Road test: 2015 BMW M3 and M4

Kevin Hackett wonders if the latest M3 and the M4 are the ultimate driving machines.
The BMW M3, left, and the M4, which is what used to be the two-door M3 Coupé, can still be hard-edged racers, despite an engine downgrade. Courtesy BMW
The BMW M3, left, and the M4, which is what used to be the two-door M3 Coupé, can still be hard-edged racers, despite an engine downgrade. Courtesy BMW

There’s a school of thought that suggests it’s unwise to buy the first example of anything. It’s something that I cannot help but agree with whenever I see the sad spectacle of people queuing up outside Apple stores overnight to be the first to get their hands on the latest iPad or iPhone – the next one, which will be along in a few months, will be much better than this one. It’s the same with all manner of things, including cars.

Only you couldn’t say the same about the original BMW M3, could you? Because the recipe for that extraordinary car was perfect from the word go and even now, 22 years after it was axed, it’s viewed as one of the greatest of all drivers’ cars and retains its crown as the most successful of all competition touring cars in history. The road car, an homologation special, is a prized asset among collectors and offers drivers an unapologetically old-school experience where you can steer on the throttle and drive sideways to your heart’s content.

In the years since, the M3 has resurfaced three times, albeit not to qualify it for competition, and each generation has been lauded as a truly brilliant machine in its own right. But the fifth generation M3 is here now and BMW is rather proud of it. Or rather, proud of them, because there are two: the M3 is now a four-door saloon and what used to be the two-door M3 Coupé is now the M4. We’ll get our heads around that one eventually, I’m sure.

In specifications, the two cars are identical and, BMW’s engineers are quick to point out, in performance too. The M3’s centre of gravity is slightly higher than the lower M4, thanks to its taller roofline, but I’m told that I won’t be able to differentiate between the two when I’m driving them. These cars have been no less than four years in the making, so I’m expecting greatness in huge dollops.

But is the M3/M4 redundant when you consider just how excellent the 435i is in everyday use? My initial impressions after an hour or so on the road suggest that it is. Drive over a dirham coin in an M4, even when the suspension is set to “Comfort” mode, and you’ll be able to tell what side was facing up – that’s how stiff everything feels. The 435i is far more civilised, in my view is even nicer to look at and offers almost all the performance of the M cars. After a few more hours, however, I begin to alter my viewpoint.

The engine has been downgraded from the previous generation’s naturally aspirated 4.0L V8 and is now a 3.0L straight-six. But it has two turbochargers that give it even more oomph than before, while, at a stroke, reducing emissions and increasing fuel economy – such is the game with performance cars these days. While it might lack some of the aural drama of a V8, this engine does exhibit shouty tendencies when you get on it, helped by the sounds being channelled into the cabin through the speakers.

It’s the way that it goes that reaches into your chest and refuses to relinquish its grip on your innermost desires – select Sport or Sport-Plus mode and the car transforms into a hard-edged racer that, given enough space, will throw all notions of respectability to the wind. Point, squirt, go, hold on for dear life – it’s a process that I never tire of, even if the increased fuel consumption threatens any semblance of green credibility on the part of this more efficient power train.

There’s a feeling of indestructibility at play here. The engine sounds and feels immensely strong, like it’s been built for endurance racing (it basically has), and, when I get to experience both cars on an incredibly technical circuit, they feel far more at home than they did on the road. And, when one of BMW’s pro-drivers, Pedro Lamy, takes me out for some hot laps in a completely standard M4, that’s when the realisation hits me: this is as much a driver’s car as any M3 before it. Sideways through chicanes, with smoke pouring out of the rear wheel arches, in the hands of someone who really knows what they’re doing, this car shows its true potential in a way that no 435i could hope to replicate.

The finesse with which it handles is down to many things, not least its smaller and lighter engine, but the beefier components used in its construction help enormously, too. And the fact that a saloon car that can comfortably accommodate four normal-sized adults in leather-lined opulence, while delivering heart-stopping thrills that normally only a two-seater sports- or supercar can muster, shows that BMW’s hard work has paid off. M3 or M4, four doors or two, this car is nothing short of a modern masterpiece. The ultimate driving machine? It’s definitely up there.

khackett@thenational.ae

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Published: May 29, 2014 04:00 AM

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