BMW M4 Competition Driving, Engines & Performance | Top Gear
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Thursday 7th December


What is it like to drive?

The year 2020 saw a lot of dim-witted decisions made by senior figures, but is the introduction of M Drift Analyser one of the most calamitous? Maybe we’re wrong, and the public can be trusted with technology like this. But our suspicion is that YouTube has invested in a whole new bank of servers for the onslaught of footage about to be uploaded.

Especially now the M4 requires so much more commitment before it actually cuts loose. You can get back on the power – hard – at a point of a corner that would have demonstrated Jackass levels of self-sabotage in the F82. The traction is superb and has us questioning the need for the xDrive version, even if BMW thinks it’ll mop up 80 per cent of M3 and M4 sales.

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A lot of this is down to the electronically controlled differential, which is deeply impressive in the way it meters out power at the rear axle. You can squirm subtly out of a second-gear corner without having to apply corrective lock, if you wish. But there’s a good chance you’ll happily prod the car a little harder, the DSC’s middle ‘MDM’ mode leaving more than enough freedom for road driving.

On track, with the shackles loosened yet further, this thing can be magnificent, shaking off its porky weight figure admirably. It’s less inclined to understeer into a corner, and less likely to transition swiftly into oversteer as you exit. Which in turn means you’ll be driving its not inconsiderable 1.7 tonnes with much more commitment if you do want to adopt the traditional M attitude to tyre lifespan. Calling into question the sheer accessibility of that goading ‘rate my drift’ mode, which only activates with the DSC off, and whose maximum score potential grows from three to five stars as you loosen the traction control through its ten levels. What could possibly go wrong…

Back on road, the M4 exhibits a maturity that pervaded its predecessor. Left in its lowliest setting, the automatic transmission shuffles politely up to eighth and sits at 2,000rpm on the motorway, newly acoustic windows blocking out everything but the roar from its tyres (larger than ever, with staggered wheels measuring 19in front, 20in rear). The damping is excellent, making a bit of fuss over broken urban roads but really knuckling down with a bit of speed. Sport Plus is palatable on some roads, Sport palatable on most and Comfort finally a title befitting of what’s on offer. All told, it feels like someone within M has driven an Audi RS5 and managed to ignore its flaccid handling in order to dig out some bits an M4 could use – namely some exceedingly polite manners and genuinely trustworthy traction.

For 99 per cent of the time you’ll never need xDrive and the 50kg weight penalty it adds. But it’s there for peace of mind – and extraordinary feats of acceleration. We timed it to 60mph in 3.2secs (BMW itself claims 3.5 to 62mph). You might buy it for that, but you’ll end up appreciating it for its winter versatility. 

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Is the M4 too polite? Its engine is essentially a development of the marvellously refined straight-six in the M440i, where it fills the role of mini GT perfectly. Though with the help of a new lightweight crank and 3D-printed cylinder head, this uprated version shares just 15 per cent of parts with its softer sibling, while the gearbox is described as ‘heavily tuned’ for the M4, offering quicker shifts.

Altogether this powertrain is effective rather than spectacular. It provides boundless performance throughout the rev range – and genuine excitement as you lunge from 4,000 to 7,000rpm – but it also brings an end to a run of theatrical M3/M4 powertrains, from the silky and sonorous six of the E46, through the highly revving and nape prickling V8 of the E92 to the sweaty palms and endorphin spikes of ‘wheelspin at the top of third gear as you pull fourth’ in the F82.

This new car’s heart can’t help but feel a bit strait-laced off such a run of form, but don’t mistake this engine as dull as a result. It’s preferable to Audi’s alternative, while the new Mercedes-AMG C63 it’ll soon rival will utilise a four-cylinder hybrid. Given the typical seven-year life of an M3/M4 generation, this is undoubtedly the last pure petrol version, and perhaps the last that uses internal combustion full stop, the new 500bhp i4 EV potentially taking the baton completely for this type of car. In which case, a slightly undramatic six is surely a better solution than BMW’s own ubiquitous 4cyl with a retune and electrification. Isn’t it?

Every M3 (and in turn, M4) we’ve driven previously has grabbed us within the first five minutes. Be that by the heartstrings or scruff of the neck, depending on which version we’re talking. This new one is more of a slow burner, a car that takes a bit longer to get under the skin of, but which is really quite brilliant once you do.

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