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It’s bigger, brawnier and gawkier than ever. Can the new M4 cut the mustard?

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Whether you think of this week’s test subject as the second generation of a particular M division performance coupé or as a de facto sixth-generation version of an even more influential one, we can probably all agree that the arrival of the new BMW M4 Competition represents a significant moment for enthusiasts and keen drivers the world over.

The M4 is the modern inheritor of the legacy of that oh-so formative M3 homologation special of 1986 and brings with it plenty to talk about besides its styling – which, like that of so many modern BMWs, is intended to divide opinion.

I’ve never been one to rank design very highly among reasons for attraction to a particular car, but the M4 is proof of how much it matters if you get it wrong. I loved driving it but went out of my way to avoid looking at it. Who could own a car like that?

The days when driver’s cars of this size and brief were powered by high-revving atmospheric engines of the kind that various celebrated BMW M3s have had over the decades are gone. But we have yet to see a partially – or even fully – electrified M car, so where does that leave the M4 Competition? Don’t imagine it’s nowhere.

The G82-codenamed M4 has a new engine, and while it may not be a free-breathing V8, it does produce significantly more power and more accessible torque than even the hardcore BMW M4 GTS of 2015 had.

The car also gets a drivetrain unlike that of any compact M car before it. You can have a rear-wheel-drive, manual gearbox-equipped M4 in some markets (but the UK isn’t one of them). Otherwise, you can have one with an eight-speed automatic gearbox or even, in a significant break from this car’s acknowledged technical template, with four-wheel drive, with xDrive M3s and M4s due to join rear-driven ones here in the UK later this year.

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Whether you choose one driven axle or two, this car should be able to hit 62mph from rest in less than four seconds. But has it got the classic BMW M car driver appeal to match?

BMW M4 Competition design & styling

With its gaping nostrils, fussy lines, weedy stance and awkward rear, the M4’s looks attracted criticism from all of our testers.

And while the initial shock that accompanied our first look at its beaver-fanged face may have subsided over time, in no case did that clear a space for affection. Some will undoubtedly like this car’s bold and unapologetic styling, but plenty won’t.

The M4’s mechanical specification is far easier to take to heart. The car’s 3.0-litre, twin-turbocharged S58 straight six engine is new, and it’s a force to be reckoned with. It makes 503bhp from 5600-7200rpm and 479lb ft between 2750rpm and 5500rpm, all of which was deployed in our test car’s case to the rear wheels via an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission and an electronically controlled limited-slip differential – although, as we’ve already mentioned, other driveline configurations are now available.

Suspension is by way of special M division axles comprised of new aluminium wishbones up front, multiple links at the rear and adaptive dampers all round. Plenty of work has gone into strengthening and stiffening the standard BMW 4 Series’ chassis and lightening its body, too; as before, there’s a carbonfibre roof as standard to help lower the car’s centre of gravity.

All of which is welcome, because the M4 is bigger than ever. Its predecessor was already a large car, but this new one is 123mm longer, 17mm wider and – on our test scales – a hardly insignificant 190kg heavier. However, BMW has been better able than before to spread that mass across the M4’s axles. We found the old car to have a 53% front, 47% rear weight distribution, while new model splits it right down the middle.

The BMW 4 Series line-up at a glance

The 4 Series line-up is a relatively diverse one. Non-M division models are available in both coupé and convertible bodystyles, with a choice of four-cylinder or six-cylinder petrol engines, or a sole four- cylinder diesel. Rear-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive models are both available, too, although all 4s sold in the UK come with an eight-speed ZF automatic transmission.

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For now, the M4 Competition is only available as a coupé, though a four-door Gran Coupé and a convertible will no doubt join the line-up in the near future.

INTERIOR

17 BMW M4 Competition 2021 RT cabin

The M4’s optional M Carbon bucket seats drew some criticism – giggles of amusement, even – from our jury. On our test car, these came as part of a £6750 option pack (you can have them as a £3400 stand-alone option) and they are, as we’ll explain, pretty phenomenal chairs once you’ve got yourself settled in them.

However, a raised insert that could be half-intended to hold your thighs in place not only looks daft (one tester likened it to a carbonfibre codpiece) but also seems like a trivial, obstructive affectation in a road-going sports coupé. In a racing car, your thighs might well benefit from some additional bolstering, if it worked. But here? Come on, BMW.

Controls for drive settings, infotainment and shift speed are here. Quite a few buttons, but you won’t touch many of them once set up how you like it.

It’s tricky to shake the feeling that the seats themselves, along with the numerous other flashes of carbonfibre throughout the cabin, are on some level merely affectations. The M4, remember, is no lightweight.

It tipped our scales at 1800kg with a full tank of petrol, and although the M Carbon seats do contribute to a 9.6kg weight saving over the standard front seats, don’t be fooled into thinking they’re representative of a genuine weight-loss programme. They’re still electrically adjustable and fully heated, after all.

