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Can the car behind the controversial new grille meet a warmer reception?

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Enough time should have passed since the arrival of the latest BMW 4 Series in UK showrooms in October for those who objected to its styling in pictures to have seen the car in three dimensions on UK roads.

So now, as the hostile social media reception is softened slightly by familiarity for some and no doubt set in aspic for others, comes our time to get beyond the styling and interrogate the engineering substance of this car as only the Autocar road test can.

The pre-war BMW 328 sports car’s grille was taller, but that doesn’t mean an updated modern tribute necessarily fits on a compact coupé

The second-generation 4 Series is, for now, on sale in two-door coupé (codename G22) and two-door convertible (G23) bodystyles, with the four-door Gran Coupé (G26) set to arrive later this year.

There’s the option of four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel engines and just one six-cylinder motor for the time being. By March, 430d- and M440d-badged straight-six diesels will be available, too, and a full-fat M division M4 won’t be much further behind.

The car is, of course, the lower, wider-striding, meaner-looking alter ego of the G20 3 Series that arrived last year. Like the 3 Series, it offers a choice of ‘mild-hybridised’ engines, but here they complement a car with stiffened, extra-tantalising handling poise and an air of exclusivity about its two-door cabin, the combination of which has been the BMW coupé calling card since the early 1970s.

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And rather than any recent forerunner coupé, it’s a 1970s antecedent of the 4 Series that BMW’s designers were referring to with the new car’s oh-so-contentious, upright and in-your-face radiator grille: the Wilhelm Hofmeister-penned E9-generation 3.0 CSi. Read on to find out if the new range-topping M440i xDrive can do justice, on the road and against the timing gear, to such a celebrated ancestor.

The 4 Series line-up at a glance

BMW’s 4 Series range consists of two bodystyles and three trim levels, for now at least. Munich’s third bodystyle, meanwhile – the four-door Gran Coupé – is expected to join the range later this year.

With most engine options, you can choose between M Sport and M Sport Pro Edition trims. The latter costs a hefty £5000 premium but comes with an exterior styling upgrade and plenty of equipment. Convertible versions are around £5500 more than coupés.

Price £53,865 Power 369bhp Torque 369lb ft 0-60mph 4.1sec 30-70mph in fourth 5.4sec Fuel economy 27.2mpg CO2 emissions 176g/km 70-0mph 49.6m

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 BMW 4 Series M440i road test review 2021 hero side

Familiarity has failed to make the Autocar road test jury fans of this car’s styling. The new frontal aspect, with its arrowhead bonnet creases and that new grille, is intended to engender a new-found sense of confidence and a refreshed distinctiveness. But it’s the deficit of the consistency, simplicity and restraint seen on the best-looking modern BMW coupés that we regretted most.

The car’s surfaces mix bulbousness and fussiness; its rear quarters lack both proportion and definition; and its Hofmeister kink can only be described as ‘absent, presumed missing’.

BMW’s trademark Hofmeister C-pillar has been dispensed with, and the rising beltline meets the roofline at an awkward angle. Have the convertible version and this needn’t bother you

There is better news for those prepared to look beneath the skin, but even that search requires persistence. To begin with, that this car has grown so much in comparison to the first-gen 4 Series isn’t the greatest of omens. It’s a significant 128mm longer, as well as both wider and taller than the F32-generation car. The last-gen 435i M Sport weighed 1640kg when we tested it in 2013. This new one has hit 1775kg.

For those looking for points of difference relative to the 3 Series, however, there are plenty to find. A lower body profile gives the 4 Series a centre of gravity that is 21mm closer to the ground than that of the equivalent 3 Series, while the chassis gets specific structural reinforcements. The 4 Series also has wider axles than a 3 Series and retuned springs, dampers, mountings and anti-roll bars.

BMW’s latest-generation, twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel engine powers the 188bhp 420d. And what that engine has in common with the 369bhp twin-scroll turbocharged petrol 3.0-litre straight six here in the M440i is that they both use a 48V mild-hybrid electrical assistance system for extra efficiency, as well as for the odd hit of up to 11bhp.

