BMW 4 Series (2020) International Prototype Drive

BMW 4Series Prototype40

A new BMW 4 Series is coming this year – and it promises to offer a notably sportier driving experience, as well as far more distinctive styling, than its predecessor. International Greg Kable closely inspects a prototype of BMW's upcoming G22-generation business-class coupe in Munich. 

Jos van As, BMW’s head of driving dynamics, is grasping an imaginary steering wheel as he enthusiastically details the on-road character of the new 4 Series. “It’s more sporting in every way compared with the old model,” he says. “But we’ve managed to improve overall comfort as well.” 

Having just driven a prototype of the new business-class coupe at 280 kph along a German autobahn and then on some magnificently smooth back roads, I’m eager to hear first-hand what the man responsible for its development had to say about the G22's clearly more engaging properties.

How is it different? 

The roofline slopes at the rear far more noticeably than the predecessor.

But before I’ve had a chance to even pose the question after we pull into a shady lay-by in a sleepy town to swap cars, he’s already singling out the variable electromechanical steering as the biggest improvement (among a whole series of changes that have been made to the Audi A5 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class rival).

 “We’ve concentrated on making it more direct and responsive than in the recent past,” says the man who has spent more time in the upcoming 2-door than probably anyone else, with obvious pride. “There’s greater clarity and added linearity, too. We’ve incorporated measures to make the body structure a lot stiffer than before. It’s (even) a better basis than the 3 Series sedan.” 

So that’s the message: the new 4 Series Coupe is intended to be not only sportier than any of its predecessors, but also more comfortable and, crucially, further differentiated from the 3 Series. 

This is an observation that could be made of its styling as well. Although the 2 prototypes I drove were both heavily disguised, the new 4 Series appears sleeker than the current model and is clearly differentiated from its sedan sibling. We’ll avoid any comment on the controversial grille, which is set to mirror that of the Concept 4 Series that was revealed last year until we see the production version. 

The profile shot offers a much more distinctive view with a swish of a boot-lip spoiler too.

However, the car certainly cuts a sharper profile than before, with a long sweeping bonnet, a more heavily sloping roofline and a rather high-set boot line, all of which provide it with clear aesthetic links to the larger 8 Series Coupe and, according to Van As, improved aerodynamics – namely a lower drag coefficient and added downforce. There’s also greater volume to the wheelhouses, allowing them to accommodate rims of up to 20-inches in diameter. 

The new 4 Series looks bigger up close, although not excessively so. Underneath, it’s based around the same CLAR (Cluster Architecture) as all other recent BMWs that have longitudinally-mounted engines, giving it a wheelbase that is 42 mm longer than that of its predecessor (2 851 mm). BMW engineers aren’t at liberty to reveal exact dimensions just yet, but they suggest the G22 is also slightly longer and wider, while being 57 mm lower, than the 3 Series (G20). 

The Coupe will once again head a family of 4 Series variants, with successors to the existing Cabriolet and Gran Coupee to follow in 2021. The latter "4-door coupe" also forms the basis of a new electric sedan – the i4, which is also due out next year. With more than 6 months still to go before the Coupe heads into showrooms, BMW has confirmed just 2 variants so far: the 430i and M440i xDrive. However, I’m told the line-up will include replacements for the 420i, 430d and 435d as well. 

The 2-door will also, of course, form the basis of a 2nd-generation M4, which is planned to be unveiled as a rival to the recently upgraded Audi RS5 Coupe and upcoming new Mercedes-AMG C63 Coupe within the next 12 months. 

Power units

The interior is still under wraps but don't expect it to differ much from the 3 Series.

The M440i xDrive will be the obvious highlight of the launch line-up; offering "junior M4" qualities and the added security and all-season capability of BMW’s latest 4-wheel-drive system. Its turbocharged 3.0-litre inline 6-cylinder engine is combined with a 48V electrical architecture in a development that introduces mild-hybrid properties, including off-throttle coasting. 

Producing 275 kW between 5 500 rpm and 6 500 rpm and 500 Nm of torque from 1 850 to 5 000 rpm, it’s a smooth, punchy motor and nothing less than determined on a loaded throttle. By engaging the left-hand shift paddle for longer than a second, you can call up Sprint mode, in which the alternator provides an additional 8 kW and a good dollop of torque. At the same time, the car delivers wonderfully relaxed and effortless cruising qualities on more measured throttle openings – in taller gears. 

The 430i, meanwhile, adopts the latest version of BMW’s 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol engine, which is tuned (as in the 330i) to deliver 190 kW between 5 000 rpm and 6 000 rpm and 400 Nm of torque from 1 640 to 5 000 rpm, giving it 5 kW and 45 Nm more than the unit it replaces. It’s not a particularly melodious engine, due in part to the adoption of a petrol particulate filter that mutes the exhaust note, but it’s engagingly responsive, with little lag and an inherent smoothness as it pulls to 7 000 rpm with a good deal of zest. It’s the abundance of torque, though, that forms the basis of the performance. In fact, the engine is almost diesel-like in the way its urgency builds, giving the 430i impressive flexibility and relatively strong in-gear accelerative qualities across a wide rev-range. 

