ESTORIL, Portugal – The BMW 3-series coupe is alive and well. Its new name, 4-series, is the result of competitive pressure from the Audi A5, which is, of course, the coupe version of the A4. The 2014 BMW 4-series updates what probably is the most successful two-door in the global market and should carry on as the driver's version of BMW's premium compact, leaving it to the much higher-volume 3-series sedan to bring in the multitudes of well-financed, post-yuppie aspirational consumers.
We'll have a pretty good idea of how well this strategy works going forward, because splitting the 3-series sedan and coupe into 3 and 4 means separate sales numbers. BMW says 50 percent of 3-series coupe sales have gone to Europe and 30 percent have come to the United States.
BMW offered only one spec for its 4-series first drive here in Portugal, and it likely will be a popular configuration in the States: the 435i with the sport package and eight-speed automatic transmission. It also will offer the 428i, with the 2.0-liter turbo four rated at 245 hp and 258 lb-ft. The company is considering offering the 2.0-liter turbodiesel in the coupe but isn't ready to make a commitment yet. The inevitable M4 will reportedly come with a version of the 3.0-liter tuned to 415 horsepower.
The 4-series is longer and lower than the 3-series sedan as well as the last 3-series coupe and it has a longer wheelbase, although it's lighter than the old coupe. The new styling is clean and tidy, looking like a more properly proportioned 6-series. The Chris Bangle-instituted side surfacing has been further refined. The bullet-nose front end, with its sloping hood bulge, accommodates the European pedestrian-protection standard by trying to hide it in what BMW sees as a more masculine design. Not everyone will like the front of the profile, which is effective yet controversial.
The "air curtain" directs air through the corners of the lower front fascia, around the front wheels, and out the front fender scallops, thus making them functional. It's also a distinction between the 4- and the 3-series, as rear track, which is wider than front track in the 4. The widest point of the body is at the middle of the rear wheel arches.
All the press drive cars were silver 435i models with a black and red interior. A brushed-metal horizontal accent bifurcates the black-over-red dash and inset into the black-over-red interior door panels. The interior is richer than the previous model's, with excellent fit and finish. This puts more pressure on the Mercedes-Benz C-class and other cars trying to catch up, although the material on the interior A-pillars looks and feels a bit cheesy and easy to snag. The red lower half of the dash could seem too bright and overdone if you've been a fan long enough to remember the iconic 2002's equally iconic, Teutonic black interior.
Yet more electronic gizmos and the latest iteration of iDrive aside, the 435i drives more than ever like the satisfying sports coupe that it always has been, with pitch-perfect ride-and-handling balance. It's as smooth as a George Clooney pickup line on imperfect roads and as sharp as one of his Italian suits in the corners, with just enough compliance to enhance the feedback and sufficient mechanical grip to give the best two-seat sports cars a run for their euros.
The electronically assisted power steering is quick and precise. BMW has engineered out negative feedback, such as washboard surfaces that can resonate through the floorboards without resonating through the steering column. The 4-series is more satisfying than fun, however, because the steering makes fast runs on twisty mountain roads downright relaxing. We felt like we weren't driving nearly as fast as usual on the first run until our driving partner, with whom we regularly share press cars on BMW trips, remarked that we were, indeed, driving at our regular pace.
A few laps in the car around the equally satisfying former Formula 1 Estoril circuit, which is short, narrow and fairly tight, backed this up. Telltale compliance and maximum grip give way to mild initial understeer, which can be manipulated into trail-throttle oversteer (with electronic stability control fully off). Through all of this, the car makes you feel unrushed and relaxed, as if you're driving more slowly than you actually are. The 435i's brakes are not racing brakes, of course, and they provided the only letdown, with heavy fade after a few laps. Steering input response is sublime. As much as this segment is starting to feel like all the models are just one very competent, excellent-handling model but with different sheetmetal, the Bimmer stands out.
The 306-hp, turbo 3.0-liter in-line six, too, doesn't feel like a turbo. If there was any lag, we were too relaxed to notice it. Our only regret was that all the cars were equipped with the eight-speed automatic transmission. The manual may be down two cogs, but it would have been an engaging anachronism on this drive. BMW hasn't yet dipped into the light autonomy offered in the Acura RLX, Infiniti Q50, and, soon, the Mercedes-Benz S-class, but you can bet that the next 7-series appearing in about a year will. When it trickles down to the 4- and 3-series, it's the eight-speed automatic that will make it possible for the ultimate driving machines to be driving themselves.
2014 BMW 435i
|Price:||$41,425 (428i) $46,925/48,925 (435i RWD/AWD, est.)|
|Engine:||3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve turbo I-6 (435i)|
|Horsepower:||306 hp @ 5800-6000 rpm|
|Torque:||295 lb-ft @ 1200-5000 rpm|
|Transmission:||6-speed manual, 8-speed automatic|
|Drive:||Rear- or all-wheel|
|Front/rear track:||60.8/62.8 in|
|L x W x H:||182.6 x 71.8 x 53.6 in|
|Fuel tank:||15.9 gal|
|Cargo Capacity:||15.7 cu ft|
|Curb Weight:||3329-3527 lb|
|EPA rating (city/highway):||TBD|