BMW 435i M Sport review
What difference does a name make? Or a number? This is the new BMW 4-Series, or the 435i M Sport to be name precise - and it's a brand new model number in the BMW range that waves goodbye to the outgoing 3-Series Coupe.
What exactly was wrong with the 3-Series coupe you might ask? Well, as seems to be the answer to so many car-related questions these days, blame Audi. When the A5 was introduced back in 2007 it completely changed the game in this segment - a car with a totally different image and identity to its A4 saloon sister. The subtle sheet metal changes and different name worked wonders, and the A5 proved to be a smash hit for Audi.
BMW could hardly afford not to follow suit, one German company against another, vying for the top spot in motoring perfection. And besides, given that the company already offers the 6-Series - which is in effect the coupe with 5-Series underpinnings - the name change makes a sense in its overall range strategy.
But just how different is the 4-Series to the regular 3? Is it good enough - and more importantly - different enough, to justify its new name?
Like a 3-Series, but sportier
One big advantage BMW has is that the standard 3-Series is such a corker. We rate it extremely highly. So when you're working with such underpinnings, you can hardly go wrong.
Still, that didn't stop BMW's team from lowering the driver seating position, the roofline, improving the aerodynamic drag co-efficient and making the 4-Series's track and shoulders wider when compared to the 3. That little lot, combined with a completely different front fascia and very little carry over sheet metal, ought to make the 4-Series look different enough to the 3-Series. And yet seen in isolation, we weren't convinced.
It doesn't have that "ooh, that's different" quality that the Audi A5 does compared to A4. But then we hit the road from the 4-Series launch event in Inverness, Scotland, and the more we drove it, the more we noticed people noticing it. The old couple in the café. The drunk on the street. The guy in the 3-Series coupe who got so closed he nearly crashed into us. And the people who actually filmed us on camera phones, on the Edinburgh bypass. Perhaps it was the striking "Estoril blue" of our test car, perhaps people in the north tend to be BMW fanboys, perhaps the number plate had spelled out something rude and we'd not noticed. But whatever it was people seemed to be interested in this car.
And the looks grew on us. Particularly seen from the rear three-quarters, the 4-Series has a languid quality to the way it sits on the road. There's also something of a "compressed 6-Series" to its looks from this angle, which is no bad thing. No doubt the 19-inch wheels, skirts, spoilers and gloss black trim of our M Sport model helped, shrinking violets might like to try the much more demure looking SE trim level.
An interior that just works
Like the 3-Series, our biggest criticism of the 4-Series concerns its interior. BMW makes great hay of the fact the 4-Series interior is different to the one in the 3, but you'll need a magnifying glass to spot most of the changes. The first is the continuation of the trim on the doors from front to rear - which is a nice touch, but something we reckon that you could live with the car for years before you'd notice. Indeed, we only did because we were told about it.
The second is the colour and trim options - these are more varied and stand-out on the 4-Series, and which bring about additional areas of stitching and coloured panels, compared to the saloon 3-Series. Sadly, in our test car's primarily black colour scheme, you'll notice very few of these changes. Our advice would be opt for red- or caramel-coloured leather. It's one of those "sounds rough, looks great" situations - you get the lower half of the dash rendered in the seat colour and it really brightens things up.
However, taste-based moans about colour and trim aside, this is a good interior to be in. While other manufacturers - notably Audi - feature much greater perceived quality in the choice of materials they use, few get close to the ergonomic qualities of this BMW cabin. And there's more than enough space for four, plus a big boot.
Everything at your fingertips
Everything in the cabin falls perfectly to hand. The new M-Sport steering wheel is glorious: covered in soft merino leather, if features a small, discreet airbag hub and you can control most of what you regularly need to adjust via its controls.
We've long been fans of BMW's iDrive controller and associated navigation interface, but in the 4-Series BMW has made it even better. You get the standard business navigation system as standard on the 4-Series. It's around a £1000 option on the 3-Series, so there's a bonus, but means you're looking at an extra £1000 upgrade for the Pro Media Nav system, complete with its 10-inch widescreen centre unit, 3D maps, real time traffic information - which helps you see which roads are jammed and which aren't, even when you've not got a navigation designation programmed - and BMW's suite of Connected Drive services.
It helps you find parking spaces, control various functions of the car - such as unlocking and air con, or even calls the emergency services for you if you have an accident - via an app on your phone. And if, like us, you're trying to find a patisserie in Edinburgh on a Friday night because you want to buy cake (and who wouldn't?), it will put you through to a nice lady in a call centre, who'll look up Scottish bakeries for you and then ping the details direct to the car's nav. Pity we didn't check the full info and the place we headed for was shut by the time we got there.
Regardless, option the Pro Media Nav, and you'll get a new, bigger iDrive rotary controller too. The enlarged unit also features a touch and gesture recognition surface on top, which allows quick pinch and scroll interaction for the map and also a handwriting recognition system, through which you can finger scrawl letters and numbers as navigation destinations and phone number inputs. In a week's use, it managed to interpret most of our butter-fingered entries 95 per cent accurately and make the whole use of iDrive quicker and more intuitive. Most importantly, unlike touchscreen systems, we continue to find iDrive easy and safe to use on the move. When you're in a hurry or in a place you don't know well, this is its killer app.
