Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2015 BMW M4 Convertible

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It could be argued that there are two types of engines loved by gearheads the world over. First is the screaming, high-revving type where most of the sauce piles on as the revs climb towards a maniacal redline for a feeling of endless progress through each gear. And second is the meaty, torque-rich engine, which is typically massive in displacement, or turbocharged, to give drivers plenty of pull, straight away, when their boot drops. Less revving, more thrust, and equally entertaining, if for different reasons.

It’s rpm versus torque. Right-now power, or a ‘wait for it’ wave of forward velocity delivered across a vast range of revs. Exciting rising action, or right-the-heck-now bursts of f-bomb eliciting acceleration. Smashing versus surging through the gears. Some drivers have no preference in the choice between revs and torque. Others do. There are pros and cons to each. Things people love, and things they don’t.

Revving a V8 to 8,300 rpm is like chugging a case of Red Bull and jumping nude into a bucket of ice: stimulating, exhilarating, and bound to take your breath away while puckering up various parts of your body.

Which is better? There’s no correct answer. It’s all up to your tastes.

Mine lean towards the revs. Funny, as the owner of a Dodge Viper which has about a diesel-like 5,000-rpm redline before the internals of its caveman-engineered V10 would likely fling themselves apart. I’m all for on-demand torque, and heaps of it, but personally, I tend to like a rev-happy engine that winds up to nearly inappropriate revs even more. To me, this is more exciting, typically better sounding, and more exhilarating an open-throttle experience.

Which is why I loved the last-generation BMW M3. Loved it. I figured that, as a performance car charged with putting on a performance, a show, if you will, that it just nailed it. The way the M3 made you feel, the soundtrack, the action, and the performance it put on were virtually second to none. That’s because of how the steering was tuned, the lightweight, high-energy, precision feel dialed in, and the lightning fast gear changes. And, of course, because of its high-strung 4.0L, 414-horsepower, hand-built V8, which sang a glorious song as it wound to its 8,300 rpm redline.

That delicious little V8 was just the craziest. Revving a V8 to 8,300 rpm is like chugging a case of Red Bull and jumping nude into a bucket of ice: stimulating, exhilarating, and bound to take your breath away while puckering up various parts of your body. [Watch the video for some great footage on the last-gen M3, singing for the camera.]

Today, there’s an all-new generation of M3. New chassis. New body. New tech. New everything. Two-door versions of it are called the M4, and I recently woke one from its comfortable nap in a heated garage at BMW’s offices for an interesting test drive: Sudbury, in December.

Not exactly BMW M4 Convertible weather – with the –20, heavy snow and roads salted more heavily than a greasy box of fast-food fries. Mind you, many Canadian shoppers are demanding performance coupes and convertibles that don’t need to be stored in winter, and this is one of them. It’s even got a hardtop roof made of composite panels, so inside, it sounds and feels well protected from the elements. Or, remove it for some roof-off backroads driving with your toque on, but only if the computer says its warm enough to open the roof, above about –10.

Driving an M4 Convertible in the snow reveals a multitude of things. First is that you can drive it in the snow, on winter tires, with little issue. The stability and traction control systems are tuned expertly, adjust their sensitivity to slips and slides based on your speed, and allow plenty of controlled, low-speed wheelspin to get you moving in deep powder. At highway speeds, all controls on, they react with nanosecond-precision to losses of traction which see the traction control light blinking for slips and skids you can’t even feel yet.

The ABS is similarly slick. Even in a simulated emergency stop, diagonally, across alternating stripes of hard-packed snow and cold bare pavement, the M4 not only stayed pointing straight ahead, but barely even squirmed beneath me as it managed constant and unique traction levels under each individual wheel. And, with a trick rear differential that constantly works to optimize traction, getting up and going was rarely an issue. Traction controls can be disabled in stages depending on how much backroads sideways stuff you care for, and your comfort level with avoiding nearby culverts.

In all, there’s a refined grace to the way that the M4’s traction-management systems deal with winter driving maneuvers that see other cars slip and squirm and scrape their tires and lurch as traction comes and goes beneath each wheel at varying rates.

Other winter-driving stuff showed itself too. One morning at –22, the M4 fired up with no more effort or time required than on warmer days, the heater is plenty powerful enough, and the electric neck-warmer vents and heated steering wheel begin to heat drivers, and the cabin, slightly, before the engine is warmed up.

A variable redline tells you when that’s occurred, with red and orange segments disappearing from the tachometer ring as the engine warms, taking a few minutes when it’s cold before the full 7,500 rpm redline is achieved.

Yup, 7,500. That’s not far from the 8,300 rpm the old engine spun up. Not even a thousand rpm. But it’s different now, since the new engine is a twin-turbo torque monster. In some ways, it’s more true to the M4’s historical roots, since it’s a straight-six. But in more ways, it’s not. Now, you get 425 horsepower, and boatloads more torque than the old V8. It’s easier on fuel. It’s faster. Torquier. More responsive, more of the time, and emits less nasty things from the tailpipes.