A 2.0-litre 420i petrol with 181bhp and a 2.0 430i with 255bhp are also available, but neither with the new 48V electrical system.

All versions of the car use BMW’s eight-speed Steptronic torque-converter automatic gearbox from ZF, but whereas the four-cylinder models are rear-wheel drive as standard and, in some cases, four-wheel drive as an option, the six-cylinder cars like this one get BMW’s natively rear-driven xDrive four-wheel drive system as standard.

M Sport mechanical specification is the jumping-off point for ownership in the UK, which means most UK cars will come with BMW’s stiffened suspension springs and passive ‘lift-related’ dampers, along with a reinforced frontal structure and variable sports steering. Higher-end engines get BMW’s uprated M Sport brakes to boot, and if you go all the way up to either M Sport Pro Edition or M Performance trim levels, adaptive dampers become part of the package.

Being an M440i, our test car had the latter, as well as BMW’s torque-vectoring rear differential as standard (which can also be added to a 430i or 430d as a cost option).

INTERIOR

13 BMW 4 Series M440i road test review 2021 cabin

BMW devotees will be well used to the extra-glitzy materials and the technological glare of the firm’s current interior design philosophy.

The days when the ambient quality and luxury of Munich’s cabin treatments were deliberately understated are long gone. Some time ago, the firm decided it needed to take on both Audi and Mercedes in that respect, and it conjured driving environments of readily apparent richness and lavishness. Pretty soon after that, the G20 3 Series got an interior full of boldly hexagonal chrome and high-tech, widescreen wizardry – and that’s a treatment the 4 Series now inherits.

Like regular series BMWs, the M440i retains these physical drive mode buttons. New ‘Adaptive’ adjusts chassis and powertrain to suit your driving style

It’s an interior in which it’s very easy to make yourself comfortable over long distances. It feels expensively hewn and appointed and is broadly easy to interact with and to configure to your liking. The driving position is only marginally lower and more snug than that of a 3 Series. You wouldn’t call it sports car low, but then, with ease of access and long-range visibility in mind, neither should it be. The control layout is excellent, with very generous adjustment of the steering column possible. Slightly wide A-pillars impinge on forward visibility to an extent, but only as is broadly common among modern cars.

Instrumentation is all digital, with the rev counter and speedometer displayed around the lateral extremes of an octagonal binnacle screen. The display themes change with the selected driving mode, but few are as easily readable as they ought to be and none of them provides a simple pairing of circular dials that could be read so easily at a glance. In cars with BMW’s optional head-up display, of course, you can never claim to be ill-informed of your road or engine speed, but on behalf of those who like to pare down and simplify what the car is telling you in order to make longer trips less tiring, BMW could still do better.

The 4 Series’ rear seats are predictably tricky things in which to berth. You’ll need to be under 6ft tall to find enough head room, although leg room is a little less meanly provided. Overall, though, the 4 Series’ back-seat accommodation is reasonable enough for occasional use. The ability to fold the rear seatbacks 40/20/40 is a welcome boost to carrying flexibility, meanwhile, and boot space is good.

BMW 4 Series infotainment and sat-nav

BMW’s decision to bring the 4 Series to the UK at baseline M Sport equipment level means all cars come with the full-sized digital instrument and infotainment set-ups.

They also all feature the firm’s Connected Package Professional, which, among other things, delivers wired smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android systems. Wireless mirroring for Apple handsets comes with the ‘enhanced Bluetooth’ option that adds wireless device charging. It’s £350 on its own, or included as part of the Technology Pack.

