BMW has eschewed a naturally-aspirated V8 engine in the latest M3 for a twin turbo six-cylinder, or be happy that in a world where emissions restrictions and political correctness dictate a seemingly endless procession of front-wheel drive cookie cutters it continues to exist at all? I’ll take the glass half full option thanks.
With this latest generation, the Ms Split in two; the sedan remains an M3 and the coupe becomes the M4. That’s an issue that has commanded a lot of attention but is relatively insignificant in comparison with the worthy mechanical progress that has been made. Two drenching days of hard road and track driving in New Zealand in Aussie spec right-hand driver prove that beyond doubt.
I’m completely sideways in the new M4 coupe, steering lock wound on, right foot playing a tune on the throttle, real wheels spinning, twin turbo six cylinder engine bah-bah-bahing. Wah-hoo!
Uh-oh! Too sideways and suddenly over the edge, spinning through 360 degrees, then snapping to a halt. Thankfully there’s no crunch of mangling metal. But then again I was doing more than seven or eight km/h. Ah the joys of a wet skid pan, in this case located at the Hampton Downs racing circuit south of Auckland, where we are sampling the M3 and its no-identical technical brother in arms, the newly renamed M4 coupe.
Slip sliding around on a skid pan at ludicrous angles at ultra-slow speed doesn’t reveal that much about these two M weapons, except that traction control definitely works.
At least the soaked skid pan was totally in keeping with the theme of our New Zealand sojourn for the first right-hand drive of the F80 M3 and F82 M4. It pissed down – or pussed down in localise – most of the time we were in-county and pretty much all the time we were in-country and pretty all the time we were installed in that curvaceous new seat, grasping that chubby new steering wheel and looking over that power dome.
If there’s one thing driving 317kW/550Nm rear-wheel drive sports cars on sodden race tracks and ludicrously serpentine Kiwi highways proves, it’s the easy reports of this being the most user-friendly M generation yet are certainly accurate.
Oh there was the occasional slip and slide caught at the Hampton Downs and the Taupo circuit we visited the next day, but sphincter puckers were rare and big grins common.
On the road, where it all really counts, there was no signs of dramas whatsoever, no matter how heavy the rain the Ms just motored on, showing disdain for conditions that might have prompted Noah to head for Mitre 10 and start ordering lumber.
The thought of what an E36, E46 or even the most recent V8 E90 fourth generation M3 might have been like in these conditions is worth contemplating. Especially on the racetrack and especially in the sixes, the traction light would have been blinking a constant Morse code as rear tyres scrabbled for traction.
Not everyone will think making a high performance sports car easier to drive is a step in the right direction. There’s got to be a challenge in life after all. I certainly have sympathy for that view and remember the E90 with great fondness. But that’s not confusing ability with appreciation. I know I am better off in the new generation car than the old.
Having dived in headlong, let’s just take a step back and reprise what we’re driving. We won’t go into it too deeply, because BMW has pre-revealed just about everything there is to know about these cars and ‘we drove them in Europe only a couple of months ago’. What mike Sinclair reported then remains true today.
The renaming of the coupe from M3 to M4, reflecting the change in nomenclature for the donor car, has been one of the biggest pre-launch talking points. But more important to eemphasizeis just how good this new engine is, pouring out a wave of torque like a breached dam and roaring fiercely as the revs spiral upward.
It lacks the threshing mechanical soundtrack of the naturally aspirated E90 and maybe doesn't spin up to and beyond 7000rpm as quickly, but it’s almost as immediate in its throttle tip-in response despite having to spool two single scroll turbos and is clearly faster because it makes more grunt everywhere, shuffling it rearward via a third generation M-DCT dual clutch seven speed gearbox and electrically controlled Active M Diff.
Which brings us to the oh-so talented chassis. Beneath bodies pumped up like gym junkies are bespoke suspensions, strong brakes with a feel-some pedal, 19-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot supersport rubber. The rack and pinion steering has electric assist for the first time and there is absolutely no reason to regret that. This car steers and handles with dexterity, confidence and authority.
Australian pricing and equipment level. If we were to whinge about that it would be having to option significant safety equipment such as blind spot and lane departure warning, which are standard in much cheaper cars.
Overall, the whinge list is pretty short for these cars, but you can add the horrible amount of road noise generated by the huge tyres, although the payback is phenomenal grip.
Then there’s the profusion of center console buttons, which give you three turning choices for throttle response, steering weight, suspension firmness and shift settings for the gearbox (a six-speed manual is a no cost option). You can also detune your traction and stability control response or shut it down altogether.
Efficient is too soft for true M-type throttle response, comfort or sport the preferred choices for steering (sport + was just too heavy). Comfort is fine for the suspension – it was terse enough and sport and sport+ didn't make that much difference – and the mid-level drive-logic setting a good intermediate choice for the gearbox – although going manual via the shift paddles was always fun. On the track it was pretty much sport+ all the way for everything.
Thankfully, you can store your favorite settings behind buttons on the steering wheel and never have to faff around with multiple choice again.
If there was once other theme which emerged from this experience, it was just why would you bother buying the M4? It's more expensive, less practical and lacks the historically prestigious name. the sedan even gets the same trick carbon-fibre roof as the coupe this time round.
The M4 feels no faster despite having a lower center of gravity, smaller frontal aero
(so better aerodynamics even if the Cd is claimed to be the same) and a 23kg lighter kerb weight.
In fact, with that extra weight centered over the rear of the sedan (thanks to rear doors, a heavier seat and boot-lid), some of the more sensitive testers in the media pack ventured the opinion it offered better traction. with conditions and therefore grip changing by the minute your correspondent wasn't prepared to be so definitive.
what is define is BMW's M division has veered the M3 and M4 onto a new course, even if the fundamental direction remains familiar. they are different yet the same, ferocious yet pliable, fierce yet enjoyable, wild yet tameable.
they are exceptional driver's cars and that's to be celebrated. Wah-hoo!
By Beth Lloyd