Judged as the modern, luxurious driving environment that it is, however, the rest of the M4’s cabin is excellent. Its hides and metallic decorations look and feel plush and expensive. Then there’s the general sense of solid tactile quality evident all around, which is pervasive. Of all the current crop of fast compact executive options and their coupé relations, from Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-AMG and even Audi, the new M4 is now the most expensive-feeling to sit in.

It’s spacious, too. Admittedly, rear-seat passengers will have to duck down and squeeze themselves in behind the front chairs in order to access the rear bench, but once they’re in, all but the tallest will find adequate space for occasional travel.

Typical leg room in the back stands at 730mm (more than you’ll get in a Volkswagen Golf), while head room is a lesser 870mm. Ultimately, it’s the latter that will prove to be the problem, but on shorter trips two average-height adults should be comfortable enough back there.

BMW M4 Competition infotainment and sat-nav

The M4 Competition’s infotainment specification is generous indeed. Live Cockpit Professional, which incorporates a 10.25in touchscreen and BMW’s Operating System 7.0, is a masterclass in graphical sophistication, ease of use and visual ‘wow’ factor. Sat-nav, DAB, wireless Apple CarPlay and a range of connected services are all included as standard, and all combine to lend the M4 one of the best infotainment suites currently on the market.

However, we see once again BMW’s infotainment offering let down slightly by its awkward-looking 12.3in digital cockpit. The set-up’s hexagonal dials are still trickier to read than they need to be, and they lack a degree of configurability that’s present on rival systems from Audi and Mercedes-Benz.

The Harman Kardon surround sound system that comes as standard is a touch underwhelming. Sound quality is clear enough, but it lacks punch and can struggle to overwhelm the level of road roar that makes its way into the cabin.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

27 BMW M4 Competition 2021 RT engine

Objectively speaking, the twin-turbocharged straight six in this car renders itself almost immune from criticism. It revs. It hauls. It responds. It even behaves, and it’s well-mannered enough to be driven in an entirely disinterested or ham-fisted style if you must. For some, it might still be missing one or two of the more intangible qualities you would expect of an M car engine. And yet it also stands ready to make this car every bit as fast as BMW says – and then some.

BMW M’s electronic launch control system remains slightly counterintuitive to use. To engage it, you first have to completely disengage the car’s electronic traction control, and then put the gearbox into its Manual mode – which is odd, given that what you want the car to do is govern electronically its own traction and then pick the optimum shift points by itself as it accelerates.

BMW needs a new seat design that's between the standard chairs and the carbonfibre buckets. I love how supportive the latter are, but I’d soon tire of explaining what that weird central insert is.

But once you’ve learned how to set it, the system certainly works. The car actually launches in second gear, and yet it is still very quick indeed. We tested the M4 on its standard-fit Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres; on a warm set of its optional Cup tyres, it would surely have gone even quicker, and likewise, very likely, with an extra driven axle. As it was, the M4 Competition recorded a two-way 0-60mph average of 3.9sec, with one run at 3.8sec. A standing quarter mile came up in 12.1sec, which is less than a second slower than the still current, V8-powered BMW M5 managed during our road test some three years ago.

So don’t doubt for a second that this is now a very fast car. Linearity of delivery has always been a more important quality of M division’s straight sixes than outright knockout punch, though, and this M4 is a real specialist. The engine’s 479lb ft is not only 10% more than either the 2016 BMW M4 GTS or CS had, but it’s also available from more than 1000rpm further down the rev range than the peak figure offered by either of those special derivatives.

The S58 feels super-responsive, then, and it is so consistent in its muscularity. It isn’t boosty through the mid-range or peaky beyond, just smooth, pleasingly crisp under foot and potent almost irrespective of engine revs. It spins quite willingly to the far side of 7000rpm, too, and while it doesn’t have the audible charm of M engines of old, neither does it sound overly synthesised, at least to our ears. It could sound more raw and genuine, perhaps, but even so, it remains enjoyable to listen to.

The car’s eight-speed torque-converter gearbox is perhaps more vulnerable to criticism than the engine, if only because in principle a dual-clutch automatic might shift a little more quickly and positively on the paddles, with just a touch less slur, and downshift more readily to higher revs. Both in normal road motoring and on track, however, we found the new torque converter wanting only on very rare occasions.

RIDE & HANDLING

28 BMW M4 Competition 2021 RT cornering front

More good news: the M4’s growth spurt hasn’t detracted one iota from its ability to get down a good B-road like a true entertainer. The M4 Competition’s is a world-class chassis, one that offers exceptional precision on turn-in, plenty of grip and stability mid-corner, and sublime on-throttle adjustability if you choose to explore what happens when you over-rotate those rear tyres just beyond the limit of adhesion.

The typically thick-rimmed steering wheel still feels a bit overly chunky in your hands and stops a little short of giving a high-definition report of the exact textural makeup of the road beneath you all the time. But it’s nonetheless capable of telegraphing lateral load on the front tyres really consistently and inspiring a healthy dose of confidence in the car’s incisive handling talents.

M4 Competition’s quick-geared helm makes it exceptionally responsive and agile; it contains its mass well, remaining flat, sure-footed and confidence-inspiring in turns.

