(Special thanks to BMWBlog for featuring this piece as well.)
“Benchmark” is an overused word in the automotive world, but few cars have earned the title as honestly as the BMW M3. It’s a car that’s universally hailed as one of the most successful and notable of the past three decades and practically spawned the entire genre of performance sedans. It’s also the car that virtually every manufacturer guns for with their own efforts, from brands as disparate as Chevrolet to Lexus to Alfa Romeo to Mercedes; everyone wants to knock the M3 off its pedestal to claim the mantle of “Best Sports Sedan in The World.”
There have been four generations of M3 prior to the latest and each has had its own unique recipe to bake the performance cake. In 1985, the first generation M3, the E30 (car guys love to talk in chassis codes), was a homologation special from BMW, built from a standard 3-series car to allow racing in the Group A Touring Car racing series. (“Homologation” in motorsports roughly states that a racing car must be generally based off a production car. As you might guess, manufacturers go to astounding lengths to game this system.) Its 2.3-liter Inline-4 engine produced 192hp (though later special versions made up to 235hp), and featured revised suspension bits, brakes, driveline, and body panels from the more mundane 3-series. It was an immediate hit.
The second generation car, the E36, arrived to the market in 1992 with a 240-hp I6 engine, while the third generation car, the E46, arrived in 2000 and upped the ante to 340-hp from its I6 engine. And then in 2007, BMW released the E92 version of the M3, with an amazingly high-revving 414-hp V8. It was the apogee of normally-aspirated BMW engine goodness.
(Please note that I’m listing only the “base” versions of each generation of M3. BMW has produced coupe, convertible, and sedan versions of all but the E30 cars, and each version has spawned several special versions as well. The chassis codes I list are all related to the coupe versions of the car)
The current model, the F82, arrived in 2014. With this release, BMW also unhelpfully split the car’s nomenclature in two, with the sedan version retaining the M3 moniker and the coupe and convertible adopting a new numbering system. Thus was born the M4. (Don’t try to understand.)
When the M-division released the specs for the F82 M4, you could almost hear the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the purists over the scream of the outgoing car’s stratospherically-revving engine note. It was, a legion of fanboys cried, a proverbial bridge too far: BMW had plumbed the Inline-6 with not one but two turbochargers. As the French would put it: C’est pas possible! (As BMW responded: “Ben si, Monsieur. C’est possible.”) The fact the new car not only made more horsepower than the outgoing V8 but did so with a nearly flat torque curve (instead of the massively peaky torque curve of the E92) made no difference. The mere presence of turbochargers was viewed in some quarters as the ultimate sell-out, a dilution of the normally-aspirated virtuousness the M-Division had always delivered. Car guys are fragile souls and rarely take to such tectonic changes lightly. As an offset to enthusiasts for the forced-induction slight, BMW reduced the weight of the M4 by 138-lbs over the previous M3 (3389-lbs vs. 3527-lbs.), since "adding lightness" is one of the ultimate virtues in the performance car canon.
The car you see on this page arrived off the Wallenius Line’s “Tugela” car-carrier at the Port of Baltimore in mid-May of this year, had some special bits installed by technicians at BMW’s port facility, then made its way via truck to Baron BMW in Merriam, Kansas. And from Baron, this particular car made its way to my garage in Kansas City, Missouri. Yes, this is my new personal car.
I’m no stranger to BMWs and I’m also no stranger to M-Division cars. Prior to this car, I’ve had two successive E92 M3s, the first of which I picked up via BMW’s fabulous European Delivery Program at BMW Welt in Munich; the second of which I’ve written about before (as has another writer). I am also an unabashed and unapologetic fan of both the brand and the BMW Team RLL racing squad, and Dreamy Wife has driven two generations of X5 diesels in succession (and also had a BMW-family Mini Cooper S at one point).
This particular car is finished is lustrous Mineral White Metallic, while the interior is swathed top-to-bottom in what BMW calls Sakhir Orange/Black Merino leather (but you can call Campbell’s Tomato Soup Red). Pretty well all available package options were selected (including the sublime DCT M Double-clutch transmission), but most notable is the Competition Package (more on that later). One option I declined were the M Carbon Ceramic Brakes. Not only did this save over $8000 but I find these brakes to be annoying to use around town (squeaks!) and overkill for virtually all types of daily (even spirited) driving. Unless you’re planning frequent track days with your M4, I suggest sticking with the already-potent standard M Brakes (denoted visually by their vibrant blue calipers versus the gold versions on the carbon clampers).
