There are few – if any – BMW products that create as much excitement as the BMW M3 and M4. The M3 and M4 are meant to be unimpeachable driver’s cars, which is why they are held to lofty standards, but in recent times their esteem has been eroded by the likes of the Alfa Romeo Guilia Quadrifoglio and, in the power stakes, the Mercedes-AMG C63 S. Are these new models everything BMW hoped they'd be? We drove the newcomers at their local launch in Cape Town.
What’s new on the BMW M3 and M4?
The all-new M3 and M4 are, of course, based on the G20-generation 3 Series platform. South Africa will only receive the Competition versions of the Bavarian juggernauts, which means our models are more potent than the standard cars. The Competition cars only come with auto transmissions, but are available in rear-wheel drive, with M xDrive (all-wheel-drive) versions coming towards the end of 2021.
From the outside, it’s pretty easy to see the key points of difference in the new models' design. That perenially controversial front-grille adornment continues to create a mix of opinions and even when you see the cars in the flesh, it’s still a love-it-or-hate-it cue for most observers. The M3 (the sedan), with its blistered rear arches, looks the more purposeful of the 2 designs, whereas the M4’s elongated coupe roofline cuts a smooth, air-piercing profile. On closer inspection, there are numerous air flicks and vents, which were specifically designed to improve aerodynamic stability at high speed, on both cars.
The offending tall kidney grille on the front of the M3 and M4 has polarised opinions.
Under the M3/M4 bonnet’s "power bulges" lurks a 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged straight-6 petrol engine connected to a torque converter 8-speed ZF automatic, the latter of which has replaced the M-DCT dual-clutch ‘box used in the previous-generation cars. This change of shifter is the single biggest change on the M3 and M4, making the cars feel like entirely different machines to their predecessors.
Lining up the statistics make for interesting reading. The new models are heavier than the outgoing cars by some 185 kg (both cars tip the scales at 1 800 kg), which is a lot for a medium-sized sedan and coupe with sporting pretensions. They are also slightly longer (122 mm) and ever so slightly wider (26 mm for the M3 and 17 mm for the M4) than the outgoing F80/82 generation cars. In order to produce more speed from the bigger, heavier cars, BMW M has installed a more powerful engine capable of producing peak outputs 375 kW and 650 Nm, which culminate in 0-100-kph times of under 4 sec.
How fast is the M3/M4?
The blistered arches on the M3 make it the more purposeful looking of the two new M models.
Aside from the obvious statistics like the 3.9-second sprint to 100 kph and the 290-kph top speed (with the M Drivers Package), the new M3 and M4 feel less wild than their predecessors. The M-DCT box in the previous sedan and coupe was quite abrupt on full-throttle upshifts, which would lead to sudden breaks in traction and a skittish rear end. You had to have your wits about you – and lightning reactions when driving the F80 M3 Competition anywhere near its limits. The new 8-speed ZF automatic delivers the power without that rabid kick to the rear wheels every time you pull for an upshift on the newly designed (and rubberised) paddles-shift levers. It’s smoother through the gears and, even when provoked, the rear end doesn’t whip around as quickly; it does so progressively, making it easier to control.
As a consequence, the M3/M4 doesn’t feel as brutally fast as those headline numbers suggest. It’s one of those cars where you put your foot down and without fuss, you’re suddenly travelling well beyond the national speed limit. Its high-speed stability is superb and if you had it out on the Autobahn or a closed road, you would feel quite comfortable sitting at 200 kph plus for miles (okay, kilometres) on end.
What’s the M3/M4 like to drive?
It's more poised and balanced than before. A much easier car to drive fast.
In order to get a better feel for the cars' handling characteristics, we were afforded a few laps on track in each model. Before you set off with tyres a screechin', take a bit of time to tinker with the iDrive system to set up your preferred driving modes, for which there is a multitude of options. Most of you will be familiar with modes for the engine, gearbox, chassis and steering characteristics, but you now also have 2 modes for braking (Normal and Sport). The intensity of Sport braking can catch you off guard the first time you experience it, especially if the M3/M4 is equipped with optional carbon-ceramic discs.
