Can the BMW 1 Series M Coupé, with its antiquated origins, deliver?

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Around the time that the 1 Series M Coupé was introduced, BMW's most recent acts were to find space for two leviathan SUVs in its line-up while simultaneously canning its two-seat sports car.

It was inevitable that some would ask questions about the direction in which BMW’s fabled M division was heading. Cars such as the X5M and X6M are about as far from our idea of what an M-car should be as Homer Simpson is an ideal role model for our children.

This is the most simple, straightforward M-car of the past decade

But almost as if BMW had sensed the disquiet, its next move was to introduce this tortuously entitled but pleasingly back-to-basics 1 Series M Coupé.

It may look like a car that’s been screwed up into a ball and left to find its own shape again, but beneath that challenging appearance lies the most simple, straightforward M-car of the past decade. 

And better still, it's priced to excite, and in particular relative to its closest rivals from Audi and Porsche

So the formula looks good. The question is, can it be made to work when applied to the 1 Series coupé, a car whose hatchback parent is already seven years old and due for replacement?



BMW 1 Series M Coupé air intakes

The BMW 1 Series M Coupé costs much more than the 135i Coupé, and at first it seems a little hard to work out why.

Both cars use the same six-cylinder, 2979cc engine, and while the M-car offers 335bhp32bhp more than the 135i – it still seems too big a premium for a 0.4sec reduction in BMW’s claimed 0-62mph time. Both reach the same limited 155mph top speed.

The 1 Series M isn't handsome, but it is striking

But if we used statistics alone to judge merit, we’d now rank Damon Hill a better driver than Sir Stirling Moss. It is not as simple as that. There was no need to go squeezing the extra out of the direct-injection, twin-turbo six because the engine already existed under the bonnet of the Z4 sDrive35iS, a car from which BMW has curiously removed the elite ‘M’ status.

This makes the 1 Series M Coupé the first M-car ever to use the same engine as a non-M model. Some will see this as sensible pragmatism, others perhaps as the thin end of the wedge. 

As described over the page, the suspension is largely that of the M3, while an electronically controlled, mechanically locking limited-slip differential replaces the open differential used by the 135i.

Also helping to keep the car under control are brakes borrowed from the M3. Huge, drilled discs sitting inside those fine-looking 19in rims give the 1 Series M Coupé a great sense of purpose.


BMW 1 Series M Coupé interior

You can buy an entry-level BMW 1 Series for around £18,000, and all the Alcantara and wacky orange ‘Kyalami’ stitching in the world cannot disguise the fact that the 1 Series M Coupé’s cabin has been designed down to a price – and that price was nowhere near £40,000.

The fascia is plain and unimaginative and, indeed, a lot less interesting and characterful than you’d find in, say, a Mini costing half as much.

Even older children or daintier adults can sit in reasonable comfort in the back

That said, it presents its information clearly, and especially so if you spend two grand on the full navigation system. However, we don’t see why BMW felt the need to give the two main dials dull grey backgrounds.

Nor do we agree with BMW’s decision to fit the car with a fat, squashy-rimmed steering wheel. Even testers with big hands didn’t care for its squidgy feel, and it is unavoidable that at least some vital road information has been damped out before it reaches your fingertips.

Where it does hold a major advantage over its rivals is the provision of space in the back. It seems a little odd to be complimenting a 1 Series on its packaging because, looks aside, historically it has been the car’s single biggest weakness, but when your rivals include the Porsche Cayman and Nissan 370Z (no rear seats) as well as the Audi TT RS and Lotus Evora (joke rear seats), the fact that even quite large children can sit in reasonable comfort and over some distance is a distinct class USP.

Likewise, while the narrow and shallow boot looks small in isolation, consider what provision has been made by other cars in this class and it starts to look rather generous, and is alone among its rivals in offering any hope at all of taking both a family and its luggage on an extended holiday.


BMW 1 Series M Coupé

Huge, pointless SUVs apart, this is the first BMW M-car to be equipped with a turbocharged engine, so anyone hoping for the high-rev histrionics that helped make the brand will be disappointed. This engine develops maximum power lower down than the point at which the old M5’s V10 made its peak torque. It doesn’t scream, howl or shriek; it just goes like hell.

This engine may have 80 fewer horses at its disposal than the 4.0-litre V8 in the M3, but it delivers more torque at 1500rpm than the M3 has in total and it’s powering a car that’s two fat blokes lighter. Unsurprisingly, then,  the experience of gathering speed is dominated by the torque delivery.

There is little lag, but it would be incorrect to say there was none

There is little lag, but it would be incorrect to say there was none. Throttle response is sensational for a twin-turbo engine, but it’s not as sharp as an M3’s. And while it really does kick from a lot less than 2000rpm, there are still small but discernible steps in your progress as you rev through to peak power, almost as if the engine is pausing momentarily to draw another breath.