The entire system is now faster too, thanks to an upgrade from the supplier, Harmon. In a real world implementation of what we first saw in the company's booth at the Consumer Electronics Show, the BMW system now runs with virtually no lag. Zooming from global view right down to street level in one quick twizzle of the controller is fun. And you can then turn on 3D buildings, a satellite image or Google Street View pics of your destination if you're so inclined. In our view, it really makes the car; for people like us, it gives a window to what the future of the connected car could be like. And we like what we see.
An options list designed to get you to spend money
It's fair to say that a £1000 Pro Media Nav upgrade is one we think you should be ticking the box for. But the 4-Series, in fact any modern BMW, comes with an options list so long that in some cases it could have you doubling the cost of the car. Cynical marketing ploy? Yes, but then some options - like the Pro Media Nav - make the car extra special.
Still, our car's list price of £41,435 was bloated to £48,160 by the time someone at BMW had finished ticking boxes, which in anyone's book is a decent chunk of money for a smallish BMW coupe.
Of the ones on the test car that we had, we'd suggest you tick the adaptive M Sport suspension box, at £515, which gives the 4-Series better body control and a ride in comfort. That then allows you to get away with 19-inch wheels.
Speaking of which, the £670 double spoke alloys attached to our car really set it off, so another box to tick. We'd also be sorely tempted by the Head Up Display, at £825, which we now miss desperately after handing the car back.
And the Harmon Kardon Loudspeaker system is also a good call, even if £675 sounds like a lot. But the standard system is a bit thi' sounding in the 3-Series, and we'd guess it'll be a similar story in the 4 without the upgrade.
Finally, watch out for the sneaky spec secret: if you want to be able to connect more than one phone, or play music via Bluetooth from services like Spotify, you'll need the £380 enhanced Bluetooth option. This used to be standard with Pro Media Nav on other BMWs, but the company quietly deleted it when it made DAB standard at the turn of the year.
If you can resist the temptations the options list offers, every 4-Series comes with the standard navigation system, xenon lamps and leather upholstery. So at least you can see where some of your extra money has gone - the average 4-Series is around three grand more than the equivalent 3-Series.
An engine that's missing its gearbox
One option not fitted to our car was the magnificent ZF 8-speed automatic gearbox. And the 3-litre, twin-scroll turbo in-line six cylinder engine fitted to the 435i works wonderfully when twinned with the 8-speed auto - as we know from our time with it in the M135i.
READ: BMW M135i review
In the the 435i M Sport the powertrain didn't feel truly optimised - in large part because the six speed manual gearbox isn't the best. It's slightly knuckley and at times baulked at fast changes between second and third. The sport auto gearbox might be a further £1500 option, but it's the first box you should tick on that long option list. Not only does it suit the car, but it drops the CO2 emissions of this engine from 185g to 169g and makes your 435i accelerate faster too. And it really is startlingly quick; impressively so given that comparatively low level of emissions.
A new number, but still ultimately a BMW to drive
But beyond that gearbox omission, there's little else we'd change about the way this car drives. The engine - running at a 305hp, sounds more muted on start up and in the lower rev range than the higher state of tune version from the M135i. But give it some beans and it finds its voice and it revs for Germany in the way a turbo unit really shouldn't. We guarantee it'll make you smile.
Settle back and it's capable of over 30mpg too. And if you fit the auto gearbox then that figure will doubtless be more, as the engine will be turning over at a much lower speed at motorway cruising speeds than with the six-speed manual.
On the road, that M Sport adaptive suspension really firms things up when needed, giving the 4-Series fantastic poise and body control in bends. Meanwhile the ride, given the massive wheels, is beyond criticism. Overall, the car made light work of the many hundreds of miles haul back from Scotland, but also provided us with several hours of entertainment on the deserted highland military roads. If you want a sporting all rounder that will happily carry four in comfort, look no further.
Unless you're being extra money savvy. In closing we have just one other thought: a BMW 428i is five grand cheaper, nearly as fast and will be more economical. It's worth thinking about it you want to raid the options list. Just be prepared to lose the creamy burr of the straight six if you "downgrade".
BMW has made a fun-to-drive, fast and comfortable four-seat coupe in the 435i M Sport. And we're not surprised. We know the 3-Series is great, so it would have been bizarre if this car had done anything other than exceeded the lofty standards set by its sister car.
No, for us, this review was always about whether the 4-Series would truly feel special enough to justify its new nameplate. Is it sufficiently different in feel to the 3-Series to justify the change and extra cost? To that, we can only give a qualified and resounding answer: yes. We suspect the decision to go with the standalone name was made part way through the development of this car, not at the start of the process. Because it could be yet more different - particularly in some of its detailing and interior design aspects.
Nonetheless, it's hard to make a case against the 4-Series. Look around at the competition and its case gets even stronger. The Audi A5 is ageing, while the Merc C-Class coupe feels its extra weight and is even less standout than the 4-Series compared to its sister saloon.
In the end, the name change ends up being a bragging rights exercise for the owner. You're getting a clear point of differentiation for your extra cash investment. We just wish it was further set apart, from a design perspective, from the 3-Series. But ultimately, the car underneath remains as it ever has been - the best car in its class and one that has us licking our lips at the prospect of next year's M4.