Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif., is one of the most difficult road courses in the country. Its declining radius curves, including the infamous Turn 9, elevation changes and the grit-filled wind that seems to blow there perpetually all combine to make the track challenging for even the most experienced road racer, so BMW obviously had to feel very secure about its all-new 1-Series M Coupe to allow a handful of journalists, including us, to put it to the test there. The track has proved to be the undoing of more than one car reviewer looking to show his stuff. But it turns out the keepers of the vaunted Bavarian brand knew exactly what they were doing when they allowed us to test the car in this demanding venue, because we emerged from the experience with nothing but the most profound respect and admiration for the 1-Series M Coupe.
Hold it, you might be saying, just what is a 1-Series M Coupe, anyway? Is it a smaller version of the performance-oriented M3? And if so, why isn't it called M1? Well, yes, the 1-Series M Coupe is to the 1 Series about what the M3 is to the 3 Series, but back in the late 1970s BMW introduced a sports GT called the M1 that became an instant legend, so the last thing the corporate fathers wanted to do with the 1 Series M Coupe is imply some kind of close kinship to the swoopy ultra-exotic. ("I know the M1, so forgive me if I say this, Mr. 1 Series M, but you're no M1.") No, it is not an M1, but as awkwardly named as it is the 1 Series M Coupe might well spawn a legend of its own. It won't motivate supermodels to line up for a ride, but it will put a cock-eyed, gee-I-love-to-drive grin on your face and keep it there.
The newest BMW coupe is very simply one of those cars that begs to be driven in just the same way a new puppy begs to be wrestled with. If an inanimate object can display enthusiasm (can Keanu Reeves, for example?) then the 1 Series M Coupe is just that object. It wants to fly into corners swiftly, and its wants to accelerate away from them even more swiftly.
In size, the M Coupe fits in nicely between the first and second generation M3. Its wheelbase is nine inches shorter than the current M3, and it is just as wide - a combination of dimensions that seems tailor-made for flinging around on a racecourse. And while in overall stature it is taller than the current M3 (and towers over the decades-old M1) that transit-bus uprightness has big payoffs in driver visibility while touring the track at a triple-digit rate.
One needn't worry about either speed or acceleration, either. Top speed on American models is electronically limited to 155 mph, while BMW reports a zero to 60-miles-per-hour sprint can be accomplished in 4.7 seconds. The reason for this exhilarating performance is the car's 3-liter twin-turbo in-line 6-cylinder engine that weighs just 400 pounds or so but delivers 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque. Further, the torque curve seems as flat as Osama bin Laden's heart-rate, so the drivetrain is very forgiving of drivers' misdeeds.
In fact, not only is the drivetrain forgiving, the combination of the suspension and on-board electronic driver's aid are equally kind to strangers. The five-link suspension pulled virtually intact from the M3, the Variable M torque-sensing locking differential and Dynamic Stability Control all contribute to keeping the shiny side up and the rubber side down. Left in regular mode the DSC is invisible on the street unless you do something certifiably heinous, and then it kicks in and helps you out. Left in regular mode on the racecourse it is somewhat intrusive, but the good news is the system offers an intermediate level between full on and completely off labeled M Dynamic Mode that doesn't get in your way on the racetrack, yet still provides a computer-deployed safety net should you really try to bend the laws of physics and good sense. It allows some yaw and wheelspin without waving a finger in your face and saying, "Bad boy," and if you are driving the car effectively you'll barely if ever notice it is there.
Fact is, even the interior has been designed to help the driver focus on the task at hand. The anthracite headliner, for example, isn't just an M styling fillip; it also reduces glare. Ditto for the Alcantara faux suede on various portions of the instrument panel and console. The instruments hew closely to the design theme of others in the M realm, which means they are simple and immediately legible.
On the exterior, four flared fenders are one visual key that the M Coupe is no ordinary 1 Series. Another telltale is the revised front end, which is both more aggressive than standard-issue 1 Series and provides superior air flow. Of course, the headlights are festooned with new LEDs and "halo rings" as well. The overall effect is handsome, but it won't send onlookers into an automotive swoon.
In the overall scheme of things, there is not a huge market for a $50,000 car that is three inches shorter than a Honda Civic Coupe. Sitting at the curb the 1 Series M Coupe doesn't look like it should cost 50K, and curmudgeons in the crowd might decry the fact that the car can travel at more double the rate of the typical Interstate highway speed limit, but when you are behind the wheel on the undulating mountain road, it certainly will seem like money well spent.