It really doesn’t get in the way of what is a pretty colossal punch, but it shows that even one of the best turbo installations we know still cannot quite mimic the power delivery of a thoroughbred normally aspirated engine.

Then again, we can’t see many owners complaining when it provides performance like this. Bear in mind that the 1 Series M Coupé’s 0-60mph time of 4.6sec would have been quicker still had it benefited from the traction advantage provided by the Cayman’s mid-engine configuration, or the TT RS’s all-wheel drive hardware.

In fact, at lower speeds the 1 Series is badly impeded by its comparatively modest traction; on bumpy British back roads you might be surprised by how often the traction control is activated, and that’s when it’s dry. Commendably, the electronics don’t impede your progress at all, and trim back the engine only enough to ensure continued grip. Most of the time, all you’re aware of is a little blinking light on the dash.

With all that torque, you don’t need to change gear much, but when you do it’s good to find a transmission where the clutch and gearbox appear more than distantly acquainted, with a short, sensible stack of well matched ratios designed to make the most of the car’s potential.

As for the lack of a flappy-paddle, two-pedal option, the character of the car is such that the kind of drivers who want to flick a lever rather than kick a pedal may not find this BMW much to their liking anyway. 


BMW 1 Series M Coupé

A sportscar should handle fantastically; whilst the BMW 1 M does handle very well, it does so in a certain fashion. If you want precision, feel and delicacy, go and buy a Cayman with our blessing; there’s nothing you’re about to read that should have any bearing on that decision at all.

If, however, you incline to a more back-to-basics approach and like the sensation of a car moving around beneath you, you may be in luck. If you wrote a wish list of all the things needed to make sure your car was fun in an old-fashioned, hang-the-tail-out way, you’d ask first for rear-wheel drive, then a limited-slip differential.

Uncompromising spring rates hinder wet grip and B-road comfort

Just as important would be an engine with a large and reliable source of torque, while the longest wheelbase in the class would be desirable, too. The 1 Series M Coupé ticks every box.

Drive it quickly but smoothly and it’s capable enough in the dry, with good grip and impressive body control. But the steering is less likeable, and not just because the wheel is so unpleasant to hold. There’s a muted feel there but not the kind of interaction you take for granted in a Cayman or Lotus Evora.

You only feel properly introduced to the action if you take the car by the scruff and boss it about. Then, while the steering never comes alive, the chassis does, and you’ll find it agile, willing and friendly. Unusual care need only be taken in streaming wet conditions, and only if you’re brave or stupid enough to turn off the safety nets. Then the car’s behaviour edges towards the skittish side of responsive.

The main reason for this is BMW’s decision to equip the 1 Series M Coupé with some fairly uncompromising spring rates, which not only hinder wet grip, but also B-road comfort. It feels like a car developed on the smooth surfaces of Germany, and while the ride quality is just about good enough not to spoil its everyday ability, a touch more compliance on back roads would make the car not only more comfortable but also better and easier to drive.

We have no complaints about the way the BMW stops. With 160kg less weight and the same brakes as an M3, in all normal use the brakes are as strong and tireless as you’d ever want.


BMW 1 Series M Coupé

The 1 Series M Coupé has been priced to excite, and BMW has been smart to offer it as a limited run of 450 cars in the UK, providing it with a collectable cachet.

Against most of its competitors, this well equipped car looks like good value for money.

The 1 Series M Coupé has been priced to excite

It’s been clever, too, in arranging for its CO2 emissions to register at 224g/km, keeping the cost of your tax disc merely painful, not punitive.

BMW says this equates to fuel consumption of 29.4mpg, but only if you’re not driving it in the way it was designed to be driven. Even moderately enthusiastic pedalling can drop the figure into the teens with breathtaking ease.

Overall, we managed 24.8mpg, which isn’t bad considering the kind of car it is and the type of procedures we subject it to.


4 star BMW 1 Series M Coupé

Despite being blessed with looks that only its mother could love, we liked the BMW 1 Series M Coupé very much.

It marks a return to form for the M division at a time when we were starting to wonder whether BMW still knew what a proper M-car should be. It clearly does, and this proves it.

This car puts a smile on its driver’s face

Yes, it is perhaps the least differentiated M-car yet, with its off-the-shelf motor and componentry borrowed from an M3, but to us it is the results that matter more than the means by which they were achieved.

And the undeniable truth is that this car puts a smile on its driver’s face. 

True, it asks a lot while doing so, but we’re never going to object to that when it also gives so much in return.

We’d still prefer a Cayman, but if you need the rear cabin space, can live with the looks and like the price, this is the very next best thing.

BMW 1 Series M 2011-2011 First drives