Welcome to Critic's Notebook, a quick and off-the-cuff car review consisting of impressions, jottings, and marginalia regarding whatever The Drive writers happen to be driving. Today's edition: the 2018 BMW M4.
The 2018 BMW M4, By the Numbers
Base Price (Price as Tested): $69,150 ($86,945)
Powertrain: Twin-turbo DOHC inline-six cylinder engine; 425 horsepower (444 hp with optional Competition Package), 406 pound-feet of torque; six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic; rear-wheel drive
0-60 MPH: 4.0 seconds (manual), 3.6 seconds (automatic)
Top Speed: 174 mph
EPA Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 24 mpg highway
Curb Weight: 3,625 pounds
Quick Take: Always a class darling, the BMW M4 is incredibly capable, sharply refined, and just angry enough. But its competitors are catching up.
One Big Question: Is the BMW M4 still the ultimate driving machine in every sense of the phrase?
The sun tipped the evening sky into a yellow-blue ombré rarely seen outside an Eighties car ad. The highway unspooled ahead in all its mountain glory, turns connecting to straights connecting to neurons in a deep and primal part of the brain. And I was in the 2018 BMW M4, driving like I damn well meant it on a miraculous ribbon of tarmac, high above the dust and heat and concrete of Los Angeles as everything turned to gold around me. The right car, the right setting, it all combined to feel like an experience straight out of Forza. It was perfect, in the moment.
It's been said that an angel loses its wings every time BMW adds to its burgeoning lineup of sporty crossovers. [Kyle is the only one who's ever said that. —Ed.] Don't get me wrong; the X crowd is a fine bunch, and their various M versions can be genuinely fun up. But the Bavarians still have legions of fans who see diversification as dilution, and there's no denying that liberal use of BMW's most famous letter has left some wondering whether M still holds any real meaning. It's fair to ask if there's room for purists in this strange new world, and if BMW is really going to get away with christening the new X4 as a "sports activity coupe."
To the latter point: Here's your original sports activity coupe, pal. The BMW M4 (née M3 coupe) may no longer share a number with its four-door brethren, but its lineage ultimately runs back to the legendary E30-generation M3, which still holds up as one of the best driving cars ever made. The current F82 generation mostly does right by that storied history, coming standard with a 425-horsepower twin-turbo inline-six that turns the rear wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. Hardcore CS and GTS variants further sharpen its fangs by adding lightness, power, and a welcome animalism.
That's where the rubber meets the road when it comes to evaluating the M4. BMW's real M cars—leave your M Sport models in the garage for this conversation—are supposed to feel raw, real, and barely caged. At a time where the "regular" M4 has to shine against both its rowdier siblings and a newly-competent crop of competitors, my sunset drive (plus a full week with the car) encapsulated everything that still makes this coupe an Ultimate Driving Machine—and why it has to evolve to stay relevant going forward.
2018 BMW M4: The Pros
- Second to the death of the manual transmission, BMW's overall design evolution is perhaps the biggest point of contention for lovers of kidney grilles and quad round lights. No such complaints here: the M4 is perhaps the best-proportioned Bimmer on sale today in our opinion, thanks to its sweeping roofline and low, wide stance. Even with the 20-inch aluminum wheels and blacked-out exterior trim that are part of the optioned $4,750 Competition Package (more on that below), it strikes a perfect balance between showing off its sporting bonafides and playing it stylishly cool. The $550 Austin Yellow Metallic paint job is polarizing; I like it, especially with the blacked-out carbon fiber roof, while my editor referred to it as "baby shit."
- The Competition Package also bumps the twin-turbo straight-six engine up 444 horsepower, which is just a few shy of the more-expensive CS version. It proves to be just about the perfect amount of grunt for the chassis and stock tires. Purists moaned and groaned when BMW brought forced induction to its M cars—and while there are reasons to mourn natural aspiration here, the turbocharged M4 feels (and is) far faster than the free-breathing M3 coupe that preceded it.
- The BMW M4 is still about the drive, and there are few places where that modus operandi is on fuller display than Angeles Crest Highway. There's something intrinsically captivating about the way the M4 bombs through a curve with high-strung composure; the way the engine loves to hang around 5,500 rpm; the way the car grabs at the physical world in a straight line. It's not the fastest car for $87,000, but damn, is it a good time—even without the much-vaunted manual transmission.
