Eight Hours With the BMW 1 Series M Coupe
By James Wong
I swear that when I was asleep last night, I could hear the 1 Series M Coupe’s metallic rasp echoing around my ears.
I could even pick out the burbles of the exhaust on overrun, the growl on part throttle which had an uncanny resemblance to the V8 in the E92 M3, and the top-end bark that almost sounded like a flat-six. That the exhaust could produce such variation in pitch and tone was probably the reason why it lingered in my semi-conscious mind in my slumber. Although that is about all I could remember from my sleep, the memories forged behind the wheel of the 1M still stayed fresh in my mind.
I was given eight hours to find out as much as possible about the 1M, so I already had a route planned that would carve out a comprehensive assessment of the car’s capabilities. It also meant that we kept our breaks to a minimum, which included having takeaway on board and fertilising some undernourished grass. Time was limited no matter how you slice it, when you have the most anticipated BMW M car in recent memory in your hands.
When BMW announced that the 1-Series would have an M variant, the car world listened. The ingredients were ripe for an M that has not been seen since the trend of heavier cars and longer wheelbases took over. The M6, M5 and M3 (let’s not even go to the X5M and X6M, shall we?) of the current crop are excellent cars, no doubt, but they lack the essence of a truly lightweight and compact sports car. Although the 1M is no Lotus, the 1M would fulfill that criterion more convincingly than its other M counterparts.
Picking up the Alpine White 1M from the world’s first exclusive BMW M showroom, I couldn’t have had a better start to a Monday morning. It is the wide wheel arches that really catch your attention first – although the Michelin PS2s on the car were well worn, their wide profile (265 rear and 245 front) could just as well have ‘GRIP’ written on them. The stance is taut, resolute and aggressive (helped in large part by the negative camber of its tyres), the quad exhaust pipes arranged just a little off-set to ramp up the macho looks. They bellowed on a cold-start as the car started to warm-up to a whole day of driving ahead. Although the car is loud on a warm start, the noise it makes when just woken up is maniacal.
The 1M is noticeably 1-Series in some aspects. Despite what the orange stitching on the seats would have you believe, the leather upholstery is rough to the touch, unlike what they have in the more expensive M cars – not that I was complaining, as Nappa leather is harder to upkeep and I prefer something more durable. The Alcantara in the interior is a nice touch, but honesty is the word that comes to mind when viewing the interior as a whole – no complication, no frills, just everything tailored for driving. It’s like the values of the 1-Series used to full effect, thus staying true to the 1M’s values of being simple, unadulterated and to the point.
I was warned that the clutch would feel heavy, but slotting the gearknob into first gear and easing the clutch in for the first time was easier than I thought. There is not an awful lot of positive feel from the lengthy travel of the clutch, but at least it easy to modulate. The gearbox was notchy too, allowing precisely timed shifts quickly due to the short-shift action. Steering was not altogether heavy, but extremely precise at car park crawling speeds and robust at speed.
Visibility is excellent, which played to the car’s compact size and short wheelbase. Any turn or corner was like a gold mine of opportunity for some sideways action as the car was always nearly small enough to allow free play. Throughout most of the test drive on the open road, I stayed on Sport with M Dynamic Mode (MDM) on, which partially disengages the traction control. Sport provided a noticeable change in throttle response, giving every input a sharper and more calculated translation to power on the road. M Dynamic Mode loosened the traction control a little, allowing a closely-guarded slip angle, which gave immense confidence to tackle narrow corners without fearing the car would suddenly snap its tail out. None of these settings would adjust the ride comfort as the 1M features non-adjustable dampers, which is just as well to keep things simple. Amazingly, even with 19-inch rims and a rim-to-arch gap of only a finger or less, the car was firm but never uncomfortable, giving a fluid ride that was composed and confidence-inspiring (that said, it has to be noted that Singapore roads are generally well-paved).
With some open space however, with MDM on the power cuts off just when the car starts to truly scrub some rubber. Everything has to be turned off to allow the car to truly dance. This is done by holding down the traction control ‘Off’ button, which then displays ‘DSC Off’ on the instrument panel. The car reliefs the driver of all aids in this setting and allows full exploitation of the car’s capabilities. I never fully understood why driving a car without traction control makes all the difference until the 1M showed me how. It never felt out of control in massive slip angles, inviting the driver to apply corrective steer and the car just responds keenly. The willing engine helps the car to maintain momentum too, even though it seemed that the car was finishing its sideways action – it never gives up and just continues, albeit after turning 360 degrees.
