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The 2021 BMW M440i xDrive.

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

BMW’s ultimate driving machine is making a comeback, but you may not like the way it looks.

The enormous grille that adorns the front of BMW’s all-new 2021 4 Series is difficult to ignore, but the raspy bark of the coupe’s highly strung straight-six engine quickly refocuses your attention on the task of driving.

A jab of the hair-trigger throttle sends the revs up with a hint of turbocharger huffing and puffing whilst the big coupe lunges for the horizon and doesn’t look back. In the range-topping M440i guise with 382 horsepower, this thing is wickedly fast. (The proper M4 is going to be a rocket.)

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Better yet, the chassis is so balanced and biddable that it evokes memories of the best cars in BMW’s back catalogue. On a terrible, bumpy and potholed road, it flows well through corners, easily adjusting its trajectory on the throttle. The car’s quick steering wakes up mid-corner, providing more feel and feedback than any of its immediate rivals. Set to comfort mode, the adaptive dampers soak up imperfections and make the coupe feel light on its wheels compared to the old 4 Series.

The M440 handles like the best cars in BMW's back catalogue.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The car only gets better as it turns laps on a wet, soggy racetrack and a claustrophobic autocross course. A lower centre of gravity, wider track and impressive front-end grip make the car feel more at ease when hustled. BMW’s all-wheel drive system does a good job of making the car feel rear-drive most of the time. Where the old car was a bit harsh and frantic, this one feels smooth.

If this all sounds car-geeky, it is, but it’s also important for BMW. The brand owes its reputation – and its old “ultimate driving machine” tagline – to its cars' ability to out-handle the competition.

Remember that in the early 1960s, BMW was nowhere in North America. The blue-and-white roundel signified nothing. Then, in 1968, along came this dainty little coupe from Germany called the 2002, and the press went wild. The April, 1968 issue Car and Driver called it, “one of modern civilization’s all-time best ways to get somewhere sitting down.” Up to that point, Americans had been raised on muscle cars the size of city blocks. This car was practical, frugal and could turn any trip into a rally stage.

BMW followed the 2002 with several generations of 3 Series – the E30, E36 and E46 – which all shared much of that same handling magic. In the 1980s, the M cars arrived, taking the same basic 2002 formula and putting it on steroids. Driving enthusiasts bought them, and then so did everyone else; BMW found mainstream success and became a yuppie icon.

After letting their cars' signature handling slip, the M440 signals BMW is back to making cars that feel like a BMW should.

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

Now, the exact date is up for debate, but at some point – possibly around the turn of the millennium – BMW seemed to forget what made its cars great in the first place. Maybe the competition caught up. Maybe all the computerized controls and microprocessors got in the way of the driving experience. But BMWs just didn’t feel as good to drive as they once did. They were clunky, heavy and inert, bludgeoning the road instead of flowing over it.

With the outgoing M3 CS, M2 and latest 3 and 5 Series models, BMW seems to have realized the error of its ways and is once again making cars that feel like a BMW should.

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But there’s a rather large catch. Just as the handling department is finding its way, the design department has veered off in a strange new direction. The 4 Series (and upcoming M3 and M4) carry a gigantic interpretation of BMW’s traditional kidney-shaped grille, a design signature seen on all of its cars since 1933.

The supersized version of BMW's signature kidney grille is a divisive design choice.

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

Judging by the reaction on social media, the Internet has strong feelings about this. (It looks a bit like Tom Hardy’s Bane from the recent Batman movie, right?)

Frank Stephenson is an expert on these things. He is a professional car designer who penned the original BMW X5 SUV, the reborn 2001 Mini Cooper, the McLaren P1 and Ferrari F430, among other things. “They’ve taken and ruined, I think, the front look of this car with such a graphic that doesn’t look – I’m not even sure if BMW designed this,” Stephenson said about the grille on his YouTube channel. He thought the big grille didn’t look as though it belonged with the rest of the car, which he otherwise liked.

Aftermarket companies have already begun offering alternative front bumpers with a smaller grille for the M3 and M4, and those cars aren’t even on the road yet.

Ultimately, buyers will decide the fate of BMW’s big new grille. Love it or hate it, you can’t see it from the driver’s seat, and that is unquestionably a very good place to be.

Tech specs

2021 BMW M440i xDrive Coupe

The M440xi is powered by a turbocharged 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine.

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

  • Base price: $64,450 ($78,495 as tested)
  • Engine: 3.0-litre turbo straight-six
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): TBD
  • Alternatives: Mercedes C-Class coupe, Audi A5, Lexus RC, Infiniti Q60, a used Porsche 911


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Looks

It’s controversial, to put it politely.

Interior

2021 BMW M440i xDrive Coupe

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

Great driving position. The cabin will be familiar to anyone who drove the old model, but the interior quality and materials have gone up a notch, assuming you’re willing to shell out for the very pricey $9,095 premium option package. Bigger and better screens, natch.

Performance

A manual gearbox is not available on the M440 but will likely be on the M4. No rear-wheel drive either, but on wet roads, the all-wheel-drive system felt playfully rear-biased.

Technology

A 48-volt mild hybrid system is standard on the M440, which should help with in-town fuel economy. The latest iDrive system is easy to use and intuitive. And, there’s also the Apple digital key feature.

Cargo

Rear passengers have more room than in previous models.

LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

More spacious than before, especially for rear seat passengers. The new 4 Series looks as big as the old 6 Series at a glance. It seems wrong to call it a compact coupe, although, technically, it is.

Verdict

Drives great, looks odd.

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LUCAS SCARFONE/Courtesy of manufacturer

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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