- The car's multitude of driving modes can seem intimidating at first, but mixing and matching the various independent settings for the steering, throttle, suspension, and transmission (when equipped with the dual-clutch automatic) to find your ideal setup is worth the process. Around town, that ended up being Sport steering, Comfort suspension, Sport throttle, and the default transmission setup, which I usually overrode with the paddles anyway. You can also save different combinations of everything to one of two M Driver profiles, which can be activated by a handy pair of steering wheel switches. Dialing everything up to the max on Angeles Crest really showcased the car's twin personalities in a notable way.
- Inside, the M4 still carries some of that old-school, stripped-down essence of M cars past. I was especially happy to see my tester arrived with black cloth seats; they may not be ventilated, but they do a better job holding you in place when things go sideways. The thin center console with a manual parking brake is also a throwback, as is the analog instrument panel. Character still counts, and the M4 still delivers.
2018 BMW M4: The Cons
- The dual-clutch automatic transmission's shutdown procedure is an abomination. The DSG's gear selector is a little, shift-by-wire black appendagem which has options for Drive, Reverse, and Neutral. There's no button for Park; turns out you're supposed to leave it in gear and press the Start/Stop button to turn off the car, at which point. the transmission locks in place. But it won't if the transmission is in Neutral when you press the off switch; the engine shuts down, but accessory power remains active, and the car warns you that it's still in Neutral and might roll away (even if the parking brake is set). Giving the button a second press finally activates Park—but make sure your foot is off the brake, or you'll accidentally start the engine again. So just leave it in gear, right? Well, it automatically shifts to Neutral if you unbuckle your seatbelt or open the door at a stop with the engine running. If that all sounds needlessly complicated...it is.
- Regret is arriving at the mouth of a tunnel on Angeles Crest Highway, slowing up and rolling down the windows for a second gear jam session, and hearing the flat noise coming out of those blackened quad pipes out back. There's a guttural edge thanks to the sport exhaust in the Competition Package, but there's no body to the sound, nothing to hit your sternum like a cinderblock. Even when that 3.0-liter inline-six is singing near its 8,500 rpm redline, the aural experience is one of work, not joy.
- The extensive feature set that BMW packs into M cars these days is designed to convince people these mythical beasts can be driven daily. That's true for the M4, usable backseat and all, but its edges are just hard enough to intrude on that fantasy—without being hard enough to make it worth the sacrifice. It's just not very comfortable, even though your mind knows it's supposed to be a hard-nosed rocket. The Adaptive M Suspension doesn't adjust to different conditions as well as other systems, leaving every drive mode feeling harsh. And the steering feel is artificially heavy, to please enthusiasts, yet simultaneously uncommunicative, to avoid spooking more casual drivers.
- The iDrive infotainment system is fine. Paying $300 for Apple CarPlay, even if it is wireless, is not.
2018 BMW M4: Value
Starting at $69,150, the BMW M4 tops the Mercedes-AMG C63 ($67,500) while just undercutting the Audi RS 5 ($69,900)—though to be honest, both of those offer more of what defines an ultimate driving machine these days. The Merc comes with a 469-horsepower V8, the Audi packs all-wheel-drive, and all three offer very similar feature sets and options. Still, the M4 is the fastest and most track-capable of the trio from the factory, which makes it an undeniable contender for those looking for a true dual-purpose sports car.
Then there's simple math. The E30 M3 cost $34,950 in 1989; adjusted for inflation, that's over $72,000 today. The fact that the new model rings up under its grandpappy's original price is impressive—particularly when you consider the new car market is a much different place in 2018.
2018 BMW M4: The Bottom Line
Nothing gold can stay, and that includes the BMW M4. It's amazing, even bordering on sublime—when you're isolated in a road in the sky, where its shortcomings feel a world away. But there are things that must change before it loses its shine and fades away: sharper steering, a more predictable chassis, and a better sounding engine are high on the list. Thankfully, the next-generation 3 Series / 4 Series is on the horizon. But what other, possibly unwelcome changes will that leap forward bring? It's too early to say. All we have in front of us is the current M4, which still impresses despite—and really, because of—its age.
Things have a way of clearing up when you make for the mountains. I spent the first two days with the M4 puttering around town and wondering if the magic was still there. After my sunset drive, I knew exactly where it was: cloaked in the fog of everyday driving. The M4 is at its best when it has a chance to throw off the chains of Comfort mode, blast away the trappings of low-speed life, and dance as the Bavarians intended. The feeling from those moments will have you excusing every last blemish. After all, gold is the hardest hue to hold.