BMW 1 Series M Coupe: Genesis and Evolution

BMW 1 Series M Coupe: Genesis and Evolution

A Gathering of BMW's Smallest M Models


When Kay Segler took control of BMW's M Division in May 2009, one of his earliest pronouncements was that it was essential for M to have an entry-level car below the M3, an entry-level model that turned out to be the BMW 1 Series M Coupe. Unlike the small RS Audi, the idea of a My First M is nothing new. Twenty-five years ago, the 3 Series was the smallest BMW you could buy, so the original E30 M3 was by default the entry point. But as the 3 Series grew through E36, E46 and into today's E92 generations, smaller sports cars and the 1 Series have slotted below it.

A christening wouldn't be a christening without the extended family, so we're combining the 1M's debut with a mini M Power get-together: E30 M3, Z3M coupe and Z4M coupe.

In its marketing push, BMW has stressed the 1M's link to the E30, and it's easy to see why: Its three-box silhouette, four-seat layout and basic dimensions are a closer match to the 1M's than either Zs, but, more importantly, the E30 remains the definitive M car. It makes sense to link your new model — one that has no storied race heritage — to an established icon, especially when you're controversially introducing turbocharging to an M car for the first time (let's ignore the SUVs, shall we).

But if you flick through BMW's back catalog, you'll find a car that has even more in common with the hot new 1 Series than the E30: the 2002 Turbo. The 2002 model line came from a time before M, but it's really where the ethos all started.

Two decades before the Turbo launched, BMW had been in dire straits with disjointed products, perilous finances and dissatisfied shareholders. But just when Munich looked certain to fall into the arms of Daimler-Benz in 1959, Herbert Quandt stepped in, setting BMW on the path to success it knows today.

The 2002 Series' genesis came with the Quandt-backed Neue Klasse saloons of 1962. These cars were BMW's take on the Beetle: affordable, practical, unpretentious people's cars that just happened to be fun to drive. Beginning in 1966, the coupe variants evolved from the 1.6-liter 1602 through to the 2.0-liter fuel-injected 2002tii, and the cars raced with success in European Touring Cars. But just like the 1 Series M, it wasn't until late in the 2002's life — in 1973, some seven years after the 1602 coupe debuted — that the 2002 Turbo arrived. It was the first European turbocharged production saloon car and the last we'd see of a turbocharged, range-topping (note the caveat, 335i owners!) BMW sports car before the BMW 1 Series M.

The Inspiration
The car we're driving is a minter from BMW's heritage fleet with just 60K on the clock. Parked next to the 1 Series, the similarities are striking: the stubby three-box shape, the four muscleman arches — that cover tiny 185/70 R13 tires — the beltline that bisects the door handles and loops round the hood and trunk. It's as if someone's painted a clawfoot bathtub to look like a Mk1 Escort.

Lift that front-hinged hood and you'll see essentially the same Alex von Falkenhausen-designed 2.0-liter four-cylinder as you'll find in the 2002tii, but here the compression ratio is dropped to 6.9:1 and there's a KKK turbo on the exhaust manifold, boosting output to 168 horsepower. Amazing to think that this same lump formed the basis of BMW's Formula 1 engine, one that produced as much as 1,300 hp for banzai qualifying laps.

Open the driver door, sink into supportive, vinyl-covered seats, and you'll instinctively squeeze your fingers into the rim of the thin three-spoke wheel. Notice the gearstick that stands to attention from the center console like a toilet plunger, the instruments that are crisscrossed with a sniper's crosshair, the incredibly thin, minimalist door skins. It's stark down here, but look up and it's as if you've got a large goldfish bowl on your head — visibility is excellent, and there's ample headroom.

