BMW’s tagline is very familiar: The Ultimate Driving Machine. For many years BMW lived by that credo, making sure every vehicle in the lineup offered a sporty character and a level of driver involvement that couldn’t be matched by any competitor.
In recent years, however, some BMWs have gotten bigger, heavier, and less fun to drive. The brand has seemed to concentrate on finding new niches more than building fun new products. But there is one product that has steadfastly retained the Ultimate Driving Machine philosophy: the high-performance M3.
For the 2015 model year, that one product becomes two, and both get a complete redesign. The four-door sedan soldiers on as the M3, but the two-door coupe version, and eventually the convertible, become the M4.
BMW invited journalists to the four-mile Road America road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, to show that the Ultimate Driving Machine philosophy is alive and well in the redesigned M3/M4.
BMW developed the 2015 M3/M4 to perform better than the outgoing M3. This performance duo rides the architecture that BMW introduced for the 2012 model year 3 Series. This platform, internally called F80 for the M3 and F82 for the M4, makes the cars bigger and roomier yet lighter by about 180 pounds than the outgoing sedan.
BMW took several measures to save weight. Both the coupe and sedan now get a carbon fiber roof (only the coupe had it previously), and the coupe adds a carbon fiber trunk lid and roof bow support. The driveshaft is also carbon fiber, less sound insulation is used, and the suspension, hood, and front fenders are aluminum. The bodies are also more rigid. Lighter weight and a stiffer structure translate to better handling and faster lap times.
Under the hood, the new M cars swap a high-revving 4.0-liter V8 for a new twin-turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine that forces 18 psi of air down the engine’s gullet to create more power from less displacement. Horsepower rises modestly, from 414 to 425, but torque is up considerably, from 317 to 406 pound-feet. Fuel economy ratings are not yet available, but BMW says they should improve by about 25 percent from the V8’s 14 mpg city/20 highway figures.
The work BMW put into its driving machines has paid off in improved dynamics on the road and track, though slightly less driver involvement. The first complaint purists will have involves the new electric power steering(EPS). BMW engineers know that EPS imparts less road feel than hydraulic steering so they came up with a unique system that they claim to be the best on the market. We found it to be quick and predictable, though without the sublime road feel of the outgoing hydraulic system.
We are also surprised and disappointed by the programming of the electronic stability control. Even in the M Dynamic Mode’s Sport Plus settings we found it intrusive on aggressive cornering. In the previous generation, this system let the tail slip out provided the car was still on its intended path. The only way that can happen now is if the driver turns ESC off entirely. We’d prefer to keep the system’s safety net while also allowing room for some fun.
Those complaints aside, the new M3/M4 is a brilliant handling car. On a twisty road or a racetrack, it responds quickly to driver inputs, and attacks corners and slaloms like a smaller car. The Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires provide tons of grip, and the car leans just enough in turns to provide excellent feedback as the tires approach the limits of adhesion. The cars we drove were equipped with the optional carbon ceramic brakes. They delivered unrelenting stopping power all day on a track with heavy braking zones, but then they should do that and more for $8,150.
Most cars that offer this type of track-ready handling are downright uncomfortable on the street. The M3/M4 is the exception. It balances amazing handling with roadworthy ride quality. Yes, the suspension is firm, but it’s never harsh, making the M3/M4 a viable car for everyday use.
The new turbocharged engine is both a blessing and a curse. In all measurable ways, it outperforms the outgoing V8, launching the car from 0 to 60 mph in as little as 3.9 seconds (compared to 4.5 seconds for the V8), achieving speeds the V8 just couldn’t, and getting much better fuel economy. However, the most noticeable strike against it becomes apparent immediately upon startup. Whereas the V8 made great raspy sounds, the six sounds industrial and somewhat flatulent. It’s not music to the car guy’s ear like the V8. That’s a shame.
The sedan’s V8 also revved willingly all the way up to 8300 rpm, delivering its best power at the upper end of that rev range. That meant you had to drive the M3 like you hated it to wring out the most performance. That’s not a bad thing; it was quite fun to drive that way. By comparison, the new inline six provides willing torque from the get-go, making the power easier to tap into during everyday driving. And like the V8 before it, the power doesn’t drop off; it just keeps coming as it revs up to 7600 rpm, which is quite high for a turbocharged engine. On some of the longer straights at Road America we saw speeds in excess of 150 mph, while the previous M3 could hit about 145. Don’t try this at home. The point is the last car was fast and this one is faster.
So far we’ve seen that the M3 and M4 are identical twins in terms of dynamics, but how do they differ? The sedan’s two rear doors make a real difference in everyday utility. The sedan has a three-passenger rear seat that is easy to get into and out of, and offers surprisingly good head and legroom for a compact sport sedan. The M4, on the other hand, has a two-passenger rear seat that requires some flexibility during ingress/egress, and the coupe roofline limits rear headroom. Both have trunks with a decent 12 cubic feet of cargo space, and the rear seats fold down in a 60/40 split to increase that space. The coupe is sexier than the sedan and it will outsell the four-door, but we are impressed that the sedan could conceivably be used as a family car.
The front seats of the coupe and sedan are identical. Both are outfitted with comfortable and supportive sport bucket seats and an impressive array of quality materials. BMW adds more equipment this year, making a navigation system, power heated seats, auto-dimming mirrors, and carbon fiber trim standard.
All of these improvements come at a cost. The M3 starts at $62,000 and the M4 runs $64,200. The M3 sedan hasn’t been offered since 2011, but the M4 coupe is up $4100 since it was last offered for the 2013 model year. Those figures aren’t cheap, but spend the money and you’ll get one of the very best cars on the market today. The 2015 M3/M4 may not sound as good as the last M3 and a tiny bit of road feel may be gone, but these cars are roomier, more efficient, and faster than their legendary predecessors.