BMW M4 Review
The M3 coupe’s changed name and gained not only two turbos, but one of the most aggressive driving experiences on sale.
What is it?
This is big. It’s the BMW M4 and after six years on sale, it feels like a staple of the performance car world. But rewind back to 2014 and the people were not happy. The BMW M3, one of the benchmarks in car world, one by which every sports saloon and coupe was measured against, had gone saloon only. The two-door M3 had been renamed M4 – in line with the new BMW 4 Series range – somewhat tangling the roots that led all the way back to the mighty E30 M3 homologation special.
That wasn’t all. For the first time, the M3 (and its newly branded M4 sibling) were turbocharged. Now, to the untrained eye this is no biggie. ‘Turbo’ is a synonym for ‘faster’, after all, and just about everything else wearing an M badge already had turbos six years ago. Even the glorious little 1 Series M Coupe that was destined for the hall of fame in which it now sits.
But this felt different. Not least because the M3 coupe superseded by this M4 had a whopping great naturally aspirated V8, one which revved with the intensity of a food blender but made the harmonious sound one normally associates with motor cars produced in northern Italy.
The new engine in question has proved to be a belter, though. It doesn’t sound as good as before – nothing with two fewer cylinders and two extra turbos ever could – but it has its own snarling aggression that never lets you forget you’re in something serious, even when pootling through town at crawling pace.
Power outputs from its 3.0-litre straight-six vary depending on the spec of M4 we’re talking. The base car produces 424bhp, while a Competition Package ups this to 444bhp, the hardcore CS possesses 454bhp and the even harder cored, ultra-rare M4 GTS (two seats, rollcage, £120k price) boasts the full 500PS, or 493bhp in good old-fashioned measures.
The differences between the four of them run far deeper than some engine tuning, though. The base M4 – particularly early on its life – was known for being a spiky, occasionally spiteful little bugger, a car that threw its turbocharged torque at the rear axle with far less tact than any M3 ever did. Perhaps our curmudgeonly complaints upon the car’s rebadging were justified; it’d lost its sparkle.
Well, a few tweaks sorted that. Initially via the Competition spec, then with a mid-life update, later M4s are notably nicer to drive.
What is it like on the road?
Nicer the M4 may be nowadays, but there’s still a tangible malevolence to its chassis when the roads are less than bone dry. Six years on, with a bit of context, it’s a malevolence that’s actually become quite exciting. Especially in context of rivals as dopey and blunt as an Audi RS5.
This is a car that works best with your utmost attention and as much commitment as you dare throw at it. It’ll take you to your destination with little fuss if you tread lightly on the throttle and never overlap your steering and acceleration. But learn its ways – and increase your confidence – and it’s a truly bewitching thing to spend time with.
The trick, with some inevitability, is to buy the most expensive one you can. The Competition is a considerably more likeable car than a standard M4, justifying its £3,000 price premium with ease. That buys you another 20bhp, new springs, dampers and anti-roll bars and the driving modes on the adaptive suspension have been reconfigured.
On top of that, the rear differential settings have been changed so now, instead of trying to splay sideways when you accelerate out of a corner, the M3 just hooks up and drives. It’s not only faster and more engaging, but has a considerably lower fear factor. Visually you get more black; the badge, exhaust tips, grille and 20in wheels all darkened so while it’s less menacing to drive, it’s actually a bit snarlier on the surface.
And what of the CS, which adds another £24k (not a misprint, it tops 90 grand) for what appears to be an M4 Competition with another 10bhp, stickier Michelin tyres and less interior trim? Spend even a modicum of time with it and you’ll reckon it worth the premium. Its nods to stripped-out track specials all feel superficial when there’s a pair of seats in the back and a dashboard chockful of stereo and climate control up front, but a smothering of Alcantara and some fabric door pulls do lend just about anything a plausible racetrack refugee vibe.
The CS is an example of a track-minded special being a much better and more approachable road car than its base model, rather than being spikier and scarier. See also Mercedes SLS Black Series and Ferrari 458 Speciale. In that company, £90k doesn’t seem so bad.
It’s a tangibly more athletic car than standard – there’s naff-all body roll – yet it sends more information through its seat and steering wheel. Its extra focus leads to a more communicative car, which breeds more bravado from its driver, who in turn works the car harder and has more fun. It’s a virtuous circle.
