The BMW sport sedan, as we’ve come to know it, is supposed to check the usual boxes: the nimbleness of a sports car, a firm suspension setup, and the steering that could transmit the date of the quarter you just ran over. It’s the formula we’ve come to anticipate from vehicles in the 1980s, through the 2000s. But what if there are other characteristics that BMW has perfected over the years, qualities that spark just as much joy as motoring precision?
A few weeks ago, before the recent uptick in COVID cases, BMW invited regional media in the Northeast to Monticello Motor Club, the gorgeous country club racetrack about an hour and a half north of New York City. It was the latest in a new, novel strategy of product communication, putting media in touch with the newest BMWs in a COVID-safe manner, featuring a smaller guest list, more sanitization, and more freedom to explore each of the new models.
There were plenty of vehicles on hand, but I was most interested in one of my favorites from the outgoing range of vehicles: the 4 Series coupe. While I’ve found qualities to lust after from across the BMW model range, the outgoing 440i is one of the cars that has come closest to having a place in my fleet (which in recent years has included an E91 328i Touring, as well as my E24 635CSi, and E23 733i). I was curious to sample its successor.
The replacement is part of the G30 and G32 family of Three and 4 Series models, in the form of the BMW M440i xDrive. Its rank in the BMW portfolio is that of an M Performance Automobile, or MPA. While not as loud and hardcore as the upcoming M4, it packs a potent 382-horsepower punch with a highly-vetted chassis, and conveys these enhancements through its use of upscale-looking trim pieces that almost look like pewter or fine stainless steel, but are finished in a gorgeous paint that BMW calls Cerium Grey.
As is typical of New York in autumn, the test day ranged from drizzle to downpour. The track, damp for most of the day, might not have seemed like it would be a promising test environment, but as anyone who’s participated in track events knows, wet weather separates a truly competent chassis from an imposter.
And a competent chassis this was. After you get used to the initial rush of power through any gear (the ZF eight-speed automatic continues to impress, no matter the engine) and the onset of noise (both from the exhaust and the speakers), it’s easy to see why the all-wheel-drive M440i xDrive coupes were some of the fastest vehicles on the track that day.
It had been a while since I’d been on Monticello, and the configuration we were running—combining both circuits at the facility—were challenging to memorize. But even despite some early, uncertain steering inputs as I learned the track, the 4 Series remained firm and planted. The digital displays were brilliantly quick, simplifying data in sport mode down to the bare essentials, transforming the user experience into a manageable display of sound, gearshifts, and control. With plenty of suspension accommodation as the cars scrabbled over the wet curbing, the M440i tracking gracefully outward after every turn, powering down the straights in pursuit of the instructor’s M8 Competition.
The more I mimicked the M8 pace car, the more I realized what the M440i’s driving characteristics most closely resembled. Not only did it look like a mini 8 Series, with strong, grand touring lines, but it drove like one, too. While the M8 has a few tricks up its sleeve like four-wheel steering and active suspension to accommodate its 500-pound weight disadvantage, the 4 Series has clearly been cut from the same cloth.
There were superficial similarities, like the exterior profile and gauge cluster programming, and more tactile ones, too, like the identical steering wheel to the M850i, which offered thick, supple, heated feedback through the long sweepers of Monticello. And like the M8, it offered sheer power on the straights (and the ability to accelerate in any gear), but also offered a sense of comfort and predictability. The M440i was so predictable, in fact, that I found my mind wandering on some of the longer straightaways. What would the enthusiast community think, compared to the outgoing, and more analog F32 440i, a car that felt more compact and analog inside, and was available not only with a six-speed manual, but also in a ZHP trim that referenced the more old-school E46? Would they be able to look at this car differently—to forget comparisons of precision, and instead appreciate its competence as a capable, easy-to-learn touring car with the ability to punch far above its weight as a track-appropriate sports coupe?
While I pondered this, I also got the chance to play around with another offering that was decidedly more aggressive: the M2 CS.
The newer, more potent version of the M2 Competition deserves its own article—and it will receive many—heralding its athleticism, tactility, and sensational driving experience. But compared to the quietly potent M440i, it’s a full-time job to interact with the car, and you quickly find yourself sweating into the aggressive alcantara wheel, out of breath from the delightful and ultra-crisp responsiveness of the E36-sized coupe.
The M2 CS is still useable, of course, and on a backroad or racetrack, its crisp turn-in, perfectly-weighted steering, and unwavering drivetrain are second to none. It’s one of the best cars BMW sells, as an object of driver entertainment. But the reality is, this isn’t necessarily a car that you want off the track, for dinner dates, work, and hurriedly-packed multi-hour highway drives to visit family.
The good news is, you don’t need to limit yourself to a 7 Series, or even an 8 Series, for that experience. Sure, those models—and plenty more variations thereof—still offer the next tier of interior design and party tricks like gesture control, but the same ethos of grand touring and mechanical comfort is offered in the 4 Series, too. Piloting the M440i around Monticello in the rain foreshadowed long winter drives, through the snow and the slush, arriving late in the night, but comfortable and awake, with BMW laser lights piercing the dark. I feel like I could drive this car for hours, only to want to get right back in, and keep going.
Grand touring flows through BMW’s veins just as much as compact sport sedans do; it’s a class of automobile they know well. My own 6 Series from 1986 falls in this category, as does the current 8 Series. And just like those other models, BMW’s competency only improves with time. In the same way that the 3 Series has for 40 years, this generation of 4 Series manages to outpace the last. But unlike the 3 Series’ evolution, the 4 Series feels like a different breed of car. It’s more capable, manageable, and refined. Its DNA seems to flow from the 8 Series, the 6 Series, and the brand’s long history of sporty GT cars.
I went into the test day thinking about a sports coupe; I came out of it dreaming about a grand tourer. For me, that’s as BMW as it gets.—David Rose
[Photos courtesy of BMW of North America.]