Few fast saloon cars can claim such an impressive pedigree as the BMW M3. First launched in 1992 as a high-performance, two-door coupe-body derivative of the German company’s E30 3-series compact sedan and partially aimed at homologating the car for participation in the DTM racing series, the M3 not only delivered supercar-bothering horsepower with handling from the outset, but it also paved the way for a rash of similarly steroidal machines from other manufacturers, the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, the Audi RS4 Avant wagon and AMG variants of the Mercedes C-class being obvious examples.
Indeed, for a brand that famously claimed in its advertisements to be the Ultimate Driving Machine, the M3 pretty much was the ultimate, a car that could hardly be matched for all-around capabilities that have always bordered on the phenomenal.
Over time and four generations, the M3 spawned convertible and four-door versions, not to mention expanding in terms of cylinders (whereas the original E30 had a 2.3-litre four under the bonnet, the fourth-gen E90 of 2007 packed a 4-litre V8 up front), power, weight and technological complexity.
However, by 2014, following a corporate revision of its line-up that saw coupes and convertibles hived off into their own discrete model stream, the M3 designation was applied only to the four-door version (though a much-anticipated Touring estate version will be launched next year), with two-door and drop-top models assigned the M4 name.
Thus although only the second iteration of the M4, the new car that arrived in Asia only a handful of months ago is actually the sixth in a long, distinguished and extremely desirable line of ultra-fast BMW coupes.
And while ever stricter restrictions on emissions and fuel consumption have resulted in a gradual reduction in engine sizes – the latest model is powered by a twin-turbo 3-litre straight-six – that hasn’t prevented power output and torque from heading ever northwards.
The most powerful of all the M4 variants currently available, the M4 Competition, which comes in rear- or all-wheel-drive guises, extracts a formidable 503bhp from its highly-strung six-pot motor and a thumpingly useful 650Nm of twist at 2,750-5,500rpm – and for those who find such figures meaningless, that means a 0-100km/h acceleration time in less than four seconds and an ungoverned maximum speed in the region of 290.
Compared with the original M3, which tipped the scales at a relatively modest 1,200kg, the latest M4 coupe has packed on the pounds – and with a weight of more than 1.7 tonnes, it certainly needs plenty of those hard-working horses to get it moving as quickly as it does. It would be even heavier, in fact, were it not for the fact that the car positively bristles in carbon fibre, most obviously on the roof but equally noticeably around the cabin (check, for example, the insane carbon-framed racing-style seats), the resulting weight reduction doubtlessly contributing to a lower centre of gravity that should benefit road holding and handling.
The 4-Series’ frontal styling remains its most divisive aspect – when I drove the M4’s lesser sibling, the 430i, early this year I found the elongated kidney grilles at the front of the car to be a stylistic jump way too far. However, in the considerably more aggressive context of the range’s high-performance flagship, in which those twin grilles are accompanied by deep gaping intakes and vents, and set off by the test car’s nacreous São Paulo yellow paint job, the startling appearance does begin to make sense.
No, I still can’t claim that I’ve fallen in love with it, but I do readily concede that it suits the coupe’s hardcore demeanour much better than I’d ever have been prepared to admit. Not that BMW is likely to care what I think: the company surely has a good idea of what its M division customers want by now, and this is very probably it.
Yet even if the M4 will never run off with a prize in an automotive beauty contest, in those areas where it’s expected to excel it turns out to have very few peers – in fact, on the basis of a few hours behind the wheel I’d reckon that its only serious rival is the current Porsche 911.
That’s because, much like the Carrera, it’s not only a stunningly rapid car to drive but also an extremely satisfying one, covering every possible base that an enthusiastic driver would demand while still offering user-friendliness and a reasonable degree of practicality.
Inevitably with such a car, the M4 has been invested with every possible aid and mode a driver might require, from several levels of traction control to a frankly bonkers Drift Analyzer function that I daren’t even contemplate, but in spite of numerous available levels of electronic intervention, the star of the show is undoubtedly the magnificent S58 engine, which produces monstrous dollops of torque with even mild throttle openings, yet is fabulously linear in its delivery of power right across a rev range that – surprisingly for a turbo – extends beyond 7,000rpm.
Although rarely raucous like some of its predecessors, this brilliant motor must surely represent a peak of petrol-engine development – and it’s almost certainly the last in the line for such powertrains in the M3 and M4, in which a hybrid or even full electricity will surely be the next step.
Whether fettled with rear- or all-wheel drive (my test car is the former), Competition versions of the M4 are available only with eight-speed automatic transmission, the engine’s prodigious torque being too much for a manual box to handle. However, it turns out that the torque converter – which has been heavily modified for this application – involves few compromises compared with a dual-clutch set-up, and shifts up or down quickly, decisively and reliably.
Handling is equally scintillating, even given the absence of all-wheel-drive reassurance. In fact, the chassis is so well sorted – and the electronic differential and traction modes so clever – that you need to explore every corner of the car’s performance envelope (with, of course, the Dynamic Stability Control turned off) to unsettle it.
The steering, both quick and informative, offers every incentive to exploit the M4’s impressive dynamic capabilities; body control is excellent, too, and though damping in the more aggressive drive modes is on the firmer side, the Comfort setting really does mean what it says on the label.
As to whether there’s a place for the latest M4 in your garage, you should affix your gaze beyond the car’s polarising prow and consider its broader merits. Fantastically fast and dynamically superb, it has the legs of just about every comparable automobile right now – and given alternatives that will soon include Mercedes-AMG’s new four-cylinder hybrid C63, I can’t see that pre-eminence being challenged.
Add to that a level of versatility that means you really can load it up for everyday use, and I reckon you’d be hard put to name a more all-around accomplished new car on the road today (except, of course, for the M3). That I’d be impressed by the M4 Competition was never in doubt; that I’d fall in love with it was entirely unexpected.
(All images: BMW)
This story first appeared in Prestige Hong Kong.