The “standard” M4 is well-equipped and loaded with overt performance goodies out of the box, but the aforementioned “ZCP” Competition Package adds an extraordinary amount to the equation. For an extra $5500, the car receives a power bump to 444-hp (up from 425); gets new springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars, in addition to the Adaptive M Suspension; reconfigured driving modes, a retuned electronic differential, and revised DSC (Dynamic Stability Control); striking 20-inch M alloy wheels (previously seen only on the limited M4 GTS); a throaty M-sport exhaust with black tailpipes; and also swaps out the M4’s standard seats with lovely lightweight sport buckets (again seen prior only on the GTS; they’re dreamy). BMW also adds in seatbelts with woven-in M stripes for good measure, and some nifty blacked out trim bits (including the rear M4 badge itself). In my book it’s the mother of all option bargains, and the changes to the driving complexion and personality of the car are anything but superficial.
The M4’s aesthetic reflects that of the rest of BMW’s current lineup, developed first under the design auspices of Adrian van Hooydonk and now under Karim Habib, and it’s arguably the most muscular and aggressive design of the bunch (though the steroidal haunches of the new M2 make a strong argument as well). To my eyes, the M4 appears quite a bit larger than the outgoing M3, though in actuality the dimensional differences are slight; the new car gains two inches in both length and width, while losing an inch in height. It’s an optical illusion of increased size I attribute largely to the lengthening of the rear roofline and C-pillar into a more fluid tapering than that of the previous car, as well as a visual reduction in rear overhang that results from the subtle duck-billed trunk lid. Happily the trademark “Hoffmeister Kink” that makes up the trailing edge of the rear side windows looks as fetching as ever. It’s a stunning car in the flesh, elegant and lithe, whose design is more fully realized and integrated than the previous M3. Of note is the expanded use of CFRP (Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastic), a high-strength yet lightweight material used to form the car's hood, roof, trunk lid, and driveshaft. (Yes, the car's driveshaft is made of CFRP. It's strong stuff.)
Many column-inches have been written about the M4’s loss of sonic purity necessitated by the switch to forced induction, and let me tell you, the car is sick of hearing about this shit. Stab the Start/Stop button on the dash and it starts with a pronounced, irritable bark. Do this when the engine is cold and post-bark it grumbles and rumbles with all the delicacy of a Vitamix filled with river rocks, a proverbial poking-of-the-sleeping-bear that seems specifically engineered for dramatic unhappiness. The sound is also, I’m sorry to say, rather flatulent-sounding. (Turbochargers require their forced airflow, after all.) After 30 seconds of so, circulatory fluids warm and do their things and the engine calms into a neutral (though still generally unhappy) attitude of “go get me some coffee and let’s get on with this” readiness. And how.
The noise itself is generated from a word-salad of engine technology. The M4’s powerplant is a 3-liter marvel, a twin-turbocharged and intercooled 24-valve inline-6, with an aluminum block and head and direct-fuel injection. It’s both lighter and more powerful than the outgoing V8, and while it’s certainly no Prius (thank God), it manages to return respectable gas mileage for a car with this performance capacity (EPA city/highway of 17/26mpg).
Press the accelerator and the M4 scoots with alacrity. The E92 M3 was an indoor-outdoor housecat, docile, purring, and playful when calm, but ready to pounce when prompted or aroused. It was content to putter around town like a garden-variety 3-series (lulling in fact, as mellow as gin buzz) until you romped it. The M4 is a different animal entirely, a Malibu Hills mountain lion always on the lookout for a random jogger, never letting its guard down, almost entirely unamused. The abundant torque from the motor (406-lb/ft at 1850 rpm all the way to the redline at 7500rpm) means even the slightest pressure to the right pedal provides an urgent and immediate shove in the back, while a heavy prod provides a sudden thunderstorm of sound and movement, a startling and intimidating display of forward propulsion. The M4 equipped with DSG gets from nil to 60mph in an instrumented 3.7 seconds; the feeling the car delivers at full thrust is one of progressive and extreme progress, a rheostat that transports you from here to there. These modern turbocharged engines are fun.