The 8-speed torque-converter automatic transmission is brilliantly suited to the engine’s strong torque characteristics, helping to endow the 430i with outstanding refinement. Its action is crisp and smooth in Drive, suitably rapid and eager in Sport and obliging via either the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles or a nudge of the transmission lever in Manual. BMW won’t quote any acceleration figures just yet, but you can take it as read that the new model will beat the old 430i’s official 0-100 kph time of 5.6 seconds. And, given that it features the same driveline as the 330i, it should come close to matching, if not bettering, the sedan’s combined consumption figures of between 6.0 L/100 km and 5.7 L/100 km on the WLTP combined test cycle.

Dynamically different 

The focus of the new 4 has been to make it feel different to drive from its sibling.

Still, BMW is focusing its development on a final layer of polish to the ride and handling of the G22. Although our impressions were garnered in a pair of high-mileage prototypes, there appears to be a strong promise of a return to the driver-centric traits that characterised earlier incarnations of the 2-door coupe, whose roots can be traced all the way to the original 3 Series introduced in 1975. 

What BMW has achieved is a heightening of agility and driver engagement, while further refining the levels of ride quality and comfort. Predictably, they’re similar to the improvements reflected on the latest 3 Series and are very much dependent on the selected driving mode. But with 5 different settings (Adaptive, Eco, Comfort, Sport and Sport Plus), the new 4 Series offers an even broader range of driving characteristics than before. There’s precision and assurance in the latest incarnation of BMW’s Variable Sport Steering system. It’s also more finely tuned, with less build-up of weighting and greater feedback to the tiller. It quickens with lock, providing quite direct turn-in in combination with relaxed on-centre properties and impressive ease of manoeuvrability around town. 

In an attempt to achieve a 50:50 weight distribution front to rear, the bonnet, front wings, doors and front suspension towers are made from aluminium, combining with other unspecified weight-saving measures copied from the 3 Series

This prototype doesn't show the full extent of the new BMW grille expected to dominate the front.

Among the changes that BMW has brought to the chassis in order to give the 4 Series a more sporting flavour are wider tracks than those of the 3 Series, with that at the rear extended by 23 mm. This creates a particularly well-planted stance, which is further enhanced on the M440i xDrive by way of an otherwise-optional M Sport suspension set-up that lowers the ride height by 10 mm. 

The suspension retains the same hardware as the 3 Series, with an aluminium-intensive MacPherson strut layout at the front and 5-link arrangement at the rear, although it has been given its own unique settings and kinematic properties. Fundamental in achieving what Van As describes as “more authentic steering feel” is additional camber brought to the front axle.

“It makes for a more direct action and greater response off centre,” he reveals. 

The long-time BMW engineer also credits a series of new braces and other measures as being key to enhanced sportiness. Included is a new shear panel within the front bulkhead, a newly designed strut across the front suspension towers and an additional A-frame support at the front of the engine bay. Together, these served to increase both the static and torsional stiffness of the body while providing a more rigid and firm basis for the suspension.

Another feature that Van As attributes to the improved steering is a decision to fit every new 4 Series Coupe with BMW’s lift-related dampers. Brought over from the 3 Series, these feature both main and auxiliary springs, as well as hydraulic bump-stops to progressively increase pressure within the damper under compression while also progressively adjusting rebound.

“There’s greater wheel control and less corruption,” Van As explains. 

The suspension changes and stiffening around the front end make the 4 faster to turn with more authentic steering feel.

To this end, BMW will also offer adaptive damping as part of the optional M Sport package. There is an appealing tautness, as well as a progressiveness, to the handling of the 430i, enabling it to corner in a flat and neutral manner. However, there’s also sufficient body movement for its limits to be communicated and allow you to explore the adjustability offered by the reworked chassis when its 3-stage Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system is switched into one of its more liberal modes. 

The 4-wheel-drive of the M440i xDrive increases the amount of grip and enables you to carry greater speed through corners, but it’s no less engaging despite its added security. While the adaptive set-up of the flagship derivative (until the M4 arrives) is our early preferred choice, the passive suspension of the 430i does a pretty good job of soaking up nasty bumps in its Comfort mode. It’s quite firm – firmer than the 330i by way of comparison – but rebound is excellently controlled and road shock is nicely absorbed through the stiffened body structure. 

To sum it up quickly

First impressions of the new 4 are positive, especially in the handling department.

We’ll have to wait to fully explore the new 4 Series, including its reworked 2+2 interior, but these prototypes have made quite a positive first impression. Although the model has grown slightly, it feels more compact than its predecessor from the driver’s seat and is more appealing to drive to boot. BMW has clearly listened to the criticisms of the old model, not least of all its lack of true steering feel and overall engagement, and reacted with the sort of engineering solutions traditionally reserved for its high-performance M cars. As Van As suggests, it’s more authentic. And that’s a good thing.

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