Well, this could be awkward. Pulling into a viewing point on Gordon’s Bay’s picturesque Clarence Drive, the new BMW M4 Competition has driven into what can only be described as a family reunion of high-achievers; BMW M3s spanning four generations on the SA market, some utterly stock and others given an extra injection of power and visual attitude by their dedicated owners.
In a slight departure from a new car’s testing regimen by the CAR editorial team, we gathered these iconic members of BMW’s performance-car stable as a striking means of illustrating the evolution of M cars and exposing the impressive newcomer to perhaps its most critical audience. We are talking about dyed-in-the-wool M enthusiasts; putting them behind the wheel to see just how the BMW M4 Competition measures up to both past legends and future expectations.
Having only just wrapped our heads around the styling treatment handed out to the G80 4 Series, the arrival of the new BMW M4 Competition has simply gone and pushed those boundaries further still. The retina-searing São Paulo Yellow paintwork is a bold but not unanimously celebrated choice of livery. It certainly managed to divide opinion among the enthusiasts present; some favourably comparing it to the Dakar Yellow once offered on the E36 M3, while others were keen to see how a darker hue might suit this challenging design.
In the company of its older relatives, it’s hardly an exercise in subtlety. From the bulging haunches to the considerable vent-work and sheet metal creases, not to mention elements such as the scalloped crests of the bonnet’s power domes that conspire with those huge, louvred nostrils and narrow headlamps to paste a scowl on the car’s already aggressive face. It’s all a far cry from the likes of the E36’s boxy simplicity, the smooth-skinned subtlety of the E46 and the purposeful elegance of the E92.
Even the most cosmetically overhauled member of our company – Zaki Hendricks’ F80 sitting on 30 mm-lowered Eibachs, replete with 15 mm spacers to fill out those wheelarches, plenty of additional carbon-fibre styling bits and finished in Yas Marina Blue – seems relatively reserved by comparison.
As expected, things take a turn for the demure inside. The general layout is closely aligned with that of the G22 4 Series, including its impressive levels of material and perceived quality. Our car’s Competition specification sees the comfortable standard sports seats make way for a set of incredibly figure-hugging buckets with carbon-fibre inlays between the occupants’ upper thighs.
With front seat cushions all but gracing the cabin’s floor, deep doorcards and a meaty M Sport steering wheel and stubby gearlever falling easily to hand, the driving position screams racecar.
While there’s no doubting the aptitude to hold their charges in place under the most steering wheel-sawing driving conditions, those bucket seats in the BMW M4 Competition are far from accommodating in any other department. Slighter-framed members of the test team bemoaned their unyielding cushions and larger folks joked they heard a champagne cork-like “pop” when extricating themselves.
Yet, they’re grabby for good reason. Nestled beneath the lengthy snout of the BMW M4 Competition and caged within a triangle of metal braces is the most powerful iteration of BMW’s 3,0-litre B58 inline-six turbopetrol engine. This uprated unit with S58 nomenclature made its debut in the current X3 M Competition where it channelled its 375 kW and 650 N.m outputs through a performance-tuned AWD system. In a performance-car sphere, apportioning drive to all four corners is becoming the norm and the Competition stays true to its predecessors’ roots by sending all of that firepower only to the rear axle. It’s a trait both admirable in its adherence to tradition and potentially to the Competition’s detriment.
It’s one thing to enjoy the purity of RWD driving but harnessing more than 500 horses of traction to the rear axle reveals a compromise between performance and control. This became apparent when conducting our standardised acceleration tests. We expected a riot of whinnying tyres, vicious axle tramp and a catapult-like launch to triple figures. It was anything but. Perhaps mindful of the potential chaos such rearward-directed shove could unleash, BMW’s engineers seem to have given the Competition’s launch control module a relatively slow release.
Dial in the launch control settings, depress the brake pedal and the throttle comes on song; you can feel the boost building through the tips of your toes. Step off the anchors and instead of the expected pummelling slingshot ride towards the horizon, it measuredly rolls off the line before finally hooking up and sending you down the road. There’s none of the previous car’s lurid wheelspin but while it doesn’t feel slow, that first half-second or so it took to get off the line meant our best 4,11-second run was still some way off BMW’s claimed 3,90 seconds.
To its credit, the system is consistent and seems more mechanically robust than the setups in previous cars, which tended to wilt after two or so launches.
Once on the move, though, the relentless linearity of the twinturbo inline-six’s power delivery can be downright eye-widening. There isn’t so much as a hint of turbo lag and it’s willing to quickly spool to that 7 200 r/min redline. As a result, the six-cylinder soundtrack through its sports exhaust – although not as clean as the older cars’ rasping naturally aspirated sixes or the E92’s crisp, high-revving V8 – is an urgent, wastegate flutter-accented howl that sets heads whipping in its direction.
Pinning the throttle with anything other than a measured foot is met with an old-school burst of tail shimmy and tyre scrabble. While such a development will no doubt have RWD purists similarly shimmying with glee, there is a sense this playfulness has been dialled into the rear differential by BMW’s engineers. Such fishtailing is exhilarating but it doesn’t feel capable of wholly unsettling the car from its intended line. Placing the M drivetrain management system into its most aggressive setting and turning off the DSC will snip away all remnants of an electronic safety net and potentially turn the M4 into a loose-tailed, tyre-devouring drifter, but you still get the impression the sense of chaos has been carefully orchestrated somehow.
With a twisting coastal road laid out and its iconic predecessors giving chase, the BMW M4 Competition is in its element. As a Competition-fettled model, it feels taut and trussed up with all manner of structural bracing and stiffened suspension. Once you’ve mentally recalibrated to push past that semi-simulated instability and trust in the huge reserves of grip, it covers ground at a simply astonishing pace.
Turn-in is sharp and the steering is responsive but, given the lack of sensation-sapping drive channelled forward, there is an unexpected lightness to the helm that caught some drivers off guard. Although the Competition does bristle with carbon-fibre components, including a roof panel hewn from the lightweight material, it’s a hefty car that tipped our scales at 1 700 kg. The power masks that mass in a straight line but under fast directional changes, there’s a split-second of wallow before things tighten up and the car gets to its feet again.
The move from a dual-clutch to torque converter transmission was a talking point among the enthusiasts. The eight-speed unit in the BMW M4 Competition came in for a great deal of praise for its mechanical refinement, especially at lower speeds where the M-DCT ’box showed a great deal of slip and the seamless manner in which it melded with the powerplant. On paper, manual shifts are at their quickest yet, but some of the group felt the exceedingly smooth shift action made it feel a touch less immediate and involving than the older systems under driver manipulation.
In terms of drivetrain configurability, the BMW M4 Competition sits in stark contrast to its decidedly analogue forebears. Everything from the throttle to steering weight, gearshift mapping and suspension characteristics can be trimmed via the M drivetrain management system and presets can be programmed and activated via the red M thumb tabs atop the steering-wheel boss. It has to be said the Competition feels like it’s set to full-attack mode from the off. There’s a marked difference in how the transmission hangs onto the ratios in the different settings, yet, there was little discernible change to the steering and damper characteristics when toggling between Normal and Sport settings; the ride, although well damped, is especially firm, even in its default mode.
It’s clear BMW M has created something very visceral in the Competition, but what was the consensus at the end of the day?