- Redesigned for 2021
- Incrementally better acceleration
- All-wheel drive available for the first time
- New performance and track analysis features
- Part of the second 4 Series generation introduced for 2021
What is the M4?
The 2021 BMW M4 is the coupe variant of the M3 sedan, which has enjoyed a storied history among driving enthusiasts for decades. The engine remains a twin-turbo straight-six, as in the previous generation, but it's heavily renewed. The entire car is bigger and more high tech. Four-wheel-drive is an option for the first time.
And the design? If you can't say anything nice about the M4's grille, well, you're in good company. The M4 adopts the engorged twin-kidney grille from the 4 Series, which is also redesigned for 2021. Asked about it, BMW says M4 buyers want a car that looks different from the non-M models. And if the body is painted a dark color, the gaping black mouth recedes a little. Yet there's no denying that the sheetmetal isn't as elegant as on previous BMW coupes.
What's under the M4's hood?
The new M4 gets the same powerplant as the redesigned M3: a twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder that produces 473 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. If a 48-horsepower increase over the previous M4 isn't spicy enough for you, step up to the Competition model with 503 hp and 479 lb-ft of torque. That represents healthy extra output for a relatively modest $2,900 price bump.
We're happy to report a six-speed manual transmission will be available alongside a sport-tuned eight-speed automatic transmission, though the Competition model will be automatic-only. It's an eight-speed torque converter auto, not the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission of the previous generation. Quick shift times and close ratios are arranged especially for the M3/M4 pair.
All M4s (and M3s, for that matter) have been rear-wheel drive, and the newest version is no different. However, for the first time you'll be able to spec as an alternative an all-wheel-drive system on Competition models. As with the M5 and M8, the M4 Competition has a rear-drive mode for gifted drivers with a substantial tire budget.
BMW estimates the standard M4 will reach 60 mph in 4.1 seconds with the automatic transmission; we expect the manual to trail slightly. Meanwhile, the Competition should reach the same threshold in 3.8 seconds on its way to a 155-mph top speed. Too slow for the back straight at Road Atlanta? Add the optional M Driver's package to reach 180 mph.
The M4 receives extra cooling systems compared to the standard 4 Series, and the Competition variant adds a transmission cooler. So at least the huge nasal intakes serve a purpose beyond frightening aesthetically sensitive bystanders. Since cornering is a staple of the M4's skill set, a dual-sump oil system ensures the engine won't implode on turns with sustained high lateral force.
How does the M4 drive?
The M4 drives just like the M3, and BMW says there are no steering or handling differences between them. But perhaps it has to be seen in a different context. The M3 is one of the greatest driver's sedans, no question. But some of the M4's potential buyers could choose a two-seater. And suddenly the M4 has to compete with true sports machines, notably the Corvette or Porsche Cayman S. Viewed that way, it's up against some sublime driver's cars.
Still, whatever its rivals, you can never accuse the M4 of lacking performance. Our test car is a rear-wheel-drive M4 Competition. It might be just a 3.0-liter, but the two turbos and high-pressure direct injection give it vast midrange muscle. In third and fourth gears, it rockets ahead. Indeed, it's deceptively quick, because the noises don't change much as you acquire speed, only the dizzying numbers on the speedometer. It serves up a smooth straight-six engine sizzle, and revs out to the 7,200 rpm redline with unabated zeal. But there are V8 and flat-six rivals with more raw charisma.
All its handling moves are well-damped, beautifully communicated and tremendously precise, with no slack or lost motion. Steering is sharp, and resistant to understeer. Turn it into a smooth curve and it's super accurate. In the rear-wheel-drive M4, you have to devote most of your attention to the feel from the rear tires, sensing how they cope with the engine's force. You feel the tail just hinting at an outward movement, and then the electronically controlled differential closes up and finds traction, albeit not as much as in a mid-engine car. The M4, unlike the old model, surrenders its grip progressively, which adds to your confidence in it and the fun factor.
Perhaps the only vice appears on bumpy roads, when the steering gets disturbed, nudging left and right instead of tracking straight and true. So you have to grip the wheel firmly.
How comfortable is the M4?
The ride is always firm, perhaps overly so in city traffic. But get a little speed under it and the dampers allow it to take the hard edges off sharp road bumps. At really high speed, you might want to engage the sport damper mode to keep tighter check on body movements.
Tire noise on coarse surfaces and freeway expansion joints is an annoyance. Other than that, the M4 cruises quietly when you're done showboating.
How's the M4's interior?
As expected, the M4 sports an interior similar to that of the 4 Series that it's based on. Differentiators include slick red ignition and driving mode buttons, optional carbon-fiber trim elements, and new M Sport seats with more aggressive side bolstering. Hardcore enthusiasts might want to opt for the carbon-fiber bucket seats with cutouts for multipoint racing belts. They retain electric adjustment in several dimensions.
The instruments are busy and harder to read than the two big round dials BMW used to provide. On the plus side, they show far more subsidiary info. In any case, that's a good reason to spring for the optional head-up display.
Quality of materials and switchgear is high, as you'd expect. Basically it's the same driving environment as the M3, and thus the 3 Series sedan. Yet again, the M4's coupe status pits it up against some pure sports cars with more charismatic interiors (such as the Corvette).
Then again, the Corvette doesn't have a back seat. Two shortish adults can fit in the M4's rear. The issue isn't legroom because the M4 has the same wheelbase as the 3 Series sedan. But headroom is constrained, in pursuit of that fastback coupe styling. And access is poor, because the front seats motor forward slowly.
How's the M4's tech?
Powering the M4's infotainment system is BMW's latest iDrive 7.0 interface. In our experiences with the current 3 Series — which also features iDrive 7.0 — we've found it to be one of the most intuitive systems on the market. It helps reduce driver distraction thanks to an advanced voice recognition system, as well as its support for inputs via touchscreen or dial controller. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, as are a navigation system and M-specific performance applications.
For those who plan to take their M4 to the track, the new M Drive Professional option includes a built-in lap timer. In addition to seeing your times on the fly, you can further analyze your performance with the BMW M Laptimer app on compatible iPhones. If style points for driving are your thing, the M Drift Analyzer records the duration, distance and angle of a drift. It's like a video game, just with real-world consequences. So resist the temptation to use it as you leave your local Cars and Coffee meet-up, OK?
M Drive Professional also gives you the ability to fine-tune the M4's traction and stability control systems. There are 10 levels of traction control intervention, so you can dial in a level that meets your skill. It sounds similar to the knob found in the Mercedes-AMG GT R, which we absolutely love. A brake mode selector is new and lets you pick a firm and responsive setting for the track or a softer pedal for everyday driving. But the sport setting is all you need. The 'comfort' setting is a bit spongy.
Configurable M1 and M2 buttons allow you to store favorite settings for (deep breath): throttle map, transmission response, adaptive damping program, brakes, steering weight, stability control, exhaust note. For the first several hours, they'll prove a distraction, so you have to be disciplined to settle on a bunch of settings that suit you, and leave it there.
The M4 remains a blazingly exhilarating and sharp tool for drivers, and a competent everyday car, too. But it's sedan-derived rather than a ground-up coupe, which makes it a little less special. As to the styling, nothing we say, for or against, will change your mind.