Since it first hit American roads in the late 1980's, BMW’s mighty-mite M3 has gained nearly half a ton, growing from a light-footed 2,800-pound four-cylinder into a 3,700-pound V8 monster that is still at the top of its game as far as performance is concerned, but a little bulky and a pricey proposition at $61,000.
Enter the 1 Series M Coupe, which for brevity’s sake we’ll call the 1M, but not the M1 because that was the name of a legendary BMW supercar from the late 1970's which we are not allowed to desecrate the memory of -- even if it is drawn only from images posted to the walls of 1980s-era teenagers, as only 400 or so were produced and no one has ever actually seen one in person.
Unicorns aside, the 1M is a return to BMW’s modern day roots as the maker of relatively affordable, but sublimely capable luxury sports cars that started life as everyday compact sedans, such as the 2002 tii and the original 3M…er, M3.
To create it, the folks in the company’s M division take a standard 1 Series, look at it for a few moments, chuckle at its relative impotence, then tear it apart and replace about 80 percent of the important stuff.
New fenders all around sport wide wheel arches that give the 1M the stance of a catamaran; the deep front fascia looks like the love child of a bumper and the front wing of a F1 car; and a huge trunk-mounted spoiler and upturned black diffuser with quad tailpipes sticking out of it create a rear end graphic that reminds one of a bird in heat – or at least that promo photo of Natalie Portman in “Black Swan.”
Like her tutu, the bodywork covers serious machinery underneath it. The rear axle, complete with its trick electronic differential, comes from the larger and heavier M3, as do the brakes and wheels wrapped in Michelin Pilot Sport 2 tires. A 335 hp twin-turbocharged inline-6 cylinder motor is borrowed from the only BMW with a worse name than the 1 Series M Coupe: the Z4 sDrive 35is.
To emphasize the point that this is a car for people who enjoy driving, and not just those looking for the fastest lap times, the 1M is available only with a 6-speed manual transmission rather than one of BMW’s high-tech dual-clutch automatics. That’s an old school and an increasingly rare treat.
All told, the 1M is tuner’s dream come true, something you might see cobbled together by one of your track day buddies with as much time on his hands as money to burn, but with the full faith and credit of BMW behind it. Priced at $47,560 it’s less than you’d spend trying to accomplish the same thing with your $42G 135i, and about thirteen grand inside the sticker of an M3 Coupe. Not cheap, but for those looking for this sort of thing the final product is right on the money.
For such a highly-modified car with helmet hair intentions, the 1M retains a surprisingly luxe ride on real roads, even less than perfect ones. Winding through the mountains on the way to the Monticello Motor Club in New York it proved itself to be the type of car that quickly becomes one with its driver, the speed-sensitive power steering sending just the right amount of information through its thick-rimmed wheel - which you’ll also recognize from the M3 - without feeling too heavy in the hands.
The 335 hp on tap is quite a bit less than the 414 hp you get in an M3, but with an overboost function that kicks in during hard acceleration, the 3.0-liter pumps out 369 lb-ft of torque in short bursts. That’s 74 lb-ft more than the V8 in the 342-pound heavier M3 can deliver, and you get it at lower revs, so the 1M is just as quick as the M3 to 60 mph, getting there in 4.7 seconds, according to BMW.
On the track, the 1M is nicely balanced with tons of grip – rubber and underpinnings from a much larger car can do that for you. With the stability contol system’s “Track Trainer” mode engaged, it allows the rear end to slip just enough to hurry you through the turns, and only buds in when you get near the “uh oh” point. Even then it doesn’t harshly shut the door on you like some less sophisticated systems do, just smoothly cuts and redirects power as needed.
Not one to shy away from a little competition, even of the internecine type, BMW brought an M3 along to the track for us to try out. On the tight and twisty section that was at our disposal, I enjoyed the 1M more. It’s decidedly responsive, easy to rotate, more seat of the pants nimble than the M3 and, without a stopwatch handy to confirm the impression, feels just as fast thanks to its superior grunt out of the corners. Granted, on a longer, faster track where the M3’s horsepower would come into play it would likely pull ahead, but, since the ¾-mile back straight at Monticello wasn’t available, that race will have to wait for another day.
Depending on how long that matchup is, the 1M may still win because it will spend less time in the pits. Its EPA rating is 26 mpg highway, 19 mpg city – the latter of those the same as the M3’s dismal highway economy. This car is supposed to be a bargain, after all.
The 1M does have limits. For one, it’s only available in three colors: Black Sapphire Metallic, Alpine white and its signature Valencia Orange. Bluetooth is a $750 option (bundled with BMW Assist emergency response system,) which maybe plays to the whole “driver’s car” image of the 1M, but, come on, the car is only available with a stick shift and my hands will be to busy to take calls. If Kia can make it standard on economy cars, BMW can here. Also, if you want navigation, it’s part of a $2,700 convenience package you can only get if you first shell out for a $2,400 premium package that comes with power seats, auto dimming mirrors and, oh look, Bluetooth.
In some strange, beautiful irony the 1M itself is set to be limited, with only 800 to 1,000 slated for U.S. consumption. With a new 1 Series on the way in 2013, it seems BMW didn’t want to shell out for the extra tooling needed to build more cars than that, so it could turn out to be one of those rare instant classics, like the M1.
Don’t believe what they tell you, unicorns are real and even if your daughter has a picture of one on her wall, sometimes they're pretty cool.
2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe
Type: 4 passenger, 2-door coupe
Engine: 3.0L inline 6-cylinder
Power: 335 hp, 369 (max) lb-ft torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual
MPG: 26 hwy/19 City
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.