Story and Photos by Zach Mayne
Wild Cat Canyon in the Berkeley Hills of California is a winding ribbon of road that whips around tight hairpins, runs down short straights and around sweeping curves that are bordered by thick, overhanging trees. It’s also dark in many areas and since this is damp Northern California, the shadows can hide wet spots in the road. Squint, and you may as well be somewhere in the Black Forest of Germany. When I lived in San Francisco years ago, I used to run my Honda CBR sport bike up and down the road regularly. With the explosive power and nimble handling of a modern motorcycle, Wild Cat Canyon was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying.
From behind the wheel of Alekshop’s pumped up BMW 1M Coupe, the experience is surprisingly similar. Though the thrill factor may not be quite as high thanks to the added stability of four wheels rather than two, the road’s coming at me awfully fast. The narrow ribbon of illustrates just how bonkers fast a modified 1M like this one is. Bursting out of corners on a rush of turbocharged power, the BMW’s back tires slither back and forth as they struggle for traction on the narrow road, the trees blurring as the car rockets forward, the exhaust howling.
With its boosty power deliver and propensity for generous oversteer, even a stock BMW 1M Coupe is arguably one of the more intense products to be realized by the mad scientists at M headquarters in Garching, Germany. Add in some well chosen upgrades like the ones on this example and you end up with a pretty stunning machine. This particular machine was built by Fremont, California’s Alekshop, a tuning shop east of San Francisco owned by Alek Dovbnya. When he first drove the 1M on track in stock form, Dovbyna concluded that the suspension, while fine for aggressive street use, wasn't stiff enough when driven at the limit on track. “The stock suspension seemed to be very soft and jumpy which didn’t do well at the track,” he says. The problem was solved by installing KW Variant 3 coilovers, an upgrade that allowed the handling to be easily adjusted. A set of fixed camber plates were bolted in at the front, which further improved turn-in and grip.
While it may not be powered by a high-revving naturally aspirated inline-6, the configuration that for years was the hallmark of BMW M cars, one benefit of the 1M’s forced induction setup is that big horsepower gains are now far easier. Alekshop reprogrammed the stock software with ESS Tuning software. At the same time, Akropovic downpipes and an Akropovic Evolution Titanium exhaust opened up the engine's breathing. The exhaust features an electrically controlled bypass switch that can be activated for more sound and less restriction. To reduce heat soak (the buildup of heat in mechanical components) at track days Alekshop installed a front mounted intercooler and charge pipe from ETS. Dovbnya estimates says that the 1M is putting out 383-hp to the rear wheels and an even more impressive 401 lb-ft of torque to the wheels.
The chassis upgrades are topped off by a Brembo GT brake upgrade that ensures shorter stopping distances and a reduction in brake fade during hard street use as well as grueling track sessions. The 6-piston front and 4-piston rear calipers clamp 380-mm two-piece, floating hat rotors. Goodridge braided steel brake lines provide a firmer pedal, while the pads are Endless MX20 racing items. The 1M's wheels are Volk Racing TE37SL alloys that measure a generous 18x9.5-inches up front and 18x10.5-inches at the back, fitted with 265/35-18 front and 295/30-18 rear Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires. Visually the 1M stands out with Black Chrome kidney grills (an OEM BMW Performance part), gloss black side markers and Lux V3 H8 Angel Eyes. Changes to the interior are limited to a BMW Performance flat-bottom steering wheel, Euro-spec sun visors and a handful of electronic upgrades, including a SOLO DL track timer and data-logging system and an aftermarket rearview camera.
Press the “Start” button and the 1M barks to life through the Akropovik exhaust, the understated tone of the stock version replaced with a hard-edged idle. Switch the exhaust by pressing the little button mounted in the center console and things get even more interesting. Exhaust volume rises noticeably and a blip of the throttle lets out a deep, hard-edged growl that sound more like an uncorked V8 from an recent model M3 than an inline-6, though there is still that unmistakable raspiness. The clutch is light and easy to modulate and the shifter slots into gear with a light, precise feel. The shift action of the 6-speed is a gem too, with short, accurate and effortlessly smooth throws between gears.
Around corners outright grip is extremely high and body roll has been virtually banished thanks to the KW coilovers. Granted, the suspension is very stiff, which may be ideal for a racetrack, but caused the 1M to bounce around over rough asphalt. You have to stay on your game on a bumpy, irregular road like the one we’re on in the Berkeley hills. When you combine the stiff ride with the plentiful horsepower and torque on tap, it becomes a pretty exciting experience. Rocketing out of corners, the grip of the chassis and wide tires is easily overcome by the powerful engine. Even with the traction control engaged, the 1M rear tires can attain some pretty exciting slip angles. Fortunately the 1M's quick reactions and predictable chassis makes it relatively easy to keep things under control. When it's time to slow down, the Brembos are very strong and easy to modulate. All up, the upgrades performed on this BMW transform it into a veritable four-wheeled weapon, with extremely strong acceleration paired well with an inherent nimbleness.