In the pantheon of performance cars, there are few names that resound through the ages quite like BMW’s M3. First conceived as a homologation model to facilitate their entry into Group A Touring Car racing in the 1980s, the M3 eventually grew to become a performance car icon in its own right, spawning four generations across 27 years. Even through four successive generations of the 3-series, the M3 derivative has always been a car that excites the hearts of drivers and enthusiasts of every generation.
However, questions arise with the arrival of the fifth-generation model, which brings with it plenty of changes to the M3 formula. One of which includes the decision to split the model designation into two, the M3 for the sedan and M4 for the coupé model, in keeping with the brand’s logical naming convention of odd numbers for sedans and even numbers for coupés. So while the M3 and M4 are almost identical underneath the sheet metal, the M4 would be one to carry on the baton of its predecessors, which were predominantly two-door coupés.
Key Specs: 2014 BMW M4
On Sale: TBC
Engine: 3-litre inline-6 twin-turbochargers
Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive
Power: 431PS @ 5,500-7,300rpm
Torque: 550Nm @ 1,850-5,500rpm
Acceleration (0-100km/h): 4.1 seconds (claimed)
Fuel consumption: 8.3L/100km (claimed combined)
A New Name - A New Era
Like the current M5 and M6, the new M3/M4 utilises a downsized turbocharged engine. The snarling 4-litre naturally-aspirated V8 beast of its predecessor will become the pinnacle of engine size in the M3’s lineage. The new successor on the other hand adopts a new 3-litre inline-6, codenamed the S55, with two mono-scroll turbochargers strapped to its side. Power goes up by a comparatively small notch of 11PS, but crucially torque has taken a 40 per cent spike with fuel consumption and emission figures being slashed by 25 per cent. The new power unit now produces 431PS from 5,500rpm and 550Nm of torque from as low as 1,850rpm, and is capable of propelling the 1,497kg coupé to 100km/h in 4.1 seconds, all whilst clocking acombined fuel consumption figure of 8.3L/100km.
Though the new 3-litre engine sounds similar to the 306PS 3-litre inline-6 M55 engine you would find on the 335i and 435i, the M division’s engine is different with a new sealed deck engine block for strength, and two turbochargers with electronic wastegates for better throttle response. The only similarity with the run of the mill M55 inline-6 engine is its head, which has been modified for duty on the M3/M4.
Weight too has been curtailed in the new M4 coupé, at 1,537kg (with the optional seven-speed dual-clutch transmission), it is the first in its lineage to be lighter than its predecessor. In fact, if you discount the lightened variants such as the M3 CSL and M3 GTS, this is the lightest “standard” M3 since the second-generation model. According to BMW, the new M4 manages to shed weight by employing the use of carbon-fibre for many bits and pieces underneath. Aside from the carbon-fibre roof, the propeller shaft is now a one-piece item forged from carbon-fibre, the boot lid uses carbon-fibre, and so is the front strut bar made from the black weave. The turbocharged engine is also said to be 12kg lighter than the V8 used by its predecessor. Accounting all weight saving measures, BMW says the new M3/M4 is at least 80kg lighter than their equivalent predecessors.
Unfortunately the demands of fuel efficiency meant that the M division had to stick to using an electric power steering system for the M3/M4, instead of developing an exclusive hydraulic power steering system such as that found on the M5. However it isn’t all for saving the environment, the M division claims that the electric power steering system saves weight. According to their own estimates, the power steering system saves 3.5kg over the front axle, which for a front-engine car, is a challenging and crucial area in the quest of trimming flab.
Has it worked?
Those performance figures are tantalising, and with maximum torque available from 1,850rpm, the acceleration is just an unrelenting surge from the moment the tyres dig in and launches you forward. Forget clocking a 0 to 100km/h time, the M4 fires off into the distance like a rocket-powered sled unabatedly all the way up past 200km/h. Even though it is turbocharged, the engineers in the M division has manage to deliver an engine that revs till 7,500rpm and feels almost as instantaneous in its response as a naturally-aspirated engine.
Well I say“almost”, though despite the engineers’ ingenuity in designing the engine to continuously pump gases through the turbochargers even on throttle lift-off, there is still a split-second lag the moment you slam your foot on the throttle. The lag isn’t as bad as a normal turbocharged engine, but it isn’t quite as instantaneous as they claim.
Unlike other modern turbocharged engines which delivers its load in the first half of the rev range, and tends to feel breathless from there onwards, the M4’s engine still has a generous spread of power and continues to pull all the way until its needle is close to touching the red band of the rev counter, filling the cabin with an electronically-simulated engine noise that sounds closer to heavy industrial machinery.
How does it drive?
For something delivering the speed and performance to worry a sports car, the M4 is surprisingly easy to drive quickly and benign in letting you exploit its rear-drive characteristics. On tight country lanes the M4 delivers quick changes in direction and displays good mid-corner adjustability.
While a 428i would feel slightly aloof when hurried along quickly, the M4 felt more confident and stable on the road, even with the speedometer needle twisted around the 200km/h mark. This is thanks to the use of non-run flat tyres which delivers plenty of feedback from the road. It also helps that the rubber used is a special type of Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres specially developed to keep the Bavarian rocket glued to the tarmac.The throttle, suspension, and steering can be adjusted individually each with three levels of response, firmness, and weight respectively.
Unfortunately the electric power steering, whilst quick and sharper than a surgeon’s knife, doesn’t quite translate the limits of tyre grip through to the driver’s fingertips. In the initial few kilometres of driving, understanding the limits of the M4’s front end was very much a guessing game. Admittedly it takes some time to find just how much purchase those grippy tyres provide. However overstep the limits with the traction control on and the system would induce a trace amount of understeer. Press the traction control button once to activate the M Dynamic Mode and the M4’s safety net would allow you to get the tail loose and indulge in the M4’s tractable chassis and predictable handling. The optional carbon ceramic disc brakes that were fitted to our test carsare easy to modulate at low speeds,and manage to deliver impressive stopping power when you really stamp your foot on the pedal.
What about the M3?
Don’t mistake the M3 for a civilised or watered-down version of the M4, the M3 is every bit as quick and exciting to drive as the M4, with two extra doors to boot. Not just similar in terms of M fitments, it uses the same S55 3-litre inline-6 engine, the same widespread application of carbon-fibre components, including being the first M3 sedan to come as standard with a carbon-fibre roof, and the Active M differential.
According to the engineers from the M division, the M3 and M4 were both developed with the same dynamic targets in mind. After having driven both the M3 and M4 back-to-back on road and on track, there really isn’t much difference between the two. The coupé allows you to stretch out in the driver’s seat with a lower seating position, but ability wise there really isn’t much to differentiate even with the sedan packing 23kg of extra weight over the coupe. In the end, picking between the two is rather a choice of going for the understated look of the M3 or the flamboyance of the M4’scoupé shape.
For all its zeitgeist changes of downsizing engines and fitting lightweight bits, BMW’s M division didn’t forget that the M3/M4 should be able to deliver the involvement and thrills, and the M4 delivers that in spades. It isn’t just the extra power to boot, or the acceleration, but the way it makes 431PS manageable and exploitable, and the way it connects you to the road in ways the standard 3-Series and 4-Series could only hope for.
It isn’t as raw and hardcore as its predecessors might have been, and some might see it as having its edginess chamfered off to be more of an all-rounder. But dig deep and one would find, behind its all-round ability, the M4 retains its exuberant persona and sharp dynamics while dialling in everyday usability and considerations. It can play the hard-edged and precise track missile card, comfortable highway cruiser, and tyre smoking machine all in equal breath and ability. And that in itself, is a mastery few can attain.