BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe

Published:04 May 2020

BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe
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By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel

► First test of new BMW 4-series
► Thankfully it's camouflaged for now
► 430i and 440i driven in Germany

Perhaps the new BMW 4-series’ nose job is a marketing ploy. Perhaps the frosty response to the Concept 4, released at the 2019 Frankfurt show, was a warning shot not even the eternal optimists at BMW design could overhear. Perhaps the camouflage wrap which adorned our pre-drive twins will after all become a last-minute factory option.

Be that as it may - from behind the wheel, one mercifully does not see the laughing stock affixed roughly two feet in front.

Stop moaning and give me details!

Okay then. Coupes play in a different street cred league to saloons, so BMW’s job with the new 4-series isn’t quite as simple as taking away some doors.

Here, BMW has incorporated a sportier driving position which, in this case, puts the helmsman’s hip point 45mm closer to the road. Aided by the sleeker roofline - it is down by 57mm - the modified packaging lowers the centre of gravity by a useful 21mm. Add the marginally improved drag coefficient, reduced lift, model-specific springs and shock absorbers, fatter 18in tyres (225/45 and 255/40), wider rear track (by 23mm) and the increased front-wheel camber rate, and you’ve got something which is genuinely different in engineering terms to its 3-series sibling.

4-series proto rear

When the car goes on sale later in 2020, customers can choose between a 2.0-litre four and a 3.0-litre six. A manual transmission is conspicuous by its absence, but all-wheel drive remains standard on the 440i and optional on the 430i (which we’ve both driven here). The new 440i is almost as quick off the mark as the outgoing M4, too.

Check out everything you need to know about the 2021 M4

We'll get the full specs when the car is officially revealed.

Let’s get driving!

The 430i we tested was equipped with the lowered and tauter M sports suspension. The shock absorbers are non-adjustable in this configuration, but the clumsily labelled driving experience mode selector still lets you to choose between Sport and Comfort. The difference between the two extremes is instantly obvious. Sport stands for very fast throttle action, hurried gear changes and a meatier steering action. Over time, tip-in is now almost jerky rather than merely more agile, and the fixed spring and damper setting is so firm that you better swap the 4 for something more comfortable before taking grandma to Sunday brunch. Coasting is only possible in Eco Pro or by pulling the upshift paddle long and hard when travelling in eighth. Not particularly practical, that.

The 440i xDrive automatically assumes the role of the older sibling: bold and mature rather than frisky and pert like the 430i; it’s less eager yet better prepared to take risk. Exit the Gameboy playing young man with the soprano voice of a chorister, enter the resident evil tomb raider with influencer clout and sotto voce timbre. The aftermath of pushing the starter button sounds like an instant upgrade from Stereo to Dolby Surround. While the 430i needs to be revved to deliver, the six can play monster mauler or giga purrer - your choice.

4-series front tracking

It gains 1.5sec in the standard acceleration sweepstakes, expeditiously pulling further ahead through the 75-100mph bracket. By the time the two coupés reach the 125mph mark, they are five or six car lengths apart. The 440i holds seventh gear all the way to 184mph before shifting up one last time, its halo glaring full blast on the near-empty Autobahn. The alternative option is to lock the DNA selector in Adaptive and let the car´s sixth sense cater to your every whim, mood swing or overtaking bout. This may be a slightly less involving way of travel, but even a semi-pro would struggle to beat this master tool in best-of mode.

Any new technology besides the chassis tweaks?

A gift handed down from the M4, the M Sport differential is an integral part of the 440i xDrive system. Unlike electronic diffs which typically resort to selective brake actuation backed up by ASR, DSC and MSR wizardries, this motorized mechanical counterpart specializes in side-to-side torque vectoring which redirects the momentum rather than scotching it. By diligently balancing the rotational speed of the rear wheels during hard cornering, the hi-mech apparatus enhances traction, grip, stability and consequently the post-apex speed. DSC intervention can be reduced in two steps. While DSC Sport permits enough feelgood slip without endangering a member of the human race, DSC Off removes all gloves and polarizers. But even now xDrive stays true to its rescue mission, which explains why the M440i is less black or white at the limit than the 430i which will happily slide you dizzy. While AWD is nice to have as long as winters don´t become post-autumns or pre-springs, the optional adaptive suspension makes only sense if one repeatedly exploits the full dynamic spectrum from pointedly relaxed to unabashedly aggressive. Those who prefer a best of all worlds setting might as well specify the standard steel suspension.

4-series rear tracking

In both models, the enhanced front axle camber does improve the steering precision on grade A tarmac. In the real world, however, which keeps hammering us with deep aquaplaning grooves, jagged hard shoulders, quilted blacktop and yawning transverse trenches, the more aggressive kinematics, the wider track and the more voluminous tyres have their downsides.

For instance, brisk overtaking manoeuvres - out of the ruts, over the divider, into the ruts and back again - are not for the faint of heart in the dry and a dare in the wet. Even in a straight line, flooring the accelerator over a series of east-west undulations creates an unpleasant and not exactly confidence-inspiring lumbago effect aka a series of kicks in the butt. Switching from Sport to Comfort barely cushions the many minor multi-directional body movements. Since the suspension and the seat oscillate in different amplitudes, a heavy driver raised on apple strudel and hot chocolate may occasionally feel insufficiently tied down in the generously upholstered bucket, a sensation easily amplified by an extra dab of throttle lunacy.

4-series interior

These cars deserve decent roads so they can unfold their full lustre. Slow corners, fast corners, dips, crests, flat-out runs - no problem whatsoever. But having been set up on the Nordschleife and BMW´s own test facility in Miramas, the 4series are somewhat at odds with sub-par turf to which they may respond with dedicated tramlining, a somewhat ponderous lane changing attitude and momentary balance disorders on broken up surfaces. Having said that, both versions are stiff enough to relay all the feedback a sporty driver can process, and the unique lift-governed upright-down twin-piston dampers warrant enough compliance for fast A-roads excursions. The adaptive M suspension sends its message through to the steering and transmission which can also be tuned to one´s personal preference. Predictably, Comfort concentrates on reduced effort and smoother shifts. Sport feels rougher and more emotional. The M brakes are quite potent but not truly outstanding. While there is little wrong with the absolute stopping power and the repeatability under stress, the pedal effort is relatively high, and more initial bite would not hurt either. Could it be that the ultimate stopping apparatus is being held back for the new M4?

BMW 4-series: first impressions

Our first test has been quite the learning experience. Its cockpit is (obviously) indistinguishable from the 3-series but you can’t say that about BMW’s development under the skin and you won’t say that about the skin itself when it’s finally revealed.

Some small dynamic idiosyncrasies and that incredibly polarizing front end design are all but neutralized by a very generous helping of excitement to go.

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Specs

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  • BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe
  • BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe
  • BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe
  • BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe
  • BMW 4-series prototype (2020) review: first impressions of new coupe

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel

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