2020 BMW M4 Convertible (USA)

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When I was chatting with my friend at the outdoor Gold Desk at Hertz’ massive LAX facility on my last trip in 2019, they told me that they had been advised that the 2020 fleet was going to include a lot of BMWs, covering almost the entire range and including some M Cars. In previous years, Hertz’ US prestige models had generally been from the Mercedes family but it sounded like there was to a significant shit to that marque’s main rival.  Some BMW models had already come on fleet during 2019, including the 5 and 7 Series and the X3 and I had been able to test these at the first opportunity, so I was eager to see what else might become available. Online sources early in 2020 did indeed confirm that a whole load more models had been spotted, and I was looking forward to testing them on my March 2020 trip was all sorted until at the last minute it proved necessary to cancel as the world went into Covid lockdown. Travel of any sort apart from the absolute essential was strictly off limits, leaving rental car companies with masses of cars that no-one was going to be able to rent and there were plenty of stories in the same sources that had told me of the BMW (and other) arrivals, reporting the rental fleets were off-loading as much as they could as quickly as possible, with high end cars being the first to go. So when the barriers were finally lifted and the US became a possible destination again in November 2021, nearly two calendar years after the arrival of those BMWs, my expectations were that I would not find many if any of them still on fleet. At the start of the trip, when I was in Los Angeles for just one day, I did ask, and was told that yes, there had been some M4 Convertibles, and it was believed there were a handful still on fleet, but they were hard to track down. Imagine my delight, therefore when arriving at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Hertz facility on the second night of my stay there to spot one of these elusive M4s parked up. On enquiring, I found that it was not allocated to anyone else, and the upgrade fee that was quoted was reasonable enough that I quickly said “yes” before anyone else had the same idea. The idea of any Convertible and some Arizona winter sun is appealing enough, but make it an M car, and this was clearly going to be a day to enjoy, or so I hoped, and that would depend on what I thought of this particular car.

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The first M version of the 3 Series range was produced very much as a homologation special, and although revered now, it did not have the profile among enthusiasts that has built up steadily with every successive generation of what until recently was badged M3. Each car – and there have been six generations of them now – has been added to the range some time after the high volume cars, and each has followed a similar formula of combining explosive performance with everyday usability at a price which, whilst not everyone can afford, is not completely out of reach for plenty of enthusiasts. It’s certainly not a low volume car any more, as any car meet in the UK, or Europe or the US will testify, but it is still special enough for everyone to get excited even about seeing and hearing one and definitely driving one. The core of the M3 of the years has been the two door car which morphed from being a saloon in the first E30 generation to the coupe from the second E36 generation onwards. There’s been a convertible version of each generation, and from the E36, BMW have also offered a four door saloon, though the purists will always tell you that it is the door that is the “real deal”. When it came to the F30 generation of cars, BMW made of a difference between the saloon and touring models compared to the coupe and convertible, calling the former pair still a 3 Series but the latter pair the 4 Series, but fundamentally they were all based on the same car. The M3 saloon and M4 coupe models were announced in the autumn of 2013, going on sale in 2014, available in standard and from 2016 444bhp  Competition guises, with an M4 Convertible following shortly afterwards. Although the cars carried on the tradition of relatively subtle visual changes from the lesser 3 and 4 Series models, BMW said that in fact around 50% of the parts of the car are different. Sadly, the thunderous V8s of their predecessors was not carried forward, but the twin turbo V6 that found its way under the bonnet was tuned to give more power than the E90 generation of cars, and consequently, although the new cars were heavier yet the performance figures were even better. The prices were hiked quite significantly, too. Starting price now in the UK was going to being with a 7, whereas not long back, it was under £60,000 and the running costs of an ever more complex machine have only ever gone in one direction, too. The press, especially the British press, loved it, though, deciding that this was the class best again, and even when Alfa’s long awaited Giulia Quadrifoglio finally went on sale in early 2017, they concluded that the BMW was probably still – in some circumstances, at least – the best in class. Of course, Mercedes have their C63 and Audi the RS4 and RS5 range, so there is no shortage of choice here and each of these four marques has its loyal devotees who would take a lot of convincing to switch brand, so the BMW was never going to have everything its own way as it almost did back in 1987. I was lucky enough secure an E93-based M3 Convertible, also from Phoenix, as it happens, and loved it in a way that lesser BMWs had not done it for me, and at the time concluded that given access to a Mercedes or a BMW, good though the C63 was, I would probably take the BMW. That was before the launch of the Alfa, so the question now was going to be whether the current M4 Convertible could impress me to the same extent.

