It's here, on Willow Springs Raceway, the self-proclaimed "Fastest Road in the West," that our mind begins to wander. Even though we're ripping through Turn 8 at 121 mph in the 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe, it's hard to concentrate.
The last thought hangs around for awhile, mainly because it's this car's grip — more than any other M car — that defines it. We're not surprised, as it wears the same set of Michelin Pilot Sport PS2 tires included in the M3's Competition package. More importantly, those four generously sized contact patches support only 3,346 pounds, about 210 fewer than an M3 Coupe.
BMW says the M3 represents everything the company understands about driving dynamics. But the 1 Series M Coupe is half M3 — utilizing not only its tires but also its suspension hardware, brakes, steering rack and more.
Its attitude, however, is different. Still, this is a proper M car.
By now you probably know the 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe shares its engine with the Z4 sDrive35is convertible — a machine so poorly named we often forget it exists. But the engine's source and origins are far less important than its numbers and its influence over the M's chassis.
Here the 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-6 is rated at 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque, which is sent through a six-speed manual transmission only. Also, because big surges of torque are quite enjoyable, the M-specific engine calibration allows a 5-7-second overboost. Our own internal testing shows it's quite effective.
The question, given the numbers at hand and the hardware at work, isn't whether the 1 Series M Coupe is a proper M car, but rather how does it stack up against the M car — the current-generation M3? When it comes to sheer perception, the littlest M gives up nothing.
In fact, some purists — particularly those who have been whining about the M3's curb weight since it first hit Internet forums — will likely find the M Coupe to be the perfect compromise. Driving the two cars back to back on the 2.5-mile Willow Springs road course, there's little difference in peak speeds on the circuit's front straight.
Although the 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe utilizes the M3's aluminum subframes, control arms and links, it lacks that car's Electronic Damping Control. In its place are conventional (aluminum) dampers. BMW, however, refuses to release any information about the M Coupe's spring rates or additional chassis stiffness. There are new gussets surrounding the shock towers under the hood, and the lack of a sunroof no doubt stiffens its chassis relative to the standard 1 Series cars, where it's standard equipment.
The 1M also shares the M3's steering rack, which at 12.5:1 is among the quickest-ratio racks on any production car today. Combine that with the M Coupe's 104.7-inch wheelbase (4 inches shorter than the M3) and this car is, well, lively. And by lively we mean reactive, snappy, punchy and fun. There's even an "M" button on the steering wheel, but on the Coupe it only bumps up throttle response.
It's a concentrated dose of M3. Drink plenty of water.
A Unique Machine
Driving the M Coupe on one of the country's fastest road courses didn't tell us much about its best properties. Those we discovered later, as they're best explored below 80 mph.
This car's explosiveness out of low-speed corners is as fun as it is frantic. It leaps from tight-radius bends as violently as any two-wheel-drive car we've ever driven. It's very controllable, but it's not for beginners. This coupe reacts quickly.
It's the only car that's ever made us want to autocross. With all its wide-bodied, fat-tired, short-wheelbase torquey-ness, the 1M is perfectly suited to slipping between cones on the clock. It might even make that lame form of parking lot racing fun.
At the track, our subjective impressions are rapidly verified as the M brand's little hammer pumps out big numbers. Sixty mph disappears in 4.6 seconds (4.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like at a drag strip) and the quarter-mile is gone in 13.0 seconds at 107.7 mph. That's identical to the last M3 Coupe we tested to 60 mph and only two-tenths slower in the quarter-mile.
But the real story, the one that should make you plead for this car, is the way it handles. It's the kind of intuitive-feedback, butt-connected-to-the-contact patch sort of feeling we wish were available in everything we drive. And it's immensely fun.
Given the N54's propensity to pump out huge waves of torque, the relatively short wheelbase and the M3's viscous limited-slip differential, there's a sense of necessary hoonery built into the 1M.
Around the skid pad, this means there's no problem steering with the throttle. And the gap between the limit of grip and limit of control is a big one. Go ahead, slide it all you want; that's what it's for. Keep the rear wheels behind the fronts and it will produce an impressive 0.96g — better than the M3 (0.95g). Slalom speed, at 71.4 mph is similarly impressive, although not quite as good as the M3 (73.3).
Braking from 60 to zero, given the M Coupe's M3 brakes (14.2-inch two-piece rotors and huge sliding calipers up front) is an effortless endeavor. Heat capacity and feel are appropriate for a genuine performance car. Oh, and it stops in only 106 feet — a foot shorter than the M3.
BMW has figured out the key to making a relatively Spartan interior look appropriately unique. A large part of the secret is the utter lack of reflective materials. Yes, there's a satin-finish bezel here and there but this is largely a matte-finish interior. The special part comes from Alcantara suede on the shifter and parking brake boots as well as on the doors, dash insert and instrument panel shade.
Black Boston leather is the only finish available on the 14-way adjustable seats, which along with the Alcantara bits are stitched in orange — a small detail that is tastefully striking. There's also a thick-rimmed, leather-covered steering wheel that seems perfect for directing this angry little pug.
BMW tells us it plans to sell only 1,000 M Coupes in the U.S. this year. It's likely there will never be more. They start at $47,010 including destination fees, which might seem steep until one realizes that it offers performance on par with an M3 for about $10 grand less. Our test car, fitted with heated seats, Valencia Orange paint and the $2,400 Premium package, rings up a $49,585 bill.
Gripes? There are few. The engine lacks the character of most M cars. Yes, it's powerful and amply responsive and probably telling of the powertrains to come in future M vehicles. Still, this isn't the raw, instant, shrill explosion of sound and revs we've become accustomed to from BMW M cars. But it certainly gets the job done.
The 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe is what purist drivers want: predictable, responsive, powerful and lighter than the only car it was benchmarked against: the M3.
And after 33 laps at Willow and 350 street miles, our wandering mind has reached the following conclusions: The M Coupe's wheels are not forged, we locked the house and the whole idea of the rapture is ridiculous.
Oh, and the M Coupe's grip? Yes, it has more than we ever imagined. And it is good.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of this evaluation.