First Drive: BMW M3 and M4
Sector: Compact executive Price: £54,775–£57,880 Fuel: 32.1–34.0mpg CO2: 194–204g/km
A petrol-powered high-performance saloon and coupe may sound like unlikely fleet cars, but in the UK – the second largest global market for the BMW’s M cars – corporate sales account for around a fifth of the M3’s sales volume.
On average, it means one business lease per working day of the year, and that’s the tip of the iceberg. The aspiration to own one of BMW’s M cars helps drive 50% take-up of the M-Sport trim level in the rest of the 3 Series range, and 65% of 4 Series customers pick the same version. These are as much a halo product for the brand’s identity as the technology-rich S-Class is to Mercedes-Benz.
But these aren’t a 335i and 435i with a power increase and a bodykit. The M3 and M4 share only doors, windows and headlights with a 3 or 4 Series, and the intricacy of the transformation gets more impressive with each generation. Carbon fibre and aluminium, the same materials used to stretch the electric range of an i3, are used to shed weight from drivetrain and body components and maximise the performance of a new downsized engine – innovations which are likely to drip-feed into future non-M products too.
The engine itself is incredible though. Both cars share a bespoke 3.0-litre, twin-turbocharged straight-six cylinder producing 431bhp. Not only is this 100 grams lighter than the similar-sounding engine used in 35i, but with a lighter body, Stop/Start system and bespoke electronic power steering, the 85% of UK cars with the dual-clutch gearbox emit an incredibly low 194g/km of CO2 – similar to the old Renaultsport Clio.
Running cost transformations are the thin end of the wedge. While the power increase is minimal, it’s masked by a 38% rise in maximum torque, now available across most of the rev range rather than just below its redline. Where the old M3’s non-turbo V8 needed a heavy right foot to wring out its full potential, the new engine delivers ferocious straight-line pace wherever you are on the rev counter, accompanied by the familiar tight metallic roar of a BMW straight six.
Flared arches cover wider front and rear tracks – 20mm and 36mm on the saloon and 9mm and 34mm on the coupe – and adaptive suspension and the clever M Differential are standard equipment in the UK. With suspension, drivetrain and steering settings turned up to 11, the lighter, wider M3 corners with the stability and precision of a smaller, lower car, pinning occupants to the bolsters of its excellent front bucket seats as effectively as it can pin them to the backrests on a straight stretch.
But here’s the thing. Dial it back a little and, save for the faint purr of an underworked straight-six engine, the M3 and M4 become as compliant and as easy to live with as any of the rest of their respective ranges. Ride quality is excellent even on 18-inch wheels, the seats are comfortable and equipment levels are high. As illogical as it may sound, the M3 and M4 offer almost everything a business user could need.
The familiar intoxicating blend of BMW’s compact executive prowess and motorsport pedigree, but with a useful cut in running costs, the lucky few will be very; very pleased.