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2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe: First Drive

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I told myself I would hate the BMW 1 Series M Coupe because no parts bin-built Bimmer could ever be worthy of the M-Sport badge. Right? Of course. I knew I would hate the "BMW 1M." I had to. But did I?

Disclaimer: BMW wanted us to drive the 1 Series M Coupe so badly they provided a day of track time at the Monticello Motor Club's South course and all the cars we could thrash. I provided my own transportation and a tall coffee, extra burned, from Starbucks.

I had a speech prepared for the day the 1 Series M Coupe arrived. I dream of delivering it to BMW executives, pounding my shoe on the table as punctuation. How dare they build a non-M M car, a mix-and-match hack job of parts on hand; a tedious little coupe powered by a plebian engine with a tractor's redline and those spooly things like the cars in the Fast and the Furious movies. I imagined building to a crescendo, where I'd foretell heaps of ridicule the 1M would receive from people whose sanctimony about free-revving, naturally-breathing BMW M cars comes as naturally as breathing: The M purists.

Yeah, well never mind that. This is most definitely an M car.

Indeed, the 1 Series M Coupe shares its three-liter, twin-turbocharged inline six with several pre-2011 BMWs (and still with the BMW Z4 sDrive35i). The downside to that is the 1M doesn't have its own, F1-derived cooker that revs to infinity and imparts a brutal wail that could strip paint, like some notable M cars do. But in other ways - and here's where the 1M is indeed true to BMW's own narrative for it - the 1M resembles those nimble, neutral-handling, frisky M cars of yore, which should make pain-in-the-ass purists very happy.

What is a BMW M car, anyway? In its early years, the M performance division handled only motorsports. Out of necessity it began turning out homologation specials, like the rarer-than-plutonium M1 and later the brilliantly-steering four-cylinder E30 M3 of 1988. Since then, the M purview has widened to include Wernher von Braun-spec executive sedans, nasty-quick SUVs and, well, don't they make a fire truck or something?

No they don't. And for those concerned that M has strayed too far from its roots, the 1M's coltish charm on the road and racetrack offers both a sense of relief and a bit of dramatic tension, considering how few 1Ms BMW says it's planning to build.

Naturally, the 1M's N54 three-liter (not the 2011-model 135i's twin-scroll, single-turbo N55) is a separate beast from the current M3's four-liter V8. At 335 horsepower, the twin-turbo six is ​​way out of the M3's 414-hp league, but makes up the difference with stacks of torque from 1,500 rpm to 4,500 rpm, peaking at 332 lb / ft - 37 lb / ft more than the M3. It also has a provisional overboost function, that issues temporary peaks of 369 lb / ft during low-idle, high-load situations (like flooring it from a dead stop). That grunty, always-on power band matched well to Monticello's 1.6-mile, 12-turn South course, especially when paired with the 1M's outstanding chassis.

And what happens when you push that telltale M-Power button on the 1M's steering wheel? No additional power; instead, it adjusts mapping on the drive-by-wire throttle, adding more kick per the same decrease in pedal angle (which engineers call the control variable). An M car needs an aggressive throttle.

The 1M isn't particularly quick; BMW says it can get from 0-60 in 4.7 seconds, which isn't far off the 135i's low-five-second-range time, even if the company's being typically conservative. No, the point of this car isn't blinding quickness; the point of the 1M is agility, and it has plenty of it.

With a wheelbase that's four inches shorter than the M3, and the addition of the M3's quicker, 12.5: 1 steering ratio, the 1M turns much more aggressively than the longer M3. Of course, M engineers used other parts from the M3 to tweak the 1M's road manners as well. Beneath the 1-Series architecture is M3's variable differential, its 5-link rear suspension and brakes.

The 1M can carry an astounding amount of speed through corners, and there's plenty of advance warning before the tires finally give way. Oh, you wanted rubber? The 1M has loads of it, with 245/35 ZR19s in the front and 265/35 ZR19s in the rear. That's a lot of rubber for a small car, and aside from making the 1M look exactly like a concept-car sketch (how odd is that?) It provides ridiculous amounts of grip from contact patches the size of Staten Island.

And then there's that stance, which BMW's gotten exactly right. The wider track and ever-so-slight negative camber in the rear wheels gives the 1M an attractive, bulldog stance. In fact, stance-wise, it's leaps and bounds over any other modern M.

But what of the sound? BMW definitely gave the 1M its own aural signature, which is less wicked than other Ms, but is far deeper and angrier than the 135i by way of tweaks to the intake and exhaust.

If the sign of a good car is how soon after your first drive that you're comfortable pushing the limits, then this is a very good car. The M3-spec brakes - 14.2-inch ventilated discs in front, 13.8 in the rear - are more than enough gear for the lighter 1M, but I would like to have seen how they'd have drawn down the 3,362 car from Monticello's 140- mph straight, which we didn't use. Otherwise, I didn't notice the pedal feel at all, which is kind of the point, right? As for stability control, BMW's M Dynamic Mode will get most track-day drivers all the way there, but considering modern M cars are about the brilliance of the differential, it's more rewarding to turn off the nanny, dial it back a bit, and let the mechanicals take front and center.

What's kind of baffling about the 1M is its narrow window of production. BMW's building only between 800 and 1,000 of the cars, based on production capacity at the company's Leipzig plant, and has articulated no plans to continue production after the 2011 model year. That means the $ 47,010 1M ($ 54,085 completely kitted out) is a kind of experiment. But while preliminary results confirm the potential for the 1-Series platform to host a sharp-handling sports car, whether or not BMW purists will demand a longer production run remains to be seen.