There’s a lot to get your head round with the new BMW M3 coupe, not least that’s it not called M3 anymore; in line with BMW’s 3-series saloon/4-series coupe naming logic, it’s now the BMW M4. Clearly, this scared M Division witless, so for the first time it’s launching the saloon and coupe simultaneously, so we’ve got the M3 saloon and, the car we’re driving today, the M4 Coupe.
Besides the name, what else is new about the new BMW M4 Coupe?
The big news is the engine. For the first time, the M3/M4 actually shrinks in capacity, from a 4.0-litre naturally aspirated V8 to a 3.0-litre straight six; the last time an M3 had an engine that small was the E36 of two decades ago. To make up for the lost displacement, M Division has added twin turbochargers.
The new engine makes 425bhp and 406lb ft, returns 34mpg and emits 194g/km, which compares rather favourably with the eight’s 414bhp, 295lb ft, 23.7mpg and 285g/km.
Couldn’t they have followed AMG’s lead in the upcoming C63 replacement and downsized a V8? Well, M Division insiders say the M5’s V8 wouldn’t fit and that, anyway, the six is lighter to the benefit of handling and that fewer cubes ensure even faster response from the tiny twin turbos.
What's the 3.0-litre turbo like?
If you hope it’ll substitute for some of the aural drama of the V8, you’re in for a nasty shock. The M4 has an uninspiring idle and sounds much like a big capacity turbodiesel at part throttle.
All the extra torque makes a huge difference to the driving experience. Not only is it 111lb ft more substantial overall, but that peak is delivered from 1850-5500rpm, and you can feel much of it kick in from 2000rpm.
So where we’re used to working our M3 motors, this one gives it all up in the mid-range and encourages you to short shift; like a honey trap, it all feels too easy.
Still, the performance and excellent response are not in doubt, and there is a reward for winding the engine out to 7500rpm: up at the top it has a much more manic, engaging note.
Don't tell me, you can't get a manual...
Wrong, you can, one that’s based on the slick-shifting unit in the 1-series M Coupe, but beefed up for the torque; it should shift far more sweetly than the previous car’s notchy manual. Oh, and it also blips the throttle for you, just like the system pioneered in the Nissan 370Z – you can, however, turn it off if you’re a real-men-heel-and-toe kind of guy. Albert Biermann, second in charge at M Division, says he’s driving about in an M3 manual right now. Bodes well for the preservation of the three-pedal M breed.
We’re driving the dual-clutch seven-speeder, though. The previous M-DCT had a choice of five shift ferocities with a secret sixth level if you knocked off the traction control. The M4 mirrors the latest M5 with a simplified three shift speeds, which you can apply independently to the auto and manual modes.
You might as well forget the slightly ponderous first mode unless you’re squirming about on snow and ice. The question is, should you go for the second or third mode? The third mode is pleasingly snappy, but when you use all the revs there’s a strong kick to the change with what feels like an unnecessary wave of torque immediately after it; second is perfectly quick enough, but that odd kick is gone. The second level is my choice.
Anything else to configure?
Yes, and again the M3/M4 copies the M5 with three modes for the throttle response, steering and suspension, but defaults to Efficient throttle and Sport suspension and Sport steering every time the ignition’s turned on. I’d leave the throttle in the third Sport Plus mode, because the response really is impressively crisp for a turbo motor, certainly far more so than the 1-series M, with everything little flex of your ankle yielding a reaction. Meanwhile, I left the suspension in Sport, but need to drive it in the UK to make a definitive verdict on the ride – I’m undecided over whether it's too stiff. Finally, Comfort is our preferred steering setting. Sport Plus was predictably wooden, and Sport had a nice weight but an unnaturally sticky insistence to self-centre. Comfort was light and natural, the rack fast and accurate, but I craved more feedback and feel.
If this all sounds too confusing, you can configure your perfect choices via the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel, grouping traction control, gearbox, steering, suspension and throttle settings to suit one of two moods: Jekyll or Hyde.
Okay, so how does this thing actually drive?
It’s very competent and enjoyable. The body control is excellent, the bite from the front end stubbornly unstickable, the performance outstanding and the chassis predictably well balanced. And, yes, it still does all the trademark M3 stuff: drive into a corner hard, brake hard, then pin the throttle and the rear end will arc out in a beautiful drift. And although that happens easier because of all the torque – we haven’t driven it in the wet yet… – the sticky 19-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres actually give you an awful lot of traction to work against, bringing a high level of control and more progression than you’d experience in the snappy 1-series M, M Division’s first forced-induction coupe (yes, if you ignore the pre-M Division, but actually really M Division 2002 Turbo…).
I always prefer natural aspiration, especially with rear-wheel-drive cars because it gives you such intimate control over the rear end once it starts sliding, and although the M4 is very biddable, you notice that the kick of the turbos does turn second-gear drifts where you’re backing in and out of the throttle into a slightly more frantic affair.
Finally, the brakes are fantastic, but that’s because our test car was fitted with the optional carbon ceramics, the first on an M3 (M4!). They require almost comedic levels of recalibration to your approach: brake far too late and you basically use a couple of centimetres of pedal travel to bring everything back under control with an almost eerie detachment. They’re as good as anything I’ve ever tried in a supercar.
A turbocharged M3/M4 does take some getting your head round, so if you know your M cars intimately, let me try to explain: on one side of the M3/M4 you’ve got the raucous 1-series M, which was a very old school kind of M car in the mould of the Z3M and Z4M; at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got the new twin-turbocharged V8 M5, a very new school kind of M car. The M3/M4 is most definitely a small M5, not a big 1-series M.
The new M4 is a great car, but it feels more competent than its predecessor rather than any more enjoyable to drive, and I desperately miss the sound, the delivery and the response of the V8. More than anything, I want a little more feel and interaction from my M3/M4, something approaching the hardwired M3 GTS. Who knows, maybe a drive of manual car on a favourite UK road will warm me to it. But first impressions leave me highly impressed but just a little cold.
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