We're accustomed to the E30 M3's dogleg gearbox — where 1st is down and left and the remaining four gears fall into an H pattern — but move off in the 2002 Turbo and you'd swear BMW has swapped round the entire box because 1st feels like 3rd, and this conspires with a turbo that doesn't get out of bed until 4,000 rpm and a power band that throws in the towel 2,000 rpm later. It's a terrible mismatch: Getting the 2002 Turbo in — and keeping it in — the power band on the kind of twisty roads we're driving is near impossible, and incredibly frustrating, too. In a straight line the 2002 still has decent pace — it's only 30 hp off the early E30s, after all, in a far lighter body shell — but here it just feels slow. It also leans alarmingly on turn-in while the steering simultaneously doubles in heft.

No, it's not a great car to drive, but its cult status is long since assured: The 2002 Turbo's doom was sealed by the 1974 fuel shortages after a production run of just 1,672 left-hand-drive cars. Funny that amid spiraling fuel prices and an increasing obsession with slashing C02, today's turbo cars are The Answer; it's why all M cars will have turbos in the future.

There was no real replacement for the 2002 Turbo when the E21 3 Series debuted in 1975 — the 323i was as hot as it got — but that all changed with the E30 M3 in 1986, a car that arrived slightly more than a decade after the 2002, but feels like a quantum leap when you drive the two cars back-to-back.

The Original
When the BMW 1 Series M Coupe was first discussed, there was talk of a four-cylinder engine sneaking under the hood, but the car's hasty production debut meant it was easier to tweak up the boost on the 135i's twin-turbo six, and it would also have been difficult for M to convincingly market a halo performance model that had fewer cylinders than the 135i. Yet that's just what happened with the E30 M3: Its Paul Rosche-developed four-cylinder engines produced more power than the 325i but — to the mass market — they must have seemed confusingly under-endowed compared with that six-pot underling.

Back then the engine spec was dictated by touring car regulations, but while the M3 did win on the track, it was an unexpected hit on the road, too — more than 17,000 were produced, far beyond the 5,000 units required to race.

The E30 M3's steering is direct and meatily weighted, if far slower than the 1M's rack, and while the gearchange is a little too springy to be truly tactile and the throw feels like you're pulling a one-armed bandit compared with the short and snickety 1M, you'll never wrong-slot it — once you've got the hang of the dogleg configuration, that is. The standout, though, is the chassis, with its absolutely superb balance — the front end bites cleanly and clearly, making it easy to judge where the limits lie and confidence-inspiring to push and push and push. You simply don't need stability control.

Power might be modest, but that means you drive the M3 with utter impunity, getting on the throttle early and keeping it pinned for as long as you dare. Even as power outputs have soared, naturally aspirated M cars have retained these characteristics because the engines are low on torque at moderate revs. This helps traction, and you've got to really mean it if you're going to unstick the rear boots. For the first time, the 1M changes this intrinsic character — after a little pause, its two turbos boost fiercely and the rear tires quite readily give up their purchase. It's good fun and very fast, but not M as we know it.

Post E30, the E36 3 Series grew into a bigger, more refined car and, just like today, there was room to slot another model below the M3. The Z1 two-seater had already been and gone as something of a disappointment, which left two opportunities: the 3 Series Compact and the Z3 sports car, both of which were based on the E36 front suspension, but retained the E30's semi-trailing arm rear.

Transition: M Coupe
The Z3M's ingredients bridge the 3 Series generations: There's the E30's rear axle and its antiquated pull knob for the headlights; a later E36 M3 3.2-liter engine with the earlier E36 five-speed gearbox, plus E36-like lights, steering wheel and similar — though different — seats that are incredibly comfortable. There's also an E46-style instrument binnacle and quad pipes, while later cars like ours get the E46 M3 engine, too.

We've got one of the 6,291 coupes, and it's easy to see why the roadster shifted almost 10,000 units more: the coupe's an odd-looking thing, what with a side profile that looks like a balloon magician gave up halfway through twisting it into a poodle, and rear lights that stop a good few inches before the 245/40ZR17 Michelins do, a skimpy T-shirt riding above a muffin-top belly. Yet, somehow, it all works.