The out-of-the-box M4’s suspension can be firm to the point of punishment in almost all selectable modes (Comfort, Sport, and Sport+), and I expected the Competition Pack-equipped car to be even more so. Surprisingly, the changes made to the setup, including the wonderful Adaptive M suspension, smooth out much of the general harshness of the car’s normal tune. Even with the larger wheels and attendant smaller tire sidewalls, the higher-spec M4 rides well on all pavement surfaces, absorbing rough patches and funky frequencies with aplomb. Sport Mode is now your friend even around town (though Sport+ is still best summoned only when you mean it).
The suspension tuning also delivers amazingly neutral handling, with understeer being pretty well nonexistent and oversteer being available on demand but not arriving with any surprises (though given the amount of broad-range torque the engine makes, I hope the stability-control light on the dash is lit with a long-life LED for fear of it burning out before the rest of the dash). If you want to see the tail swinging wildly in your rear-view mirror, feel free to switch off the electronic nannies and the M4 will happily comply. (Lawyers: I did NOT suggest this behavior to any reader.) And while the previous M3 undoubtedly delivered greater feel from its sublime hydraulic steering, the M4’s electric rack does a fabulous job at approximation (though it does so in certain situations with a bit too much weighting).
The 7-speed DCT twin-clutch transmission is a thing of elegance and substance, ripping off seamless shifts without hesitation with just a gentle pull of one of the nicely-weighted paddle shifters. And unlike today's hyper-fluid true automatics, which abstract much of what the gearbox is doing, BMW's DCT still feels, well, mechanical; you're always aware of the computer-driven movement of ultra-refined gear bits rotating and sliding and clutching and releasing, and doing so with the closest of tolerances. It's an amazing sensation, the pull of a paddle followed by an immediate response; quickness that's almost telepathic, a sense of great forces somewhere at work underneath the car. I love this transmission so much.
Which makes it all the more ironic that my biggest criticism with the M4 is with that very transmission’s controller, the vaguely organic-looking and feeling stub that feels great and works precisely (if somewhat oddly) save for the absence of one specific feature: A Park detent. Nope, there is no way to actually put the M4 in Park by using the DCT controller. Instead, there’s a multi-step process involving various combinations of the parking brake, a double push of the Start/Stop button, whether you leave the car in Reverse or Drive or Neutral when you come to a stop, and your local forecast for sunspot emanations. Okay, I made that last bit up, but you’d hardly know it from reading the Owner’s Manual to…let me pause for emphasis…put the damn car in Park! Yes, I actually read the Owner’s Manual to learn the suggested method for…let me again pause for emphasis…putting the damn car in Park!
There isn’t even consistency across the BMW lineup either, as their torque-converting automatic transmissions are all outfitted with a Park button. Audi, Mercedes, and Porsche all manage to include a Park setting on their fine twin-clutch systems. It’s as if BMW carefully, logically, and specifically engineered a system to confuse drivers of their DCT-equipped cars as much as possible. Mission accomplished. This is my third BMW DCT and I still have to double check that the car is in Park when I shut it off and open the door. I've got to believe more than one lawsuit has been filed due to an otherwise attentive owner's M4 rolling away when he or she thought it was fine. To BMW I say: Just silly.
In terms of serious complaints about the M4, that’s about it, though the car is not entirely without quirks. Take the artificial soundtrack piped into the cabin, for example, whereby a recording of the outside engine note is rev-matched and amplified through the sound system to compensate for the car’s overall abundant sound dampening. Is it noticeable? Yes. Is it bothersome? No, though I wish there was a switch to disable the system on demand. And if you'll allow me to nitpick: There’s no receptacle for the key fob, a design quirk that’s endemic to most all current automobiles. (Hey auto manufacturers, not all of us want to carry stuff in our pockets all the time.) But as I said: Minor annoyances.
The M3 has traditionally been about as close to a true sports car as BMW gets. These days, that honor realistically falls to the M2, a smaller, simpler, and less fussy driving machine to be sure. The M4 has grown to be an even more immensely capable GT car, with the ability to cover great distances in massive comfort while swaddling the driver in style and technological sophistication, but also one that will hustle the owner around a track or country lane with astounding speed and stability and hooligan presence if desired. It’s a refined car, but one with sharp teeth; a serious car that will very much bite if provoked. And for my money (literally) it’s still at the top of the sports sedan class pyramid. The M3 Coupe is dead; long live the M4.