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2016 BMW M4 Track Review

Photos by: Graham MacNeil & Kevin Doubleday

Imagine a world where only two cars exist and have ever existed; the BMW M4 and the Toyota Corolla. Assuming cost isn't a factor, just about every car buyer who has even a remote interest in high performance driving would take the M4. There would be no complaints about how it well goes, stops, or turns, how it handles, or even how it sounds. All those aspects are better in the M4; miles better, in fact. Next to a Corolla, an M4 is a super car, and a darn good one. But replace the Corolla with another car in this imaginary world, say a Lamborghini Huracan for an instance, and all of a sudden, an M4 becomes pedestrian. Perspective could make or break a car, even a good one. And that, perhaps, is the biggest contributing factor in the impression that the M4 left on me.

I haven't driven any Huracans, unfortunately. But on the same day I drove this BMW M4, I drove an E46 Dinan S1 M3 and a Cayman GT4. Comparisons to the GT4 in my mind were inevitable, but a bit unfair so I will leave those locked up there for now. But Comparisons to the E46 M3? They aren't only fair, they are necessary. After all, what is the point of redesigning and upgrading cars if the replacements are no better? Now, rest assured, the M4 beats that E46 M3 in every measurable way and it does so with ease, probably even the highest Dinan versions of the same vintage. I couldn't find a test of a Dinan S1 M3 but I found a Car & Driver test of an E46 Dinan S2 M3. Here's how it stacks up to an M4, both as tested by Car and Driver. I also included a test of a DCT M4 since the one I drove wasn't a manual.

M4 Manual M4 DCT E46 Dinan S2 M3
425 hp
425 hp
361 hp
406 lb-ft
406 lb-ft
282 lb-ft
3,556 lb.
3,480 lb.
0-60 mph
4.1 s
3.9 s
4.6 s
0-100 mph
9.0 s
8.6 s
11.6 s
0-130 mph
15.1 s
14.6 s
21.1 s
5-60 mph
4.6 s
4.2 s
5.4 s
1/4 mile
  12.4 s @ 117 mph  
  12.1 s @ 119 mph  
  13.2 s @ 107 mph  
300 ft lat-g
0.98 g
0.98 g
0.96 g
braking 70-0 mph  
151 ft
151 ft
163 ft

Both M4's tested had the competition package and the carbon brakes. The M4 I drove had neither, so I expect it to give up some ground in handling and braking compared to test numbers. But the E46 M3 I drove was on Hankook Ventus Evo V12 vs the OEM Michelins, and it was an S1, not an S2 like the one tested, so it would likely give up some braking and grip compared to the E46 test numbers too. From behind the wheel, the M4’s felt like it was a lot more capable - more solid/rigid, higher grip limits, stronger brakes, stiffer. And, of course, it felt faster. A LOT faster.

Although there's a big gap, the numbers alone don't even tell the complete story. The S55 engine is a monster. The Cayman GT4 I drove that same day also had a trap speed of 117 mph in C/D tests, same as the M4 manual. Considering that the GT4 is also manual, that should mean it's basically just as fast between gear shifts as the M4 I drove, with the only advantage in the DCT test numbers attributable to gear shifts. But from behind the wheel, the M4 feels a lot stronger. 425 hp and 406 lb-ft? I don't believe it. No way. Maybe I was intoxicated by the boost and torque hitting early, but it feels so much stronger than those numbers. Saying you need to be careful with the throttle is a massive understatement. I suspect this car has close to 500 crank hp. Full throttle out of turns right at the apex? No, not gonna happen. Forget full throttle out of turns, going WOT in 3rd gear in the back straight, I had traction control light flashing almost the entire way until 4th gear. Nothing in this car, not one thing, leaves as strong an impression as the engine. And this is where things start to disappoint..

An M4 where the most memorable aspect is overwhelming power? "M4" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.. but that's an M3 as far the last four BMW 3-series generations are concerned. It's just not right. A friend of mine had a C7 Corvette with the Z51 package. He sold it and got an M4 because he often needed to take his other car (which had back seats) instead of the Corvette so that he can take his kids to school in the morning and rarely drove the Corvette as a result. On track, he found the Corvette to be more manageable and it was easier to modulate (and use more of) the throttle in it. We are talking about a Corvette here having a better power/chassis balance than an M3/M4.. it's sacrilege. The way the car feels is also all wrong.

Compared to the E46, there's such a big disconnect between what you feel and what is going on outside. It's an odd feeling, because the suspension feels stiffer, which is typically associated with more body movement and NVH, but the driving feels numb. Climb out of an E46 M3 after a track session and jump into an M4, you'll be blown away by the progress in performance but you'll wonder if you've just got into a simulator.. the last little bit may be an exaggeration, I admit, but it's necessary to make the point. I think I read that the F80/F82 M3/M4 have solid rear subframe mounts. That should transmit a whole lot of NVH and feedback to your seat of the pants, but it doesn't seem to. The rear axle should feel like it's glued to your butt. It doesn't.

The steering weight and feedback also feel 100% artificial compared to the E46. Steering feel has been a sore point for BMW's for a generation or two now across the range - 3-series and 5-series, for both M and non-M cars. Here's what I think is happening: BMW takes all the forces coming back from the front wheels through the steering and filters out what you don't want. Things like vibrations, kick-back, responses to bumps and dips, etc. Then, it adds weight based on what the computer thinks the front tires are doing. In theory, it's great. You get rid of the stuff you don't want and get the information you do, but the end result is a very synthetic feel. It's almost like playing a video game with a really (really) good steering wheel controller.

I can't quite put my finger on why it feels wrong overall. I test drove a 335i xDrive M-sport a while back and found the same issues with steering and feel compared to the E46. I did a little bit of digging into some chassis specs/dimensions in that article to try and figure out why it doesn't feel like the E46, but I'm not sure if those differences alone explain all that is lacking. They do shed some light on the issues, though. As far as steering goes at least, I read multiple articles/interviews with BMW engineers who said the way the steering is now is what their customers want. Pity.

Fortunately, if you can get past some of the missing intangible essence that used to make an M3 what it is - the power/chassis balance and excellent feel - there is a really good car underneath. It is a lot of fun to drive. Responses are sharp. It's very predictable and never feels like it's going to bite, the latter a magnificent feat given the overwhelming power. Braking is very good and easy to modulate. There is power everywhere in the rev range. Comments about the noise are generally left unsaid.. but there is a narrow slice high in the rpm range that, at WOT, reminds you that there is an excellent BMW M straight six behind the turbos and the noise through the speakers. And the traction control system is very good. It doesn't feel reactive as it does in a lot of cars (including the E46 M3). You don't get the sense that you've overdone it and it is reining you back, it's just seamlessly working in the background to limit spinning.

But at the end of the day, it was very difficult for me to love it. I was very impressed by the capability and I definitely enjoyed driving it. I would never dream of turning down another opportunity to drive one, especially on track. But would I buy one, with my own money? The M3 would be extremely tempting if I were shopping in that price range. Not many sedans in that range that offer what it does and BMW seems to still do some things really well - combine practicality, usability, and performance in a really fun package. But if I were shopping for a coupe, there are many better options IMO than an M4, including its ancestor; the E46 M3.

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