The most controversial feature of the new M4 lies not beneath its hood but in front of it, where the traditional BMW twin-kidney grille has mutated into something more like a quad-kidney setup. When bisected by a European license plate, the M4 looks like someone copied and pasted the upper grille into the lower fascia. Hey, maybe we’ll appreciate it someday. It was hard to find defenders of the Chris Bangle cars in their own time, but they’re looking pretty good now. Or maybe this new grille is just making us nostalgic for the days of flame surfacing.
The M4 Competition certainly makes us nostalgic, in the best way, for the M3s of bygone eras. Recall that the M3 began as a two-door and was eventually offered as a coupe or four-door until BMW did the logical thing and renamed the four-door cars M4. Hold on, sorry. They did the opposite of that. So, here we have the two-door version of the M3, the M4, which has grown so significantly that you might as well view it as today’s M6. Follow?
One thing is clear: The M4’s high-rpm straight-six blat honors its ancestors, particularly the E46. It fires up with a healthy roar and settles into a belligerent lope. Artificial enhancement, of course, is part of the game (at least, inside the car). But the M4 has the hardware to fulfill the promise of its soundtrack. It’s a happy straight-six with a closed-deck block, forged crankshaft, and twin-turbocharged to produce a very healthy 503 horsepower in Competition form. Maximum torque is 479 pound-feet, served up from 2750 to 5500 rpm. And all of that power is channeled to the rear axle through a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic transmission. The latter replaces the dual-clutch automatic of the previous generation, laying the groundwork for the all-wheel-drive versions that will arrive later this year. Like the M3, the base M4 is manual only and makes 473 horsepower; the Competition is available only with the automatic.
The thick, grippy steering wheel is consistent with BMW M’s best practices. The standard sports seats are firm yet comfortable, even for those with a wider frame. The optional M Carbon bucket seats are a whopping 21 pounds lighter and are power-adjustable for width—from narrow to narrower—and include an illuminated M logo in the headrest that you might find gimmicky or excellent, depending on your taste for flair. And BMW is ready to court the extroverts—some of the color palettes, both inside and out, look like the fever dreams of a Lamborghini-driving recent lottery winner.
As usual with BMW, there is a bewildering menu of driving modes and settings. The powertrain, chassis, steering, and even the brake feel can be adjusted in multifarious ways, and the instrument cluster offers different display options. Luckily, there are shortcuts, via the M1 and M2 buttons on the steering wheel. Each button is configurable to one’s desired settings. Go ahead and set one up to be relaxed and the other to unleash all of the Competition’s fury. Just remember it takes two pushes to let the stability-control system relax its reins.
Considering the number of adjustable performance parameters, the interior deserves praise for looking fresh without veering into haptic-touch madness. There are enough hard buttons to provide easy access to common functions, and the console scroll wheel—descendant of iDrive—is still a fine way to access the infotainment functions. Mostly, the interior is designed to complement and enable aggressive driving, and that’s an approach that makes it easy to live with in everyday use, too.
Whatever mode it’s in, the M4’s sheer power is astonishing. BMW claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 3.8 seconds, and top speed is governed at a lofty 180 mph. Unlocking that top speed requires springing for the $2500 M Driver’s Package. Standard cars are limited at 155 mph. On the lightly traveled autobahn west of Munich, we got within 10 mph of that velocity with little run-up. And that speed is attained despite the drag coefficient of 0.34, which seems mediocre but is decent considering the fat tires and this car’s voracious appetite for air.
In most countries, these kinds of velocities are best kept to the track, and we also visited one of those—well, kind of. BMW cordoned off a huge section of a former airstrip and created a course whose shape curiously resembled the continental United States. Although it was flat, the makeshift road course served up 115-mph corners and chicanes of varying difficulty and radius. The M4 was an absolute delight, supremely stiff, and imminently controllable with its active rear differential. The steering is nicely weighted, less artificially heavy than it used to be, and it feels perfectly natural.
If you are willing to sacrifice the occasional set of rear tires, the M4 Competition has another trick to offer: There is an M traction-control system that can be adjusted in 10 stages. BMW was kind enough to provide a generously watered skidpad in order to compare the settings, and we can attest to the fact that they make a huge difference. This is a performance-oriented traction-control system, allowing the driver to get greedy with the throttle without spinning. To that end, the M Drift Analyzer will grade your tail-out antics on a scale of one to five stars, but you can’t earn a five-star rating without completely disabling the traction-control helper.
Although some of the more exotic performance hardware of the previous generation, like the carbon-fiber prop shaft and dual-clutch transmission, have been dropped, the M4 Competition retains its hard-core sports-car appeal. Starting this summer, you’ll be able to get a convertible version as well. And finally, BMW returns to a fabric top. Whichever body you choose, the M4 teases you to challenge it whenever possible, requiring almost excessive restraint to keep it at legal velocities. At 180 mph, the last thing you’re thinking about is the shape of the grille.
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