Tested: BMW's ballistic 1M

Few things carry a burden of expectation heavier than being baptized with a famous name. There are very few examples of children ever managing to emulate the success of famous parents.

Presley (Elvis). Einstein (Albert). Best (George). Taylor (Elizabeth). All icons. All had children too; the offspring though, never achieved nearly the level idolisation of their famous parents.

Okay, there are exceptions. In F1 racing, especially. Damon Hill did a good job of emulating father Graham’s achievements. So too did Jacques Villeneuve (perhaps even better, he actually won a driver’s world championship, something his father never managed). Honestly though, when you hear Villeneuve, which name forms in your mouth as a response first: Gilles or Jacques?    


In automobiledom, this naming burden also exists and has proved particularly bothersome to that famous Bavarian blue-and-white roundel brand, BMW.

Unpack the BMW model lineage organogram and you’ll notice that the company’s numerical model delineation, a very clever marketing strategy that guarantees seamless continuation and brand equity. There’s a problem with this numerical naming arrangement though, due to the 1-Series two-door.

BMW’s baby coupe, launched back in 2008, was always going to germinate an issue if turned over to the M-Division for performance refitting. Why?

Well unlike the 3- and 5-Seires M-division derivatives, which are easily affixed with the required "M", BMW had already built an M1 way back in 1978 – so producing a contemporary 1-Series M-car, with an appropriate M-division nameplate, was going to be a very inappropriate thing to do. You don’t fix the brand’s only mid-engined supercar nameplate into place on the back of a warmed over entry-level hatchback, no matter how premium it is, now do you?

Well, BMW’s done exactly that. In a decision that no doubt grated the impeccable order with which BMW conducts its business and product planning, the latest M-car is named "the wrong way around", as the 1M, instead of M1. It’s the kind of arcane detail most people would hardly be troubled by, but, BMW’s M-division acolytes are a very passionate collection of petrolheads and the 1M’s existence has grated some – and it’s not only the naming issue.

The technical details are decidedly underwhelming for an M-division car. Its engine, for example, is merely a trick version of the N54 3-litre twin-turbo that powered the 135i when it was launched in 2008. BMW haters will be quick to point out that there was a time when BMW’s M-cars were all powered exclusively by bespoke (naturally aspirated) powertrains. That heritage, well, it's all history now...

With the appearance of the controversial X5/6 SUV M-models in 2009, forced-induction was finally blooded into the M-car lineage. When the F10 M5 arrives later this year, three M-division models (X5M, X6M and M5) will all be powered by the same engine. This scenario would have been unimaginable for M-division enthusiasts a decade ago, when M3 and M5 nameplates were generously separated in terms of engine capacity and configuration.

TIGHT, BUT COMFY: Cabin embellishments have, in M-car tradition, been kept to a minimum: only a fatter steering wheel and more body-hugging bucket seats are notable interior upgrades over the 135i…


What to make of the 1M then?

Is this ostensibly warmed over 135i, with its limited production run (South Africa’s 2011 allocation is a mere 71 units, sure to shore-up short time residuals), brazen pricing (R546 392) and eye-popping Sedona red colour option an affront to everything sacrosanct about BMW performance, or the dynamic driving bargain of the year?

At the start of my test period with the 1M I had some prejudice. Sure, it looked good (its presence effortlessly brings any petrol stations forecourt to a standstill and when left parked, it attracts a crowd of curious onlookers), but was this a proper junior M3?

Instead of idling to work and back, with perhaps a morning of pseudo circuit lapping thrown in for good measure, I decided to take the 1M on a road (work) trip to Knysna for the Garden Route rally.

Styling is a subjective matter at the best of times, but in its signature Sedona finish, rolling those oversized 19-inch wheels, the stretched and squashed 1M looks like an authentically caricatured M3.

Statistically the M is 5mm longer, 53mm wider and (strangely, for a performance derivative) 13mm taller than the 135i – despite a 20mm reduction in ride height. Although the 1M’s surfacing is nearly identical to its 135i sibling, the M-car features new front and rear light clusters and revised bumpers fore and aft (shaped according to aerodynamic considerations). The obligatory dual twin-exhausts round off the M-division styling package.

It hardly a subtle looking compact sportcar, this 1M, but there’s no denying its presence. The wider track (framed by those generous wheelarches) and M-specification body Tupperware combine to render a rolling sculpture which is fully validated as M-car worthy. It’s very much a proper M-car, instead of a contemporary Shadowline, if you like your comparative metaphors draws from late 1980s BMW legend.

