BMW M3 & M4: Setting New Spirited Benchmarks

By Lee Pang Seng
THE BMW Group has come to be the top premium carmaker in the world last year, achieving almost two million vehicles in sales. A key reason for its higher acceptance in the major markets has to do with its wider range of exciting cars. BMW has also clearly demonstrated its ability to provide what customers want and to move with the times.

Take the expanded model range: BMW appears to have grouped its standard model range under odd numbers as in 1, 3, 5 and 7 Series, while the sporty variants now carry even numbers in the 2, 4, 6 and 8 Series. That explains why the new M3 four-door sedan was introduced along with the M4 Coupé.

The M cars epitomises the ultimate driving performance from BMW and even so, this German carmaker believes that new benchmarks could still be set along the current efficiency trend without losing the sporty and dynamic traits that the M cars are widely accepted for. Employing new but proven materials and a fresh technological approach, the new M3 and M4 are examples of more to follow.

Since the first M3 Sport Evo (E30) was introduced in 1990, the M3 had grown bigger and heavier with each successive generation. The previous M3 (E92) Coupé had normally aspirated 4.0-litre V8 power pushing out 309kW (420bhp) at 8300rpm and 400Nm at 3900rpm; it accelerated to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds while the top speed was electronically capped at 250km/h. The combined fuel consumption was 8.0km/l (12.4 l/100km). More than 40,000 cars were produced as it won many devout owners and enthusiasts.

With BMW’s new model assignation, the M4 Coupé is expected to continue the successful run of the fourth-generation M3 Coupé while the M3 four-door sedan is introduced as the new option for those who like outrageously fast motoring but in a ‘convenient and practical’ body profile. The two cars look exactly the same from the front but it is from the A-pillars rearwards that the respective body takes on slightly different forms.

They are produced in different factories; the M4 Coupé is made in BMW Plant Munich, where other versions of the 4 Series are being produced, while the M3 Sedan is produced in BMW Plant Regensberg. The second plant is where the previous three generations of the M3 (totalling 222,293 cars altogether) were made since 1992. The first generation E30 model was produced in the Munich facility and of which 17,970 cars were made.

Nevertheless, both cars are engineered to provide similar dynamic performance qualities despite the different body styling through a near 50:50 balance in front-rear weight distribution and tweaking the suspension system and supporting electronic functions. Dimensionally, there are important similarities such as the common 2812mm wheelbase, 1579mm front track, 1603mm rear track, and 4671mm car length. The M3 sedan is slightly wider at 1877mm against 1870mm and taller at 1424mm against 1383mm for the M4 Coupé. That has made the M3 four-door sedan heavier at 1520kg (kerb weight DIN) against the M4 Coupé at 1497kg.

Perhaps what is not immediately seen is that the new M cars in this model range have shed weight against the previous model, which tips the scale at 1580kg. BMW has obviously seen the advantage of providing a lighter car without sacrificing crash safety or the weighted feel that is expected. The use of CFRP (carbon fibre reinforced plastic) is one of the materials used, helped by the fact that it is successfully used in Formula One cars as well as in the new i3 electric model.

Prop up the bonnet and you see a bare item: there is no insulation material used in the power hump structure. According to Ulrich Ernst, Head of Engine Design at BMW, this was made possible with the use of a quieter in-line six (or straight six) engine in place of the previous louder V8. That alone has shed 14kg: the total car weight reduced over the previous model is 80kg.

Developing the proven award-winning straight-six engine to provide M Power excitement has also contributed to reducing weight further. Apart from the fewer cylinders, the use of the smallest turbine possible for the turbocharger system, permanent fixed cylinder liners that are lighter, and rerouting the piping for the water and lubricant had lowered engine weight by 12kg (against another straight six), a remarkable feat by any means.

The straight-six is oversquare in configuration with an 89.6mm bore and 84.0mm stroke to displace 2979cc. While it is still described with M TwinPower turbo technology, it now comes with mono-scroll turbines instead of the twin-scroll system still used in earlier and existing applications. Ernst says the mono-scroll turbocharger is just as effective and efficient in producing output and it saves weight as well.

