The arrival of the BMW 1-Series M Coupé has not been met with enthusiasm from all quarters. Designed to bring the magic of the M-badge to a wider audience, some consider it a brash upstart without the pedigree required for admittance to the M-car fold. Others recognise a thrilling driving machine when they see one. By DEON SCHOEMAN (@deon_schoeman).
There’s a lot to be said for a BMW M-car that’s more compact and more affordable, at least in relative terms.
The current M3 is a supercar-rivalling muscle machine, with the technical sophistication and price tag to match. And the latest M5, due here next year, ups the ante even further.
All of which makes the launch of the 1-Series M Coupé a sensible and much anticipated move. After all, its R537,500 list price, before options, is more than R300k cheaper than an M3. But is this a true M-car, or just a very rapid 1-Series?
Part of the answer to that question lies in the name. Unlike the M3 and the M5, this 1-Series-based M-car has not been badged the M1. The obvious explanation is that the M1 designation will always be reserved for the 1970s mid-engined supercar that originally wore the M1 badge. But the 1-Series M Coupé (or the 1M, as everyone has started calling it), is also not quite as bespoke as other M-cars.
It shares its engine with other, non-M BMW models, and while the M-Division engineers have fine-tuned everything from the engine mapping to the suspension and the aerodynamics, it’s less of a ground-up M-car and more of carefully tweaked 1-Series Coupé.
That said, there’s no mistaking that this is a very special 1-Series. The body kit is bold and aggressive, confirming that this BMW has some pretty serious performance intentions. Not only that, but every curve, contour and aperture has been sculpted with aerodynamic purpose, rather than mere aesthetic appeal. Just as well: the result is brutal, rather than pretty!
The front’s deep air dam features carefully sculpted ducts that create a so-called air curtain, which prevents turbulence around the front arches, and improves aerodynamics in the process.
The side view shows off the trademark M-car gills, together with a strong shoulder line and deeper sills that emphasise the 1M’s lower, wider stance. Those flared wheel arches add real muscle and attitude to the car’s stance, and also increase the width by 55mm. Even the exterior mirrors have been shaped for speed.
The rear view is dominated by a lower apron that combines diffuser elements with four big-bore exhaust tailpipes, while the bumper features a set of apertures behind each rear wheel. About the only subtle visual element is the slim boot spoiler.
The performance theme is continued in the cabin, although the treatment here is a little more understated. Blacks and greys are the dominant hues, while the key elements are the sculpted bucket seats, the thick-rimmed steering wheel and the grey Alcantara detailing.
The rest of the interior is pretty much standard 1-Series Coupé. Eagle-eyed fans will notice that the instrument dials get grey faces and red indicator needles, with a speedometer calibrated to 300km/h.
Also, the leather-trimmed multifunction steering wheel includes an M-button which activates a more response throttle map, and there’s an M Dynamic Mode Button that allows a sportier driving style before the stability control system intervenes.
The black leather upholstery, with contrasting stitching, is standard, as is a fairly comprehensive list of features, although you’ll pay extra for electric seats, park distance control, keyless entry and satellite navigation.
Given its compact dimensions, rear accommodation is actually quite decent, and the 365-litre boot adds a welcome touch of practicality. But the 1M’s real focus is on performance – so let’s take a look at what’s lurking under the bonnet.
Don’t be surprised if the six-cylinder mill looks familiar. For all intents and purposes it’s exactly the same engine as the unit powering BMW’s Z4 sDrive 35iS. The three-litre twin-turbo motor delivers a useful 250kW of maximum power, while there’s 450Nm of torque to play with – 500Nm in overboost mode if you floor the throttle with a little extra vigour.
The two turbos work in parallel, looking after three cylinders each, to minimise lag and improve response. For its application in the 1M, the cooling system has been uprated to cope with prolonged track use, for instance. The power to weight ratio comes to 167kW/ton.
In the classic BMW tradition, drive remains to the rear wheels only, while the transmission is a good old six-speed manual with a short but meaty shift action.
On the move, the 1M Coupé feels like a horse champing at the bit from the very outset. There’s an urgency to its power delivery that is more race car than road machine every time you give it stick.
Keep the stability control switched on and the DSC warning light will flash almost continuously in the first three gears. Switch it off, and the 1M requires a judicious right foot, and some deft clutch work, to prevent rubber-burning wheelspin and tail-wagging oversteer.
It’s not as difficult as you think, though – and in MDM mode, the safety net that is dynamic stability control remains in place, albeit in much less invasive and more lenient mode. It will only intervene if the BMW’s sensors indicate that the point of no return is fast approaching.
The really brave can turn all assistance off completely, at which point you can throw the 1M sideways and burn off enough expensive Michelin Sport rubber to shorten the tyre life by half.
The result is a car that’s a bit of a hooligan to drive. The 1M will behave in urban traffic, but only under duress. Instead, it prefers to be threaded through the twists and turns of a mountain pass, or to be thrashed around a racing track.
The combination of nicely weighted steering, a taut suspension and explosive power delivery make for a thrilling driving experience – but you only get to savour those traits outside metropolitan boundaries.
For the record, the 1M is credited with a zero-to-100km/h sprint time of 4.9 seconds, while it will get to 200km/h from rest in 17.3 seconds. The standing-start kilometre is despatched in 23.7 seconds, and it needs only 4.1 seconds to nip from 80 to 120km/h in fifth gear. Top speed, as usual, is electronically limited to 250km/h.
But those figures have little relevance when confronted with grid-locked traffic and potholed roads. Indeed, the 1M only really makes sense in surroundings where its performance potential can be exploited to the full.
This is a car that’s been built with the sole purpose of offering involving, grin-inducing dynamics – but that’s simply not possible in the daily commute. The result is a car that’s more Mr Hyde than Dr Jekyll.
So, is the BMW 1-Series M Coupé a worthy recipient of the M badge, or just a raw and rorty hot rod? It certainly lacks the finesse of an M3, but delivers the kind of visceral, in-your-face driving experience very few cars, regardless of price and power, can muster.
That makes the 1M a true driver’s car – and isn’t that what the M-badge is all about? DM
BMW 1-Series M Coupé
In-line six-cylinder, 2,979cc, twin-turbocharged
250kW @ 5,900rpm
450Nm @ 1,500rpm
9.6/100km (combined cycle)
R537,500 (before options)
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