Test Drive: 2014 BMW 4 Series
We hit the streets of Seattle in an automobile that's beautiful and functional, inside and out
by Davis Adams
First things first—the name—a question that has become challenging for BMW's marketing team, as the brand has consolidated the nomenclature for its sports cars. The logic would seem easy enough: Four-door sedans and wagons start with odd numbers, and two-door coupes and convertibles start with even ones. The numbers that follow designate engine size. Except that the 1 Series is still a coupe and convertible, and the 6 Series is offered as a sedan—it's confusing.
We checked out the all-new 4 Series, which—for now—actually sticks to the formula as a coupe. It's the contentious replacement for the last generation of 328, 335 and M3 coupes and convertibles. As such, BMW is calling it the 428i, which is powered by a 240-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder, and the 435i is has a 300-hp turbo-six. There will eventually be a high-performance M4 on the market, too.
At first glance, its proportions are similar in size to the old 3 Series, but laid out with more curves in just the right places. Long, sculpted lines run from the front fender all the way to the tail, and the bulging hood suggests—but doesn't scream—that you're looking at a real sports car. The 4 Series is also lower and wider than its modern 3 Series sister model, which not only makes this car look faster, but also makes the 3 feel a little more stately in comparison. The 428i gets standard 17-inch wheels, and the 435i comes with 18s.
Xenon headlights are standard on all 4 Series models, as are the LED halo-style daytime running lights. Upper-trim versions of the car can be optioned with full-LED headlights. The lenses over the lamps run all the way to the BMW's signature kidney-shaped grilles, which are shorter and wider—again lending themselves to the car's athletic design. Look to the rear of the car and you'll find standard LED taillights and one set of tailpipes for 428 models—dual exhaust for 435 cars.
BMW has designed cars with beautiful exteriors and functional interiors for decades now, and the 4 Series is one of the first relatively affordable models to become truly attractive inside as well. The standard seats are bolstered and supportive and are covered in "SynsaTec" faux-leather in the Sport or M Sport lines, but even that feels soft and sturdy. Leather is an available upgrade for those lines, and it's standard on the luxury models.
The dash is asymmetrical, and it seemingly sweeps away from the passenger seat altogether. That design element makes the right side of the car feel comfortable and spacious, while the driver's side feels more like a business center—as long as you're in the business of driving. The gauges are simple enough: Analogue needles climb the walls of the tach and speedometer as you push your foot into the ground, and the controls on the center stack lean slightly toward the captain's seat. The new dash looks like it was designed for the car, rather than manufactured en masse for every BMW. Gone are the stacked knobs and buttons that felt like an homage to cars from the 1980s. Instead, the trapezoidal control panel is filled with buttons that are appropriate in size and shape for the space. To break up the mixture of soft-touch foam and leather, customers can choose between wood, aluminum or piano black trim pieces.
Even the shifter for the eight-speed automatic looks like a design element, almost as if it could be puzzle-pieced into one the exterior brake vents. There’s an optional no-cost manual transmission that’s more functional than stylish. Next to the shifter is the newest set of controls for iDrive, which allows control of the navigation, audio and vehicle dynamics settings. That's displayed through a 6.5 inch center-mounted display, also housed in a trapezoidal casing that mirrors the audio and HVAC controls. Altogether, it's the fastest, most-responsive version of iDrive we've seen yet. There's even an Audi-esque touch-pad that allows you to scribble letters, rather than search for them as you're trying to load addresses into the nav. The standard steering wheel is nice enough, but the optional M Sport wheel is where you really want to be.
We had the chance to experience the coupe through the twisting roads of Washington State Route 11—known to many as Chuckanut Drive—in town through downtown Seattle, and up Interstate 5, racing toward our destination in Vancouver.
There's quite a significant difference in the way each of the 4 Series models drives, which means you're more likely to find a car that suits your needs exactly. Every car has the same heavy, substantial feel with excellent steering and more nimble handling than the F30 3 Series on which it's based. However, depending on how spritely, powerful, or all-weather-capable you need your BMW, there are decisions that will have to be made.
The xDrive all-wheel-drive system is more functional than sporty, making it possible for those who live in the snow-belt to be part of the 4 Series action. However, both in 428i and 435i guises, that system adds enough weight to the car to feel noticeable, and some of the fun is lost in translation. Still, you're driving a BMW so that's all relative—it's more fun than a Mercedes C Class with 4Matic. Otherwise, the rear-drive 428i is exciting, zippy and nimble—it's the standout in the crowd. That's a good thing since it's also the most affordable way to get into one of these cars, starting at $40,500. If you're looking for all-out speed, the 435i is a great way to get it, but we're not sure if the 60 extra horses are worth the $5,500 price hike. A totally loaded 435i xDrive M Sport with all the bells and whistles—including active driving aides—is just shy of $68,000. The 4 Series is available later this month.
Images courtesy of BMW