EU legislation has forced a character change, but is that necessarily a bad thing? | By Andrew Frankel

it’s not often I start a test with the bad news, but understanding what’s wrong with the new BMW M3 and its M4 coupé sister – and how they got that way – is fundamental to appreciating what kind of cars they are, so it would be remiss of me to start any other way.

And I guess the question most immediately in need of an answer is whether it is more fun than the car its replaces. And the truth is that it’s not.

It doesn’t sound as good, respond to the throttle as quickly, nor rev so high.

For all its failings you could always count upon the old 4-litre, V8-powered BMW M3 to entertain. That is not the case with its replacement. The fun is there, but the difference is that you now have to look for it.

I remember saying exactly this when I first drove the current-generation Porsche 911. Driven with sufficient gusto on the right road it would fully justify the iconic number on its engine cover, but the rest of the time its character was less distinct. Likewise you might drive either of these new BMWs quite a long way before realising that, in fact, both fully deserve their M badges. The rest of the time you could call them something like 345i and 445i and make no promise the cars can’t keep. This is by no means an entirely bad thing.

I still can’t adapt to calling BMW’s high performance 3-series coupé an M4. M3 is the most evocative designation BMW possesses, M4 is a road that connects London to Wales, but I guess we’ll have to get used to it. In the meantime, we need to understand why BMW has changed this car so much and whether those changes corrode its appeal, or merely alter it.

Simply put, Ms three and four have gone the way of almost all automotive flesh. Ask BMW why it abandoned its searing V8 soundtrack for a still refreshing but suspiciously contrived straight-six turbo drawl and it’ll say the same as Ferrari when you ask why it is downsizing its engines and making up the difference with turbochargers. It’s all about emissions, a factor that looms far larger in the decision-making process of a putative M3 buyer than steering feel, throttle response or whether it’ll drift all the way to the summit of the nearest mountain road. So four litres have become three, eight cylinders six and normal aspiration is usurped by twin turbochargers. How different are they? Peak power has increased only from 414bhp to 425bhp, but while the old M3 shrieked it out at 8300rpm, the new one is already there at 5500rpm. That’s all the difference in the world.

The new car is far faster. It may have little more power but it has a lot more torque and it’s developed at less than half the engine speed required by the old engine. Add in an 80kg weight drop, more grip and far better brakes and BMW will tell you the result is a 15sec per lap improvement around the Nürburgring, from a little more than 8min to a lot less. What you do with the time saved is less clear.

None of this latent potential is apparent when first you climb aboard.

I think it looks both pretty and purposeful, while the interior is sufficiently altered with bespoke seats, red needles and M-badging to remind you this is no ordinary 3-series. But it is neither brash nor ostentatious.

The engine starts with a quiet burble. There’s no pre-programmed blip to quicken the heart and annoy the neighbours. All the cars available for testing had double-clutch auto transmissions, but a six-speed manual is available to customers.

As with all M-cars the steering wheel is far too fat and squashy to transmit any proper feel for the road, but it’s sensibly geared and the column telescopes as close to your chest as you could reasonably expect. Ride quality is exceptional and quite the best of any true M-car I’ve driven. So as you gently immerse yourself in the experience it offers, you are struck primarily by how easy it all is. Separate buttons control the mapping for the engine, gearbox, suspension and steering, but if you leave everything in its default comfort settings, the result is an M-car that, fuel consumption and range aside, is as easy to live with as a 320d. True, that is not an adorable trait, but for the majority who’ll use theirs as daily drivers, it is an unquestionably important one.

It’s when you try a bit harder that the car consistently disappoints relative to reasonable expectations given the badge on the back. It’s fast and fluent but not that indulgent, let alone inspiring. The motor is tireless in its mid-range but the chassis seems keener to go its own ultra-efficient way than involve you in the process. When the time came to give up the driver’s seat to a colleague with impeccable skills, I didn’t have a lot less fun as a passenger.

It was only the next day when the traffic had cleared sufficiently to drive the car exactly as you’d choose, that this whole other side to its character emerged. Drive it with real vigour and you’ll realise the chassis actually has phenomenal balance, world-class damping and an appetite for an apex you’d more normally ascribe to mid-engined machinery. Only then do you notice that, while peak power might arrive at 5500rpm, it’s all still there at 7300rpm and doesn’t require an upchange until 7600rpm. Not so lazy after all. More than this, it’s a genuinely confidence-inspiring car to drive this way, which is not something I’ve ever felt inclined to say about its more transparently amusing but somewhat more treacherous predecessor. And I’d trade a lot of inspirational engine noise and even some throttle response for a car I can trust when driven this way.

My only issue with BMW’s strategy of splitting the M3’s personality is that you need to go and hunt for the fun bits.

I was lucky enough to drive over the Alpine passes between Austria and Italy, a fact that will be of little comfort if you live in Aylesbury.

As for the difference between the M3 and M4, the saloon is a mere 15kg heavier and, while it is less torsionally rigid, it is not detectably so and both carry identical suspension settings. For some reason I convinced myself I preferred the coupé (having in the past always preferred M3 saloons), but can offer no logical explanation as to why. It just felt a touch more together.

The M3/M4 is curious, a car about which I initially felt ambivalent but ended up liking and respecting far more than I’d imagined. I understand the modern market pressures that make it this way, but it needs a slightly unhinged stable-mate, a raw and racy M3 that reminds the world BMW has not forgotten where that letter and number came from and what they mean to so many enthusiasts. Porsche puts the GT3 in this role and, conflagrations aside, has done rather well. But so long as they plaster a smile across my face on any half-decent road, BMW can name its cars whatever it likes.

£56,635 (M4)
£56,175 (M3)
Engine: 3.0 litres, six cylinders, twin turbochargers
Power: 425bhp@5500 rpm
Torque: 405lb ft@1850 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual (auto optional)
0-62mph: 4.3sec (4.1*)
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: 32.1mpg (32.5*)
CO2: 204g/km (194g*)
*auto transmission