The firm’s latest ‘Operating System 7.0’ software is very good. It appeals not only because it looks great and responds quickly but also because you can control it so flexibly – via the familiar rotary input device, or through the touchscreen or by voice control. The modularity of layout of the car’s home screen is also great, as is the column of menu shortcuts, which makes the system more easily navigable.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

25 BMW 4 Series M440i road test review 2021 sport displays

There is real strength running through the operating character of both the six-cylinder engine and eight-speed gearbox of this car. The combination is a hard one to criticise either for full-throttle power or part-throttle drivability – and it’s harder still to cast aspersions once you realise the car will also return better than 40mpg when touring.

A convincing sense of audible mechanical charm is all the M440i really lacks – which perhaps at first sounds like a trifling complaint when weighed against such objective might. But however hard it may be for today’s car makers to allow for such things, you expect to be able to hear a BMW straight six working away under the bonnet of a car like this. But, for various reasons, you just can’t hear enough of it in this one.

M440i’s four-wheel drive system adds mass but doesn’t dampen the engagement or appeal. The car is stable and sure-footed but also agile and adjustable in corners

The engine’s power delivery is brilliant in the way it blends ample, accessible turbocharged torque with crispness and linearity of pedal response right across the rev range. It seldom seems at all laggy or boosty and it spins beyond 6000rpm with the freedom and vigour of an atmospheric unit. Of course, it never bogs down at low revs, either.

BMW quotes 4.5sec from rest to 62mph for the car. In our hands, on a slightly damp and chilly surface, it hit 60mph in just 4.1sec, which also speaks loudly and clearly of how little there is wrong with the speed of engagement of the torque converter or the efficacy of the four-wheel drive system.

The gearbox is at its best in give-and-take motoring when operating in one of its ‘sportier’ control regimes. Thus, it sets its downshifts smartly and decisively after a deliberate throttle input, and if the car’s 48V hybrid assistance adds anything to the performance, it may be to the improvement of that part-throttle, roll-on responsiveness, which is very good indeed. Unlike other modern autos, whose many ratios seem like an invitation to swap cogs almost at will, the M440i’s gearbox seldom seems hyperactive: it just grabs the right gear and knuckles right down.

There’s no escaping how synthesised the car’s audible driving experience sounds when you pay it close attention, though. It may be that BMW’s latest exhaust system and particulate trap have taken away what genuine mechanical charisma the B58 engine had left, or it may be that BMW has simply turned up the sound effects in an attempt to add more drama.

Whatever the cause, the M440i is left in a place where it will sound inoffensively sporty and authentic enough to those who aren’t paying much attention. However, those who remember so many silken 328i engines over the years are very unlikely to be fooled.

RIDE & HANDLING

26 BMW 4 Series M440i road test review 2021 cornering front

Uproar would probably have broken out in a room full of BMW drivers if told, 20 years ago, that the only way to buy a mid-sized coupé with ‘standard’ rear-wheel drive and a longways six-cylinder engine from their favourite firm would one day be to buy the M division version.

This 4 Series is the first BMW in its particular model lineage for which that statement is true. And yet it’s no sell-out. Although four-wheel drive is clearly part of the equation and has added mass to this car, it doesn’t particularly blunt the dynamic appeal, which, as you would expect, remains the defining selling point.

Interesting that BMW elected to take the run-flats off the biggest-rimmed 3 Series derivatives but has left them on for the 4 Series

The M440i xDrive is just that little bit more level in its body control and keener in its handling responses than an equivalent 3 Series, a car that is, let’s not forget, the best-handling executive model in its particular niche in any case.

Like all fast BMWs, this one majors on precision at first. And, sure enough, it trades on sure-footed stability and traction in circumstances where its predecessors might be shaking their hips more playfully. But it’s composed and compelling, inviting you to engage with the road in a way that few executive cars do. And, unlike other four-wheel-drive executive options, it actually feels rear driven: you can rotate and manipulate the chassis that little bit with power and interact with the handling on a fundamentally more interesting level than many modern cars allow.

That the 4 Series stops narrowly short of sports car-level agility, with its steering filtering more than a purer driver’s car would, may disappoint some. But that’s indicative of the broader dynamic brief that this car must serve than any sports car would be expected to meet. Everyday, any-weather usability and effortless high-speed, long-distance touring stability should be any BMW coupé’s meat and drink. As they are here.

