From the May 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
Apparently, there’s something about having a highly anticipated BMW M car that alters the atmosphere in Los Angeles. Months of blue skies and shorts weather ended as soon as our M4 test car arrived. Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but we’re superstitious. A few years ago, a new M2 brought a massive storm during a multiyear drought, and now the M4 brings rain? You’d be a little ‘stitious too.
In a desperate attempt to outrun the storm, this particular six-speed-manual M4 spent hours chasing patches of dryness, mostly in vain. As the miles piled up, we were struck by the ease with which the M4 melts away vast distances. With wipers wiping, we relaxed in the leather-wrapped interior fit for a 7-series and kept Waze up on the 10.3-inch touchscreen in hopes of staying a step ahead of the highway patrol.
Like its predecessors, the M4 has a thick layer of comfort and daily usability. Even the rear seats offer adult-level space. Leave the adaptive dampers in Comfort—they stiffen on their own as necessary anyway—and single-wheel hits from broken pavement are dispatched with a distant stroke that barely upsets the serenity. When you’re cruising at 70 mph, a mellow 69 decibels of engine and tire hum enters the cabin, provided you’ve disabled M Sound.
M Sound is but one of the features that’ll seem like a gimmick to purists. When it’s active, valves open to amplify the exhaust and the volume is turned up on the synthesized engine sounds played through the 464-watt audio system’s 16 speakers. That digital enhancement is BMW’s attempt to augment what little intake sound the twin-turbo engine makes. The gravelly gruffness you get isn’t terrible, and it’s not offensively loud, either, but it’s also not entirely real. At least this M4 allows you to turn it down. In the last-gen M4, we resorted to pulling the audio system’s fuse to shut it up.
Shutting up is something we haven’t been willing to do about the wonky steering in late-model BMWs. Fortunately, the M division’s tuning has kept us relatively quiet on the subject. The new M4 steers well enough—it’s not darty, despite the wheel’s mere 2.1 turns lock-to-lock—but it lacks the exacting precision and tactility of the Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 that we drove next. Remember, comparison is the thief of joy. While the M4’s steering is a bit devoid of feedback, it does its job without offending. Just don’t drive a GT4, like ever.
Eventually, the skies blued, the sun dried the canyon roads, and it took all of two corners to realize that the M4 has astonishing front-end grip. Much of that is due to the changes BMW made from the F82’s setup. It swapped the Michelin Pilot Super Sports for stickier Pilot Sport 4S rubber, widened the front track by 1.5 inches, and increased the section width of both the front tires (from 255 to 275) and the rears (from 275 to 285). There’s a total resistance to understeer and a heady 1.03 g’s of adhesion on the skidpad.
Stressed near its cornering limits, the body remains resolutely flat. While it’s not what we’d call nimble—again, the Cayman GT4 colors our opinion here—careful tuning and a 112.5-inch wheelbase (1.8 inches longer than before) foster an unerring stability that engenders trust. Even as speeds and g-forces creep ever higher, there are no missteps or surprises, which removes any worries about painting a guardrail Sao Paulo Yellow.
Those of us whose loved ones think our driving is the reason guardrails exist would be wise to consider the $3800 carbon-fiber seats that hold you like a straitjacket. If you’re on the wrong side of 40, climbing in and out of the car elicits involuntary grunts and moans, but the payoff is a warm embrace and a 21-pound weight savings over the standard seats. Once in, you’ll notice your legs are separated by a slightly uncomfortable divide in the seat bottom that is intended to evoke racing seats. Like the M4 badging on the headrest, the leg separator is a design element that’s sure to inspire oohs and aahs from non-car people and eye rolls from the rest of us.
There’s a lot of car here to ooh and aah over. The M4 is now a mere 2.7 inches shorter than the V-10-powered, Bangle-butt M6 from 15 years ago and about the size of a current Ford Mustang or Chevrolet Camaro. And compared with the last M4, the new car is 0.7 inch wider and 4.6 inches longer. You notice the dimensions mostly when you’re parking. The M4 feels a size smaller when you’re having fun, but the scale doesn’t lie: This is a big, heavy car. The last M4 manual we weighed came in at 3556 pounds; this one is up to 3709.
The new-to-M4 S58 twin-turbo six helps offset the extra mass, offering 48 more horsepower than the S55 did in the previous gen at its launch. Last year the most powerful manual-trans M4 had 444 horsepower. Stick-shift M4s now offer 473 horsepower and 406 pound-feet of torque for $72,795. Unlocking the Competition version’s 503 horsepower and 479 pound-feet requires an extra $2900 and life with an eight-speed automatic.
Blessed with an imperviousness to vibration, the smooth inline-six doesn’t seem to care whether it’s idling, at redline, or anywhere between. So you’re left studying the multicolored tachometer or, if you select M View, the double-strip tach. Neither is as easy to read as the big analog dials BMW used to fit in its cars. To make your life easier, shift lights pop up to keep you from charging right into the 7200-rpm redline. Row the six-speed and 60 mph goes by in a repeatable 3.8 seconds, with the quarter shooting by in 12.0 seconds at 121 mph. Short, slightly rubbery shifts will bring back memories of BMWs past.
The various settings for steering effort, damping, throttle response, engine sounds, and even the brakes remind us of more recent BMWs. The previous M3/M4 had a million settings, too, and it was the bestselling generation yet, which has only encouraged BMW to continue to offer these choices to buyers.
But adjusting levels of assist in the steering doesn’t add feel, the dampers automatically cinch up as needed without your involvement (so why raise their baseline to jarring?), changing throttle response won’t mitigate the inherent delay of a turbocharger, fake engine sounds are disingenuous, and we couldn’t discern any difference in the two brake modes. Either way, the $8150 carbon-ceramic brakes are strong and fade-free.
When a car is tuned right, it is right. Letting M4 owners turn the knobs that the development engineers should’ve dialed in is like giving someone wearing a Beach Boys T-shirt a mixing board in hopes that they’ll improve Pet Sounds.
Admittedly, some of this sounds a bit like an aging E30 owner shouting “Respect your elders!” And we haven’t even mentioned the video-game-inspired M Drift Analyzer, which judges how well you can hang the M4’s tail out. Actually going out and playing is what’s fun, not getting attaboy validation from a computer.
All the M4’s adjustability gets to the philosophical headaches born of trying to make cars that’ll suit all people. Like the M3s and M4s that came before, this new one has a breadth of capability, merging daily usability with track-day fun, but the old cars that came basically one way were pure and free of gimmicks. Offering a unique and better experience used to be enough. M cars should have the gumption to say, “Don’t like how we tuned it? Well, we think you’re an idiot. Please leave.” Imagine if BMW had applied the confidence of the grille to the final tune. Wouldn’t it be nice?