It’s Alive!

Taking the wheel of the new MotoGP Safety Car in Qatar, Bimmer’s editor becomes the first journalist in the world to drive the new M4. It’s a big honor…and big fun!

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May 29, 2014

As a counterpoint to the familiar litany of complaint—the new BMWs are too heavy, the steering’s too remote, they’re no longer engaging to drive—we present the new M4. Tipping the scales at just 3,293 lbs., it’s lighter than even the 1 Series M Coupe. And though it has electric steering, it’s the most tactile interpretation of that technology since the Porsche Boxster. As for driver engagement, well, few BMWs have ever felt quite so alive as this one.

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.

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When you’re the first journalist in the world to drive the new M4, your first priority is to keep it on the track and out of the gravel. That’s especially true when the M4 in question will be making its debut as the 2014 Moto GP Safety Car this weekend. This pre-production car—we’ll be testing the production version soon—is equipped with Safety Car graphics, lights, Recaro racing seats, harnesses and a roll cage. It’s also got an exhaust system and a slew of carbon fiber aero bits from BMW Performance Parts. The car isn’t entirely analogous to a stock M4, but it’s close enough for a first impression.

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.

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My first lap takes place behind an X5 being used as a shooting platform by photographer Daniel Kraus. The task is to do one slow lap for the camera before Daniel climbs out and the X5 leads me around on the racing line for one more lap, after which I’ll be on my own. The X5 is being driven by Spaniard Mike LaPuente, a MotoGP Safety Car driver for the last five years who’s driven BMW’s 1 M Coupe, M5, M6 and M6 Gran Coupé Safety Cars. He’ll be driving the new M4 for the first time here in Qatar this weekend.

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

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Leaving pit lane for my first go-round, the M4 feels alive in my hands, almost twitchy. The steering ratio is a fairly normal 15.0:1, slightly more direct than an E46 M3’s but not nearly as much so as the E92’s 12.5:1. I have to dial back my inputs a bit to keep from over-directing the wheel, but once I do the M4 responds quickly and accurately. I might feel differently if I drove the car back-to-back with an E92, but first impressions tell me this is ultra-responsive, near-perfect steering. As for how much information is being lost through the electric assist, it’s hard to say. The grip level on the track is quite low—there’s a lot of desert dust on the surface, obscuring the interface between the tires and the pavement—but I don’t feel like I’m missing anything on these early laps.

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.

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Losail’s Turn 12 isn’t as long as either of those corners, but it’s still a sweeping left that should set up a dramatic weight shift to the right side of the M4. What I feel, however, is only a modest weight shift, and a car that corners much flatter than the E92 ever would on standard suspension. More speed might reveal more body roll, of course—I’ve got to bring this car back unscathed, remember!—but I’m certainly not feeling very much weight transfer on these laps. That’s consistent with my earlier impressions from riding along with Andy Priaulx in Munich last fall at the tech presentation, and it will be confirmed when I take a ride alongside LaPuente later this weekend. It might come at the cost of too-stiff suspension—there’s no way to tell on glass-smooth Losail—but in any case this car corners flat!

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

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And what an engine it is! With two mono-scroll turbochargers, the 2,979cc S55 is smooth and easy to use like the standard-production N55 of the same displacement, but with a lot more of everything, everywhere. The S55’s 431 horsepower trumps the N55’s 302, easily, and it peaks over a broader range, too: 5,500-7,300 rpm versus 5,800-6,000. BMW’s turbocharged sixes are notorious for losing power on top, but the S55 feels like it wants to rev right past redline. I experimented with different shift points on Losail’s long front straight, gaining more momentum by leaving the transmission in fifth rather than upshifting into sixth. The engine never feels like it’s running out of steam, and its willingness to rev will result in faster laps with both the standard manual transmission or the optional, ultra-efficient M-DCT.

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!

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The drivetrain on the Safety Car was entirely stock, along with its suspension. The aerodynamics were being severely disrupted by that light bar on the roof, which reduced top speed on the straight as well as overall stability. The car’s center of gravity, meanwhile, was lowered a bit by the mounting of its lightweight Recaro seats, though the roll cage probably made up for that. Despite these alterations, the car offered a fine preview of the production M4 to come.

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.

You’d be reluctant to switch off DSC if the car really needed it, but the new M4 is so well balanced and so responsive to inputs from the throttle and steering wheel that you’re better off without it. As obvious as this was from behind the wheel, it was even more so from the passenger seat, from which I’ve now watched both Andy Priaulx and Mike LaPuente correct for oversteer and driver error with ease, the all-natural way. In that, the M4 recalls the “pure” M cars of the analog era, the E30 M3s and E28 M5s that predate traction control and all driver aids save ABS. Yes, you have to know how to drive, but that’s the idea, isn’t it? It’s certainly where the fun comes in.

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.

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