On paper, a win-win-win situation. Redline aside, you get a low and mid-range just flooded with thrust, and the sense of acceleration surging into action as the revs climb is replaced by considerably more juice lower on the clock. There’s more power here, more of the time, and especially at lower revs. Compared to the outgoing V8, there’s now less of a shape and surge and rising action to the power curve. It just hits hard, right now, and stays on strong. Really strong. Should the hauling of ass be required, the M4 positively plows occupants into their seats while gobbling up the road ahead on a tidal wave of torque.

The sound, in the process, is less mechanical and raw, more snorty and grunty and complete with the furious whistle of the turbochargers hissing away if you’ve got the windows down a little. Plus, presumably, to help compensate for the loss of exhaust tone quality characteristic of turbocharged engines, the M4 pipes in an enhanced sound of the engine over the stereo speakers, moreso in the selectable ‘M’ mode, to fill in any gaps in the engine’s sound quality. It sounds like playing Gran Turismo on the Playstation. Take that as you will.

Is the new engine better? Depends what you like. I liked the last V8 better, but then I would. It sounded better: more glorious and mechanical and less phony, and it responded with more naturally aspirated instantaneousness to throttle inputs, even if with less urgency. I wish they’d have paid off the greenies and kept the thing around. That V8 was slower, thirstier and less high-tech, but in many ways that appeal to the fan of screaming revs, it was just more fun.

Mind you, the M4’s new engine did turn in considerably better fuel mileage. Offloading some of the power output to the twin-turbo system means drivers will use less fuel more often, and I did 10.7 L/100 km overall, compared to over 12 in the last generation machine. And that’s on

winter tires, in the cold, with plenty of cold starts, and hauling around a heavier convertible roof – all factors missing from past test drives of the V8-powered M3 I drove twice, in the summer. So, if you’re looking to move from the last-generation model into the new one, you’ll save plenty of cash on fuel, which basically makes you a genius.

Engine aside, there’s much about the M4 that’s the same, and some that’s different.

What’s remained are a few key giggly bits. The DCT transmission still kicks the rear tires into a spin when you click for a full-throttle upshift in the ‘M’ mode. The chassis electronics, on bare pavement anyways, still allow drivers to experience the machine’s love of slipping and sliding and turning and steering with the throttle and brakes before intervening, and the immediacy to the brakes, steering and chassis in general remain enjoyable, even when you’re not driving like you stole it.

Some things have changed, too, and mostly for the better. The styling remains discreet, especially when finished in non-glaring colour like the white on the tester. With the hood vents gone, it’s even more discreet in the looks department, which means it’s less likely to incite an itch in the trigger finger of your local radar cop. If you’re into flying under the radar, you’ll like it: the tester was about the most subtle-looking 95-grand car I’ve ever seen.

The cabin is the opposite: it looks richer, more lavish and even sportier. There’s a heap of carbon fibre, interfaces are advanced considerably, stitching is everywhere, and the little “M” badge on each seat lights up at night when you open the doors. It all replaces the last-generation machine’s more austere-looking cabin with a glorious-looking blend of luxury and tech and athletic flare. The iDrive system has been improved, is slicker, and accepts text inputs via the driver’s fingertips on a digital scribble-pad on top of the central control knob. It can even display web pages and weather forecasts on the central screen.

Intricacies of the steering feel and response and chassis tuning and nuances of the M4’s at-the-limit handling? Not sure. It was cold, snowy, and the tester was on winter tires – not ideal factors to support a full exploration of the dynamics. The ride seems, perhaps, a bit stiffer, and the steering seems a bit less hyperactive and feels a touch heavier across more of its range, with the on-centre notch that I loved in the last car blended in a little.

In all, though, the M4 still responds fast to your commands, offers more grip than most will be able to use, and delivers a confident, competent and very athletic feel, even on snow. It’s even got a decent sized trunk, if you’ve got the roof up.

Test Drive: 2015 Audi RS 5

Complaints? With the roof down, your cargo needs to fit beneath a small partition in the trunk which is big enough for a few small packsacks, and that’s about it. The iDrive system, though slick once learned, will require, perhaps, an hour of quality time as it makes friends with your brain. That’s about it.

In all, drivers shouldn’t expect to need to store their M4 for the cold-weather season unless they live in the very far north, and especially if they’ve otherwise got some sort of all-wheel-drive machine as backup for really blizzardy weather.

Or, perhaps, some sort of AWD machine like my other favourite big-deal, big-performance, big-dollar German coupe, the Audi RS5. Priced and powered similarly to the M4, this one gets Quattro, so you can use more of the power, more of the time. It looks more scandalous, has a cooler-sounding name, and contains one of my favourite things between the front wheels: a delicious little high-revving V8.

If you’re test driving one of these machines, be sure to test both. Having to pick between a pair of German rocket sleds like these, regardless of the time of year you’ll be driving them, is a nice problem to have.

4 years/80,000 km; 4 years/80,000 km powertrain; 12 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 4 years/unlimited distance 24-hour roadside assistance

Audi RS5
Chevrolet Corvette
Jaguar F-Type
Mercedes C63 AMG
Porsche 911

Model Tested 2015 BMW M4 Convertible
Base Price $84,500
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $2,095
Price as Tested $97,590
Optional Equipment
Mineral White Metallic ($895), Full Merino Leather Interior ($4,000), Premium Package ($4,500), Technology Package ($1,500)