Once upon a time, the name BMW stood for something.
Well, obviously, it stood for Bayerische Motoren Werke. But it used to mean something beyond that abbreviation, too. It was indicative of The Ultimate Driving Machine, as the carmaker liked to call its wares — a vehicle that would deliver not just performance, but above-average involvement If a car wore that roundel on its nose, you knew you could count on having some fun when the road turned curvy.
The BMW M440i coupe, sadly, has lost that.
On paper, at least, it seems like it has everything you'd expect a fun Bimmer to possess: a smooth, powerful inline-six; excellent weight distribution; advanced powertrain management. But the pieces don't come together well. It’s not that BMW can’t still build great cars; the M5 and M8 and X5 M are spectacular, the Alpina XB7 is wonderful, the Z4 is delightful. It’s just that one of their bread and butter models — the 4 Series coupe/convertible — has lost the plot, as the Brits say.
The fun, involving character that used to define every 3/4 Series? It’s gone here.
The steering is the biggest problem area. It’s not just lacking in feedback — it’s so lacking in feedback that it becomes hard to stay in your lane. There’s no sense of resistance as the road turns and the forces change on the wheels, so you don’t subconsciously push back and react to keep the car going. I found myself straying out of my lane more than in any other new car in recent memory.
When you do turn it — at least in the default Comfort mode, there almost feels like a momentary blink of lag between the wheel and the car moving. The most likely culprit seems to be the variable-ratio steering; with it shuffling the ratios, it makes it tough to predict how much moving your hands will move the car, lending it a strange feeling that the Bimmer is a beat behind you. In Sport mode, it’s a bit more direct, but it’s still numb and unfeeling, lacking any semblance of involvement. It feels more like a video game rig than anything — which is such a shame, because BMW steering used to be sublime by default.
Honestly, the car’s steering feels most at home with the lane keep assist on, where the motor increases resistance (i.e. makes it harder to turn) to subtly keep you in your lane and increases its effect (making it easier) when within the lines. Which seems, well, strange: a BMW shouldn’t be at its best with its driving assistance features enabled; it should be at its best with them all off, or stripped down to their bare minimum, and the car aimed down a winding, empty two-lane.
The turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six engine is solid, of course; Motor isn't BMW's middle name for nothing. There’s no shortage of power— BMW engines almost always punch above their weight — but the character of it is masked by the car’s weight and extensive noise insulation. (The artificial engine sound enhancement does it no favors, either; it’s subtle, and adds little.)
This is a big car; believe it or not, the M440i weighs in at a housecat below two tons, which means a Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V weighs in at 300-500 pounds less. Combine that mass with standard all-wheel-drive grip, and you wind up with power delivery that never feels explosive, merely mighty. Floor the gas at any speed between 0 and highway velocity, and there’s just a hearty shove push forward as all four wheels stick and go.
And we haven’t even gotten to the worst sin of the new 4: the design. BMW is unapologetic about the front end design of the new 4 Series and M3/M4; their standard line has largely been the corporate version of South Park's "If you don't like it, than yew can git out!"
The BMW 3 Series may suffer from many of the same driving issues as the 4, but at least it has the decency to look good. The new 4 Series has no such luck. The new front end really looks like nothing so much as one of the pigs from Angry Birds; splitting up the front end with a Euro plate might make it a little better, but at the end of the day, it’s simply an ugly face.
Even ignoring the grille for a moment — which is hard to do — the front end just seems busy. It's packed with all sorts of aerodynamic elements — valances and vents and opening, both real and fake — that all assemble to try and make the blocky front look less monolithic and huge. It works, but at a cost. (That said, this is hardly a problem restricted to the 4 Series, or even BMW; look at the Audi RS 6 Avant, for example.)
The rear is much prettier, if a little unmemorable. From certain angles, there’s a distinct resemblance to the 8 Series, which (I assume) was the idea. The side view might be the best, as it emphasizes both the car’s drawn-out proportions and the fastback roofline.
Still, it also draws attention to the fact that this is a really big car. It’s a full 12 inches longer than the 3 Series station wagon from the year 2000, and six inches longer than the outgoing 4 Series coupe. Hell, it’s more than two inches longer than the current 3 Series sedan with which it shares a chassis. There's no law saying it has to be this way, but doesn't it seem odd that a two-door car would be bigger than its four-door counterpart?
Sure, the instrument panel may be digital and the infotainment screen large and in charge on the dash, but anyone hopping out of any BMW made in the last 25 years would still recognize the 4 Series's interior as a Bimmer.
The interior is pretty typical BMW 2021: digital cockpit, latest iDrive w/touchscreen and gesture control, sporty seats, sweeping trim elements, etc. The M440i did have the unfortunate luck of falling into my lap directly after I had the Alpina XB7, though, which happens to have just about the nicest interior of any new Bimmer. Compared with that, the 4 Series seemed cheap; the infotainment screen seemed tiny, the plastic trim chintzy, the leather not nearly buttery soft enough. For an entry-level luxury car, it’s more than acceptable — even if some other entry-level luxury cars, like your Audi A4, Acura TLX and Genesis G70 — set the bar a little higher in their higher forms.
But aye, here’s the rub: it’s not an “affordable” entry-level luxury car. Mine stickered at around $70,000, though it was loaded up with options, many of them performance-minded ones. While those certainly seem appealing on a car of this ilk, adding them also opens up a bit of a can of worms; once you start thinking about performance, and it's hard not to consider that the M4 starts at about $73,000.
Granted, not everyone wants that level of raw sportiness from their Bimmer; some people would rather just have a nice car that shows its owner's taste and resources when they roll up to the office. The looks may not be to everyone's cup of tea, but they apparently carry the sort of panache BMW hopes. A parking garage attendant told me he was surprised at the price when I revealed it — not because of how much it cost, but how affordable it was. He said he thought it’d be more. It certainly looks distinctive and unmistakable — nobody's likely to confuse this with a Mercedes or a Lexus — and an an era when increasingly strict efficiency and safety standards are forcing many cars to look alike,
Perhaps, though, I’m just becoming one of those Luddites who insist that the past was always superior. And it’s not like BMWs have always just been for enthusiasts; while drivers may have loved them, they gained pop culture awareness as the car of pretentious jerks. Okay, I'm being harsh — but let's face it, they developed a reputation as the rides of choice for a certain type of people who aren’t afraid to show off their success in life. This new generation of BMWs, however, seems aimed at people who want to show people they’re a successful, tech-savvy individual — at the expense of the joie de conduire that made dealing with the “BMW driver” image worthwhile.
The M models will carry the torch of the Ultimate Driving Machine, at least for a little while longer. Still, it’s a shame then that the M Sport versions like this one can’t carry a little more of the M spirit for those of us who prefer their Bimmers fun but can’t afford the full fat versions.
Base Price: $60,675
Powertrain: Turbocharged 3.0-liter inline-six; eight-speed automatic; all-wheel-drive
Torque: 368 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: Not available yet, oddly, but BMW claims 31 mpg highway
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