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2021 BMW M3, M4 review: Prototype test

International first drive

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Just as we did with the 4 Series before it was unveiled, we've hit the track in BMW's new hero M4 coupe – and its M3 sedan twin – before a proper road test later this year.
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The good news is the new sixth-generation M3 saloon and second-generation M4 coupe are on course for Australian delivery during the first half of 2021.

Despite the broad disruption to its operations brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, BMW’s M division continues to hold firm to plans to reveal both models in September, prior to a start to production and sales before the end of the year.

Before it gets that far, though, there’s a final phase of development testing to be completed and a validation sign-off by the German carmaker’s board members. And, with all but a few final details to iron out, we’ve been invited to drive them both fresh off the back of our first outing in the excellent new M2 CS.

Wearing heavy camouflage, the M3 and M4 durability prototypes that BMW M has brought to the Sachsenring in Germany all look a bit ropey, we must admit.

Still, we’re assured they represent the latest technical standing, so they should give us a pretty good idea of the performance and dynamic properties we can expect from production versions.

Ignore the heavy cladding and plastic wrap covering their exteriors and you can make out certain elements, including the deep new kidney grille and the widened fender panels front and rear, necessitated by the adoption of wider tracks and some rather serious-looking wheels and tyres.

Sitting in the pit lane, they both look suitably muscular with a squat and hunkered-down stance that instantly stamps them out as something a bit special.

They’re quite a bit larger than the outgoing fifth-generation M3 and first-generation M4, too. Each takes on its own distinctive form. The 2021 model-year M3 appears significantly more upright next to its lower M4 sibling than with the outgoing models that BMW M also has on hand for comparison's sake.

Based around the latest 3 Series and newly unveiled second-generation 4 Series respectively, the new M3 and M4 are in the words of BMW M chairman Markus Flasch, “significantly superior to their predecessors in terms of performance”. It’s a familiar phrase that is often touted by carmakers at new model time.

Still, if the on-paper specifications we’ve been privy to are any true guide, the likes of the Alfa Romeo Guilia Quadrifoglio, Audi RS5 and Mercedes-AMG C63 S 4Matic are soon set to receive some rather stiff competition.

The rear-wheel-drive saloon and coupe models driven here represent half of the planned body styles for the line-up. As before, there’ll also be an M4 cabriolet by the middle of next year. For the first time, BMW M is also set to introduce a full M version of the 4 Series Gran Coupe, the new M4 Gran Coupe, around the same time.

In a continuation of the strategy pursued by BMW M in recent times, there’ll be two individual models for both the new M3 and M4 in the form of standard and Competition.

The promised upping of performance comes after the introduction of the four-wheel-drive M340i xDrive and M440i xDrive, which plug the gap to the rest of the 3 Series and 4 Series line-ups.

At the heart of each new model is the German carmaker’s new S58 engine, as launched in the rapid new X3 M and X4 M. The twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre in-line six-cylinder successor to the long-running S55 unit delivers 353kW and 600Nm in the standard M3 and M4 driven here – a 36kW and 50Nm increase over the outgoing model, which offered 317kW and 550Nm.

From the start of Australian deliveries, the standard rear-wheel-drive models will come with the choice of either a standard six-speed manual or optional eight-speed torque-converter-equipped automatic gearbox in combination with BMW M’s now obligatory electronically controlled M-Sport rear differential.

In the new M3 and M4 Competition, the output is increased by a further 25kW to a headlining 375kW through what BMW M describes as “some specific software changes”, while torque remains at 600Nm.

Unlike the standard models, though, the M3 and M4 Competition will be sold exclusively with an eight-speed torque converter automatic gearbox and, in a big break from tradition, they will also be offered with the option of BMW M’s fully variable xDrive four-wheel-drive system – the first time either the M3 or M4 has been sold with anything but rear-wheel drive.

To put this into some sort of perspective, the Guilia Quadrifoglio offers exactly the same output as the new M3 and M4 Competition at 375kW and 600Nm. The RS5 and soon to be replaced C63 S, meanwhile, get 331kW/600Nm and 375kW/700Nm respectively.

It’s reassuring to hear BMW M’s latest in-line six-cylinder and discover it possesses a more evocative exhaust note than the engine it replaces, as we hit the starter button on the centre console and set the M3 prototype into M1 – the first of two preset driving modes accessed by buttons on its new multifunction steering wheel.

It’s less raspy in character, with a deeper, more guttural tone.

We amble down past the pit garages in first gear and head out onto the circuit. Initial impressions? The new M3’s S58 engine is quite a bit sharper than the old S55 unit. Not only does it sound great with a soaring combination of hard mechanical thrashing and exhaust as revs rise, but it also punches with added purpose in lower gears.

