The Spirit of Competition : BMW 1 Series M Coupe & M2 Competition Driven [review]

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Compact M models still have the ability to make us go weak at the knees

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There’s no small amount of satisfaction to be derived from rolling one’s sleeves up and getting down to a spot of automotive ‘hard work’, especially if it offers a respite from the soul-draining daily commutes to/from work.

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(Looks like hard work... actually plenty of fun!)

Don’t make the mistake of confusing hard work with discomfort though: There’s pleasure in the first, whereas the second could involve contorting your body into a tight space for an extended period.

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(The 1 Series M Coupe was such a cool operator it just said 'M'... for 1M that is!)

We’re of the age skewed towards the labour of love a manual gearbox engenders, specifically the 6spd one in the seminal 1 Series M Coupe, or 1M for short. When the 1M arrived, it was pitched ostensibly as a entry-point to M sportscars.

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(No, the 1M isn't that small, and objects in the mirror are a lot faster than they seem!)

More importantly, it gave older petrolheads a chance to wax nostalgic over its pocket-rocket form factor and (almost) no-frills back-to-basics, RWD driving feel, since it was available as manual-only and closer in proportion to the original E30 M3, than the contemporary M3s.

(Click HERE to read about our time in the E30 M3... non Evo sadly!)

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However, the 1M was turbocharged, and this was a source of consternation to fans of the brand’s sports coupes/sedans (we qualify this to take the X6 M out of the picture, since that crossover thinamajig marked the debut of M’s turbo’d V8, as well as the start of the crossover craze).

Also, given how every M till then had bespoke engines, it didn’t even matter that the six-pot in the nippy 1M was tuned to deliver 340hp and 450Nm (with 500Nm on Overboost) – the tiny tyke had its work cut out for it.

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At that point in time, the world had only known nat-asp M sedans/coupes, from the screaming V10 in the E60 M5 to the frenetic urge of the inline6’s swansong in the E46 M3 CSL, and then the 4.0-litre V8 (and later, the excellent 4.4 in the CRT and GTS) in the following E9x M3.

(Click HERE to read our E46 M3 CSL review)

(Click HERE to read about the E90 M3 CRT)

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As we would discover, the writing was already on the wall for nat-asp engines, and the 1 Series M Coupe would have the last laugh even though it was the very small tip of an immense iceberg. Why? Well, every M (and M Performance) model today is turbocharged, including the 1M’s successor, the polished M2 (and its replacement, the M2 Competition we have here).

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40-something lawyer, MC, took his time to track down this virginal Alpine White 1M we’ve borrowed, because he didn’t want a tired car, or one that might have been pranged and/or tuned and de-modded.

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(Song choice deliberate... cos we're in the fat-bottomed 1M!)

Compared to the latest M cars, the 1M’s cabin is positively spartan, with just the bare essentials to let one go about the business of raising a rowdy ruckus on the roads! 

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It also helps that the inline6 has the pipes to sing with, thanks to the legal Akrapovič back-box, so it has the angsty aural histrionics to go with the drive hysterics.

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With its polarising love-it-or-loathe-it looks, the 1M is quite the belligerent personality, especially with its purposeful, bulldog stance and fat fender flares – think what you will, but at least the 1M has character and looks radically different from the regular 1 Series Coupe so there’s no mistaking the two.

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Even if the ‘Frankencar’ is a little rough around the edges, it comes across as an engineer’s labour of love that was created for passion’s sake, as opposed to a polished act to fulfil a bottomline.

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The mix-and-match of components (including choice chassis bits from the E92 M3) gives the 1M a proper skunkworks, after-hours vibe that bolsters its cult appeal so much so these critters are in hot demand these days – in fact, it’s getting harder to find one in a stock, unmolested condition.

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(Photo Credit: BMW)

Of the M2 Competition (or M2C, as we’ll refer to it from this point on), MC and I concur that the styling is agreeable and inoffensive, with subtle cues to clue the clueless in on its performance credentials.

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(M2C's tail pops out easy enough – progressive and somewhat predictable – but you can't take such rear-drive shenanigans for granted these days, in a time of FWD and AWD 'sportscars'...)

“I reckon the design of the M2C appeals to a wider audience, and will possibly sit well with either gender. In fact, the M2C is understated enough for me to feel comfortable driving it to a client meeting (minus the go-faster tricolore decals) without fear of being viewed as a boyracer,” says MC of the M2C.

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(Gorgeous carbonfibre strut that we first saw in the F80/F82 M3/M4)

The M2C has effectively replaced the M2, and most notably features the M3/M4’s S55 inline6 ‘heart’ (compared to a ‘common’, albeit tuned version of the M235i’s N55 engine previously found in the M2, and the N54 engine found in the 1M before that), but is otherwise almost visually identical to the M2 to all but the cognoscenti.

(Click HERE to read about the 'regular' M2)

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The M tricolore decals are part of an optional ‘accessory’ list, and compared to the M2, the M2C gets proper M-style mirrors now (like the 1M), more aggressively flared kidney grille nostrils (in Shadow Line naturally) and a new front skirt.

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Like the M2, the M2C has polished, palatable Coupe looks that should find plenty of fans, especially those who might find the 1M too intimidating and in-your-face, even if that’s exactly what endears the 1M to us.

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Inside the M2C, the instruments are fully digital, and there are individual controls for steering, engine performance and chassis, just like on the bigger M models.