We paid several visits to a particular road along the region of Singapore known as Mandai, which can be described as the more rural area of our island where there are also many military installations, farms and the zoo. The road is short and a keen driver can run the length of it in less than 5 minutes, but it was as if a race driver had a hand in planning its design. It has switchbacks at the beginning, B-road swings with good visibility for the distance, a long straight that allowed the 1M to hit its peak in third gear, a long sweeping right-hander and even a roundabout at the end so the driver can easily go for another round. Either direction presents its own challenges of off-camber corners and different lines, so the 1M went down this road at least a dozen times. So what’s the verdict?
On such a road, MDM trimmed the line of the car and kept the rear in check like a gatekeeper of grip, so pushing as hard as possible was a reality despite the rear wheels always wanting to break traction, especially when all 500Nm of torque on overboost kicks in. This meant blistering pace is easy for the 1M, flattering the driver even if a corner was tackled a gear too high or too low. Hitting home the gears from second to third also brings the heartbeats up very several notches as the car is seriously, stupendously quick. The fact that the brakes afforded confidence allowed rather late braking into corners, with the accompanying blips that must be heard with the windows down just to savour the exhaust note. It is not even difficult to blip correctly – the throttle is just at the right sensitivity to kick up the revs with a little nudge. The noise consumes the driver in the whole experience, kicking up a real bark that lights up every throttle input. There is no problem of a lump of turbo boost kicking in uninvited; the engine feels linear, civilised in delivery but brutal in execution. Perhaps what is most impressive is that throughout all of this the car feels utterly safe, in control and egging you to give it more.
Unlike other turbochargers matched to smaller displacement engines, the 1M’s 3.0-litre N54 is already a cracking engine to begin with, and so suffers less issues of turbo lag and a lack of stamina. The pull of the engine is unrelentless even up till the double ton, giving strong performance where smaller engines would have started to lose steam. All 340bhp is definitely there, and the 1M doesn’t feel any lesser having a turbocharged engine, soothing some naysayers’ concerns about breaking the M tradition of naturally aspirated motors. Of course, it cannot match the ultimate linearity of a NA engine, which is especially noticeable when the turbos kick in and the car delivers blistering pace from 3,000rpm onwards – but it suffers little of the usual maladies that plague turbo engines. It is simply hungry for revs. Believe me, I am not a strong supporter of forced induction and I would prefer my sports cars to be without them, but I will make an exception for the 1M. It really is that polished. With regard to the 1M’s exhaust note, I have a good feeling M has listened to concerns about the cars losing their great exhaust notes with forced induction, which is why the 1M sounds as vocal as it is. One portion of the route was planned so that we could enter a tunnel and listen to the 1M sing… Short of creating cracks on the cemented walls, the car is not only loud, but also beautiful to listen to.
Just so we had a balanced view of everything, the car also spent quite a bit of time cruising on the highway. We went to nearly every highway you can name in Singapore, in tunnels with 70km/h speed limits and multi-lane tarmac with only a littering of traffic. As mentioned earlier, the car’s dampers are non-adjustable, so what you feel is what you get. There is a careful balance of compliance and firmness. In some cars you might be able to feel a layer of ‘fat’ separating you from the road, but in the 1M it is lean and taught, yet not excessively so. Remarkably the car slipped through humps without hesitation and its firmness served to inspire confidence rather than making the car jump off the road. This hugely impressive damping translates to daily driving joy – something I wouldn’t expect to say of the 1M before this road test. Even when the car isn’t driven with 100% commitment, it is still fun to cover vast ground quickly and effectively.
Now for the practical bits. The boot is decently-sized, the rear seats are just enough for a 1.75m tall person, and the fuel consumption surprisingly good, which was not as bad as we predicted. With extremely hard driving, the car still returned about 6.6km/l, which is generous considering the amount of power on tap. If we had driven frugally, which would have been very difficult to do, I think an average of 8.5km/l is achievable. Its small size means it’s easy to park and place, a cinch to drive quickly, sniping any small gaps on the road with ease. With a smaller turbocharger to take care of the low-end the car was also satisfying to drive below 3,000rpm, with just enough torque to pot around. A small problem me and my passenger noticed though: no matter how we positioned the air-conditioning vents, it just couldn’t aim accurately at us. It was weak too, which is more of a concern in our tropical climate. There isn’t a gear indicator on the instrument panel either, which would have been nice. But we’d be nitpicking… At the time of writing, there are only 4 1Ms left in Singapore, all in Valencia Orange. Just so our readers from Singapore would know what their chances for grabbing one are.
The sun was setting and according to the trip computer, we only had about 30km left to go with the amount of fuel left. Like every good car that comes to a journalist’s hands, it was difficult to part with the 1M. It’s everything BMW promised it would be, delivering in every way what the modern sports car is slowly receding from by keeping it simple. Less is not only more, but also the secret to building great sports cars. Eight hours well spent indeed.
Special thanks to Gerald Yuen for helping me with the photos in this article.