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BMW 1 Series M Coupé review (2011 onwards)
What - BMW 1 Series M Coupé
Where - Inverness, UK
Date - May 2011
Price - £40,020
Available - Now
Key rivals -Audi RS3, Audi TT RS, Porsche Cayman S, Subaru Impreza WRX STI
Summary - BMW M goes OTT on a 1 Series Coupé, creating a very fast, honest, skilled and distinctive cult hit in the process. If you like the idea, order now: you'll be sorry if you miss out.
We like - Stand-out styling, sheer torque-laden speed, old-school handling sensations, simplicity, character, collectability
We don't like - Some might find it too stiff, garish and intense: the 1 M Coupé isn't for everyone, and how we praise BMW for making it so!
Two in three of the UK's BMW 1 Series M Coupé have already been sold. If you know you want one, don't hang about. For everyone else, though, this car is still worth a look: it is both a BMW M brand builder and a signal of a new direction for BMW's motorsport-derived division.
By taking M into a new, more youthful sector, M is going back to its roots. The original 235hp E30 M3, remember, has now evolved into today's V8 M3, 420hp and all. The 1 Series M Coupé restores the real world balance, and brings an entirely new set of opportunities besides.
Mainly through looking incredible. The muscular, wide-arch style is hardly subtle but to these 30-something eyes it is superb, particularly in the 1 M Coupé-specific bright orange (white and black are also offered). Complete with CSL-style 19-inch alloys, it's a riot.
The stubby 1 Series Coupé is already distinctive, thanks to a silhouette that harks back to the original 1970s BMW 1502. This, then, is the 2002 Turbo reinvented, with straight-topped wheelarches and bumpers that look like they are from another (larger) car entirely.
Why not: key mechanical parts also do, after all. The 1 Series M Coupé's suspension is derived from the M3's, showing what a comprehensive re-engineering BMW has undertaken. The engine's had an M makeover too, with the twin-turbos of the 3.0-litre straight-six now putting out 340hp.
BMW will bring 450 into the UK, each costing £40k, and says they will all be gone by the year's end. This is a very special, very low-volume machine that finally stretches the M brand back into the real world. Simple performance, and plenty of it: exactly what M is all about.
Torque is this engine's signature - lots and lots of torque. This mass of pulling power can be felt from the off, so easy is it to tap into, and remains at your disposal no matter what speed or gear you're in. Just press the accelerator and feel the force.
It's there at ridiculously low revs: you can leave it in sixth gear at 1,000rpm and it will still cleanly pull. The really useful range is 2,000-4,500rpm, for this is where it becomes a burbling muscle car, with weighty acceleration, a deep patch of exhaust resonance and a backdrop of low-pitch turbo whistle.
The latter doesn't dominate, as it can in other turbo motors. BMW has still managed to release the six-cylinder warble, which turns into a howling wail at 7,000rpm. At these engine speeds, the 1 Series M Coupé feels exceptionally fast, with a remarkable intensity for what's still a compact car. Indeed, its size only accentuates the feeling of acceleration.
Remember, 340hp is 45% more than the similar-size original M3 produced. The 1 Series M Coupé is a car with a mass of power, but not more power than sense. Instead, it's useable performance, with reserves almost always as deep as you demand.
The M Drive button on the steering wheel speeds up the accelerator further. This makes it yet more intense, because the car becomes even more reactive: how many other cars do you know that will still force you back in your seat when you floor the throttle at 70mph in sixth..?
The rapid gearchange and well-connected clutch help you capitalise further, with superswift perfect gearchanges. BMW chose to hone the manual gearbox instead of fitting a DCT semi-auto, to further optimise the car's purity. The sterling shift is just that, and its stubby gearlever is the icing on the cake.
Ride and handling
BMW's intent was to build a simple, authentic M car, without an array of suspension options or computer-controlled gadgetry. It took the simple, engineering-led approach of fitting suspension parts from an BMW M3, for a tantalisingly over-engineered proposition.
