BMW’s M4: Look at that schnozz. What can it speak of but a lack of confidence?

Even the German sports car’s raging-bull looks cannot entirely disguise its dinosaur status

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Year: 2021
Fuel: Petrol

We need to talk about the nose. BMW's design department has of late been really pushing things in the nostril department, with ever bigger schnozzes being applied to Munich's model range. With this M4 Competition Coupe (and the M3 saloon which shares its engine, chassis, and much of its bodywork) the Jimmy Durante effect (ask your gran…) has taken on new proportion, and it's worrying me.

Worrying me because it speaks of a lack of confidence. For what other reason than gross overcompensation would you append as rampaging a set of oversized grilles as this to the front end of your high-performance coupé?

However, even the M4’s raging bull visage (abetted, and I think that’s the right word, by the highlighter-marker colour scheme officially called Sao Paulo Yellow) can’t disguise entirely the M4’s dinosaur status.

As the metaphorical meteorite of the incoming electric car revolution enters the upper atmosphere, it’s time for one last agonised bellow from a high-performance petrol straight-six. And, in fairness, if the M4 is going to have to bow out eventually in favour of a more sustainably-powered successor (and it will), then at least it’s going out on a high.


Cylinder head

This engine, with the BMW internal code of S58, displaces the same 3.0-litre capacity as its predecessor, and uses the same twin-turbo layout, but gains a reinforced crankshaft and uses clever 3D printing techniques for parts such as the inside of the cylinder head.

Only the top-spec M4 Competition model will come to Ireland, which means you get a 510hp power output and a 650Nm torque output that make the Titanic seem like a lakeside pleasure cruiser.

Sadly, though, because we’re foregoing the standard 480hp version, it also means we get no choice of transmission – the Competition model comes only with an eight-speed “Steptronic” automatic transmission which, in our test car, also had gorgeously tactile carbon-fibre paddle-shifters behind the steering wheel. Gorgeous, and tactile, but nowhere near so as a proper manual six-speed shift.

Then again perhaps taking some of the gear-shifting responsibility away from the driver is no bad thing. With that 510hp on tap you do feel rather like a fighter pilot, strapped into that hip-and-kidney-hugging carbon-fibre-backed bucket seat, with the heads-up display projected onto the windscreen in front of you. Tug the stubby lever back and to the right, and the M4 smoothly picks up a gear, and you’re off.

First impressions are of that colossal power – one-quarter throttle is more than sufficient to annihilate any sluggish lane-one traffic as you merge on to the motorway. The ride, once you’re up to speed, is smoother and better resolved than you expect, although it can become uncomfortably crashy at urban speeds. That big bucket seat clamps you firmly in place, but the driving position is slightly annoyingly offset to the right.

The big-six gurgles and grumbles, and occasionally strains at its legal leashes when bumbling around at low speeds, but on bigger roads the M4 Comp’ cruises with a bruising authority.

Extra buttons

The cabin is as per the standard 4 Series (and 3 Series for that matter) but with a tinseling of shiny carbon-fibre and red-blue-purple M-Sport contrast stitching everywhere.

There are some extra buttons too – there’s a quick access “setup” switch that allows you to more easily toggle the engine, chassis, steering, brakes, and traction control between Comfort, Sports, and Super-Sports modes (that’s in addition to the M1 and M2 pre-set buttons on the steering wheel) and there are some new digital gadgets in the iDrive menu. Chief amongst those is the drift analyser, an app that measures and quantifies your sliding and skidding technique, and gives you a score out of five.

Unable to resist such a challenge, we rolled the M4 up to Monaghan, where Rally School Ireland kindly, and in a Covid-compliant manner, opened up its test track to us. Suitably off the public road, we gave the M4 the full Spinal-Tap-turn-it-to-11 treatment, activated the drift analyser, and gave it some welly.

The first surprise is that the M4 isn’t as snappy and sudden as its predecessor. The old M4 could really, really, easily get away from you, especially on a damp surface. It needed respect, care and attention at all times. This M4 Competition is far more indulgent, event to the point of lapsing strongly into understeer if you’ve not gotten your inputs quite right.

Pile on the power, and the electronic M-differential, which parcels out the power between the rear wheels, goes to work not only to help you kick the tail out but to help you hold it there. Thus even with a streaming-wet track and occasionally one wheel on the grass you can hold the M4 in a long, seemingly endless Hollywood-car-chase drift.

Better yet, when you run out of road, or talent, or both, the diff helps you recover that slide, and gather it all up to the straight-ahead like a pro. So unlike the old M4, which would punish any wrongdoing with a sudden spin, this one coddles you and helps you to have fun.

Big fun. There’s nothing like letting a big engine have its head, letting it roar, gnash, and scream down the exhaust while the tyres spin and the rear end arcs outwards from the direction of travel. Even at more sedate pace, on the public road, with all the electronic nannies switched back on, the M4 feels agile, precise, rapid, and surprisingly sure-footed in poor weather conditions. It’s even surprisingly economical – 8.3-litres per 100km on a long run.


However, there are flaws. The biggest of which is weight. At the kerb this M4 tips a notional scale at 1,800kg – that’s SUV weight, and that would be kind of fine but for the fact that BMW seems to be a bit erratic about where and how it adds and takes away weight.

Light carbon backs for the front seats are great, but if those seats have heavy electric adjusters then what’s the point?

Equally, why bother to go to the expense and high-tech of fitting a light carbon roof panel if you’re also going to fit an electrically-operated boot which adds weight precisely where you don’t want it in such a car – high up and far back.

The problem is that whereas once the M-Division made focused, highly-tuned, high-performance models that were aimed at a narrow, enthusiastic market, now it has become a victim of its own success. Now M-models sell more than ever, and sell to buyers who are, frankly, less discerning, and who want their luxury trinkets to go with their high performance.

On top of that the needless horsepower wars have themselves added weight – 510hp is great, but dealing with that kind of power needs beefier suspension, more cooling systems, bigger brakes and so on. It’s the infernal equation of the rocket scientist – to launch a rocket you need fuel, but fuel is heavy, so you need a bigger engine, but that needs more fuel, but fuel is heavy…

Then there’s the price. Options-in this M4 Competition clocks up a price tag of €143,333, from a starting price of €127,158. And for that money, quite frankly, I’d have the smaller, lighter, funnier BMW M2 Competition, which uses the same basic engine, with a “mere” 400hp, but which is more useable, more thrilling, more enjoyable and prettier than the M4 could ever be. Which also leaves you with a spare €60,000 in your back pocket.

Or perhaps wait another year or two – BMW M is rumoured to be working on an all-electric iM2, with four electric motors, one for each wheel, and a big battery. Which could be awesome.

The M4 is unutterably brilliant in so many ways – power, noise, poise – and at least if you’re driving it then, like Guy de Maupassant eating lunch in the restaurant on the Eiffel Tower, you can’t see it from there. But, being realistic, it’s had its day, and the M2 is still the better car by far.

Lowdown: BMW M4 Competition

Power: 3.0-litre petrol straight-six engine 510hp and 650Nm of torque with an eight-speed automatic transmission and rear-wheel drive.

CO2 emissions (annual motor tax): 234g/km (€1,250).

L/100km (MPG): 10.2 (27.6)

0-100km/h: 3.5 seconds.

Price: €143,333 as tested; (starts at €127,158)

Our rating: 2/5.

Verdict: Brilliant in so many ways, but too much of a good thing is overwhelming.

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe

Neil Briscoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in motoring