x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe prototype

BMW once promised its one division would never touch the 1 series, now the car they said would never happen looks to be upon us.

The 1 Series M Coupe will be officially unveiled in Detroit in January and go on sale in May.
The 1 Series M Coupe will be officially unveiled in Detroit in January and go on sale in May.

Years ago, BMW promised us its M division would never touch the 1 Series. Nobody could understand why (especially when the coupe came out) because, with the M3 getting bigger all the time, it seemed like a no-brainer.

Now, here in Bavaria's rolling farmlands, I'm driving the car they said they'd never build.

And, even though it's still a prototype, BMW should have let M build this car years ago. It's that good.

The world won't officially see the clumsily named 1 Series M Coupe until January's North American International Auto Show in Detroit, but we can confirm that it has much to look forward to when it goes on sale around May.

BMW insists this car exists purely to add younger buyers to M and it will price it accordingly. Although it's coy on the exact money, somewhere between the 135i Coupe and the M3 is the target, so expect it to be on sale in Germany for about €50,000 (Dh300,000) to €55,000 (Dh327,000) (before tax).

To get there, the 1 Series M Coupe is a greatly simplified beast over the iconic M3. There is a fixed suspension system and M has ditched the paddle-shift transmission with its launch control and multistage shift times in favour of a simple, six-speed manual gearbox.

That doesn't mean it eschews technology completely. It has the same limited-slip differential as the M3 and it will become the first M car to use an electromechanical steering system.

Inside, there are a few changes, too. The leather seats are chunkier and offer meatier levels of support than the 135i's pews.

Essentially a two-seat coupe with two part-time rear seats for the uncomplaining, the 1 Series M Coupe's dash has the full MultiMedia Information (MMI) system with satellite navigation and looks remarkably similar to the standard car. Except for the very, very fat steering wheel and a sport button that will tighten the steering, throttle and skid-control maps, of course.

It's disappointingly quiet when you turn it over, but there's a deep-ish tone to it that seems at odds with its tiny overall dimensions.

The clutch is heavy, too, which mates nicely with the feel from the six-speed gearbox. First gear is tall, and the 1 Series M Coupe trickles out onto Bavaria's farmland easily and calmly. There are no histrionics in this engine. None.

So civilised is the 1 Series M Coupe that it will actually pull sixth gear from less than 60kph (or under 1,000rpm - unheard of not many years ago) and it will do it without shuddering or complaining.

If the gearbox feels a little obstructionist at low speed, the steering doesn't promise much, either. It feels overly heavy immediately off centre and there's not much feedback to it, either.

As the pace rises and you start attacking, you realise a few things about the 1 Series M Coupe. Frighteningly, it's more composed than the M3 and it's an easier car to get familiar with.

The steering, so indifferent around town, starts to chat to you, as if your added commitment has finally earned its respect and it's deemed you worthy of conversation. It starts with little nibbles on turn-in and then grows into full-blown dialogue mid-corner.

The gearbox, too, sheds its urban notchiness and becomes superbly intuitive. The faster you move the stick around, the better it gets - and the pedals are superbly placed for heel-and-toe downshifts.

It has terrific balance (the weight distribution is 50:50) and poise, and that's exactly what the M3 has lost over the years as it moved closer towards the land of the big-engined grand tourer with every iteration.

With its tiny wheelbase, you'd expect it to struggle in high-speed corners, but it doesn't. And you'd expect it to excel in twisty, sudden direction changes, and it does.

It also stops beautifully, with BMW's electronics sorting everything out when you're on the limit to avoid any ABS moments, when the pedal goes hard over bumps.

The only jarring note in the specifications is the same one that jars with the 1 Series Coupe itself. At around 1,500kg, it's far too heavy. If the ride and the handling are surprise highlights, the engine isn't. Oh, it's a highlight, alright, but it's no surprise, because even in its previous life, there wasn't really anything this engine couldn't do.

M insists it will use its twin-turbo, in-line, 3.0L six-cylinder engine to blast to 100kph in the "low, low five second bracket", limiting the car to 250kph.

The basis for this engine was the twin-turbo six in the 335i, but it was sent across to M to see if they could make any more use out of it after BMW moved to a single, twin-scroll turbo and direct fuel injection.

It will have 340hp on tap, too, and there is a thumping 450Nm of torque on offer from less than 2,000rpm, yet it spins gloriously through to 7,000rpm.

It will haul the little critter from 1,000 revs, but then it strikes the juicy bits around 2,000 and just winds up and hauls, hurling you back in the seat and then flinging the tacho up past its orange line at 6,500 and onto its rev limiter at 7,000.