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First Drive: 2011 BMW 1-Series M [Review]

BMW says its 1-Series M is a reborn E30 M3. We hit the track at Monticello Motorsports Park to separate fact from fiction!

It squats like an English bulldog, this hunkered down, mean machine known as a 2011 BMW 1-Series M.

Fine, it can't rightly use that mascot since sibling MINI has taken it over. So let's say that the BMW grunts and growls like a bear and then squeals like a banshee as you feed it go-pop. And thanks to its burst function, it can throw down with five-second zips of super power all day long.

Eigenwillig. A German word for those willing to go their own way, BMW officials think it suits the 1M perfectly as a car that is "the spiritual successor to the original M3." It reminds us more of the 2002tii, but is it really worthy of the M designator? Climb in, buckle up, and let's go.

Every now and then an auto manufacturer produces a vehicle that is so comprehensive in its abilities that its cachet becomes almost cult-like. The original E30 M3 was such a car. The current M3 coupe also achieves greatness, but in a totally different manner. With the new 1M, does BMW have what it takes to reclaim its mojo?

The Porsche Cayman, and Audi TT RS are just two of the contenders waiting to mash the skinny pedal against the 1-Series M when the green flag drops. Different price points and styles of cars, to be sure, but they do match up. And then there are the requisite Camaro SS and Mustang GT entries, too. Regardless, there is a lot of fun packaged into these performance coupes.

What's new? Balance, for one thing. Imagine a square that makes contact with the road via the footprints of the four larger than large tires. Again, reaching back to the 1988 M3, this 1M is wider, yet has a nearly identical overall length as its progenitor.

When it's compared to the regular 1-Series, the 1M rides on the same wheelbase, but tracks wider, and at 3,296 lbs., is 77 Big Macs lighter. Weight savings is found by the absence of a moonroof. This allows extra helmet room for those track day excursions that this car is certain to participate in.

Draw those curtains
BMW aerodynamicists have designed a high/low pressure system that draws air through ducts in the lower grill, which is then squeezed into a duct system that exits just ahead of the front tires. The resulting high-pressure flow exits into a curtain-like stream over the tires, which increases the slipperiness and reduce the aerodynamic turbulence of the car.

The company reminded us that we had seen this principle demonstrated on the BMW Vision Efficient Dynamics concept car that debuted at the 2009 Frankfurt show. Look for this tech to become ubiquitous on the rest of BMW's lineup - it's already headed to the standard 1-Series for 2012.

In addition to the rather elaborate grille and front fascia design, wider fender flares and a downforce-producing tail lip spoiler help to carry the day versus the body as seen on the regular 1-series. In fact, the only carryover parts from the 1-Series are the hood, roof and trunk lid. At the front and rear are ultra-wide fender flares that do their part to hide the 19-inch Michelin high-performance tires. BMW calls them "especially voluminous." Side gills house turn indicators adorned by the M-logo, and dual-duals cap off the rear fascia with chrome exhaust finishers.

Inside, the 1M is equipped with a decidedly low glare interior that is strictly business, with the exception of those cars ordered with navigation. The interior door panels, gauge binnacle, upper dash panel, shifter knob and brake lever boot are all adorned with black Alcantara material and orange contrasting stitching.

Leather seating is standard and, lest a driver forget he is in an M-car, the M logo is seen everywhere - on the seats to the top of the shift knob to the steering wheel itself. The navi-equipped cars come with an 8.8-inch monitor and the current generation iDrive selector dial just below the shift lever.

The driver's seat adjusts in 14 different ways; both front seats offer adjustable bolsters, lumbar support and optional seat heaters. We did think the mounting was a touch higher off the ground than we are used to, but through a combination of rake and telescoping steering column, were able to find a position that seemed to work. The rear seat, while carrying on the black with orange stitching theme, is a rather spartan affair, but it does offer accommodations for short jaunts around town. A rear seat delete would be a neat, but unrealistic option.

Hotness under the hood
Displacing 3.0 liters, the uprated 335 horsepower inline six-cylinder engine has magic powers. With twin turbochargers, and direct injection, it goes a long way towards reducing mass while increasing velocity. Peak torque of 332 lb-ft. appears at 1,500 and continues to 4,500 rpm for a relatively flat power band. The 1M is exclusively available with a six-speed manual transmission that is among the silkiest units we have ever rowed. Seeing that this is a driver's car, we find it to be a perfect choice.

But wait, there's more! The 1M is equipped with an overboost function that provides an extra 37 lb-ft. for up to five seconds, for a maximum of 369 lb-ft .of torque. It's like having a Formula 1 KERS System without a limit on how many times you can use it. 0 to 60 comes in 4.7 seconds, which is not too far off the mark for the M3. Overboosting behavior does come with a price, though. The EPA says to look for a mileage average of 21 mpg combined.

The 1M is equipped with the steering wheel-mounted M-Power button, which was first introduced in the 2006 M5. Unlike that car, whose button changed throttle response and suspension characteristics, the 1M M-Power button remaps throttle response only. The exhaust note has been tuned to sonorous satisfaction that will cause you to keep the Harman/Kardon audio system in the off position.

Late at night, 1M engineers have been busy sourcing parts through Midnight Auto Supply. That's the only logical explanation as to why the M3's suspension bits have turned up on its 1M kid brother. As a result, the 1M rolls on M3 alloy wheels, stops with the big brake kit and nabs go-fast bits from the M3 Competition package.

The sum of all these parts is a ballsy compact hot rod that combines speed and handling in one moderately affordable package. On country roads leading from BMW headquarters in Montvale, New Jersey, and heading up to Monticello Motor Club in Monticello, New York, we had a car that offered terrific feedback via its hydraulically power assisted steering over a wide variety of road surfaces ranging from pockmarked secondaries to expansion-jointed highways.

Once at the track, we experienced a car that offered amazing acceleration, and with the ability to turn off the BMW traction control, a vehicle that responded immediately to our input. Want to late-brake a turn? No problem. How about throwing the tail out just a little bit? Done. Even on a late turn-in, there was very little in the way of body lean, which is further testament to the BMW suspension engineer's expertise.

Such is the case when the Nordschleife course of Nurburgring racetrack is your test facility.

Leftlane's bottom line
BMW once again proves its mettle with the 2011 1M. And in the process of delivering this soon-to-be cult-classic, the company lives up to its mantra as makers of The Ultimate Driving Machine.

An E30 M3 it will never be to purists, but this sporty two-door will write its own history.

2011 BMW 1-Series M base price, $47,010.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.