The famed philosopher and statesman Francis Bacon coined what is perhaps the quintessential quote when it comes to appreciating the less conventional side of aesthetics. When he penned his observation, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion” back in 1597, he likely never thought his now widely renowned empirical musing would be applied to a horseless carriage from Bavaria … much less one that wasn’t the jauntily sheet-metalled handiwork of a certain Chris Bangle.
Here we are in 2021 and given the number of cocked heads, quizzical looks and divided opinions BMW’s new 4 Series Coupé has garnered, it seems Mr Bacon’s observation is as pertinent now as it was when he put quill to parchment more than 400 years ago. The radical newcomer’s combination of supermodel body and supervillain nose is garnering attention from all corners, both good and bad.
But the arrival of the M440i has brought forth some matters more than just skin-deep. Recently, we’ve seen BMW’s near-halo M Performance models not so much blurring but pretty much crossing the line between the firm’s workaday offerings and the full-blooded M cars. Indeed, in the M440i’s showing with us, this grey area shows no signs of clearing anytime soon. Could this extreme coupé be poking its substantial set of nostrils into territory where it may not be welcome?
On looks alone, it seems the M440i has no qualms about causing ructions outside its sub-M4 station, thanks in no small part to the boldest interpretation of the kidney grille to ever grace the snout of a BMW. Juxtaposed as it is with lithe and gracefully curve-adorned flanks and rear haunches, the nose forms the focal point of possibly one of the most challenging designs to come out of Bavaria in some years. Reactions ranged from overly theatrical cupping of hands to mouth, to those genuinely enamoured with BMW’s daring. Either way, it’s safe to say the latest iteration of the 4 Series Coupé has managed to steer well clear of the cookie-cutter design pitfall into which its handsome but perhaps overly derivative predecessor fell. Love it or loathe it, the M440i is a genuine attention grabber, making its rivals from Audi and Mercedes look quite pedestrian by comparison.
Under its striking shell, the M440i shares a modified version of BMW’s wide-ranging CLAR modular platform with the 3 Series, adding a 23 mm wider rear track, additional structural bracing above the suspension struts and engine bay, and a power steering module that’s been tuned specifically for the M440i’s lower centre of gravity and stiffer springs.
These changes may look insignificant on paper, yet, they collude to produce what’s perhaps one of the most effortlessly balanced BMWs we’ve sampled in some time.
In town and on the motorway, the M440i rides with the same supple composure as the 3 Series, seemingly unaffected by the usually crashy combination of 19-inch rims shod with 40- and 35-profile rubber, fore and aft. The driving position is low-slung but the seats are supportive, even offering plentiful support in the often-neglected under-thigh region that usually announces itself in the guise of tightening hamstrings after long stints behind the wheel.
The cabin is the polar opposite of the exterior – more on the conventional side of the design spectrum – and its general layout comprises a subtly massaged version of the 3’s facia that’s tastefully executed. It shares the sedan’s impressive degrees of fit and finish and is a relaxing space to spend time … at least for those sitting up front. While the new car’s 653 mm of rear legroom is marginally more generous than that of the outgoing 4 Series, owing to a platform around 40 mm longer in the wheelbase than its forebear, the rear passenger compartment is still snug for anyone over 180 cm tall; 57 mm lower and possessed of a dramatically raked C-pillar means taller folk will graze their crowns against the head liner. Fortunately, the boot is practically packaged, serving up 248 litres of load space with the rear seatbacks in place and a golf bag-friendly 776 litres once everything is folded.
Although the M440i isn’t a massive departure from the sedan in terms of general road manners, pressing on in a more spirited manner does reveal a car that’s appreciably sharper than its four-door relative. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the sinuous Franschhoek Pass. We’ve waxed lyrical about this slice of motoring nirvana on many a photoshoot and Performance Shootout. This ribbon of blacktop – draped over the mountain range between the stylish Winelands town and the expanse of the Theewaterskloof Dam in a series of breathtaking switchbacks, straights and inner-ear-popping variances in elevation (not to mention pleasingly devoid of early-morning traffic) – provides pretty much a laboratory setting in which a car’s dynamic talents can be put to the test.
Flipping the switch on this experiment is BMW’s B57 inline-six engine. In an automotive environment increasingly obsessed with downsizing and electrification, there’s simply no substitute for the punch and aural drama served up by this 3,0-litre, twin-scroll turbocharged unit. Detuned from the M340i’s 285 kW (ostensibly in a bid to further distance the coupé from the sedan) to a still mightily impressive 275 kW and a brawny 500 N.m. Coupled with a well-calibrated eight-speed automatic transmission that’s just as comfortable slurring through ratios in relaxed driving as it is in banging through paddle-actuated gearshifts when pushing on, this unit propelled the M440i from standstill to 100 km/h in just 4,69 seconds on our test strip, only a fraction of a second slower than BMW’s claimed sprint time for the M4. Certainly, with that snarling inline-six soundtrack accompanying any aggressive throttle modulation – and carried along on a wave of peak torque spanning a broad 1 900-5 000 r/min swathe across the rev range – there will no doubt be questions as to whether you’d need anything more from a 4 Series …
Equally impressive is how the M440i channels that power into a dynamic driving experience. The steering is light but alert and communicative, while the huge reserves of grip are transferred to the road via both the rear-biased AWD system and the standard M Sport differential. It’s not a light car, at 1 729 kg on our scales, but the chassis’ ability to smoothly transfer lateral weight movement under hard cornering – all but negating any clumsy wrenching from swift directional changes – makes tucking the nose into a string of corners both fluid and exciting. The brake setup, comprising ventilated discs measuring 374 mm up front and 345 mm aft clamped by four- and single-piston callipers, respectively, does an impressive job of scrubbing off speed. Our brake testing routine tagged the M440i at an average 2,8 seconds in the 100-0 km/h deceleration runs, garnering an “excellent” rating.
Make what you will of its looks but the M440i is an impressively engineered, thoroughly polished and satisfyingly wieldy new branch of the BMW midsize tree, blessed with both the visual and experiential distinction from the 3 Series for which its predecessor was found wanting. Given its ability to cosset and thrill in equal measure, it’s also one of the most impressively balanced offerings from the BMW stable in some time. This is something of a mixed blessing as there’s enough pace and dynamic involvement to be had here for most. That M4 had better be a very impressive piece of machinery ...
Price:R1 238 854
Engine:3,0-litre, 4-cyl, turbopetrol
Power:275 kW @ 5 500 - 6 500 r/min
Torque:500 N.m @ 1 900 - 5 000 r/min
0-100 km/h:4,69 seconds (tested)
Top Speed:250 km/h
Fuel Consumption:9,4 L/100 km (Index)
Maintenance Plan:5-year / 100 000 km