135i felt like a blunt butter knife going up against a surgeon’s scalpel.
If this thing doesn’t win performance car of the year, then whoever is judging hasn’t driven one.
The M3 has more cylinders, more power and revs higher, but give me a Sapphire Black 1 Series M Coupe, that's if there are any left. This is one of those rare cars that is far greater than the sum of its parts and even at $99,000 - consider it money well spent.
Oh, almost forgot to give you the performance specs. 0-100km/h in 4.9 seconds and a top speed of 250km/h. I'm also told by a reliable source that the 1 Series M Coupe is quicker to 1000 metres than an M3 - but you won't find that figure published anywhere.