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With the test car being a convertible, the first thing you should want to do, is to lower the roof. I certainly did. It could not be easier, as you simply press the button and in just under 20 seconds it is down. If you want to drive at anything more than at urban speed, you will probably benefit from raising the side windows and with this done, there is very little buffeting and the car was fine on the freeway. I could even hear the radio without having to turn it up unduly. As with almost all convertibles, the folded down roof does take out quite an amount of potential boot space. There is a divider which must be in place, the roof system not working until the sensors detect that is. Once it is, as part of the theatre of lowering the roof system, the carbon fibre roof actually folds up into three pieces which will then fit readily into the dimensions of the boot but as there are multiple layers of folded-down roof, that divider is set so low that you lose more than 50% of the normal boot space. What remains may not be large enough to take more than a roller bag and a few softer and smaller items, though at least it is reasonably accessible, unlike in some coupe/convertibles. You can fold the rear seat backrests forward to create rather more space, though of course if the roof is down, whatever is there will be exposed to the elements. The boot lid has an electric closing. With the roof erect, the luggage area is quite generous and should proved ample for a couple of people who need luggage for several days away from home.

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The M4 may lack the V8 engine of its predecessor but it does still have an in-line 6 and a lovely exhaust system which gives the car a great snarly note when you fire the engine and when it is at idle or low revs. Most of this disappears are you get underway and indeed you may think the car is just that bit too refined as almost all the sound that is part of the joy of cars like this is gone. The upside of this, of course, is that it does mean that the M4 is a peaceful freeway cruiser, and for many, that will be quite welcome. Whilst the absence of noise may almost be slightly disappointing, the way the M4 goes most certainly is not. This generation M4 is the most powerful yet since the M3 line started out in 1987 (yes, of course, it is also the heaviest), with 425 bhp and 406 lb/ft of torque. Acceleration is very rapid indeed, and the engine is smooth, flexible and seemingly able to do whatever you ask of it on a public road with masses left in reserve. The throttle response is instant and the car revs willingly up the red line at 7600rpm though, be warned, you can’t really do that on the public road without risking an unplanned and potentially costly conversation with the Arizona State Police! I did find the car could be quite jerky when setting out, as if a gentle acceleration as you manoeuvre around the rental facility or out of the hotel car park are not really what the car wants to be doing, but once underway and there was a bit of speed, everything became much smoother. You can still buy an M4 with a manual gearbox, but like all US rental machines this one had the optional seven speed dual clutch automatic transmission. It is very smooth and makes lightning fast gearchanges. It is not, however, the first BMW whose gearbox has puzzled me. Getting the car to go is easy – just push the lever forwards to reverse or pull it back for drive, but then I wanted to find Park, and could not. There was no button, and there was nothing else obvious that would put the car into Park that I could spot. Luckily, the car had the handbook in the glovebox, so I could consult that and found that you simply put the car into D and turn the ignition off, which will put the car into Park for you. Easy once you know, but not at all obvious! Everyone fears that performance cars like this will be ferociously thirsty and if driven hard, they will be. But when you are on public roads and driving a fair amount of the time at a steady cruising speed on the freeway, as I did in my day with the M4, then you should achieve some quite surprisingly good results. I drove 329 miles and the M4 needed 12.75 US gallons to fill it up which converts to 25.8 mpg US or 30.83 mpg Imperial, which is nothing like as wallet draining as you think.

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The regular 3 series models that I have driven over the years have generally surprised me by the relative lack of feel in their steering, with the car made light and easy to drive but lacking the precision that you get in say a Ford or a Mazda. But M models are generally different, and that was certainly the case here. The steering is quite weighty, though not to the extent of you feeling like you are getting an alternative to a session in the gym, unless you go for one of the sport settings from the driving modes and there is some feel, but whilst overall it is not bad, it is not quite as joyous as the set up in the Alfa Giulia Quadrifoglio, to my mind. The M4 does handle with a wonderfully balanced poise. It just goes round corners as fast as you dare, with the knowledge that the driver (in my case) will run out of dare long before the BMW runs out of grip. There is no body roll to speak of, and the car just felt like it was made for the twisty roads that feature on part of my test. Thankfully, it is also set up to cope with the straight roads as well, with a ride that is well judged, the car feeling firm but not unduly so, and certainly far more comfortable than the recent M-Sport cars I’ve driven in the UK. The M4 comes with 255/40 R18 tyres on the front and larger 275/40 ZR18 at the back. The brakes are powerful. Obviously they are designed to stop the car repeatedly from far higher speeds than I was able to achieve in my public road based test. With the roof down, visibility is, of course, excellent, as there is no bodywork to get in the way of your line of sight and the view from the mirrors is good. Unlike a lot of convertibles, it is still not bad with the roof up thanks to relatively slim pillars. There are parking sensors at the front and back as well as a rear-view camera.