With so much power, it is dominated by a rear-drive feeling, but a very controlled and confident one, thanks to the 19-inch wheels' grip and the car's very organic handling. Far from being detached and aloof, the 1 Series M Coupé offers up plentiful feedback to the driver, something both rare and refreshing in a modern car.
It is stiff, sure: on bumpy roads, there is a lot of vertical jitter. But it's very well damped so always controlled, and the combination of springs and dampers really lets the suspension breathe in corners. It's roll-free, but also encouragingly supple: you sense the suspension constantly adjusting to the road's profile for best contact.
This is the feeling you'll find in racing cars, and testament to BMW's tireless development. The wide-track feeling of endless grip feels good, and the alacrity with which it turns in and snakes through corners fully displays its compact agility.
It's all best described as a tip-toe feeling: the 1 Series M Coupé is constantly ready to react, with impeccable manners, and with all the support and skill you'd expect of good breeding. Even the ride calms down on smoother roads (though it remains taut and firm).
Steering is weighty and, praise be, firms up further on turn-in to corners. This is old-school, as is the way it can gently writhe in the driver's hands, providing further feel. Accurate and pure, the steering's only weakness is an over-stuffed wheel. Otherwise, it's a refreshing taste of bygone joys.
Perfect seats define the interior. Recent BMW M car seats have been overstuffed and set much too high: these are heavily bolstered on the sides but not in the middle, and are, refreshingly, set really low in the cabin. Occupants drop into them, rather than sit on them and search for the height adjuster. Just how it should be.
It's a dark cabin, with a black rooflining and lots of grey-black Alcantara, but it's livened by vivid orange stitching throughout. Even the Alcantara on the passenger side panel and instrument binnacle gets it, a distinctive touch that, like the outside, won't be to all tastes.
M detailing includes the trademark white-backlit dials, enhancing a 180mph speedo and oil temperature dial. That spongy, thick steering wheel is like that of the M3 though, and thus a less favourable touch, while the 'One of 450' UK-specific plaque on the ashtray cover is a copout: why not individually number them, BMW?
Usual 1 Series compromises remain: those in the two rear seats might find it tight, the upright dash is looking dated and the pedals are offset to the right. It's a special place to sit within though, and while the wide tyres roar on some surfaces, long distances are no bother. Largely because of those seats...
Economy and safety
BMW hasn't forgotten its EfficientDynamics mantra. No, it's not as stand-out as other models, but given its performance and on-road energy, 29.4mpg combined is a fair score. Importantly, CO2 emissions come in below 225g/km (just) so it will escape taxes imposed on higher-emitting models.
The massively over-specced chassis (basically an M3 in disguise, remember) means huge reserves of grip and braking power. This, combined with electronic safety nets, means the speed of the 1 Series M Coupé's engine can be safely harnessed. It's a blast from the past, but BMW hasn't resorted to old-school (lack of) safety measures.
The DSC stability control system can be turned off, though, if drivers do want to taste safety-net-free driving. Pleasingly, there's a middle ground: an M Dynamic mode raises the electronic intervention level and, we quote, enables "dynamic oversteering and thus controlled drifting on bends". Fantastic!
BMW also fits the variable M differential lock as standard, which can send up to 100% of driving torque to a single rear wheel. This maximises traction on all surfaces and further enhances security and usability of the rear-wheel-drive setup. As do an exceptional set of brakes, which not only look extreme behind the multispoke alloys, but live up to it on the road with their effortlessly muscular retardation.
The MSN Cars verdict
The BMW 1 Series M Coupé is a blast from the past. Organic, pure, simple and immensely likeable, it's an honest car that drivers will adore.
It looks like no other, is extremely fast, gives driving sensations from BMW M's iconic history - and is a sure-fire bet to become a modern classic. BMW's best cult car in years? You bet.
|Need to know|
|Engines, petrol||six-cylinder twin-turbo petrol|
|Power, hp||340 @ 5900rpm|
|Torque, lb ft||331 @ 1,500-4,500rpm (w/ full-throttle overboost: 368lb ft)|
|0-62 mph, secs||4.9|
|Top speed, mph||155 (limited)|
|Ride & handling||*****|
|MSN Cars verdict||*****|
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