You can’t argue with that when this straight-six churns out even more power than the previous V8: 317kW (431bhp) at 5500 to 7300rpm and almost 38 per cent more torque at 550Nm that develops very early at 1850rpm and stays strong till 5500, the point at which the power has peaked and will stay on song for almost 2000rpm. That is one helluva lot of push being delivered from an early engine speed, setting the perfect scenario for some heady driving fun. By the way, the engine is tuned to run on RON 95 to 98 petrol, which should be good news for Malaysian enthusiasts.

Road Drive
We enjoyed the road drive experience in Faro, the southern part of Portugal, beginning with a set route that took in a mix of highways and winding secondary roads, part of which we had driven on before going in the opposite direction about a year ago in the Porsche Cayman. This time we were doing it in BMW M cars that had the third-generation M seven-speed Double Clutch Transmissions (M DCT) with launch control, giving us the option of manual or automatic gear selection, instead of a manual gearbox sportster.

We started with the M4 Coupé and there was no lack of push as the power on tap clearly came through with a ready response to accelerator input. Those who would lament the absence of the deep V8 growl on hard acceleration might find the loud intake and exhaust roar of the straight-six almost as intimidating, for other road users anyway.

We had mostly clear runs on the highway, the flow rate of which is akin to our Federal Highway during Chinese New Year or Hari Raya Puasa. The speed limit is 120km/h but most of the ‘fast’ traffic does about 150km/h, which we presumed was the safe level to drive at. At that speed, the 3.0-litre straight-six was lazing in the mid 2000rpm range. We did push our luck along a few remote stretches, hoping we won’t run into a traffic cop and risk having to pay 300 Euros (more than RM1200) on the spot for speeding.

The mono-scroll turbocharger system duly obliged when we floored the accelerator, building up speed quickly to above 200km/h. We clocked 264km/h on the full-colour head-up display and the engine speed was slightly above 4500rpm, which surprised us as the M4 Coupé was supposed to have its top speed electronically capped at 250km/h. A matter of the speed overreading or we had a hotter M chip in the car?

Other aspects of its performance standards include the 0-100km/h sprints that the 7-speed M DCT cars are said to do in 4.1 seconds (the manual 6-speed achieves that in 4.3 seconds, losing out on the manual upshift). Likewise, the former would do 0-1000m in 21.9 seconds against 22.2. In passing acceleration, the M DCT does the 80-120km/h in 3.5 seconds in fourth gear and 4.3 in fifth, while the manual model is slightly faster in fifth at 4.2 seconds. And it gets better fuel mileage too than the previous V8 with the M DCT returning a combined 12.0km/l (8.3 l/100km) and the manual being thirstier at 11.3km/l (8.8 l/100km).

We noticed that each time we lifted our foot off the accelerator pedal, there was a low burbling noise from the engine compartment. Ernst says this was the electronic wastegate coming into play (it was a less precise manual wastegate in other BMW turbo cars). What it does is control the flow of the air-fuel mixture to the cylinders that are still firing on pedal lift-off as some are shut down when no power generation is required.

The new body profile with a Cd factor of 0.34 appeared to harness air flow well and hold the car firmly on the road beyond 200km/h, except along sections where there were strong crosswinds. As this part of Portugal faced the Atlantic Ocean, there were strong winds generated by the mix of cold and warm fronts. We could feel the strong gusts hitting the car from the side, causing it to lift a little and losing that weighted feeling a touch. It was not pleasant pushing the Coupé above 200km/h, with confidence restored only at lower speeds.

As before, the M4 suspension is designed for performance and it felt solid and firm. The front has an aluminium double joint (or wishbone) spring strut design with M-specific kinematics and rigidity set-up. The independent rear comes with an aluminium five-link axle, control arms and wheel carriers, and a rear axle subframe of a lightweight steel construction that is rigidly bolted to the body. When riding the bumps, we found it better to do so at sober speeds to avoid a jolting effect, especially for passengers.

Both the M cars were running on the optional 19-inch alloys as the standard specification was 18-inch. The tyres fitted were Michelin Pilot Super Sport of 255/55 ZR19 size in front and 275/50 ZR19 at the rear. The standard rubbers should be 255/40 ZR18 front and 275/40 ZR18 rear. Apparently, the Michelin tyres for these two M cars are specially developed to suit their higher dynamic driving performance.

