BMW M cars have to embody a certain duality. In addition to being great road cars, they also have to be competent on track. The very best M cars can soak up hundreds of highway miles, hop right on to a racetrack, perform brilliantly without so much as a tire pressure check, then hop back on that highway for a relaxed drive home. The M3 and M4, BMW’s newest entries into the M car legacy, certainly seem up to the task, with tons of chassis improvements and a 503-hp twin-turbo straight-six under the hood. But being quick on track doesn’t make a car, as the Road & Track staff found out during a recent outing to Lime Rock Park.
Writers and editors who took some laps in the M3 Competition and M4 walked away with mixed feelings. Some echoed the internet’s disdain for the strange double-coffin front grille. Others praised the cars’ deeply impressive front-end grip and twin-turbo straight-six engine. But no one truly fell in love.
Unsurprisingly, looks dominated the conversation. BMW’s newest kidney-grille variation, which made its on-road debut with the 2021 4-Series, is a love-it-or-hate-it affair. Associate editor Mack Hogan falls in the latter camp.
“While I’d have no trouble recommending one as a do-it-all car,” he said, “I can’t personally get over how heinously ugly they are.”
The grille wasn’t the only thing people talked about. Looking past the front end, the M3’s and M4’s styling split opinions amongst testers. The M3, with its flared fenders and extra pillar, won out.
“I think you’d be a fool to get the M4 over the M3,” Hogan said. “The M3 is not only more practical, it’s the better-looking one. And even if it wasn’t, it’s not like the difference is big enough to overcome how heinous they both look.”
“The proportions on the M3 are nicer,” senior writer Chris Perkins added.
Deputy editor Bob Sorokanich was one of the few people who preferred the two-door’s styling over the four-door’s appeal.
“There’s something heartbreakingly goofy about the four-door we had, with the ‘look at me I’m a race car’ front seats in a body that’s just about identical to the sedan my accountant drives,” he said.
It’s true; the M3 we had on hand was a Competition model optioned with the $3800 M carbon bucket seats which, for some people, had a bit too much bolstering in the thigh areas, making them awkward to crawl in and out of compared to our base M4 tester.
Perkins felt the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. “The optional carbon bucket seats let you sit very low, which gives you a good sense of what’s going on underneath you,” he said.
“The bucket seats are excellent, supportive and comfortable,” said editor-at-large Travis Okulski. “But the bolsters are aggressive and make it hard to get in or out. The center piece is horrible and should be banished; it’s always rubbing your legs.”
The team praised the cars more highly after spending some time on Lime Rock’s 1.53-mile road course. With just six right turns and a left, it seems like a simple track on paper. But with high curbing and severe elevation changes, it was the perfect place to suss the two out at the limit.
Hogan, Perkins, and digital editor Aaron Brown all complemented the car’s immense front-end grip. “Between their trick electric adaptive M dampers, Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires, and everything in between, I felt like my innards were being thrashed around every corner,” Brown said.
“I went into the day fully expecting to hate them,” Hogan said. “But the M3 quickly impressed me. The powerband stretches to the horizon, the brakes could stop a planet, and the car feels so eager.”
He wasn’t the only one. Many were quick to discover the M3’s and M4’s balance, their willingness to make the driver smile. “Eager to slide and controllable,” says Okulski. “Great grip from the rear under power, and predictable when it does go away.”
The steering, in typical BMW fashion, is devoid of any real feel. It is, however, one of the most direct and accurate racks put into an M car in recent memory. “Absurdly quick and incredibly precise,” says Hogan. “The steering is accurate, but totally numb,” Perkins added.
Our test cars shared the same S58 engine in different states of tune. The M3, being a Competition model with the ZF eight-speed automatic, made 503 horsepower and 479 lb-ft of torque. The M4, a base car with the six-speed manual, made 473 horsepower and 406 lb-ft of torque. The engine was gushing with power in both trims, delivering a fat, meaty torque curve throughout the rev range; no driver was left wanting for more.
“The engine is a monster, but it feels like any other modern BMW turbo six, albeit with more power and a slug of torque,” Perkins said.
We were overjoyed to hear BMW would be making the standard transmission a six-speed manual, though the one we used in the M4 was less engaging than expected, seemingly on purpose.
“There's a ton of low- and mid-range torque, the clutch pedal is extremely light, and by default the car automatically rev-matches your downshifts,” says Sorokanich. “The net result is, you don't really feel like you need to work the car. It's perfectly happy in just about any gear. That's a disappointment, albeit a very, very mild one; the whole reason you order a manual is to be more involved with the car.”
He wasn’t the only one who didn’t fall in love with the M4’s unsettlingly light clutch pedal and decidedly un-special shifter. Perkins, Brown, and Hogan all noted their relative indifference towards the stick. “This is still a modern, computerized car and three pedals doesn’t change its core personality,” Hogan says.
Those things being said, most staffers said they’d still option the manual if given a choice. “It is that little bit more engaging and I like the ratio spread better,” Perkins says of the stick. “On track eight closely spaced gears feel like a bit much to manage.” Others, like Okulski, had nothing good to say about it. “The manual gearbox is a letdown,” he says. “It’s rubbery, tough to shift quickly.”
Another knock against the M3 and M4: The price. Our testers came with a ton of options; the M3 Competition priced at $99,595 and the M4 at $97,545. “They’re on top of the list of cars that make your brain automatically go into ‘for that money’ mode,” notes contributing editor John Krewson. Most staffers agreed, wondering whether the price justified the experience. Others noted just how close one could likely get the monthly payments to those of a new Porsche 911. Avoiding the $8150 carbon-ceramic brakes and $4700 carbon exterior package found on both of our test cars is a good way to make things easier to swallow. Though if you do plan on using the car for regular track work, you may want those brakes; “there’s fantastic initial bite and they’re easy to modulate,” says Okulski.
Looks aside, the M3 and M4 are spectacularly capable machines. The duality that makes M cars great is alive and well here, as evidenced by our hours-long track session that left them begging for more as the sun set. But as quick as they are on track, no one was fiending for more laps towards the end of the day.
“Overall, I like them both, but love neither,” says Hogan. “They’re stupid-fast, highly competent performance cars,” Brown adds. “But after the initial new car excitement wears off, they feel sterile.”
He was right. Both cars had no trouble delivering mega performances for each and every driver. The limits are easy and approachable, while the lap times were impressively low. But that extra nugget of intangible satisfaction you get with M’s very best is still missing.
“It’s easy to drive fast. And it is extremely fast,” says Okulski. “But I’m not sure it’s fun. It feels like too big of a car to really be agile and playful.”
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