Will Sabel Courtney
Pity the poor BMW M3 coupe. A couple decades ago, it was the creme de la creme of mid-priced sports cars; more affordable and roomier than the Porsche 911, better-made than the Corvette, and more powerful and focused than the regular-production two-doors being turned out by its fellow Germans. The E30 and E36 generations (the latter especially in more powerful Euro form) were (and are) rightly venerated as exceptional examples of sports cars done right — playful, powerful and entertaining at any speed. The fact that they offered more usability than your average speed machine, well, that was just icing.
Since then, though, things done changed. Cylinders started dropping away; sure, power increased anyway, but so did size and weight. Intra-national competitors — your C63 AMGs, Audi RS 5s and Porsche Caymans — started cropping up en masse; at the same time, American carmakers began transforming once-slovenly muscle cars into focused corner-carving, track-slaying machines. Even the iconic name wound up changing as part of BMW’s rebranding; the once-coupe-only M3 suddenly became reserved for the sedan version of the performance car, while the two-door was forced to follow the same naming convention that turned the 3 Series coupe and convertible into the 4 Series and become the M4.
And then came the 2021 model year, and the arrival of the G80-generation cars…and that face. No matter what else was stacked against them, the G80 M3 (and G82 M4) of yore at least always had their looks. The newest version, however, has been given an M-specific version of the Angry Birds pig face found on the new 4 Series coupe, one with more angles than The Sting and air intakes seemingly large enough to suck in turkeys.
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There’s no getting around it: the new BMW M4 is ugly
Try to spin it however you want, but there’s no dispute: the G80-gen M3 and M4 are ugly. Plug-ugly. Pug-fugly. U-G-L-Y, it ain’t got no alibi, it ugly, it ugly. BMW has seemingly gone all-in on, uh, controversial styling these days; as the new 2 Series shows, even when they manage to stick with a small kidney grille, they find a way to beat the car with the ugly stick.
There are ways to mitigate the design’s faults, of course. Opting for the Black Sapphire Metallic (or, in a pinch, Tanzanite Blue II Metallic) certainly downplays the expanse of black trim and darkened openings at the front of the car. Making sure to only approach the car from the side or rear helps, too. And if you’re willing to drop some extra coin, companies like Prior Design are hard at work on aftermarket front fasciae you can pop on there.
Still, you know how to avoid the problem entirely? Buy a Corvette Stingray. Even with the Z51 performance package that unlocks that car’s full potential, it still costs less than the M4’s $72,795 starting price. Or, buy a Mercedes-AMG C63 coupe. Or an Audi RS 5. Or pretty much any other car not found in the new vehicle part of a BMW dealership.
Luckily, the M4 is also a blast to drive
Once you’re inside, though, you no longer have to look at it. Instead, you can concentrate on the best part of the M4 experience: driving the damn thing.
As with all modern BMW M cars, there’s a plethora of configurations and choices for the powertrain, suspension and so forth. Here’s a pro tip, however: it doesn’t really matter which ones you choose. Sure, you can make the steering a bit lighter or heavier, or stiffen up the dampers, but none of that drastically changes the driving experience (and you’ll have to make those changes all over again every time you start the car, although the little red shortcut buttons on the wheel speed things up).
Here’s the only button you need to worry about: the one with a little pictogram of a car and some skid marks behind it. Tap it once, and it loosens the reins of the traction and stability control system; hold it down, and the electronic safety systems get completely tucked in the saddlebags. The latter is best reserved for highly skilled drivers on race tracks (or, anyone who likes fun in a completely empty parking lot); the former, however, serves up just enough slack to let this M car play a bit. Tap it once, forget the rest.
The M4 is afflicted with none of the iffy driving dynamics found in its sibling, the M440i coupe; it goes where you want it to, right when you want it to, and tells you what you need to know about car and road in the process. If you know how to drive, and you want to have fun driving — and presumably, if you bought a new three-pedal car with more than 400 horsepower in 2021, that’s the case — then you’ll love spending time behind the wheel of the M4.
Inside, it’s very much like other 3 and 4 Series models
Either thankfully or regrettably, my test car lacked the super-aggressive racing-style seats seen in this image. (I’ve been told they’re excellent in terms of holding you in place, but damn if those carbon fiber hillocks don’t have me scared I might wind up singing soprano after a panic stop.) The regular seats, however, are certainly nothing to complain about, especially if you’re planning on
Space inside is ample, at least for two adults; the G80 coupe’s long, long wheelbase means even NBA players will be able to find a comfortable fit inside. The scalloped rear seats are best left for storing items too big for the cupholders but still small enough to be placed back there easily with one hand while sitting, like giant water bottles, handbags and backpacks. (If you’re planning on using the back seats more than once a year — for passengers, for pets, for groceries, for taking naps if you’re very short — just buy the M3 sedan.)
The rest of the setup is very BMW 2021: responsive, intuitive iDrive infotainment system with both touchscreen and clickwheel access, handy-dandy hard buttons for climate control and radio shortcuts, and a driving layout that sticks gearshift and (extra-thick) steering wheel just where you want them. The M4 boasts unique instrument panel layouts, including one for track driving that turns off the stereo and center console; but as with the drive controls, the default one is really all you need.
If there’s one killer app, it’s the stick shift
In a world where carmakers are trading away what few manual gearboxes they still have for faster, more efficient automatics as quickly as possible, the fact that any new performance car packs the option of a stick shift is worthy of applause. Kudos, then, to BMW, as the M3 and M4 both come standard with the standard.
Granted, there are a couple caveats. The stick itself isn’t exactly the finest example ever to be rowed; on my test car, at least, the engagement was notchy and occasionally tricky, unlike the smoother ‘boxes found in, say, Hondas or Porsches (or BMWs of yore). And if you want the manual, you won’t be able to level up to the more powerful, slightly harder edged M4 Competition. Still, the base M4’s 473 horsepower are more than enough for the real world — especially when you’re using a stick to have fun exploiting all 406 lb-ft of torque on tap from 2,650 rpm until you’re past 6K on the tach. It’s certainly not fuel-efficient — there’s a reason most automatics shift up as high as possible and as quickly as possible — but damn, is it fun.
The M4 still makes a compelling case for itself
Indeed, perhaps some of the appeal of the M4 is just plain wistful thinking. In 10 years’ time, if not sooner, BMWs with manual gearboxes and inline-six engines powering the rear wheels will only be found in used car dealerships (or, more likely, on Bring a Trailer and Cars & Bids at significant markup). Electrification is the future; you only need to look at the BMW i4, which, in M Sport version, already overpowers (and likely out-accelerates) the M3. BMW’s first electric M car may well be an M2-sized pocket rocket packing 1,000 horsepower or more. Even if governments weren’t working to put ICE of business, the likes of the G80 M3 and M4, simply put, wouldn’t be able to compete with the EV-powered performance monsters of tomorrow.
The M4, then, will likely stand as one of the last examples of what BMW could do with just good-old-fashioned internal combustion and a gearbox that you have to control yourself. That makes it the heir to the likes of not just the M3s of the past, but the old M5s, the M1 supercar, the 2002, the 507 — basically, every Bimmer you’ve known and loved over the years. It’s fast, furiously fun and plenty usable — just like those BMWs of before. That’d all be true no matter what it looks like, too.
Like the old saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. Especially when it’s going to go out of print soon enough.
2021 BMW M4 Coupe
Base Price: $72,795
Powertrain: 3.0-liter twin-turbo inline-six; six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic; rear-wheel-drive
Torque: 406 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 16 mpg city, 23 mpg
Seats: Two adults and two kids, at best
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