On the track, I was expecting the M3 to unleash its Mr Hyde persona, because previous generations of the car could leave you shaken if you dared to provoke them without exercising a modicum of caution. Instead, the newcomer, although devastatingly fast, was poised and balanced – not intimidating at all. It’s the first M3 in a while that I feel you can push to its limits within the first few laps of getting in it.
The asymmetric tyre setup (where the front end is fitted with 19-inch alloys and the rear with 20-inch rims) is meant to give you a more direct front-end while simultaneously providing more traction on the rear when accelerating out of corners. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case after just a few laps, but the hyper-fast steering rack delivers immensely quick turn-in to bends and the suspension doesn’t jolt or feel unsettled by sudden directional changes. In other words, you can feed in the power sooner than before, safe in the knowledge that grabbing an upshift isn’t likely to induce a butt-clenching tank-slapper.
The M cars now use a ZF automatic gearbox instead of the dual-clutch model previously.
BMW's modern turbocharged engines offer marvellously linear performance cars and this 375 kW version is no exception. There’s no huge burst of torque at any point in the rev range, but a progressive surge that shoves you forward right up to the motor's redline.
Out on the road, it’s much easier to get familiar with these Bavarian twins right from the get-go. The steering gives you great directional control, while there’s plenty of grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. You can upgrade the tyres to the Cup 2s if you feel you want more performance, albeit from a set of essentially semi-slick tyres, which would limit the M3/M4's everyday practicality.
The new M3/M4 is much more forgiving to drive on varied road conditions, even with the damping set to Sport Plus. It rides bumps better and settles on the suspension without wobbling (as heavier cars tend to do). Even when you drive over a good old freeway expansion joint, which is historically the nemesis of BMWs shod with low-profile run-flat rubber, it doesn't feel as if the car's about to split in half.
Overall, it’s an impressively easy car to drive fast, especially one with this much power... and from a brand that has produced quite a few cars of late that seemed to have pent-up anger management issues.
What are the insides like?
The Yas Marino blu/black interior creates a vivid colour pallette with the Sau Paulo yellow bodywork.
All M3 and M4 derivatives in the South African market will be sold with the carbon interior package which, as the name suggests, includes carbon-fibre inserts around the cabin, most notably on the inside of the steering wheel, the transmission-lever surround (plus the iDrive console) and in front of the passenger seat. It’s not wildly different from the look of the standard 3- or 4-Series interior, unless you additionally specify the (R80k) bucket seats, which are 10 kg lighter than the standard ones and offer better structural rigidity and support. You slide in over the side bolsters and are met by what feels like (let's just call it) a crotch support between your legs, just like the 5th belt in a race car. The seats can best be described as slim-fit, so if you’re of a burlier design, you may find them a bit uncomfortable.
Interestingly, the M3/M4 does not have a long options list. There is plenty of standard kit with the only options being the bucket seats, carbon-ceramic brakes, performance tyres and lightweight wheels.
Some may call the pair more boring than before, but they're now more usable for a much broader range of driving abilities.
After my first experience of the new M3 and M4, it seems BMW has toned back some of the craziness of the previous-generation cars – these cars are eminently manageable. Some may say that the Munich-based firm has made its headline sports sedan and -coupe a trifle boring as a consequence, but the new-generation M3/M4 is a performance sedan/coupe with notably better balance, incredible precision and more usable power delivery than ever before. The dynamics may be catering more to the mass market, but the design certainly isn’t – not with those divisive kidney grilles!
At near as dammit R2 million, the M3 and M4 are no longer the performance bargains they once were; they've become aspirational models with asking prices that are closing in on supercar premiums. The allure of the new M3, especially, is undeniable and we can’t wait to pitch it against its familiar rivals. Paradoxically, this launch drive has also highlighted what a performance bargain the M340i xDrive is.
BMW M3 and M4 Price in SA (March 2021)
BMW M3 Competition sedan - R1 860 000
BMW M4 Competition coupé - R1 940 000