The 2014 BMW M4 has raised the bar by outdoing its predecessor in almost every way, but is it good enough to dethrone its German rival?
The 2014 BMW M4 is a new nameplate but it brings an old question. Can the German car maker's performance division raise the ante yet again with the fastest version of the 3 Series (or in this case 4 Series)?
BMW has successfully reinvented the M3 over 28 years, and for the sedan that will continue with that more venerable badge and the M version of the 4 Series coupe (and convertible) there's another major change, particularly under the bonnet.
The thrilling 4.0-litre V8 of the old M3 is out in favour of a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged inline six cylinder unit, completing the M-car line-up's move away from normally aspirated engines with stratospheric rev ceilings. A backward step? We won't reveal just yet...
From the outside, the BMW M4 is a seriously mean-looking machine. The new bonnet power dome and M body kit are far more pronounced than ever before and you might want to visit your local optician if you can't distinguish from the rest of the 4 Series range.
Inside is very much the same story, although similarities to the top-end 4 Series are more obvious, special M parts such as the gearstick, sport seats, badges and unique steering wheel make it a pleasant and far more modern cabin than its competitors. We found the 8.8-inch infotainment screen top-notch and the sport seats supportive around bends.
And we encountered plenty of those on the international launch in Portugal, where we tried both the BMW M3 (which will start at $156,900) and BMW M4 ($166,900) when they reach Australia in June.
BMW not only brought us to one of the world’s most technical and challenging racetracks, the 4.7km Portimao Circuit in Faro, but we also embarked on an epic 300km loop of the Algrave mountain range that comprised almost 400 corners. And by corners we mean the type that would have a maximum 40km/h speed limit in Australia. Thankfully (for us) the on-going economic issues in Portugal meant there were no speed limit signs around. Well, none that we noticed anyway.
But let's not tease any longer regarding the new engine.
It's true the old V8 revved to 8300rpm where the new six bails out at 7600rpm, but it's torque rather than power that's key to the change. While power increases just 8kW to 317kW, the pulling power of the BMW M4 jumps from 400Nm to 550Nm.
It's here the difference between the two cars is vastly in favour of the new one. While the previous model lacked torque (particularly when compared with the current Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG’s 600Nm) and required high revs for maximum power extraction, the new one delivers its might across a much wider range.
And with launch control enabled, the new BMW M4 can go from 0-100km/h in just 4.1 seconds – seven-tenths quicker than the old M3 coupe and also quicker than the C63 AMG (though a new version of the fast C-Class is coming in the not-too-distant future).
With two Mitsubishi-made mono-scroll turbos taking care of three cylinders each to act as a bi-turbo unit (not sequential), kicking in together for maximum boost, there's basically no turbo lag, either – just power and torque whenever you need it, without the slightest hesitation. If you didn’t know the engine was force-fed from the outset, you’d be hard pressed to notice it behind the wheel.
Just don’t expect a supercar-like sound, with the new exhaust note somewhat of a disappointment. While undoubtedly loud (make that very loud), it’s a far cry from the old V8 and even the two-generations-past inline six of the E46 M3.
But with the current trends of the auto industry, as well as motorsport that now includes the current-series Formula One car, BMW's move to turbos is an understandable one.
Though the engine may have changed, the rear-wheel-drive nature remains a hallmark of the M range, with the 2014 model pushing its might to the back again via a seven-speed double-clutch transmission.
For those that still prefer a traditional manual gearbox, an updated six-speed unit with rev-matching is also available.
The manual-gearbox is going to account for a tiny proportion of sales (and is an order-only option from BMW Australia), mainly because the seven-speed DCT is faster (manual adds 0.2 seconds to the 0-100km/h time), easier to use and doesn’t cost any more.
If you must know, we found the six-speed manual engaging, and the new downshift rev-matching system works a treat coming hot into corners. It’s fun, but if you want to go fast and then not have to change gears when in traffic, the DCT is the pick.
We switched to a DCT model and lined up on the racetrack with all the electronic nanny controls left on - to find in regular mode the traction control system is far too intrusive and cuts in at every possible opportunity. Drive with even the slightest bit of enthusiasm and it can become rather annoying. BMW says it's there for regular commuting and for those times when you give your kids (the licenced ones) the keys, knowing they won't get themselves into trouble (well, unless they figure out how to engage the MDM mode).
Which we did - once we'd driven a first training lap following BMW DTM (German touring car) driver Martin Tomcyk. After we proved our ability on the track, Tomczyk moved out of the way and left us to our own accord.
MDM is essentially BMW-speak for ‘We will let you slide out and drift, but not spinout’. With the steering, suspension and gearbox settings in their respective race modes (Sport+) the BMW M4 will perform lap after lap before you're ready to go home.
Out on the racetrack the M4 has so much lateral (mid-corner) grip that whatever excessive road noise you get from the specifically designed Michelin tyres is forgiven. There’s no hint of understeer, but apply the accelerator pedal with a little too much enthusiasm and the back will step out in possibly the most controlled manner of any car this reviewer has driven.
A nice and tidy slide with smoke pouring out the back is maintained with minor steering input while the MDM settings will keep you looking like a drift champion and avoid that embarrassing spin at the end.
Its body control and weight transfer from side-to-side and front-to-rear is so tidy and predictable that with each lap we got faster and faster but reached our own limit far before that of the car’s.
Our test cars did all have optional carbon ceramic brakes (which are likely to cost an arm and a leg when options pricing is announced closer to the car’s local launch), which resulted in virtually no brake fade. It will likely be a different story with the regular steel brakes.
It's no less impressive on the road. Keep the MDM mode, engage suspension mode to ‘comfort’, steering to ‘sport+’ and transmission to manual (via the paddle shifters) and the BMW M4 is a mountain-conquering work of art.
Full accleration to the next corner, hard on the brakes, gentle turn-in and the front keeps its promise while the rear carries the load. Begin to squeeze the accelerator pedal as the front wheels start to point in the right direction and the BMW active M differential gives more power to the outer rear-wheel for a smooth and controlled out-of-corner blitz to the next challenge.
An extremely enjoyable process that we indulged in a few hundred times until we made ourselves rather carsick.
As the latest version of BMW’s iDrive lost its mind and got us repeatedly lost in small and convoluted villages outside of Faro, we got to appreciate just how well the suspension deals with bumps, undulations and terribly surfaced roads.
Hit a big pothole either on a straight or mid-corner and the M settles instantly. Even in ‘sport+’ suspension mode, nothing is likely to unsettle the M or prompt a chiropractor visit.
The electromechanical steering system is unique to the M, as is the suspension setup, exhaust system, underbody and engine reinforcements and plenty of the other important bits that make it special.
While the differences between the M3 and M4 may simply be the additional rear doors, the BMW M3 is manufactured alongside the 3 Series in Regensburg while the BMW M4 will be built in Munich, some 23 years since the last M car left the factory there.
With the current C63 AMG nearing the end of its life and Audi's RS4 harder to live with day to day, there's no doubt the new BMW M4 and M3 are the new kings in town. Whether that will remain the case when the next-generation AMG C-Class goes on sale in 2015 will be a tantalising question we can't wait to answer.