We’ve had a few years now to get used to BMW 4 Series as the name for the sportier versions of the Bavarian brand’s signature 3 Series range.
And four years after the 4 Series’ debut, it’s time for another update to keep it as fresh as possible against newer rival compatriots, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe and Audi A5. Notable engine and equipment changes in 2016 are followed this year by tweaks to the coupe range’s styling, suspension and features.
The BMW 420i continues as the entry point of a line-up that remains exclusively petrol after the deletion of the 420d last year. It starts $1000 higher, from $69,900.
BMW has also introduced Luxury Edition versions that bring enticing extras for a similar outlay. The 420i Luxury Edition, for example, costs $74,990 drive-away and adds heated front seats, keyless entry, metallic paint, and an electric glass sunroof.
The standard 420i’s trim is now Luxury Line, whereas previously it was a no-cost option along with Sport Line.
Design changes are most obvious at the front, including a headlight switch from bi-xenon to bi-LEDs. Our test car was embellished with the optional M Sport Package ($2600), which externally brings a sportier-looking lower bumper with deeper air intake, plus black kidney-grille bars, and side skirts.
Wheels jump up an inch in size to 19-inchers, while at the rear the same-shape tail-lights feature revised lighting, and the lower bumper gains a chrome strip. We had another visual enhancement with $385 M light-alloy double-spoke rims.
M Sport Package trimmings extend to the interior – including anthracite roofliner and M leather steering wheel – otherwise minor cabin updates include revised wiper and indicator stalks, and claimed improvements to key touchpoints.
There’s a sufficiently premium look and feel to the 420i’s interior, created by the combination of gloss-wood trim, the soft black and cream plastics of our test car, and metal trim for the vent surrounds, dash strip and hockey-stick door decoration.
Hard plastics aren’t quite inconspicuous, however, and you need to sit in the latest 5 Series to better appreciate how BMW is closing the quality-perception gap to Audi.
The tactility of buttons and dials isn’t quite on the A5’s level, but is comparable to the C Coupe’s. The analogue dials aren’t as contemporary as the A5’s Virtual Cockpit instrument display either, yet are classy in a timeless kind of way.
The driving position remains excellent – suitably low for a coupe and with leather sports seats that provide excellent bolstering and under-thigh support. The squab’s balance of softness/firmness feels just right, though of course this can be a personal thing. An electric seatbelt feeder continues to avoid awkward reaches.
BMW hasn’t managed to improve storage as part of the update. Two cupholders and a rubber tray beneath the centre stack is about it, with the shallow console bin continuing a frustrating BMW tradition.
The Munich car maker does infotainment superbly, however, and the 4 Series gains the latest, sixth-generation version of the excellent iDrive system. A benchmark for aesthetics and intuitiveness – in this writer’s view – the latest iDrive is even more logically presented with horizontally scrolling tiles on the 8.8-inch home screen.
The navigation map can still be split so you have a route overview as well as a more detailed view of the immediate roads around the car, and there are still the handy shortcut buttons.
There’s also digital radio, a 100-watt audio, and internet connectivity, though Apple CarPlay is a surprising option ($479).
A head-up display and 360-degree camera with side view are both good pieces of tech included in the 420i’s price. There are also front and rear sensors and Lane Change Warning, as well as autonomous emergency braking.
A $3640 Innovations Package is necessary to gain adaptive, multi-speed cruise control, semi-automatic parking, and heating for the front seats. Keyless entry with an auto boot lid is another extra cost, while there are worthwhile options such as a Harman Kardon audio ($1900) and Active High Beam ($320).
Levered front seats provide easy access to the two rear seats, where material quality is consistent with the front of the cabin. The armrest features dual cupholders and there are ISOFIX points – though if you have kids, it would be a strange decision not to opt for the identically priced 420i Gran Coupe that brings rear doors, a fifth seat, and the greater practicality of a liftback hatch compared with a bootlid.
The Gran Coupe, however, shares the Coupe’s limited headroom for any occupants scaling 5ft 10in or higher.
BMW says it has stiffened the 4 Series’ springs and sped up the damping response, though ride/handling was never a weak point – if an adaptive suspension was fitted to address some body control issues inherent in the 3 Series set-up.
The adaptive M suspension introduced as part of a 2016 update is still standard, and the result remains a coupe that provides a supple ride when Comfort mode is selected. Encounter a large surface indent, and you’ll merely hear it rather than feel it.
Switching from Comfort to Sport (or Sport+) is vital, however, unless you appreciate slightly mushy handling and overly light, uninvolving steering.
It takes Sport to remind us that this is a car belonging to a rich lineage of German driving sedans and coupes, as the 4 Series tightens body control significantly, the steering adopts a more natural weighting, and there’s an eagerness rather than reluctance to turn into a corner.
The Bridgestone Potenza 19s yield plenty of grip, too, though they are noisy even at 60km/h.
The perfect line of communication that used to exist between BMW driver and road no longer exists, unfortunately, so the steering is good rather than great. Just don’t tick the Variable Sport Steering option that reduces rather than improves steering quality (there’s a reason it’s no longer standard on the 340i/440i).
The 420i’s four-cylinder turbo doesn’t necessarily encourage you to explore the coupe’s handling ability. It’s a smooth performer and teams well with the eight-speed ZF auto, but it feels better suited to a 320i than its sexier two-door derivative.
Acceleration is no brisker than its on-paper specs suggest – outputs of 135kW and 270Nm, and a 0–100km/h quote of 7.5 seconds. The rival, identically priced Audi A5 2.0 TFSI, for example, is a couple of tenths quicker plus also benefits from an extra 50Nm of torque.
The Audi also trumps the 4 Series in an area where BMW normally leads: fuel consumption. The 420i is still frugal with its ADR81-rated 5.8 litres per 100km, though (versus the A5’s 5.5L/100km).
If you can find an extra $10,000 in your budget or lease repayments – or forgo the various options on our $78,099 test car – the $79,900 430i Coupe offers livelier and stronger performance with its uprated, 185kW/350Nm four-cylinder turbo.
Or, if your buying intentions are not coupe or bust, you can have the superior four-cylinder for just $1000 more than the 420i by opting for the 330i sedan.