Fairly quick gearing – there are 2.2 turns between locks – causes the M4 to respond energetically to steering inputs, but its directional agility is backed up by a cool sense of control and directional stability.

It goes where you point it exactly and keenly, without contrivance or hyperactivity and with steering weight and resistance building up in an intuitive and natural way, to paint a clear picture of how the front tyres are holding up beneath you.

An Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio might be keener still to turn, but there’s abundant interactivity, feedback, engagement and positivity available here, both at fast road speeds and on track.

The M4 controls its body movements with equal precision. You can sense its mass moving from side to side at times, but the car itself stays really flat as you load up the chassis, and it translates steering input into lateral load with so little energy wasted. Its rigidly mounted rear subframe no doubt contributes to this eerily close sense of body control and composure, which works with the generous bolstering on those bucket seats to give your backside a running commentary on the rear axle’s relationship with the road.

You can really feel when you’re approaching the limit of lateral grip in this car, which isn’t something that could be said about the F82- generation M4. And yet this new M car has been neither watered down nor softened up in order to achieve that. On the contrary, it’s got a clearer and more ready sense of dynamic poise and precision than any direct rival we can think of.

The M4 Competition’s performance on MIRA’s dry circuit was impressive, and all the more so considering our test car was some way from being in what BMW might consider a track-optimised specification (standard iron brakes, regular PS4S tyres). Yes, it worked those brakes hard, but they still survived close to an hour’s examination without serious fade.

The tyres resisted overheating to give finely balanced but robust grip that could be adjusted with tyre pressure, for superbly absorbing, throttle-adjustable handling.

M Dynamic mode for the electronic stability control gives a reassuring safety net in the wet and dry without killing chassis response stone dead. Switch it off and you can adjust traction control on its own through 10 settings, the least intrusive of which permit lurid and indulgent oversteer. However you want your track driving to go, the M4 is ready to help rather than get in your way.

Comfort and Isolation

Getting in and out of the M4 Competition isn’t as straightforward as you might think. You need a lot of space to get those long doors open, and you need to navigate your legs over the chunky side bolsters of the bucket seats. Once you’re in, though, boy, does the BMW impress.

You sit low down, directly in front of the steering wheel and in close proximity to all the important controls. The chairs are firm, but they hold you in place so gracefully and comfortably that you can almost overlook how much they add to the price of the car.

Unsurprisingly, the ride is firm and can be just a little brittle over really uneven Tarmac. But with the adaptive dampers set to Comfort, there’s enough pliancy on smooth, fast roads to make the M4 Competition a very competent long-distance tourer, if not always the most relaxing one. That said, at low speeds and in Sport mode, there’s still plenty of bite about the car’s damping. Sport+, meanwhile, is best left for circuits.

The M4 is a little noisy at pace. The roar generated by the 19in front and 20in rear wheels and tyres is considerable, and at 70mph our microphones recorded cabin noise at 73dB – that’s 3dB louder than the Mercedes-AMG C63 S Coupé we road tested back in 2019. Most testers said it wouldn’t be enough to discourage them from using the car on longer journeys, though.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 BMW M4 Competition 2021 RT hero front

BMW UK has elected not to offer the standard, lower-powered versions of either the BMW M3 Competition saloon or the M4 coupé, which means Brits are also denied the option of a manual gearbox in the car – and that does seem a shame.

In the UK, then, it’s Competition-spec only for either car, which pushes entry-level pricing for the M4 up to just under £75,000. If that seems expensive, consider that the £42,200 asking price of the 2004 model year E46 M3 Coupé, adjusted for inflation, works out at a whisker over £70k in today’s money.

The older Audi RS5 is expected to hold a greater percentage of its residual value after three years than either the M4 or the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio

BMW has fitted a suite of Driving Assistant active safety technologies as standard. Should you want an M car that can steer itself, you can add even more of them at extra cost. A head-up display and Harman Kardon premium audio are also standard.

Inevitably, you can still spend big on options, from carbon-ceramic brakes to LED Laserlight headlights and the M Carbon Pack, which, among other things, gets you those excellent bucket seats. If you want every option going, BMW’s Ultimate Pack delivers just that, and will add just over £11,000 to the cost of your car.

 

VERDICT

32 BMW M4 Competition 2021 RT static

Our verdict might only matter if you can look the new M4 Competition in the face and still be interested in what lies behind it. Even if you can’t, you should know how versatile and complete a performance car this is. From chassis to powertrain to interior, this M4 is objectively and demonstrably better than the car it replaces, and its rivals, by quite a leap.

It offers striking and tangible handling poise, fine precision and superb controllability, along with trademark M division positivity of feel flowing through its axles, driveline and engine and back through to its controls. The M4 Competition is indulgent to drive but also more usable than ever, and the way the configurability of its driving experience can be negotiated via those steering wheel-mounted driving mode shortcut toggles is truly rare in a modern performance car driving experience: complexity brought emphatically to heel.

A very modern M car and a brilliantly versatile and enjoyable one

Like so many modern driver’s cars, the M4 lacks a certain rawness, but its blend of versatility and top-level engagement marks it out as something rather special.

 

BMW M4 Competition First drives