It was the winding road drive that we revelled in the extremes of the M car dynamics: this was done in the M3 four-door sedan. Despite the different body profile, the Cd factor is the same for the sedan. One aspect of the M3 sedan is that it gets a CFRP roof for the first time. Previously, this fitting was only for the Coupé. The advantage is a reduction in vehicle weight of 5kg for the sedan and more than 6kg for the M4 Coupé.

Another use of the CFRP was in the engine brace; a V-shaped precision strut (in BMW’s parlance) is located right above the engine. Weighing only 1.5kg, it is said to offer superior rigidity to a comparable aluminium component. A third area is in the propeller or drive shafts: with the high rigidity and low weight of the CFRP tube, it can be produced as a single-piece component without a centre bearing. A weight saving of 40 per cent is achieved over the previous model while the reduction in rotating mass leads to greater dynamic powertrain response.

It is also relevant at this point to mention that these new M cars come with fully electrically operated rack-and-pinion steering systems. The most difficult part of producing the new system is to ensure positive road feedback for precise steering through corners. This frees up additional load on the engine and is a lighter design as well.

If there was trepidation about its directional feel, we soon discovered that it was a needless worry. Selecting Sport mode for the suspension, making it even stiffer in ride but better in traction, we confidently steered the M3 sedan quickly through largely unfamiliar winding roads with three on board. It felt as though the M3 was on rails, sticking to its chosen line at good speeds, with little understeer or oversteer. The variable M Sport electric steering provided a very ‘neutral’ experience that underlined the car’s dynamic qualities.

Stopping power was equally impressive with the four-pot fixed-calliper inner vented perforated discs in front and two-piston discs of the same design at the rear. They are the backbone of the car’s DSC (dynamic stability control) that includes ABS, MDM (M Dynamic Mode), CBC (Cornering Brake Control), DBC (Dynamic Brake Control), Dry Braking function, to name some. There is also a Brake Energy Regeneration to charge the battery, again taking some load off the engine.

Track Experience
The highlight of the M3 sedan and M4 Coupé experience had to be at the Autodromo Internacional Algarve, another place of familiarity as we had taken to the 4.7km circuit with the Cayman last year. Back then, it was raining and our drive was in the wet. This time, the weather stayed dry and we could explore the car’s limits further. Or so we thought!

We learnt that the power of physics was a great dampener and to drive fast, we need to do it often to learn the unique dynamic quality and limits of each vehicle to fully appreciate it. We had five laps in each car, the first of which was a learning experience behind a lead car with a race driver. Later, we had two laps on our own to explore the car’s dynamic traits further.

With all that power waiting to be unleashed, it was difficult not to go overboard and that had us going too fast into a hairpin, with which all the dynamic car controls could do little about as we understeered onto the grass shoulders. In the following corner, a fast but tight sweeper, we had the rear wanting to overtake the front in an oversteer, again by going too fast. This time, the dynamic systems appeared to sort out our rash act by correcting the car’s stability for us to proceed to the next corner.

Selecting Sport Plus mode reduces the traction control by 50 per cent, which we found more to our liking as there were less electronic controls being activated to keep the car stable. We could use the car’s power to push us through, again within our limits, to enjoy the drive. We also preferred the better dynamic balance of the M3 four-door sedan as we could push it a bit faster without losing control.

We did try driving by manual gear selection via the steering wheel paddles but found that a handful when turning the steering violently from side to side for the respective corner. We decided to let the engine electronics take over in Sport mode: it worked well for me as several downshifts were automatically made, depending on the tightness of the corner, keeping engine output and car traction on song for more enjoyable yet spirited drives.

We also had a great time enjoying the M cars in the hands of experts and former F1 driver Pedro Lamy obliged in the M3 four-door sedan. He took the first lap on a clean run, during which he attacked each corner as a track racing driver would, always braking hard before a corner and selecting the right gear to power out.

The fun part was in the next two laps when he drifted the M3 at will, flicking the steering wheel left and right to get the BMW to power drift through the successive corners. “It may look easy but it needs a lot of practice, and we get to do that with such great cars as the BMW M3,” he said. He had clearly demonstrated what a race ready car the M3 and M4 Coupé are, and yet they can be just docile as you would want them to be in crawling urban traffic, especially the M3 four-door sedan. This is the new reality in spirited motoring: power with practicality.

Photo Gallery