The M8. The X3 M and X4 M. The X5 M and X6 M. These are the most recent full-fat M products (I’m not counting facelifts like the M5 or special editions like the M2 CS), and they all have one thing in common: they’re disappointing. The X6 M especially – it arguably represents everything wrong with BMW’s approach to fast cars right now.
Amidst this backdrop, the new M3 and M4 are a bit of a worry. Not because of the way they look – through prolonged exposure I’ve gotten close to appreciating those nostril grilles in a Stockholm Syndrome sort of way. Plus, that brash aesthetic fits much better on an aggressive M car than it does on something like a 420d on sofa castor-spec wheels.
No, it’s more the potential driving experience that has caused me to fret. Like those recent M letdowns, the M3 and M4 are incredibly complicated. Meanwhile, the starting point for the cars, the new 3 and 4-series, don’t quite offer up that trademark BMW feedback petrolheads always used to lust after. And finally, they both use the new S58 inline-six. It’s a decent enough unit, but it lacks the outright aggression of the old S55.
Sure enough, it’s this element of the new M4 on our first drive that emerges as sticking point number one. In terms of noise, its din is barely any more interesting than the one coughed out by the B58 six the 3.0-litre lump is based on. Once you hit the high 6000s, it both sounds and feels weedy. It doesn’t headbutt the redline with vigour as the S55 does.
Switching the engine to Sport offsets the less than inspiring soundtrack with some fake but not unwelcome noise piped through the speakers, which becomes a touch more bassy in Sport Plus. Leave it set that way and start to focus on the mid-range, and suddenly the S58 starts to make a lot more sense.
Good god is it punchy above 3000rpm. The boost arrives like a size 12 kick up the arse, booting you towards the horizon as the rear tyres vehemently reject the demands of the half shafts. In our particular M4, the entirety of the 503bhp and 442lb ft outputs go to the rear wheels. All-wheel drive versions are on the way, but not until Autumn, so for now, wheelspin is the order of the day.
The 0-62mph time is officially quoted at 3.9 seconds, identical to that of an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio. Whether or not this is achievable very much depends on how smooth the tarmac is beneath you. Even on a dry surface, traction under full throttle is a struggle. You’ll probably get through first gear (which appears to be torque limited) OK, with big dollops of wheelspin arriving in second, third and fourth. I even felt the rear have a bit of a wobble during a mid-corner application in fifth, for Pete’s sake.
This isn’t necessarily a criticism, however. There’s something pleasing about a car feeling like it has too much power for its own good. The M4 gets away with it because of the way it oversteps the mark – yes, you’ll be kept awfully busy at the wheel when giving it some on a twisty bit of road, but the G82 doesn’t have that snappy feel that afflicted earlier examples of the F82 version. This was ironed out over time in the old car, but never entirely eradicated.
It’s still a fight you’ll be having in the new one, but it’s more of a sparring match, not a flailing defence to stop someone stabbing you in the left kidney. Also, the chassis offers enough feedback to let you know with plenty of warning if the rear end wants to get out of shape. There’s a decent serving of steering feedback, too. Not mere hints, either, we’re talking proper kickback through the wheel helping communicate exactly what the front end is up to.
Usually, it’s digging in, and hard. We’re yet to try one of these on the track, but on the road, understeer wasn’t once an issue. The fitting of much bigger tyres at the front (275mm whoppers) no doubt helps.
So far, so good, but what about the hilarious modern M car over-complication gambit? Well, in addition to the three modes you got on the old one for the engine, suspension, gearbox and traction control and the two for the steering, there are now two for the brakes. Perhaps I’m old fashioned, but I like my brake pedal to feel consistent, and I don’t see the point in having a ‘Sport’ setting that achieves nothing more than making the stoppers feel over-servoed. To muddy the waters further, you get a Mercedes-AMG-style system that lets you choose from 10 different settings to decide just how ‘off’ the traction control is.
It’s also a shame to see BMW remove the individual buttons for most of these parameters. Now, you need to dive into the Setup menu to have a fiddle, but thankfully, it doesn’t take long to work out how the M4 works best IRL and save your presets in the M1/M2 modes.
You want the engine in Sport Plus (go big or go home), the suspension in Sport (strikes the best balance – Sport Plus is too firm on the road), the steering in Comfort (the excessive weighting in Sport can GTFO), the gearbox as aggressive as possible and the traction control in semi-off ‘MDM’ mode. Oh, and the brakes left in Comfort, as already discussed.
Set it so, and the M4 skirts the line between exciting and unruly with masterful grace. In this guise, it’s a thug of a car that’s just about on your side. The traction control was always a little abrupt in the G80, but here it does a great job of filtering out any OTT 500bhp+ RWD scariness without spoiling the fun. Respect is needed, but the M4 won’t go out of its way to hurl you into a hedge.
Drop most of those back to Comfort, and – thank the Lord – the M4 reveals itself to be a modern M car that actually rides properly. Meanwhile the new eight-speed automatic, which loses a little of the old seven-speed DCT’s immediacy, happily and effectively gets on with shuffling through cogs as necessary. Crucially, everything feels solid and well-thought-out. This is a car you’ll happily clock many miles in, rather than one that’ll leave you wishing you took the train instead. Like the X6 M might.
The real victory scored by the M4 and its four-door M3 brother, though, is that they’ve achieved this level of excitement when regulations are making it harder than ever to build cars like this. With the way things are going, they’ll likely be the last of their kind to be powered by inline-sixes, quite probably by any sort of internal combustion engine. As swan songs go, they’re not far from being pitch-perfect.
G82 BMW M4 Competition Pro Specs
Engine: S58 3.0-litre inline-six twin-turbo
Torque: 442lb ft
Top speed: 155mph (limited)