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The 2021 BMW M3 sedan, right, and its two-door M4 twin.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

There aren’t likely to be many more cars quite like the BMW M3 and M4.

The next Mercedes-AMG C 63 is rumoured to be downsizing from its fire-breathing V8 to a four-cylinder hybrid motor. Alfa Romeo is ditching the brilliant rear-drive platform that makes the Giulia Quadrifoglio such a peach in order to make way for boring corporate synergies. The writing is on the wall. Change is inevitable. BMW is also leaning into electrification, cost-cutting and creating ever-larger in-dash screens, but at least it’s still making righteous machines for die-hard gearheads.

For the true believers, the all-new 2021 M3 and M4 need no introduction. For the rest of you, understand that a new M3 sedan – or its two-door M4 twin – is a big deal for car people. Just ask all the strangers (mostly young, mostly men) who gawked as these brand new M cars drove past, or who pulled up next to them to nod in approval and ask what they’re like. A new M3 and M4 comes along once every seven or so years, and what we have here is the all-new sixth-generation model.

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To get the most obvious thing out of the way, the 2021 M3 and M4 look fussy and like they’re trying way too hard. Think “red-carpet outfit gone horribly wrong.” It’s not just the grille; the sedan’s rear doors don’t line up with the flared wheel arch, which makes it look like a hack job.

Plenty of people have been giving BMW grief about the design, but the reality is it won’t matter much. Buyers will either warm to the style, overlook it because there aren’t many good alternatives, or just ignore it because the new M3 and M4 offer something very special: all-wheel drive.

These will likely be BMW’s best-selling M3 and M4 models in Canada for the simple reason that they’re optionally available with all-wheel drive for the first time. Kevin Marcotte, national manager of BMW’s M division, predicted as much.

The optional new M carbon bucket seats are oh-so-cool and surprisingly comfortable.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Marcotte also confirmed that despite the pandemic, 2020 was the best-ever sales year for M division globally, and March 2021 was the best-ever month for the division in Canada. Annual sales of M cars in this country have gone from about 100 vehicles in 1990 to nearly 5,000 cars and SUVs in recent years, Marcotte said. The gearheads are out there, and they’re buying what M is selling.

The 2021 M3 and M4 share only the windows, exterior doors panels, trunk and a few other parts with the regular 3 and 4 Series models on which they’re based, BMW’s engineers explained.

The engineers also said they fought to keep the six-cylinder twin-turbo engine, rather than downsize and hybridize. The team looked at adding 48-volt systems and other hybrid options but decided they wouldn’t make the car any quicker.

Perhaps because it’s so familiar, then, this 3.0-litre motor doesn’t feel as special as some of the race-bred engines from M cars of old. However, there’s no denying the new motor’s blunt-force effectiveness. The Competition models deliver 503 horsepower, while the base cars have 473 horsepower and nearly as much torque. In both cases, the power works like a catapult, flinging you and the machine forward with an almighty shove. There’s practically no turbo lag and there’s a smoother, more predictable torque delivery than before. M division is almost certainly underselling those horsepower figures by the way; the cars feel stronger than the numbers suggest.

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Prod the engine-start button and the car’s straight-six emits a bass-heavy burble. Prod another button to turn off the fake exhaust noise piped in through the speakers and you realize that the engine doesn’t make much sound at all, at least not until it winds up over 3,500 rpm.

Everything is adjustable, from the feel of the brake pedal to the amount of slip the traction control system will allow.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

The 3 Series is a great car to drive, but the M cars are in another league. The difference is like Peter Parker versus Spiderman. It’s easy to forget you’re driving a bulky luxury sedan the way it slices through turns and changes direction. The steering feels plugged into your brain. It’s quick, accurate and not too heavy, which is a welcome change. Front-end grip is immense and the rear tires are easily overwhelmed by the engine’s brute force. Thankfully, the chassis is nicely balanced and predictable, which is important in a car that sends around 500 horsepower to the rear wheels. (Our test cars didn’t have the optional all-wheel-drive system.)

You pay a price for such telepathic control, though. The low-speed ride on broken city roads is unforgiving, albeit more comfortable than before. The ride does smooth out as the speed picks up, so highway commutes are nothing to fear.

Despite the menacing visage of the new M3 and M4, it turns out they’re actually more civilized and usable day-to-day than their predecessors. Plus, the new cars are no less entertaining – perhaps even moreso – and the option of all-wheel drive means they’ll appeal to a broader audience than before, assuming customers can get past the looks.

Such an impressive package comes at an unfortunately high price. You won’t get much (if any) change back from $100,000. But it’s heartening to see M division remains committed to making exotic machines that aim to satisfy the disparate demands of car nerds everywhere. This could be the last M3 with a straight-six engine, so enjoy it.

The M3 sedan.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Tech specs

2021 BMW M3 and M4 Competition
  • Base price/as tested: $84,300/$96,150 for the M3; $89,100/$108,145 for the M4
  • Engine: 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline-six
  • Transmission/drive: Six-speed manual, eight-speed automatic/rear- or all-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): to be announced
  • Alternatives: Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio, Mercedes-AMG C 63, Lexus IS 500, Cadillac’s upcoming Blackwing sedans

Looks

Don’t get me started.

Interior

It’s an evolutionary improvement, offering more space and nicer materials. There’s a huge variety of great colour and trim choices. The optional new M carbon bucket seats are oh-so-cool and surprisingly comfortable, holding the driver in place with firm grip, which is helpful in a car that’ll pull serious Gs.

The two-door M4.

Matt Bubbers/The Globe and Mail

Performance

The manual gearbox is only available on non-Competition models. It’s not as smooth as Porsche’s six-speed, but at least BMW still offers it as an option. The dual-clutch automatic of the old car has been ditched in favour of a regular eight-speed. It’s better for driving around town, but not as snappy or engaging. Zero-to-100 kilometres an hour takes anywhere from 3.9 to 4.2 seconds, but this car lives for corners, not drag races.

Technology

Everything is adjustable, from the feel of the brake pedal to the amount of slip the traction control system will allow. The infotainment system is familiar and excellent. The Drift Analyzer is an ingenious gimmick that rates your drifts out of five stars, but please – this should go without saying – use it only on a closed track.

Cargo

The sedan’s rear seats are perfectly comfortable for adults. The coupe’s rear seats are usable, in a pinch. BMW M makes plenty of SUVs (that aren’t nearly as enjoyable to drive) if you’re looking to maximize cargo room.

Verdict

Underneath the ugly face is a supremely entertaining M car with broad appeal.

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