THE Stelvio Pass in the Italian Alps sped to the top of the drivers' bucket list a few years ago after Britain's Top Gear crew judged it the best road in the world. Based on the bits shown on TV, Clarkson and co must have been inhaling exhaust fumes at the time.
Carsguide retraced the route in what is probably the best four-seater yet built to tackle the lust-worthy drive, BMW's new 1 Series M.
The stop-start shots between hairpins that Top Gear showed on TV look good in pictures but they aren't the reason the Stelvio draws car and bike enthusiasts from across Europe. To the north, the pass opens up into a phenomenal flowing road with humblingly stunning scenery.
This is the best bang-for-your-buck car ever to wear an M badge and the Bavarian maker's refusal to call it an M1 in deference to the 1970s mid-engined supercar won't matter a damn to anyone who drives it. A rose by any other name.
About $100,000 buys a two-door coupe that outperforms the $55,000-dearer BMW M3 in roll-on acceleration and is easier to toss through turns than any coupe this side of a Lotus Exige. It is about $25,000 dearer than the 135i and worth every heavily taxed cent of that.
The differential lock proved its worth in the tight, slippery corners. In standard mode exits were marked by a frustrating pause as the traction control lit up to show it was struggling to keep rubber from slipping.
Push the button to let the rear axle redirect torque and that hesitation drops back to a heartbeat before it hooks up. In theory, disabling the traction software altogether would help, too, but a strong sense of self-preservation intruded on that thought.
The twin-turbo six-cylinder engine has won a swag of awards and in this guise is good for 250kW/450Nm. The alloy suspension components and 19-inch alloys from the M3 catalogue minimise weight and the interior features run from leather dash and seats to internet connectivity. This may be the first BMW made without an options list. The three paint choices are no-cost.
This car has the best proportions in the M range. It is fundamentally a wickedly reworked 135i coupe, with 55mm added to the track to keep it planted on the road when the going gets silly. The flared guards needed to accommodate the extra track and meatier rubber give the baby M a distinct family resemblance to the M3 coupe.
The quad exhausts and vented gills on the sides are trademark M design features. Changing gears quickly, the driver can hit an arm on tall bottles in the single cupholder on the centre console. The interior is straight out of the 135i but it's all been leather-wrapped with contrasting stitching. Even the gearbox gate cover is suede.
The basic BMW 1 Series package is five-star rated and the extra attention that's gone into the 1 Series M should improve on that. The brakes would slow down a supertanker and repeated hammerings do no more harm than covering the front wheels in brake dust.
Negotiating the 48 torturous switchbacks that mark the Stelvio's ascent to 2757m, the driver realises the difference between what rates as great TV and what rate as great roads. The M car outhustled and outhandled Subarus, Audis and Porsches alike as it carved a line through the rain and snow-topped bitumen.
But the switchbacks themselves just aren't that much fun. It's a second or two of full acceleration, then hard on the brakes as speed bleeds back to single figures.
But on either side of the hairpins the road opens out enough for the vehicle to flow from curve to curve and car and driver each work hard to maintain a decent pace. The coupe hits 100km/h in 4.9 seconds, fuel consumption is 9.6L/100km, and CO2 emissions are 224g/km.
Me, I want 1. If I had $100K to part with, this would be the car. The only comparable car in terms of cornering dynamics is the Porsche Cayman and its lack of rear seats makes it less practical as a day-to-day driver. There are quicker cars and there are better handling cars but this is the best compromise I've driven.
BMW 1 Series M
Warranty: Three years, unlimited km
Service Intervals: 15,000km/12 months
Crash rating: Five stars
Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo six-cylinder, 250kW/450Nm
Transmission: Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Body: Two-door coupe
Dimensions: 4380mm (L), 1803mm (W), 1420mm (H), 2660mm (WB)
Thirst: 9.6L/100km, 224g/km CO2
'There are quicker cars and there are better handling cars but this is the best compromise I've driven'