It might even please the E30 M3 contingent.
Just the three of us
We’ve come to Qatar for a preview drive in the new M4 some seven weeks in advance of its official press launch. I’m joined by two more journalists—one from the U.K.’s Evo and the other from Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport—but the “Ladies First” dictum has me behind the wheel for the car’s first laps on this dusty desert track.
I wonder, though: Does the roll cage improve chassis stiffness? It’s not a full cage, but it seems like it would.
“The roll cage is for safety, not stiffness,” says Dr. Friedrich Nitschke, head of BMW M. “The car is already stiff in that area [behind the front seats]. You can’t let it flex around the door openings or the windows will break.”
Other than those track-specific alterations, the Safety Car is stock, optioned with the seven-speed M-Double Clutch Transmission and carbon-ceramic brakes that most track-oriented customers will select.
Firing up the 2,979cc S55 turbocharged six unleashes a bass-heavy rumble from the BMW Performance exhaust that’s overlaid by a slightly raspy note reminiscent of the S54. It sounds gruff, mechanical and totally race-ready even at idle, and when the car takes off the sound transforms into a clear, high-pitched whine, just like it should on a high-revving sports car.
Let’s hope the stock exhaust sounds as exciting as this one. New BMWs have been criticized for being too quiet, but this one is just about perfect. It sounds fabulous from outside the car—we all smile when we hear it for the first time—and the volume is perfect inside the cockpit, too, letting us listen for the right time to shift as well as watching for the lights on the tach or in the head-up display.
Lively and direct
As good as the steering is, even more impression is the new M4’s inherent balance. First of all, the center of gravity is low, low, low! From the very first corner, the M4 feels notably lower than a stock E92 M3, more like an E92 M3 that’s been lowered for track use…and stripped. The new M4 weighs 348 pounds less than its predecessor, and only 22 of those came from the engine. The M division targeted the weight of the 2000-’06 E46 M3, then came in a few pounds under it. That’s a huge step in the right direction, and it’s one that every enthusiast will appreciate.
Gone is the bank-vault solidity of the E92 M3, replaced with a lighter, more agile car that changes direction with relative ease. The Losail circuit isn’t the best place to test a car’s handling—its turns are flat and one-dimensional, and there’s only one short sequence of esses—but even here it’s obvious that this car will be stellar on a more demanding circuit or undulating mountain road. It was developed on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, of course, by the M test team as well as BMW’s DTM drivers Bruno Spengler and Timo Glock.
Only one corner here reminds me of the Nordschleife: turn 12, a sweeping, decreasing radius left-hander taken in fourth gear. It’s like Nordschleife corners Metzgesfeld and Kesselchen, long left-handers that send a significant portion of a car’s weight to the right side. In the E92 M3, it feels like the right-side tires are bearing the entire burden of keeping the car on-track, and it’s a real test of the driver’s faith to go fast through those sections.
Minimizing body roll lets a car corner quickly, with less waiting for the car to take a set once the weight transfers. As I mentioned, Losail doesn’t really have any esses to speak of, and no elevation changes higher than a foot or two, but the new M4 should be superb on tracks that do—and on Nordschleife-like back roads such as Central California’s Highway 198. It’s a superbly balanced machine that feels almost like a mid-engined Porsche in its agility.
That’s something it gets from its 4 Series counterpart, which contributes its body-in-white to the new M4. “It’s a fantastic basis for an M car,” says Dr. Nitschke, and we’d have to agree. As good as a 435i is, however, the M4 is better, weighing 317 fewer lbs. while having another 129 horsepower and a much stiffer chassis at its disposal.
More of everything, everywhere
At the end of that long straight, with top speeds approaching around 150 mph, good brakes are essential. The Safety Car was equipped with the optional carbon-ceramic brakes, but they didn’t have the power they usually do, nor the sharp bite we expect. As it turns out, the Safety Car’s brakes hadn’t been bedded-in properly; normally, the M division puts its cars through a series of calibrated hard stops to off-gas the pads and rotors, but that hadn’t been done on this M4. Even though I was braking hard enough to activate the ABS, the pedal never felt as sharp as it should have. If you order these brakes, make sure to follow the bedding-in procedure to maximize performance.
Coming out of corners, the S55 six pulls like a freight train, its 406 lb-ft of torque bringing the M4 up to speed quickly. Torque is abundant throughout the rev range, but in appropriate M fashion it peaks a little higher than in the standard production motor. Maximum torque is available from 1,850 to 5,500 rpm versus 1,200-5,000 rpm for the N55, which only has 295 lb-ft to play with in any case.
The S55’s torque output isn’t much more than that of the S65 V8, but its broader spread makes the M4 much faster than the outgoing E92 M3. (Lower weight helps, too, of course.) When both cars are equipped with the standard manual transmission, 0 to 62 mph takes 4.3 seconds in an M4, 4.8 in an E92 M3. (With M-DCT, the M4 drops its sprint time to 4.1 seconds.) Fourth-gear acceleration from 50 to 75 mph takes just 3.5 seconds in the new M4; the E92 M3 needed 4.9. That’s the power of torque!
An M car at its dynamic best
The arrival of a new M car is always exciting, and the new M4 is the most responsive, fun-to-drive car to leave Garching since the 1 Series M Coupe. That car, we note, has an almost identical curb weight but rides much higher and on a six-inch shorter wheelbase that can make it a handful at high speeds. The new M4 loses nothing to the 1M in terms of agility, while its lower center of gravity and superior layout make it a much better handling car. It’s also a much quicker one, with an engine that performs like no turbocharged six we’ve ever experienced.
Like the 1M, the new M4 is at its dynamic best with traction control fully disengaged. Where the E92 M3 feels more or less the same in both M Dynamic Mode and with DSC fully off—at least until you need it—the turbocharged cars feel a bit sluggish even in MDM. MDM seems overly intrusive in the new M4, trimming power at corner exits and limiting acceleration even in a straight line. It’s a tough calibration, I’m sure—”If you activate DSC too late, it’s too late!” Dr. Nitschke laughed—but our second set of laps in the M4 with DSC fully off was a lot more fun than our first in M Dynamic Mode.
Like the E30 M3, this is an M car for the ages, and it heralds a new era in which light weight, responsive handling and outright fun take precedence over big power and bank-vault solidity. We like that formula a lot, and we can’t wait for another turn behind the wheel of the new M4 (and its M3 counterpart). Without a doubt, we’re going to need a lot more laps before we’re tired of this one.