Not subtle. Just fast.
In 1986, BMW took the elegant little 3-series and added muscular box flares and a unique rear trunklid and spoiler to create the M3. By the year 2000, it was side vents and quad exhausts. A bellowing V8 followed soon after. Year by year, the M division infused its cars with various performance enhancing substances, even as the name was changed to M4 for the coupe versions. Which is how we arrive here at the 2022 BMW M4 Competition, a car so aggressive, its face has washboard abs.
I’m not sure even Pepperidge Farms remembers when BMWs were subtle. Visually speaking, this thing’s louder than a Bavarian polka as performed by AC/DC. Even if you can get past the thirst-trap grille, it’s a riot of M-badges and vents and power bulges and carbon-fibre accents. The M4 would be less striking-looking if it actually exploded.
Then again, that’s sort of the point. You can’t really bring out a performance machine that hides its light under a bushel, not when your average Corolla looks like it eats children. We live in the era of the angry-looking car, and while at some point traffic will start looking a bit friendlier, rush hour now resembles a robot mosh pit. You can’t really blame BMW for getting the M4 all paamped aaap like Hans and Franz.
Further, under all that rippling sheetmetal, we find some pleasingly traditional M-division muscularity. After a brief dabble with eight-cylinder power, BMW returned its middleweight Ms to inline sixes with the previous generation of M3/M4.
To start with, the 3.0L straight-six makes 473 hp and 406 lb-ft of torque. The slightly tacky Competition badge on the back of this green hell-raiser advertises its higher power rating: 503 hp at 6,250 rpm and 479 lb-ft of torque at 2,750 rpm. A more track-oriented CSL version is on the way, with no back seat and 40 more hp than the Competition version. This last costs more than the moon.
This particular car puts that power to the ground through an eight-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive. Gasp! Was ist los? Ist das ein Audi produkt? Calm down Gunter, it’s still a BMW — more on that in a bit.
First, a saunter through the cockpit of this rather large coupe. Since the current 3-series is about as big as the 5-series used to be, that makes this M4 roughly the size of an old M6. It’s a far cry from the compact DTM brawler of the 1980s. The M4 is grand tourer sized, bred as much for autobahn hauling as for tackling the Nürburgring.
To that end, the cockpit’s Tarturo Merino leather contrasts the Isle of Man Green paint in a vaguely British way. It’s an Aston-Martin without the elegance, ideal for a bit of peacocking about. It’s also roomy and comfortable in here, though the 3- and 4-series interiors are fairly conventional and less futuristically screen-heavy than rivals. Given this car’s purpose, that’s not actually a complaint.
Grasp the cartoonishly-thick steering wheel, aim this car at the horizon, and stomp the throttle. The grip from all four wheels means this is no German Mustang. BMW claims the M4 can hit highway speeds from a standstill in 3.5 seconds, and if anything they are being too modest. This is a tremendously fast machine.
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But despite the auto-box and the 1,800 kg curb weight, the M4 is far from a blunt instrument. As with all BMWs, you wish that fat-rimmed steering wheel was more talkative about what’s happening with the front tires, but there’s a savagery to the way the car tears up a road that has the driver muttering “Ye gods,” under their breath every five minutes.
It’s like a surgically precise sledgehammer, were such a thing possible. AMG products feel looser when you unleash them, Audi’s can be reluctant to turn. The M4 has all the same poise that you remember from its svelter, subtler forebears, it’s just now larger and louder and lungier.
Then, if you so wish, you can flick one of the two M-mode buttons into your preferred Dr. Jekyll setting, and it’s an entirely different beast. Because this car’s behaviour is directly tied to the engineering behind the standard 4-series, it is capable of transforming into the exact opposite of its big-grilled extrovert nature. It’s a cruiser, when you want it to be.
It’s still possible to buy this car with an honest six-speed manual transmission, in the base model, but I’m not sure you’d actually want to. It’s not that the manual is a half-second slower to 100 km/h, it’s more that the M4’s mission has changed and if you’re trying to evoke a purer driving experience, you’re kind of wasting your time.
Eschew the rear-drive that a purist might insist on. Leave your Save The Manuals t-shirt in the closet. If you can’t do either, then you should really be waiting around for the next version of the M2 anyway.
But the M4 is best experienced by embracing all the technology it offers. It is far too focused on performance above all else to be worrying about trying to recoup some frisson of driver experience, the sort that you got from the simplicity of the old cars. This is three-quarters of an M5 with two doors and various available shouty shades of paint.
And absolutely, many BMW fans have taken one look at the front of this car and pulled the ejection handle. When you think of this car in contrast to the cheeky E30 M3 or the loveliness of the E46 coupe, it’s not hard to dismiss the modern M4 as overly brash, overly heavy, and overly complicated.
It’s probably too fast. But, somewhat annoyingly if you don’t like its mole rat nose, it is also still enormous fun to drive. The M4 is so over the top as to border on the obscene. But it’s still really good at being a BMW.