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The interior of the M4 is very similar to the rest of the F30 generation 3 and 4 Series family of cars, with just a number of M badges to remind you that you are in the top of the range model. Like all modern BMWs, I have to say that the quality is decent enough but nothing special and certainly not up to the standard of current Audi models. Everything fits together well, and the design is not as fussy or chintzy as you are starting to find in Mercedes models, but the materials used feel like they are only as good as BMW think they can get away with. The leather is not particularly luxurious looking and certainly not to the touch. The dash layout very much follows BMW form, with a single instrument cluster with conventional round dials for the speedometer and rev counter with smaller gauges inset for water temperature and fuel level. There is a central area for trip computer and other data sources which is fine, but like every BMW I have driven in recent times, the odometer is right at the bottom of the cluster and for my driving position is completely obscured by the steering wheel boss. There are chunky column stalks for indicators and wipers, with the lights operated by a rotary dial on the dash to the left of the wheel. The centre of the dash contains the 8.8” infotainment screen that will be familiar from many other BMW models. By today’s standards, the screen is relatively small, but the graphics are clear and thanks to the combination of touch screen capability and the proven iDrive control wheel and buttons on the centre console, it proved particularly easy to use. The system on the test car included XM radio and navigation. Beneath this unit are the buttons for the dual zone climate control system. The centre console also contains buttons to select the Drive mode and for the adjustable dampers.

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The seats are trimmed in leather, but this suffered in the way as the rest of the interior as feeling on the cheap side, especially given the price of the car. You do feel like you are sitting in the M4 rather than on it, though of course there is plenty of adjustment for the seats, so those who want a higher driving position than I did will be able to achieve this. Both front seats are electrically adjustable, and there is a two position memory to store the settings you want. Like many BMW models there is an extensible front seat bolster to help those with long thigh bones. Seat heating elements are part of the spec, and there is an air scarf to help eliminate draughts and buffeting. You do have to reach well behind you to get hold the seat belts, and if you have the eat set well forward, as I do, this is a bit of a challenge, tough it has to be noted the BMW is far from unique in having this attribute.

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The rear of this M4 is definitely only for two people. The centre of the seat area includes a cup holder and the moulding is such that you really could not put a third person here even in emergencies. Getting in is obviously easy of the roof is down, as although you have to clamber past the folded forward front seat, there is no height limitation, though you do need to remember that the doors are long and will need more space than with some cars. With the roof down, it is more difficult, but certainly not as hard as I have come across in other two door cars. Legroom is sufficient, unless you have the front seat set well forward, as I did, in which case it will prove quite spacious. Shoulder room is ample as only two people will be sitting here and with the roof in place, headroom is also not likely to be much of a problem. Getting out will also require some agility but at least there are release from the front seats on the back of the seat, easily accessible to those sitting in the back. There’s not much provision for odds and ends here, with just map pockets on the back of the front seats. Those in the front have the benefit of a good sized glovebox, some rather small door pockets and a central armrest cubby.

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The BMW M4 is based on the company’s 4 Series and offered as a coupe or a convertible with a retractable hardtop, or in 3 Series guise, as a four door saloon. The only real difference between the M4 coupe and convertible concerns the roof system. This plus the added strengthening means that the convertible does weigh more so its performance numbers are not quite as impressive, but in all other respects including specs and equipment, the cars are identical. The M4 comes with plenty of standard features, starting with that turbocharged 3.0-litre inline six-cylinder engine (425 bhp, 406 lb/ft of torque) and either a six-speed manual transmission or an optional seven-speed dual-clutch auto. An adaptive sport-tuned suspension, electronic rear differential, 18-inch wheels, and high-grip tyres cover the performance spectrum. And for interior luxuries, there are leather upholstery, heated and power-adjustable seats, and an infotainment system highlighted by an 8.8-inch display, navigation, Apple CarPlay, and a 16-speaker surround-sound system. A handful of driver aids come standard, including forward collision warning, lane departure warning, a rearview camera and parking sensors. Others, like blind-spot monitoring, are optional. A few key optional packages are also available for the M4. The Competition package ups the M4’s power rating to 444 bhp and adds 20-inch wheels, revised settings for the adaptive suspension, an even sportier exhaust, and some interior trim upgrades such as M stripes on the seat belts. The Executive package offers adaptive LED headlights, automatic high beams, side- and top-view cameras, an automated parking system, a head-up display and speed limit information. Other options include carbon-ceramic brakes, a non-adaptive suspension, blind-spot monitoring, and wireless device charging. You also get your choice of a roof made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic or a traditional steel roof with a sunroof.

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It will not surprise anyone to learn that I really enjoyed my day with the M4. It would take a real luddite not to do so, as this car sound great, goes extremely well, is fun to drive, and yet civilised enough that you could live with it on a daily basis for those occasions when you just have the daily commute to endure. Driven modestly, even the fuel economy is decent. There are not real weak points that I could discern, so if you are in the market for a car of this type, then it will probably come down to personal taste as to whether you got BMW, Mercedes or Audi. If you want a convertible, then the Alfa is off your list, but if you were happy to have a saloon, that remains the one I would pick. But for those who want a convertible, I think the BMW just nudges the Mercedes for me, just as I concluded when I tried the previous generations of both models. I’ve not tried an RS 4or RS5 Audi in the current generation, but as a former Audi owner, I have a feeling that this would prove to be a viable alternative as well. How nice still to have the choice. We should make the most of it, as cars of this type are an endangered species, with the Mercedes already announced as going to a 4 cylinder engine in its next generation and its rivals likely to be forced to follow suit. Until they do, revel in the fat that cars like this exist, and go and enjoy them!

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