The BMW 1 Series M is nearly as well-rounded as the larger M3, but any advantages — beyond its lower price — are hard to find.
Size is perhaps the 1M's best reason for being. Over the years, criticism has grown in concert with the M3's size and weight, and the 1M is closer in size to the original M3, which was introduced to North America in 1988. As for weight, well, at 3,296 pounds, it outweighs the '88 by more than 550 pounds. That said, you're unlikely to find any modern car that's anywhere near as light as its 23-year-old forebear, and at least it's 408 pounds lighter than the M3 coupe and 77 pounds lighter than the 135i.
The M Formula
Following the M car formula, the 1M features increased power, a manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, a modified suspension, fat tires and a distinctive look — perhaps more distinctive than the other Ms. The car's track is 2.8 inches wider in front and 1.8 inches wider in rear than the regular 1 Series, so the fenders have swollen as well, resulting in an exaggerated, almost cartoony style that might appeal to some BMW fans — and turn off others. Familiar 19-inch alloy wheels are shared with the M3's optional Competition Package.
Bursts of Power
The 1M's powertrain is the car's high point, providing ample torque at low engine speeds for a satisfying launch. This twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six-cylinder produces 335 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 332 pounds-feet of torque at 1,500 rpm. For comparison, the 335i coupe uses a single-turbo 3.0-liter I-6 with 300 hp and 300 pounds-feet. The displacement and compression ratios are the same, but the 135i's boost pressure is 8.7 psi and the 1M's starts at 11.6 psi. I say "starts" because the 1M's turbo can up the pressure to 14.5 psi for a momentary burst of torque, rated at 370 pounds-feet.
The boost works: Nail the gas pedal at practically any speed in any gear, and after waiting a half-beat you'll feel the additional tug. I'd find this annoying if the initial power were anemic, but you get respectable response even before the surge. The low-rev torque peak that extends from 1,500 rpm all the way to 4,500 rpm continues to surprise anyone who has decades of turbocharger experience. In some ways, I prefer the 1M's ready torque to the M3 V-8's gentle rise. Despite their relatively small displacement, modern turbocharged direct-injection engines deliver the character that many larger, normally aspirated V-8s no longer do. Fantastic.
BMW didn't mess with the 135i's success: It carried over the six-speed manual's gear ratios, a good match for the 1M. The only difference is a shorter final drive ratio of 3.154 in the 1M versus the 135i's 3.077. I prefer the 1M's shifter and clutch over those of the M3, whose stick is rubbery and disconnected and whose clutch pedal presents a peculiar, nonlinear resistance through its motion. The 1M's shifter isn't my favorite, but it is an improvement, and the pedal is consistent. Borrowed from the M3, the brakes — with their 14.2-inch front and 13.8-inch rear cross-drilled rotors — do a stellar job with this lighter car.
The 1M's dynamics are typical M — balanced and controllable overall. The car enters turns with practically no understeer, and rear traction can be broken loose through both acceleration and lift. Technically, the practically unflappable M3 might be "better," but the 1M is more fun. The M3 is famously a car that makes you think you're a better driver than you are. Because it's less buttoned-down, the 1M requires you to actually be better.
BMW kindly offers an M Dynamic Mode that backs off the electronic stability system and lets you slide about some, though when the nanny does kick in, it happens much more noticeably than in the M3. Compared with the M3, the 1M has few electronic gadgets. There are no adaptive suspension or automatic transmission options, so the steering wheel's M button merely sharpens throttle response.
I'm less enthusiastic about the steering. Its ratio is 12.5:1 versus the 135i's 16:1, which makes sense for a performance version. Ditto for the increased steering effort. However, I found the steering a little too heavy and a lot numb.
The Appendage Factor
M cars have had what I call a high appendage factor — the feeling that the car is an extension of the driver. It's typically experienced in cars whose various systems and characteristics are well-matched to each other and provide the driver with ample feedback. In my opinion, the steering feedback is lacking in the 1M, even when the car is pushed to its limits. For the record, a couple of our other editors were less critical.
During my first several miles, the 1M thrilled me. I flung it about and reveled in its general M-ness. But over time I began to find fault with it, starting with the steering and continuing once I sat down with the specs and prices.
At a base price of $46,135, the 1M is a healthy $9,785 above the 135i's starting price. What does that premium get you? According to BMW, the 1M does zero-to-60 mph in 4.7 seconds. The manual 135i does it in 5.1 seconds — more than respectable — and its low-rev grunt makes it plenty fun to drive in its own right on regular roads. Are you willing to pay almost $10,000 for four-tenths of a second? For more lateral grip? Leather seats?
Now let's do the same exercise with the M3 sedan: Starting at $55,900, it's priced a substantial $9,765 higher than the 1M (or add another $3,000 for the coupe), but look at what you get: The M3's zero-to-60 time is also 4.7 seconds with the manual transmission. Unlike the 1 Series, it has a usable backseat and a slightly larger trunk. If you care to spend more, you can get the optional adaptive suspension, which provides an impressively comfortable ride compared with the 1M's firmness. In terms of livability and versatility, the M3 has the edge.
It also has a better interior than the 1M, whose entry-level roots show. Though the 1M comes with leather instead of the M3's standard vinyl upholstery, the overall materials quality matches the more affordable model. Additional M badges and signature black faux-suede highlights aren't enough to elevate it. Make no mistake: You're paying for performance upgrades and little else.
The BMW 1 Series hasn't been crash-tested. It includes frontal, front-seat side-impact and side curtain airbags. Also standard are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system with traction control.
1 Series M in the Market
The 1 Series M has few direct competitors. With its 2+2 seating and $47,000 starting price, the Audi TTS is in the same ballpark, but its performance trails the 1M's, and you can't get a manual transmission. The new 2012 Audi TT RS comes exclusively with a manual transmission and all-wheel drive, and it boasts zero-to-60 times closer to 4 seconds, but it costs almost $10,000 more.
All the same, the 1M seems a car for BMW fans, but I wouldn't buy it without first testing the 135i and M3. If you're OK with the small size, the 135i will deliver nearly as much fun off a racetrack, and the M3 is more versatile. It's also thirstier, rated at 14/20 mpg with a manual transmission versus 19/26 mpg for the 1M and 20/28 mpg for the 135i. Whatever you do, act now, because the 1M will be sold only as a 2011 model.
Starting MSRP $46,135