There’s a lot to like once you get past those grilles.
First things first: Yes, the 2021 BMW 4 Series and its massive kidney grilles look better in person than in pictures. And while the bucktoothed face is still far from attractive, the core buyer for compact luxury coupes will enjoy it. This segment is about making statements, and it's impossible to argue the controversial design is doing anything but that.
At least there's some substance behind that grille's statement. The 4 Series, like the 3 Series, packs enjoyable driving dynamics, adequate comfort, ample technology, and the typical BMW brand cachet. But where the 3 sacrifices much of its BMW-ness in a desperate (and as we argued during the first drive, unsuccessful) bid to match every rival, the 4 faces down a smaller, older, weaker competitive set and surrenders less of that attitude because of it. This is a modern BMW, as we found out during a test at the Monticello Motor Club.
It's easy to forget the 4 Series is technically only a second-generation vehicle. Prior to 2013, BMW's compact coupe was a member of the 3 Series family and looked the part. The original 4 Series put some space between the two cars, but aside from the missing doors and the different numbers on the decklid, the relationship between the coupe and sedan was still obvious.
For 2021, BMW has substantially widened the gap between the 3 and 4. Grille aside, the 4 boasts more expressive headlights and, on M440i models, larger lower intakes – the differences between the 430i, which is subtler and sleeker, and the sportier variant’s sharp, eye-drawing creases around the kidneys are a textbook example of how to give two distinct styling characters to the same car.
For 2021, BMW has substantially widened design the gap between the 3 and 4.
Even with two fewer doors, the 4 Series is larger than the 3 Series. The two cars share a 112.2-inch wheelbase, but at 187.9 inches in length, the coupe is 2.2 inches longer, an inch wider, and 2 inches lower. This size is obvious in profile, with one incredibly long door below a stronger beltline and ahead of a miniscule Hofmeister kink. There's a prominent rear haunch and a clear three-box shape, with the trunk terminating in an eye-pleasing duckbill spoiler. Unlike other modern BMWs, designers opted against any kind of vent behind the front axle, contributing to the unfussy profile view.
While the back of the 4 Series lacks the front's polarizing grille, it's nearly as big a departure from the 3 Series. The back of the four-door is boring and forgettable, with simple taillights, awkwardly integrated reflectors, and an anonymous rear bumper. The 4's taillights feature both a sexier shape and a more premium-looking LED signature. The rear bumper seems to sit higher, while the trunk lid and aperture shrink – neither thing is good for cargo hauling, but together the effect is aesthetically pleasing, at least. M440i models wear a diffuser in the lower portion of the rear bumper, while 430i retains the dull look of the 3 Series.
For all the changes on the outside, the 4 Series is almost indistinguishable from the 3 Series while sitting in the driver's seat. We're serious:
Which is which? Good question. BMW carries over everything from the 3 Series to the 4, so you'll notice the same BMW Live Cockpit and iDrive options (either a 5.1-inch cluster display and an 8.8-inch touchscreen or a 12.3-inch cluster and a 10.3-inch touchscreen). The climate controls live in the same place, as do the drive mode buttons.
What you will notice while in the 4 Series, though, is the lower seating position (the seat's h-point drops by two-tenths of an inch compared to last year), the more aggressive roofline, and the steeper rake to the windshield. Despite these changes, the 4 Series feels nearly as roomy from the front chairs – life in back is a good bit worse, though. The two-door loses nearly an inch of legroom and nearly 2.5 inches of headroom relative to the coupe.
This Nose Goes
While the 4 Series retains the 3's cabin design, one significant change under the hood will likely filter down to BMW's compact four-door. The base 430i retains the 330i sedan's turbocharged 2.0-liter engine (255 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque), but the M440i marries a 48-volt mild-hybrid system to the car's turbocharged 3.0-liter straight-six.
Initially available in all-wheel-drive form only, the M440i's output matches the M340i at 382 hp and 369 lb-ft, but the sprint to 60 happens in 4.3 seconds – smack dab in between the times for the 4.4-second sprint for the rear-drive M340i and 4.2-second run for the M340i xDrive. BMW hasn't released the zero-to-60 time for the late-availability, rear-drive M440i.
We couldn't feel any extra oomph on the road or at Monticello’s circuit.
According to the automaker, the 48-volt system recoups some electricity while braking or decelerating and then redeploy it to complement the engine under hard acceleration. We couldn't feel any extra oomph on the road or at Monticello’s circuit, though, borne out by a slower 0-60 time as claimed by the manufacturer.
As is the case with the 3 Series, both engines suit the car. The base four-cylinder sounds tough, with a refined note and a higher-than-expected volume – it revs willingly and still pulls even at higher engine speeds, so don't fret about its modest output relative to the M440i. But the six-cylinder is the enthusiast's choice, with a strong, sweet exhaust note that works alongside relentless performance.
On public roads, the straight-six proved quick enough to thrill. It was an excellent partner on the track, too, building torque low in the rev range (peak twist is available from 1,800 to 5,000 rpm) and allowing the all-wheel drive and M Sport differential to do their thing. On the long back straight, the engine pulled hard, and we brushed against 110 miles per hour despite the wet conditions.
Working alongside both engines is a ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic. While this is one of the best gearboxes on the market, BMW deserves credit for dialing it in. In maximum attack, this eight-speed managed power from the 3.0-liter engine predictably, holding gears and keeping the revs up while decelerating for corners. Under hard acceleration, it dispatched changes quickly.
Like so many ZF eight-speeds we've tested in the past, though, 4's transmission blends into the background in more relaxed situations. On the winding roads around Monticello, the trans was invisible for most of our test route except when we needed a gear, which arrived promptly.
Every 4 Series benefits from a stiffer body than last year's model – even though the basic suspension layout (a multi-link rear with a strut-type front) carries over, this new model is tighter and quieter. But the changes BMW made in going from 3 Series to 4 are what stand out.
The center of gravity and ride height are lower, but engineers also stiffened the springs and dampers and installed thicker sway bars relative to the sedan. Compared to the four-door, the M440i feels sharper and more eager to change directions, all while exhibiting flatter cornering behavior. To be blunt, it feels more like an M product than the M340i – you want to fling this hotter 4 Series about.
The gap between the two is tighter if you're prioritizing comfort, though. The firmer tuning leads to a less composed character on rough roads, with both the 430i and M440i suffering on bumps that would only inconvenience a 3 Series. These coupes remain comfortable, thanks to the sedan's longish wheelbase and an available set of adaptive dampers, but the two-door shape demands drivers sacrifice some ride comfort.
Prices for the 2021 4 Series start at $45,600 for a rear-drive 430i, while the xDrive all-wheel-drive system drives that up to $47,600. The six-cylinder M440i demands a hefty $56,500, with a similar $2,000 premium for xDrive. The BMW is a relative bargain –the 430i undercuts the aging Mercedes-Benz C300 Coupe and the M440i matches the AMG C43. Audi, though, represents a compelling option at both ends of the performance spectrum.
|Audi A5||BMW 430i||Mercedes-Benz C300|
|Audi S5||BMW M440i||Mercedes-AMG C43|
The BMW matches up against its cross-country rivals on price, but it also boasts something those cars lack: the 4 Series doesn't feel like the derivative of a sedan. Yes, the mechanicals, the technology, and the front half of the cabin come straight from the 3 Series. But the polarizing exterior design and more aggressive handling character distance this two-door from its four-door counterpart, even if the substance isn't all that different. This feels like the kind of statement BMW wanted when it separated its compact coupe and sedan lines. It puts the noses of design aficionados out of joint, but the new 4 will resonate with consumers.
2021 BMW M440i xDrive