In fact, parked near the Garden route Rally headquarters, at the Simola golf estate just outside Knysna, current South African rally points leader, Mark Cronje, spent a good five minutes looking over the 1M, after I had parked it up near the Parce Femme area at the close of the day 1 of the rally - and he was not the only one...

So it looks like a proper M-car, a caricatured E92 M3 if you wish, but can the 1M’s warmed over 135i engine possibly combine with its appreciably more exotic E92 rear axle and differential pairing to provide authentic M-division driving dynamics?

Well, unless your 1M is transported directly from a dealership to racing circuit, then unloaded for you to blast a few laps as first acquaintance, your initial impression will undoubtedly be similar to mine – manoeuvring out of a car park, before heading out into traffic. From the first moment you roll BMW’s baby M-car off the clutch, and try to manoeuvre it, you’re left in doubt as to its vivacity as a true M-car. The steering’s properly heavy (though those 265/35R19 tyres hardly help); there’s no daintily twirling the helm with a few fingertips at low speeds. In a world of over-assisted power steering systems, 1M’s firmly geared helm requires a welcome effort (and both hands). For the purist, it's a tactile precursor to trustworthy feedback at higher speeds, and with the 1M, (very) high speeds are (awfully) attainable.

Available (only) with a six-speed manual transmission, the 1M yields full power/drivetrain interplay control to the driver. The clutch action is delightfully easy to modulate, and in congested urban traffic, it’s a dotingly effortless car to drive thanks to the 3-litre in-line six’s surfeit of low-engine speed torque. Say what you wish about the presence of forced induction in an in-line six M-car (and the half-a-dozen-aligned-in-a-series cylinder configuration has always been a M-division halo engineering detail, despite only being resurrected with the 1M, after having gone out of production in 2006), but, it makes an awful lot of sense when the twin-turbo engine at hand is as impeccable tuned as M1’s N54 M-specification unit. 

UNUSUAL M-CAR NUMBERS: Yes, the red piston-speed warning war paint starts a little low, but don’t let that fool you…


You don't need to be a statistician to analyse the superior in on-paper output figures the 1M enjoys over the E92 M3 at real-world driving speeds.

It produces 450Nm of torque at 1 500rpm, whereas the M3 peaks with 50Nm less at a crankspeed 2400rpm later.

By the time an M3’s reached peak torque at 3 900rpm, if it’s a full-throttle race from standstill, the 1M’s overboost function will generously balloon its available torque reserves to 500Nm. No contest then. 

The roll-on acceleration in sixth gear, from just below 120km/h, would leave E92 M3 owners desperately downshifting to fourth to keep up – and that’s overtaking verve without the full-throttle 500Nm worth of overboost; a snap-shift down and across the gate to fourth gear heralds monumental overtaking urge (as the overboost initiates), the like of which scares uninitiated passengers and would probably unnerve an inexperienced driver. For M-division enthusiasts, especially considering the classic turbine whine straight-six soundtrack, it’s a fusion of elements that appeal mightily.

BMW says 1M makes 250kW at 5 900rpm, and clearly M3 defenders will state the numerical superiority of their charger’s 309kW at 8 300rpm. I think BMW’s telling a bit of white lie with regards to the 1M’s peak power number, as the cars (1M and M3) runs identical 4.8 sec 0-100km/h sprint times. At Reef altitudes, the 1M will have a clear advantage…Full-throttle acceleration through the gears has the in-line six engine running close to the 7 000rpm mark with little hesitation and the accompanying shove is surplus to practically any requirements you’ll ever have on a public road.

Overtaking six-vehicle lines of traffic is the work of a moment, and when you happen upon a choice mountain pass, and I navigated a few of those en route from Cape Town to George, the 1M’s wedge of available torque enables one to keep it in a single gear (second for tight mountain roads, third for sweepier blacktop) and focus on car placement.

