The BMW 1 Series M Coupé is the ‘it’ car of the moment. Everyone is talking about it and everyone, it seems, cannot praise it enough. We’ve already had one drive of the 1M and quickly learnt why it has been creating so much fuss. It really is a cracking car. Overseas, it’s even been compared against the Porsche Cayman R; a genuine sportscar with a sharpened focus.
We’re not sure why that comparison is being made, to be honest. They’re at different price points (especially here in Australia) and they don’t really sing from the same hymn sheet, either.
But when a long-time AUSmotive reader offered us a drive of these two cars who were we to say no. For good measure, the owner decided to throw us the keys to his 2008 BMW M3 as well. Lucky us!
All wearing black wheels with white paint, the trio were tailor made for a mini group-test. So, out to the favoured AUSmotive test route we headed. I drove the 1M on the outward journey and this provided a good chance to get reacquainted and develop a better sense for its daily capabilities.
First thing that really hits home is just how smooth the twin turbo engine is. At 60km/h in sixth gear the 1M will gain momentum very respectably. You’d need to drop it down a few cogs and plant your foot to achieve genuine pace, but in lazy cruise mode the 1M is equally adept.
Over coarse surfaces the little BMW offers no dramas. You may read elsewhere that it’s too harsh for day-to-day use. Compared to what? A 7 Series limousine; maybe. For a car targeting the enthusiast market, though, the ride of the 1M is spot on. As a general rule you can’t have your cake and eat it too. If the 1M had a more compliant ride in town it would be laughed at once the B-roads got interesting.
If we were being really picky we’d say the high-mounted nav screen can be hard to read in direct sunlight. As far as gripes go, that’s about it when sampling the 1M as an everyday car. Really, the cabin is comfortable, the build quality seems excellent, it’s easy to move through the gears and the clutch pedal is fine.
Of course, the joy of driving the 1M isn’t just found in the city. Following our earlier review we were keen for more time behind the wheel with some winding tarmac ribbon ahead of us.
Gee, we’re thankful for the opportunity as well. The 1M is a car you can get comfortable with in a very short amount of time. The steering is beautifully weighted in all scenarios.
The 1M can still get a little unnerved at the front through tight bumpy corners, but never so you feel alarmed. In fact, there’s a surprising and welcome amount of front end grip. The baby M really did hang on well through our understeer test; a tight left-hand corner with undulations and enough elevation changes that have seen many cars struggle in the past.
We can’t say enough about the 3.0 litre inline six cylinder in the 1M. It’s a truly great engine. In its first iteration under the bonnet of the 135i it was good, in the 1M it’s even better. Naturally, more kilowatts help there, but you’ll find that N54 donk loves to eat up the road. You can be lazy and use its generous 450Nm of torque to build speed. Or you can be frantic and chase genuine velocity with astonishing ease while teasing its redline. You don’t need an M-specific engine when this one is so good!
There was one thing about the 1M we didn’t like and that’s how much the DSC will impede forward thrust if left in its default setting. On a mountain pass you only need to be pushing at six or seven tenths for it to really start robbing you of forward momentum. BMW’s engineers have really played it safe here.
Thankfully, this can be quickly fixed by switching the car to M Dynamic Mode (MDM). That’s a setting devised by M GmbH to offer the peace of mind DSC is designed for while allowing you to get on with the business of enjoying their cars with greater freedom. It worked a treat in our experience in the 1M, as well, and made for a much more rewarding driving experience.
With the 1M parked and given time to cool its heels we then headed out on the twisty stuff in the Cayman R.
Let’s not muck about, then. The Cayman R is one of the most pure driving experiences we’ve ever had.
With the Porsche there was no 40 minute drive to get used to the car like we had in the 1M. Simply a matter of getting comfy in the beautifully crafted sports seats, pointing to the twisty stuff and letting rip.
From the hydraulic-like clutch pedal, to the faultless steering feel and feedback, to the perfect seating position, including ideally placed pedals for heel and toe; this car just fits you like a glove. It was a delight to drive, it really was, and so easy to quickly find yourself at one with the car.
The 3.4 litre flat-six engine, providing 243kW/370Nm, punches you out of corners with great effect. You soon lose any thoughts of wanting more grunt down low when you experience the kick as the revs scream past 4000rpm. It’s a superb engine that leaves nothing behind.
It should be no surprise that a mid-engine car built by Porsche has sublime handling balance. Its neutrality and prowess is something special. The chassis fills you with so much confidence you quickly find yourself throwing the Cayman R into corners more and more aggressively just to see how much it can give, and how wide it can make that smile on your face.
In this context of winding blacktop we had to search really hard to find fault with the Cayman. At first, the spongy brake pedal looked like raising our ire. But we soon discovered the progressive pedal feel offered the most confidence-inspiring experience. Push the brake pedal to slow yourself down; need more brakes? Press harder. Pretty simple, really.
Actually, that’s a great snapshot of driving the Cayman R. It’s such an uncomplicated experience. Porsche has really nailed this car and ensured everything has been done for the driver.