That’s largely thanks to this car’s suspension specification – particularly its adaptive dampers, without which other 4 Series we’ve tested have certainly felt firmer riding and less comfortable, as we’ll expand on in a moment. And yet it can also mix it with a front-engined sports car for grip, handling composure and driver involvement.

Purposefulness, precision and verve bubble out of the M440i when it’s cornered quickly. A measured initial steering response prevents it from diving into bends, then good inherent balance and plenty of lateral grip keep your appointment with the apex and stop the car from washing too wide even when you feed in power.

As always, BMW offers fully enabled stability control, dynamic mode and full deactivation – and you don’t need to switch it off totally to be given the freedom to move the chassis around on the power.

The suspension works the contact patches evenly, and the drivetrain keeps torque at the rear wheels when you’re accelerating out of bends, only moving it forwards in any quantity when you’re beginning to blend attitude into the car.

Outright vertical body control just begins to come into question over the most testing crests and dips, but composure is quickly restored.

Comfort and isolation

Wider test experience suggests that adaptive M suspension may be crucial to the rolling comfort of the 4 Series. We’ve tested it before on BMW’s passive M Sport dampers and found its ride, both at lower speeds and on slightly uneven UK country roads, a little restive and excitable.

But the adaptively damped M440i tested here didn’t suffer with that problem – not, at least, on A- and B-roads, whose lumps and bumps were dealt with serenely enough.

A car such as this will always feel more at home on motorways, at higher speeds and when devouring distance, and this one is no exception. Nevertheless, those who anticipate plenty of cross-country driving ought to go for the suspension upgrade if their budget allows.

Even if you do, you’ll find the car’s low-speed town ride slightly fussy. It joggles its weight between either side of its axles in a way that would amount to head toss in a taller-profiled car but, even so, it doesn’t quite pass unnoticed here.

The car’s ride isolation, on 19in wheels and run-flat tyres, is respectable but not outstanding. There are more refined coupés out there for those who want them.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

BMW 4 Series road test review 2021 hero

BMW has dangled the entry-level 420i M Sport temptingly just below £40,000. Even our generously endowed M440i xDrive marginally undercut its older Mercedes-Benz and Audi competitors on price. In light of some favourable forecast residual values, the BMW should be competitive on monthly finance.

The 4 Series’ standard equipment tally is marginally more generous than that of the 3 Series, but buyers should expect to spend extra on the optional M Sport Pro package (which is the only way to add those adaptive dampers, among other things, from £2300), as well as a few other items.

The newer BMW is tipped to outperform both the Audi S5 and Mercedes-AMG C43 for residual value, although the difference isn’t huge.

Wireless smartphone charging, premium audio and a head-up display are packaged neatly in the Technology package (£1900) but you can cherry-pick some of those items individually to save a few pounds.

VERDICT

27 BMW 4 Series M440i road test review 2021 static

You wonder if, now that it’s an established model line in its own right, the 4 Series could become too successful for its own good. When the last-generation version came along, rumours were rife of 3 Series owners trading up into four-door 4 Series Gran Coupés in big numbers. Some may do the same this time. But given the way this new 4 Series looks, and how BMW has omitted certain options from its powertrain armoury, that outcome looks less likely in 2021 than it was in 2013.

Whatever the motivating factors explaining the styling of this car, it would be a major injustice not to bear witness to its many and various objective qualities. The M440i is a car you could use every day of the year and enjoy on absolutely every journey. It is at once fast and engaging; stable and composed; long-legged and refined; and a rich and luxurious thing in which to travel.

A rounded, engaging and potent coupé let down only by its looks

More’s the pity, then, that it isn’t generally a bit more appealing to the senses – somewhat easier on the eye and sweeter and more charismatic to the ear in particular. We rate this car – but we don’t like it as much as we might have.

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

BMW 4 Series First drives