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 MC adds, “The M2C has a much more modern and comfortable interior compared to the 1M and I appreciate the entertainment system’s seamless connectivity with my media device. There’s a lot of information available, including real-time weather, but it’s odd that it doesn’t feature oil/water temperature gauges under the instrument binnacle like I have in the 1M. I like to be able to tell that my car is properly warmed up before caning it!”

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(1M's grey dials reminscent of the E39 M5's and E46 M3's)

Needless to say, MC enjoys the 1M’s old-school cabin, with grey-faced analogue dials like the E39 M5 and E46 M3, a manual shifter and subtle orange contrast stitching highlights – it’s pretty much just you and the car, but this also means you need to learn to work around the 1M’s quirks.

(Click HERE to read about the seminal E39 M5)

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The 1M feels positively out of sorts when you’re going slowly, because it only ever wants to be grabbed by the scruff of its neck and flung into corners. It needs a firm, committed hand to tame and isn't the sort to make snowflakes feel good by letting them take heroic liberties with it, especially with the traction control off.  

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“Compared to the M2C, the 1M feels more tail-happy and snappy. It is a lot easier to get the rear out and the traction control light flickering. In fact, when accelerating on damp roads in the 1M, the rear will squirm even with the steering wheel pointed straight,” adds MC excitedly.

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(Photo Credit: LG... the person, not the phone!)

Although it makes its 450Nm from just 1500rpm (versus the 550Nm of the M2C from 2350rpm), it feels like we’re working a lot harder to stir it from a stupor, especially from standstill. However, this is where the overboost feature comes in handy, because full throttle gives an additional 50Nm shot of manic mayhem in a car that tips the scales at under 1.5-tonnes.

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However, there are some downsides to the 1M. “It’s a tough daily drive with its heavy clutch and heavy steering, especially if you’re navigating Singapore’s peak traffic regularly. Fortunately for me, I don’t need to live with the 1M on a daily basis and can choose to drive it when conditions are best, so every time I step into the 1M, it still brings a smile to my face,” MC tells us.

MC muses, “I appreciate the 1M’s analogue feel, where you have to work harder and need to be focused when going fast, because you worry that if you don’t get it right you might end up in the road divider!"

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(Lamp-post bowled over by M awesomeness!)

"However, my fondness for such an uncompromising driving experience may not be shared by all. The younger Nintendo generation that is used to instant gratification may not appreciate the 1M’s shortcomings, and question the logic of a car that requires greater input and effort but is unable to perform as well as one that goes about its business in a much more efficient manner like the M2C.”

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On the other hand, the M2C is accommodating enough to let you jump in, drive it with verve and take liberties with it from the get-go. It’s a nippy, nimble pocket rocket that transforms into a hot-rod with a prod, yet is happy to pootle around sedately when you’re commuting to/from work/home. What's amazing is the M2C's 1575kg kerbweight is heavier than the M4C's 1540kg, yet the M2C feels a lot lighter on its feet than its big brother.

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(The M2C is available in either 7spd M-DCT dual-clutch or 6spd manual)

MC chimes in, “Morning commutes to work and sitting in early morning traffic during school runs are dispatched with ease and comfort in the M2C. Moreover, with the gear change in its fastest setting, the shifts in the M2C are near-instantaneous and faster than I could ever manage in the 1M.”

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It’s compact and agile, and feels it, especially when you’re flinging it around the track as we were on the Phillip Island Circuit, where it cheekily flashed us the point-and-squirt streak to its character. With the new engine, full-throttle runs are linear and properly fast, especially if you’re in the dual-clutch model.

(Click HERE to read about our time at the BMW Driving Experience Advance 2 course)

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“The M2C is much more powerful than the 1M, and the M2C’s added power makes it feel more like a sportscar than a hot-hatch, especially with the performance settings turned to the max. The M2C’s brakes provide good bite and feedback, and make the ones on the 1M pale in comparison. The M2C is much more sophisticated in handling bumps and uneven roads as compared to the 1M – the ride is firm, but isn’t unduly harsh. When pushing through corners, the M2C’s ride is composed and settled, and has better body control than the 1M,” says MC.

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He concludes, “The overall performance of the M2C was highly impressive. It is a very powerful car in a well-engineered package that allows you to deploy the power with ease. If I needed a car for all seasons then the M2C would check the boxes for a comfortable daily drive and a car that can also be a fast, capable sportscar.”

STORY David Khoo / MC
PHOTOS Penoramic Publishing

BMW 1 Series M Coupe
Engine 2979cc, inline6, twin-turbo
Power/rpm 340hp/5900rpm
Torque/rpm 450Nm/1500-4500rpm (+50Nm Overboost)
Transmission 6spd manual
0-100km/h 4.9secs
Top Speed 250km/h (electronically limited)
Fuel Consumption 9.6l/100km
CO2 224g/km
Wheelbase 2660mm
Kerbweight 1495kg

BMW M2 Competition
Engine 2979cc, inline6, twin-turbo
Power/rpm 410hp/5250-7000rpm
Torque/rpm 550Nm/2350-5200rpm
Transmission 7spd M-DCT dual-clutch
0-100km/h 4.2secs
Top Speed 250km/h (electronically-limited)
Fuel Consumption 9-9.2l/100km
CO2 206-209g/km
Wheelbase 2693mm
Kerbweight 1575kg

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.