In contrast to the 1M, the stability control in the Cayman R was barely noticeable. Don’t worry, we saw its yellow light flashing plenty of times, it just didn’t dull the driving experience.
Adding to that experience was the note from the Porsche Sports Exhaust. It’s not a sound that ignites the soul like a grumbling V8, rather one of ruthless efficiency. Outside the car the sound is probably not worth such high praise. But inside the cabin, when you’re in the zone pushing beyond 5000rpm, it’s about the best sounding car you’ve ever heard.
The Cayman R is one of those rare cars that is provides a clinically clean driving experience while heightening emotions at the same time. We can’t praise it highly enough.
After a few runs through the hills the only slight negative we could come up with related to the notchy manual shift. Everything else about the Cayman R is just so right that, really, you can forgive this minor gripe.
I took the Porsche for the return journey into town and savoured every moment. In doing so, I did come to the conclusion that as an every day proposition the Cayman R would warrant more thoughtful consideration.
The ride and handling is near faultless at the limit. In town, not so much. As much fun and as rewarding as the Cayman R can be, would the harsh ride in city driving wear thin? As brilliant and as supportive as the seats are, how long until the process of getting in and out the car became a chore?
It’s a rich man’s problem, of course. If someone offered me a Cayman R for keeps, I’d accept a healthy dose of perspective and bite their hand off quicker than you could say, “Would you like…”
That just leaves the M3, then. A car with an enviable reputation of being right at the top of the sports coupé genre. For more than a quarter of a century the M3 has won accolades and fans the world over. The E92, the first, and probably last, M3 with a V8 benefits from the silky smooth nature you would expect from such an engine.
High-revving and delightful to use it was clearly the M3’s greatest strength during our test. In typical modern Germanic style when you mash the pedal to the floor in a straight line the composure and sure-footedness on offer is only contrasted by the surprise you get when you glance at the speedometer. The 309kW 4.0 litre doesn’t disappoint in its ability to gather pace.
The test car has two notable after market modifications, the first of which is a shiny HiTech stainless steel exhaust. Not much subtle about that, or the note it produces. It sounds brilliant and brings out a boyish grin whenever you plant your right foot. You could lope around all day marvelling at the induction sound.
But we didn’t want to laze around, we wanted to get busy. We soon found, however, there was a catch.
The other mod, a set of 20” alloys, means planting the foot had to be done with some caution. We can’t be sure if it was the resultant change in geometry from the rims or the slightly worn tyres, but a tight and twisty road was not really the place to be in this M3.
That’s to say, as fun and as adaptable as the first two cars were, you had to be on high-alert in the M3. In stark contrast to the 1M, the DSC on this car was virtually non-existent. A slight dab of throttle was all that was needed to hang the tail out. A barrel of laughs on a track, or other controlled environment, for sure. But, on this road, on this day, with motorbikes buzzing and cyclists pumping, we didn’t feel comfortable finding more than around seven or eight tenths of what the M3 had to offer.
In this company, the M3 shaped more as a GT cruiser, as opposed to an all out weapon. That was a shame, because you can sense there is something quite special lurking here. With more time behind the wheel we expect the bigger BMW—and it certainly does feel a lot bigger than the 1M—would offer much greater rewards.
In this small group test, then, the M3 places a distant third. We started the article suggesting a comparison between the 1M and Cayman R is not really a suitable direction to take. Let’s first look at the money required for these two cars. The 1M can be driven off the showroom floor for somewhere around $110,000. The Cayman R we drove was advertised with a driveway figure of $185,000. The actual sale price was a bit less than that, suffice to say you could still buy the 1M and pocket a Volkswagen Golf R with the change.
Let’s consider the roots of each car. The 1 Series is fine starting platform to create a new M legend. And BMW has done just that, there is no doubt the 1M sits very comfortably among other M highlights. In relative terms, however, the 1 Series is about volume, the Cayman is not. That affords Porsche’s engineers greater freedom when it comes to building a thoroughbred sportscar. Few compromises have been made with the Cayman R. It is 55kg lighter than a Cayman S after all.
So, a final decision then. Surprisingly, perhaps, this is actually quite difficult.
It’s impossible to deny the feeling the Cayman R provides. After first stepping out of the car I was on a real high. It was akin to Richard Hammond’s “I am a driving god” moment. Nothing the brilliant 1M could offer matched that feeling. I can only imagine how much fun the Cayman R would be on a track. You just know it would take whatever punishment you could throw at it. Only to beg you to come back for more. However, not every day takes you on a B-road blast or to the safe confines of a billiard-table smooth circuit.
The 1M, of course, is no slouch. It is building a deserved reputation as a modern-day icon. It will carry that burden with some ease, too. At the limit the 1M is very, very good, but it cannot match the Cayman R. Yet, its four seats, more comfortable ride and more versatile engine give the 1M a much broader range.
When considering a number of scenarios, these two cars are almost impossible to split. BMW claimed the 1M would give us goose pimples. To be fair, it probably has. But there was only one car that made us feel immortal.
The Cayman R.
[Thanks to John & Dianne for their generous assistance]