With increased torque concentrated across a wider range and a useful lift in power at the top end, there’s both greater urgency and linearity to the delivery. The change in character is subtle, but it is nevertheless noticeable. And the throttle response is improved, too. It’s not exactly rabid, but you sense greater sensitivity to inputs and more precise metering of reserves.

Less well resolved is the manual gearshift. It’s quite long in throw and rubbery in feel. Traditionalists will argue, but the truth is the traditional six-speed is a long way from matching the speed and precision you’d expect to see from a gearbox in a car bearing the BMW M badge.

That’s a pity, because the rest of the driveline feels wonderfully engineered and full of focus. Although we’re yet to see any performance claims, you can expect a 0–100km/h time under 4.0sec and, in combination with the traditional Driver’s Package, a top speed of 280km/h for the standard rear-wheel-drive model.

But while the engine impresses, it’s the chassis that really moves the M3 along. It’s described as being all new and largely bespoke, with only the pick-up points for the suspension, which will come as standard with adaptive damping, being shared with the standard 3 Series.

In a now familiar move, BMW M has developed a new engine strut brace, which serves to stiffen the entire front-end structure quite significantly. That provides the basis for even greater fluidity and handling poise than with the standard 3 Series and prototype versions of the 4 Series we drove recently.

At the same time, it has provided the sixth-generation model with a much wider front track than at any time in the past.

As it did on the old M3 CS, it has also fitted different-sized forged aluminium wheels front and rear –19-inch in diameter up front and 20-inch at the rear as standard – in the search of added steering response. And they wear wider 275/35 and 285/30-profile Michelin Pilot Super Sport tyres, too.

In a development first unveiled on the M8, and recently brought to the facelifted M5, the new M3 and M4 receive a function that provides access to the individual driving mode options for the engine, suspension, steering and brakes via the iDrive controller.

On four-wheel-drive xDrive models, it will also allow you to alter the apportioning of drive to give you pure rear-wheel-drive qualities on a track when desired.

There might be some late development changes to come, but if the rear-wheel-drive prototype we drove is any indication, it’s pretty much spot on. The steering, for a start, is excellent – precise in action and weighted to perfection for the more demanding sections of the Sachsenring circuit.

Having run a number of laps in its predecessor to form a benchmark earlier on, we can confidently say the new M3 offers greater interaction than the car it replaces, even in its most basic form.

True, the new model lacks the compactness that once marked the M3 out among its four-door performance car rivals. That said, it’s extraordinarily agile for its dimensions, with incisive change of direction and a very direct feel to the way it turns into corners.

There’s added grip as well. The wider front tyres deliver great adhesion, allowing the new model to carry high speed up to the apex and beyond, with impressive neutrality and superb body control despite a quite heady weight transfer.

There’s a generous amount of wheel travel given the performance car billing, but it feels magnificently settled and well within its limits when hustled hard through the Sachsenring’s Castro Omega curve – a tricky off-camber downhill constant-radius right-hander that exits uphill into the equally challenging Sternquell curve.

Push it hard and the M-Sport differential does its usual neat trick, apportioning drive to each individual rear wheel in search of optimum traction. All of which allows you to exploit the inherent balance and assuredly work up to and, with the DSC turned off in M2 mode a couple of laps later, beyond the limits.

And because of its added muscle and improved response, you can rely on the M3’s new engine to alter your cornering line on the throttle.

After a lot fewer laps than we were originally expecting, we’re waved back into the pit lane and our first drive of the new M3 abruptly comes to an end, at which an even briefer outing in the new M4 ensued.

In the following discussion with BMW M’s engineering team, we learn the sixth-generation model M3 is the fastest of its breed yet at the Nürburgring, eclipsing even the 7min 38sec lap time of the now discontinued M3 CS over the traditional 20.8km Nordschleife circuit. It’s proof, if you need it, that it is indeed a more dynamically talented car than its predecessor. For comparison's sake, the Alfa Romeo claims a 7min 32sec lap time for the Guilia Quadrifoglio.

It’s always tricky attempting to form an accurate impression of a new car from a handful of miles on a smooth-surfaced circuit with only limited technical details.

In this case, though, we’re confident BMW M has succeeded in injecting its highly revered performance saloon and mechanically identical performance coupe with an added dose of accelerative ability and handling prowess.

There’s still a lot to learn about them. However, in back-to-back runs with the old models, they not only felt a good deal faster in a straight line, but also more accommodating to drive at, or near, their limits thanks to a newfound delicacy and response to its dynamics.

We’ll know for sure when we get to test a production version on the road later this year, but you might just be looking at the most accomplished M3 and M4 yet.

Bigger and heavier than ever before, but on the strength of this first encounter at least, also inherently more exciting and engaging to drive than the model it replaces.

NOTE: As a track-only, prototype drive, we've left this review unscored. Watch for our first full review later this year.

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