Put the BMW 1 Series M in a lineup of small sporty cars, and you'd choose it as the vehicle most likely to have taken performance-enhancing drugs.
The regular 1 Series is the smallest vehicle in BMW's portfolio. A two-door coupe with awkward dimensions, it has a short body, high roof and wheels pushed out to the extreme edges. Pricing starts above $31,000.
For the 2011 model year, a special $47,000 performance model is offered. Dubbed the 1M, it gets a series of steroid injections from BMW's M division, resulting in a mightier engine, sharper suspension and aerodynamic accents.
The performance-tuning division, M, has a long history of modifying already-fast Bimmers. No wonder the 1 Series is suddenly jacked up with Schwarzenegger swagger.
The arches around the wheels bulge, like Arnold-worthy deltoids, to better accommodate the 19-inch wheels and wider stance. The front has sprouted a low-hanging fascia with three air intakes, located below the double grill, evoking a set of six-pack abs.
The rear gets a similar treatment, with four tailpipes, an integrated spoiler in the trunk lid, and an air diffuser low enough to brush the tarmac. The entire car is so anchored to the ground that it seems to be built from the asphalt up.
The 3.0-liter, six-cylinder motor has twin turbochargers, which force extra air into the system. It makes 335 horsepower, 35 more than the engine in the already fast 135i. An unfair advantage over the other M cars which have naturally breathing engines? You bet. There's a reason oxygen doping is illegal in sports.
The most famous M vehicle is the M3, the amplified variation of the 3 Series coupe and sedan. The original M3 was a 1988 model with 192 horsepower and a curb weight of less than 2,900 pounds. Only 4,000 were made. Talk about a sought-after car. But like most modern vehicles, the M3 has become larger and heavier over the generations.
BMW calls the 1M the "spiritual successor" to that sprightly, first-generation M3. Though longer, taller and wider, the 1M looks roughly the same size if you tilt your head and squint. It weighs around 3,300 pounds, ensuring a nimble attitude around corners, and 60 mph arrives in 4.7 seconds. That's the same time as the current V-8-powered M3, which has 414 hp.
This may be the only year that the 1M is made — BMW says it has no plans for another model year. If that's the case, consider snapping one up, immediately. Fewer than 1,000 will come to the U.S. I fully expect it to be a sleeper model that will be coveted in the future.
BMW has chosen not to add too many features: It comes in three colors (white, black and a pleasing orange); the sole interior is black with contrast stitching; and only two option packages are available (technology and convenience). With an eye to saving weight, you can't get a sunroof either.
Pricing tops out at a not inconsiderable $54,000, and more than a few potential buyers will think the interior looks spartan (or cheap) for that sticker. They have a point.
It's a good thing the driving dynamics are as concentrated as the looks. It only comes with a six-speed manual, a terrifically fluid transmission with gears that flow like water. The clutch is easy too.
I was lucky to have a full day with the car at my favorite proving ground, the Monticello Motor Club in upstate New York. I know this track almost better than any other, having tested everything from Ferraris to an F1 racecar here.
While the 1M won't compare to them, it still proved a perky player. The track has a couple of slow, tight corners which catch me out every time. Come in too fast and most cars push wide, taking you off the desired driving line.
The 1M is light enough to maintain a quick pace into these tough spots. Trust in the superb grip of the tires, the agility of the aluminum suspension and the ease at which you can both induce and correct gentle slides.
Rocket in, sling out. Suddenly those corners seem easy.
There's enough mid-range power that I generally left the 1M in third gear around the entire South course. That's the kind of sweet-spot torque which guarantees a good time on curvy mountain roads.
After several very hard laps, the brakes were smoking. I jumped into an M3 for comparison's sake. That car feels more serious, it's true, and there's no question it has more power.
But it doesn't allow the same level of latitude as the 1M, which is light enough that you can attack a corner many different ways, correcting big mistakes on the fly. Come in hard in the M3 and make the same error and you'll likely find yourself in the dirt.
Who says that the little guy never wins?
The 2011 BMW 1 Series M Coupe at a Glance
Engine: 3.0-liter, twin-turbo, inline 6-cylinder, with 335 horsepower and 332 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Six-speed manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.7 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 19 city; 26 highway.
Price as tested: $54,085.
Best feature: All that muscle in a constrained frame.
Worst feature: Spare interior.
Target buyer: The Bimmer lover who can't find an original 1988 M3.