Wonderfully docile at less urgent speeds (the surfeit of torque makes it possible to drive in a lazy second-fourth-sixth shift pattern around town), 1M’s "warmed-over" 135i engine is never found wanting. It’s even (relatively) economical too; town commuting and my weekend jaunt (at speed) to Knysna found consumption averaging out to 11.8-litres/100km, which is entirely reasonable for the performance on offer – and especially considering how often its twin-turbochargers were spooled up to full boost…The Getrag six-speed manual transmission is balanced by a weightier flywheel and features dry-sump cooling to ensure it is suitably configured to withstand track-day abuse.In a world where the manual transmission is being steadily supplanted by dual-pedal automatic and dual-clutch shift options, 1M’s six-speed H-gate is a fantastic throwback to full driver involvement.

So, it's plenty quick, and the in-line six engine powertrain character gives it a very authentic M3-feel, but what about that most crucial element of the dynamic driving experience: handling?

Well, technically, the modifications are notable. Featuring true M-division derived kinematics, all four wheels are balanced by BMW’s latest M-certified aluminium shock-absorbers featuring. The crucial detail, though, is 1M’s rear-axle assembly (and locking differential) borrowed from the E92 M3. The 53mm additional wheel spacing the M3’s axle adds over a standard 135i might seem trivial, but at high cornering velocities, it makes a substantial difference. Even more so that torque-sensing M-division differential lock, which is called into action far more often with the 1M’s 500Nm overboost torque peak than on its original application in the E92 M3. If you have the required skill (and traffic free stretch of tarmac) powerslides are effortless.

If there is one element of the 1M’s dynamic package which could unnerve, it’s that such rampant acceleration, and performance biased damping, is contained in such a relatively compact wheelbase – 101mm shorter than the M3’s. At (very) high speeds, on less than perfectly surfaced roads (which, sadly, makes up an ever greater volume of the South African road network), 1M writhes its helm and shows faint signs of tram-lining over surface imperfections at speed.

On billiard table smooth roads it’s an effortless cruiser, but a driver’s full attention is mustered as road surface quality deteriorates (and velocities increase). The flip-side of 1M’s slight "nervousness" is of course tremendous agility, the delightfully weighty steering requires a firm hand, but only needs to be manoeuvred a touch off-centre to get BMW’s mini-M-car faithfully turned into even the tightest radius corner at speed. Grip is prodigious, and thanks to the short wheelbase, wayward behaviour from the rear (already controlled admirably by the M-specification locking differential when encountering power-on oversteer) is quickly corrected with a dab of opposite lock. The 1M’s steering, featuring a greater share of hydraulic instead of (numb) electrically geared assistance, is one of its best features.

No M-car would be complete without a fully harmonised dynamic driving experience. As such the 1M’s ballistic twin-turbo six-cylinder acceleration and circuit-certified cornering posture is perfectly balanced by cast iron brake discs - 360mm at the front and 350mm at the back – taken straight off the M3. Middle-pedal feel is progressive, making deceleration easy to module, even at substantial speeds when negotiating (very) challenging and (twisty) roads.

GREAT PRETENDER?: BMW’s E30 M3 established the compact M-car legend. New 1M is like an E30/2002ti performance hybrid…


There’s an argument to be made against conventional logic that dictates true M-dynamics are derived from bespoke, tuned engines – instead of chassis dynamics.

In this regard, the 1M is very much a work not so much of M-division headquarters, in Garching, but of the M-division testing satellite station located at the Nurburgring – where BMW had the foresight to establish a testing presence as far back as the late 1970s.

I thought the M3 rear axle, brakes, differential, a few trick suspension bits and boy-racer styling add-ons could not possible create a car that could be the measure of the E92. Well, the 1M is that car.

Traditionalists might hate the fact that is shares an engine available in other 1-Series applications ((technically, the current 135i’s N55 engine has a single turbo, so it’s not identical in configuration), but it’s so good, and offers so much performance (and a true M-product feel) for such an attractive price, that owners will be very unlikely to ever part with their 1Ms. It really is the E30 M3 for the 21st century.

Okay, so all the Alcantara trim added to the cabin is sure to fall victim to toffee-apple wielding kids (or grandkids) at some stage. And yes, availability is an issue (current South African allocation is all sold out). Start ticking the option boxes and the price starts ballooning alarmingly. Two-zone auto air-conditioning adds R6 300, "comfort" access another R7 200, front/rear park distance control R7 300. The top-end Harman Kardon surround system speakers are R11 200, with with satnav with hard-drive storage R20 800…Does the options list matter? No, not really.

There is only thing that matters with regards to the 1M and that is the fundamental difference between being an M-badged as opposed to a proper M-car - and 1M is most definitely a very convincing version of the latter.