More importantly, this is a fabulous car to drive. The engine is absolutely magnificent, pulling keenly from low revs but then hardening at around 4,000 rpm and transitioning to that trademark M metallic rasp while piling on speed at a fearsome rate. At first it feels like you're in the sweet spot when you're between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm, then you realize you've got another 1,500 rpm to go. Never mind that it gives the M3 V8 a hard time in the battle to be crowned the best M engine ever, the Z3M's six is one of the best engines of all time. The BMW 1 Series M engine — hugely impressive though it is — just doesn't sparkle as brightly when you chase the redline.

The great thing is, the Z3M doesn't feel hot-rod over-engined despite those 3.2 liters spilling out of the engine bay — it's actually a very nicely balanced thing. The steering has a mid-weighted, honest heft, the five-speed box slots so much more cleanly than the six-speeder that followed, and the chassis feels incredibly benign. You can lean and lean on the front tires in the damp, feeling them first bite and then reach the limit, and from there — with one push of the traction control button — you're free to swing the rear round. I expected it to feel edgier because of the short wheelbase (96.8 inches), but it just doesn't.

Z4 M Coupe
The Z4M is less of a jump from Z4 than Z3M was from Z3 simply because the styling is fundamentally the same, and even the base models get six cylinders in either 2.5 or 3.0-liter guises — the Z4 had the Boxster in its sights, whereas the Z3 launched as an MX-5 rival. But the Z4M is cut from a different cloth to the Popeye muscles of either the E46 M3 that was on sale at a similar time, or today's E92 M3 and 1 Series M. It looks fantastic: the best, we reckon, of all the controversial Chris Bangle designs. Just be sure to get the hardtop.

The Z4M is also incredibly significant for being the last car to pack the amazing 3.2-liter S54 straight-6. It's in a slightly different state of tune here compared with the Z3M, matching the E46 M3's 330 hp. But it's still essentially the same — it still rasps raucously, still needs revs to pile on speed and it still morphs into a cacophonous, tremulous warble when you're kissing the limiter. Like the 1 Series M — but unlike its Z4 siblings or the larger M cars — it also continued the mini M car tradition of never being offered with a dual-clutch or semi-auto gearbox — only the six-speed manual. That's great for purists, but it's a shame the gate has rigor mortis and it's so difficult to cleanly shift from 1st to 2nd in traffic without buzzing the revs.

The Z4 has a better driving position than the Z3M, and its steering is meatier, but its seats and ride are a lot firmer for no gain in performance. This car also heralds the onslaught of The Chunky M Power Steering Wheel, one that never quite sits in your hands as easily as the old stuff does. You hold it like a man who's been asked to retrieve his wife's handbag from a pub.

Hard To Read
Perhaps it's because this car's on Vredestein rubber, but it's hard to lean on the front and judge its grip with conviction — the grip level feels low in these damp conditions, and the transition to slip is hard to read. And once you start edging at those limits, the traction control light does a surprising amount of flashing. You need to drive the Z4M below its hard-to-read limits to drive it quickly and cleanly, where the M3, Z3M and 1M feel faster when you explore those thresholds.

Yet there's still something incredibly appealing about the Z4M: the rarity, the looks, the engine, the simplicity of the controls in this non-iDrive, non-M button, pre-adaptive dampers car. It's a future classic, no doubt about it.

The 1 Series M might not have the naturally aspirated kick of the Z cars, nor the storied history of the earliest M3, but a paternity test would reveal each and every one of these icons has passed on their DNA to the latest car to emerge from M's headquarters.

Which of the old cars to put in the garage? A better driving position and I'd fall for the Z3M. As it is, the BMW marketing men are probably right: The E30 M3 is the car the BMW 1 Series M really needs to emulate.

Portions of this content have appeared in foreign print media and are reproduced with permission.

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