PAY attention, because BMW has added another number to its line-up. The 4 Series is the replacement for the venerable 3 Series Coupe and goes on sale tomorrow. Exciting or what? Scotland is home to a disproportionately large number of 3 Series Coupe owners, so news of a new one matters.
Perhaps, though, you’re looking at the pictures and thinking the 4 Series doesn’t look different enough to the 3 Series to give you the same sense of awe and anticipation you felt when three telly channels became four (yes, 4) 30 years ago, and made Richard Whiteley a household name. But awed and anticipated you should be, since the 4 Series trumps even the sternest Countdown conundrum when it comes to pulse-quickening excitement.
BMW insists the 4 Series is not merely a re-badging exercise, it’s a whole new car and should be treated as such. Sticking a number 4 on its rump is, say company chiefs, a logical extension of the way BMW badges its products. In short, if it’s a coupe, add 1 to the number you started with, so the 3 Series Coupe gives way to the 4 Series Coupe, just as the 5 Series becomes a 6 Series in two-door form, and the X5 transmogrifies into the X6.
That Vorderman woman might make sense of the sums, but if you’re still not convinced, then consider these 4 Series factlets: although based on 3 Series underpinnings, the only body panel it shares with its sibling is the bonnet. It’s more than an inch longer than the car it replaces, with a couple of inches added to the wheelbase. It sits closer to the road, and the roofline is lower too. The most noticeable change, however, is at the back, where flared wheelarches allow the rear wheels to be set more than three inches further apart than before.
All this footering gives the 4 Series a wide footprint and a low centre of gravity, which pay dividends in the handling department and give the car a squat, muscular stance. If the 3 Series is Venus, the 4 is rather more Serena.
Talking of muscle, the 4 Series launches with a choice of three engines: a 242bhp,2.0-litre four-cylinder 428i petrol; a 303bhp, 3.0-litre six-cylinder 435i petrol; and the 182bhp 2.0-litre 420d diesel. If you don’t mind waiting until the end of the year, your choice will extend to a 182bhp 420i petrol, plus 283bhp 430d and 310bhp 435d diesels.
Transmission is via a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed automatic, and you can also spec most engine options with BMW’s xDrive 4WD system for a premium of £1,500 or thereabouts.
From the driver’s seat, the inside of the 4 Series looks a lot like a 3 Series, but there are a few tweaks. Leather upholstery is standard, you sit a bit closer to the floor, and your seatbelt is handed to you by a mechanical arm as you get in. In the back, legroom is generous, headroom less so. The boot, at 445 litres,is generous, although it’s not the most practical space, being quite shallow.
BMW chose the Highlands to give the 4 Series its UK launch and bravo to them for that. Twisty roads, patchy asphalt and weapons-grade drizzle were sure to show up any shortcomings in the 4 Series weaponry. I drove the 435i with a manual gearbox on the outbound leg from Beauly to Gairloch and by journey’s end, the only niggle was a loose-fitting foot rest that snagged itself on the welt of my left shoe when I pressed the clutch. One of BMW’s men fixed it in the drizzle while I scoffed a seafood platter.
Snaggy shoe apart, the rest of the drive had been a riot. BMW’s straight-six engine, boosted by a brace of turbochargers, is a wonderful thing. Smooth and refined at low revs, it pulls like a train until it runs out of legs, howling, above 7,000rpm.
The chassis of the 4 Series is set up to feel taut, yet not at the expense of comfort on badly-surfaced B roads. Flick the drive setting switch from Comfort to Sport and you might expect the Highland highways and byways to rattle the fillings from your teeth, but no – the BMW flows through the bumps, steering precisely and gripping like a leech.
The star of the show, however, is the altogether more modest 420d, which is just as well, since BMW expects it to account for more than a third of all 4 Series sales. The twin-turbocharged 2.0-litre diesel is free-revving and reasonably civilised and, with 184bhp, not exactly short of grunt. All the same, I expected it to take a trans-Highland trouncing from the 435i.
Just goes to show what I know. Yes, it lagged a little in the straights (not many of those in these parts) but, in the bends (no shortage of those), there was nothing to split the two, the diesel car turning in with the same deftness as its fatter-tyred, more powerful brother and holding a precise line, even in the damp. Overcook it on a corner and beefy brakes scrub off excess speed with little drama.
So on a typical cross-country journey the diesel car won’t lose much, if any, ground to the 435i, especially when you remember that the pilot of the six-cylinder petrol car will have to stop for fuel twice as often as the diesel driver. The gauge of the 420d showed an average consumption of 38mpg, which is some way short of its claimed 60mpg on the combined cycle, but given the pace at which it covered the dips and twists between Gairloch and Dingwall, it’s little short of remarkable.
So, when it comes to choosing which letter to have at the end of your 4 Series badge – “i” or “d” – there really is no conundrum. We’ll have the consonant please, Carol.
CAR BMW 420d
PERFORMANCE Max speed 149mph; 0-62mph 7.5sec
MPG (combined) 60.1mpg
CO2 EMISSIONS 124g/km