The highly anticipated M version of the compact BMW 1-Series has arrived; the new Coupe is in some ways a throwback to the original M-Series cars - compact, lightweight and packed with a potent engine, sophisticated suspension and powerful brakes.
The M badge was bestowed on the little two-door after a two-year gestation period during which the 400 engineers and 100 others at BMW developed suitable performance and handling. The process concentrated as much on balance and weight as it did on power.
The first decision was to ditch the sunroof option. That shaved 15 kilos from the highest point of the vehicle, lowering the centre of gravity and raising the amount of headroom, critical for tall folks or those wearing a helmet. Here's a tip - opt for the manual driver's seat if you are tall or plan track days and helmets. You'll gain an extra 14 mm of headroom.
Weight saving continued with the use of the aluminum front suspension and sub-frame developed for the current M3, tuned for this smaller and lighter car at BMW's Nurburgring test facility. The aluminum rear suspension was also stolen from the M3 almost intact - but retuned. Hollow anti-roll bars and aluminum sub-frames at both ends complete the picture.
The track of the base 1-Series was considerably widened - just look at the bulging (four-centimetre) fender flares at each corner, necessary to cover the wide 19-inch wheels. With a long wheelbase and incredibly short overhangs at both ends, almost the entire 3,400-pound mass of the vehicle is contained between the wheels, 51.7 per cent on the front and 48.3 per cent at the rear. The result is a response to direction changes that is all but instantaneous.
The light alloy wheels are from the M3 Competition Package. Measuring nine inches in width at the front and 10 at the rear, they are wrapped in 235/45 and 265/35 performance rubber respectively. Inside are compound, internally vented, cross-drilled brakes, also from the M3.
The car would not be worthy of the M designation without a powerful engine. This one is the same 3.0-litre, inline-six used in the 335iS and Z4 sDrive 35 iS, with M-specific piston rings and software. The first aluminum six for an M vehicle, it uses a pair of turbochargers and direct injection to develop 335 hp and 332 lb-ft of torque - 369 lb-ft in over-boost mode under full-throttle. That is 80 lb-ft more torque than the current V-8 engine in the M3.
This is simply a sweetheart of an engine, one with a true Jekyll and Hyde personality. Silky smooth, it is equally comfortable burbling along at little more than idle or screaming to the 7,000 redline. Peak torque is available from only 1,500 rpm and there is no turbo lag or delay between ask and answer when you depress the throttle.
The only transmission available is a six-speed manual with close ratios, a very tight gate and stubby lever. Selection is intuitive and clutch action progressive and positive. There is a hill holder function for those worried about starting off on steep slopes. A variable mechanical limited-slip differential does its best to apportion power to the wheel with the most grip - both of them when possible.
The sound from the quartet of exhaust outlets is rather loud and this is neat while accelerating through the gears or downshifting, but it can be intrusive at sustained, steady highway speeds. The 1-Series M Coupe will accelerate from rest to 100 km/h in five seconds and that is only the beginning.
Multiple laps on Monticello Motor Club track provided an excellent opportunity to explore the considerable limits of this delightful two-door. Initial exploration provided an opportunity to re-familiarize the layout - and discover the electronic stability and traction control systems do a good job of keeping stupidity and adrenalin in check.
Press the M-button on the steering wheel and throttle mapping is altered and response becomes even more instantaneous. Press the "MDM" button atop the centre stack and the games begin. The intervention thresholds of the stability control system are raised and slight amounts of wheel spin and sideways motoring are possible - and hugely enjoyable. Hold the MTM button down a for a few seconds and the electronic nannies are give a vacation and you've got a competent drifting machine.
The 1-Series M coupe is available only in black, white or Valencia orange. I preferred the latter and thought the white didn't do it justice. The $53,600 base price is $6,000 more than that of the U.S. model, hard to justify in light of current exchange rates. But still, adjusted for inflation, this is the least-expensive M-series ever sold in North America.
Standard equipment includes Xenon lights, ABS, stability and traction control, heated mirrors, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, cruise control, tilt and telescope wheel, automatic climate control, heated seats, eight-speaker audio system, wireless connectivity and a variety of M-specific trim touches.
Two option packages are available - Navigation ($2,000) and Executive ($4,900) - and only 200 are planned for the Canadian market for the 2011 model year.
2011 1 Series M Coupe
Type: Compact coupe
Base Price: $53,600; as tested, $59,300
Engine: Twin-turbo, 3.0-litre, DOHC, inline-six-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 335 hp/332 lb-ft
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.1 city/8.3 highway; premium gas
Alternatives: Audi TTS Coupe, Infiniti IPL G coupe, Mercedes C63, Porsche Cayman