Payne: BMW M4 has big grille, big power — and big identity crisis
Say hello to the 2021 BMW M4 coupe. B stands for “big”: big kidney grille, big proportions, big power, big sticker price.
Most of it works, but the big news is that M4 is no longer the brand’s premier track rat. That title belongs to the smaller, apex-slicing M2 coupe — a rocket with the same proportions as the 2000 E46 M3 that established M as the handling standard for performance coupes. Twenty years later, M badge proliferates throughout the BMW lineup, from the M2, M5 and M8 to even M versions of its X3 and X5 SUVs.
And as the M4 (now the coupe’s badge, M3 is a sedan) has grown, it has shed some of its athletic identity to the nimbler M2. If today’s M2 is a scalpel, then the M4 is, well ... having a bit of an identity crisis.
It’s a tweener between the M2 and the 600-horsepower M5 hammer. Like a 6’8” NBA player who wants to play guard. Or an electric guitar player who prefers Beethoven concertos. In M4’s case it wants ... Ford Focus RS-like drift mode.
That’s right, drift mode.
On M1 Concourse’s Champion Speedway track, the M4 felt confused. Exploding out of the Turn 6 hairpin onto the back straight, the 473-horsepower, twin-turbo, 3.0-liter mill soared. I ripped off quick manual shifts — long live the manual! — as BMW’s inline-6 cylinder’s endless torque curve lit up the digital RPM instrument display. Thanks to M-mode, that display can be projected on the windscreen in my direct line of sight so I could upshift before the torque wave slammed into the 7,200-RPM redline.
But as I entered Champion’s long Turn 7, M4 suddenly wanted to be a Fast and Furious drifter — its rear stepping out — rather than firmly planted like Ms of old. The rubbery manual shifter doesn’t help, making it hard to find gears under heavy g-loads. The smooth engine and ragged handling clash.
Blame M’s confusion on three traction modes — Stability control ON, Stability Control OFF and the M Drift Analyzer (aka, drift mode) with its 10 settings. On M1’s skid pad afterward, I rotated around pylons like I was a steel horse negotiating rodeo barrels. The Drift Analyzer is a fun challenge to harness — though by the time you figure it out, your expensive Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tires may be reduced to dust.
It all felt like too much. How do you say “Jump the shark” in German?
I pined for the simplicity of my ol’ 3,480-pound 2001 E46 M3 — its raspy, 330-horse inline-6 singing at 8,000 RPM while the taut 107-inch chassis intuitively found apexes. Today, that simplicity is found in the M2 with its comparable weight, 16-inch wheelbase and 405 horsepower. If you frequent track days, M2 is the E46’s true heir.
M4 has stretched five inches beyond those athletes, tipping the sales at a porky 3,709 pounds.
The new Bimmer was more in its element on a day trip to Mid-Ohio race track, where I was competing with my SCCA Lola sports racer.
On the Buckeye State’s country roads (traction control on), the turbo-6’s siren song was addictive. Like Corvette Z-mode or Porsche’s Sport Response button, the M4 makes it easy to program the car to your liking. I prefer Sport Plus mode and the enhanced wail of the 6-cylinder.
There is no lag at low revs and gobs of power at redline. I opted for electronic rev-matching to make manual downshifts smooth and satisfying. Just keep your eye on the tachometer as triple-digit speeds arrive quickly.
On longer interstate stretches, the BMW’s superb interior shines.
Ergonomics are some of the best in the industry. The fat steering wheel felt rooted to the road. Instrument and infotainment displays are well placed, and the M4 adds (at a fee, of course) a head-up display that contains relevant speed/navigation/radio details so your eyes never have to leave the road.
Under the graphically rich dash screen is useful console phone storage despite the presence of the huge signature iDrive rotary screen controller. Redundancy is everywhere, including touchscreen controls if the iDrive doesn’t suit you. Oh, and there’s a row of radio preset buttons under the screen.
BMW is on the cutting edge of electronic technology, and M4 automatically detected my Samsung smartphone with wireless Android Auto each time I entered the car. This effortless synchronization of phone and car is the future of car-phone integration, and BMW even mirrored my phone’s Google Maps in the head-up display.
My $93,000 tester came with all the bells and whistles, including $3,400 carbon fiber seats and blue-and-yellow stitched interior that would make Gucci jealous. For those who don’t need such razzle-dazzle, the standard seats are luxury enough.
Interiors have been an M strength dating to my BMW ownership days. I chose the M3 over a Porsche Boxster/Cayman because I had a family and needed the coupe’s backseat to seat four. That same practicality holds today as buyers look at competitively priced coupes from Porsche and Corvette.
Speaking of competitive, I tested an M2 at the same time as the M4. It also seats four but for thousands of dollars less. Indeed, the rear seat room of the M2 matches M4 despite the latter’s stretched wheelbase. What’s more, M2 also brings electronic tricks like wireless phone connectivity (if not quite matching the M4’s poshness).
With a healthy 405 horsepower from the same, slightly detuned turbo I-6, the 3,415-pound M2 actually has a better power-to-weight ratio than the 473-horse, 3,700-pound M4. Bimmer seems determined to push M4 into grand tourer territory and crown the M2 its new track halo.
One big M4 ambition I took a shine to, however, was the full-fascia kidney grille.
The polarizing kidneys were a source of constant comment in the Mid-Ohio paddock. They are aggressive. They are grille-zilla, and I liked them. They match M4’s masculinity and power.
Grille-zilla is also available on the cheaper M450i, AWD version of the 4-series that I drove to Hell and back earlier this year. Endowed with the same interior tricks as M4, this may be — pound-for-pound — the best 4-series. Big grille, big power, but without the big sticker.
For those who want the legendary M thrill on the track, let me suggest M2 Jr.
2021 BMW M4
Vehicle type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, four-passenger sports coupe
Price: $72,795, including $995 destination fee ($93,795 as tested)
Powerplant: 3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-6 cylinder
Power: 473 horsepower, 406 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic
Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 180 mph
Weight: 3,709 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA, 16 mpg city/23 highway/19 combined
Highs: Inline-6 cylinder from the gods; that big grille actually looks pretty good
Lows: Identity crisis; cheaper M2 a better buy
Overall: 3 stars
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.