It really is the sweet spot of the range when you consider the 700-off M4 GTS (of which a mere 30 came to the UK) costs another £30k still. Mighty as it is, the GTS simply doesn’t feel as special as the glorious V8-powered M3 GTS of old and has never quite satisfied us as much. Probably still a decent collector’s item, mind.
We need to touch on gearboxes quickly. The M4 comes as standard with a six-speed manual, with a seven-speed paddleshifter optional on (but your only option on the CS and GTS). Much as we’re luddites who love anything with three pedals (not to mention the message its maker sends out by staying manual) this is a car whose spikes of torque and intrinsic aggression will probably make you wish for both hands glued to the wheel as much as possible. So we’ll hand in our Petrolhead Membership Club cards at the door and spec DCT on ours. Sorry.
We’ll buy back some cred by eschewing the Convertible version, though, available on standard and Competition specs. This is a performance car. Intentionally buying a 220kg-heavier version is wrong on every level possible. Ignore it.
And if you’re wondering whether the M4 coupe feels any different to an M3 saloon, BMW set the two cars up to drive identically. So while the suspension settings do differ fractionally, it’s only to take account of the M3’s extra mass. The track widths are identical, the M4’s boosted 40mm from its base car, the M3’s a delicious 80mm.
On the inside
Layout, finish and space
As a six-year-old car, the interior isn’t full of big flashy screens. Which is quite refreshing in 2020, where a pair of round analogue dials feel rarer, cooler and more satisfying than ever. Especially given M Division’s deeply pleasing illuminated rev limit, that moves upward as the engine warms up.
It also means buttons for all the major controls, and thus no averting your eyes from the windscreen if you need to adjust the air con or volume on the move. Which in an M4 is very welcome indeed.
The wing-back seats hug tightly but accommodate most sizes, there’s plenty of natural visibility (and a plethora of sensors and cameras to lend a hand) and everything is laid out with the ergonomic sense we know and love from BMW, but with flashes of carbon, Alcantara and M tricolours to liven it all up.
Tech addicts might feel like they’re missing out – especially with such poor smartphone connectivity – but everyone else will likely sit and savour a car interior that’s angled towards its driver and not the numerous phones and tablets they might want to plug in. And iDrive is probably at its most intuitive in here anyway.
Perhaps the best example of the M4’s interior usability is how easily you juggle between the Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus modes of its engine, suspension and steering. Each one has its own physical button, so mishmashing your favourite settings is as simple as toggling through each one as you see fit. Even on the move if you wish, as pockmarked urban street makes way for delightful open road and you want the car to quickly tense up. We can only hope the next M3 and M4 keep such important controls so simple too.
Running costs and reliability
There’s plenty of room for all but the tallest people in the back, while the boot’s pretty commodious too. This could plausibly be your only car. And now, over to Top Gear’s Ollie Marriage, who ran the M4’s sister car – the M3 saloon – for the best part of the year.
“It was occasionally snatchy, sometimes unpredictable, often angry. This one still is, even after 16,000 miles, and many people in the office still don’t like it as a result. They think it’s a bit like having a big cat as a pet. It might be related to your standard puss, but there’s something about the way it pulls at a leash…
“I don’t deny that, just as I don’t deny that the newer Competition Package version is a better car, its revised suspension and differential settings improving drivability. But as we’ve said so often in the past, cars with foibles are often more engaging, and it was the M3’s duality in this regard that made me fall for it.
“I could commute to work in my 3 Series at 30mpg, relishing the logical layout, the usefulness of that little row of buttons, the driving position, the ergonomics, the presentation of information, the quality and all the rest; and then on the way home, I could let it off the lead and inject myself with a shot of pure M3.”
So there you go. A one-car-fits-all performance thing, so long as you don’t mind the odd scrap when the weather goes awry.
Final thoughts and pick of the range
And hey, we love a bit of aggression, especially when some of the M4’s key rivals (*cough* Audi RS5) muddle their priority between on-paper stats and real-world fun and assume throwing lots of unflappable speed and unbreakable traction at something will punt it to the top of the class.
The M4 isn’t flawless, but nor is it ever unexciting. It’s quite different to the M3s that went before it, but crucially it’s no less memorable.
Our choice from the range
This is the one we’d pick…