Since 2013, BMW has muddied the waters of 3-series ownership with its 4-series coupé, a lower and stiffer two-door version. As it flogged masses of 3-series saloons into discounted fleet markets and the car became a ubiquitous badge of corporate worth on wheels, the 4-series, it was reasoned, could be a different and more prestigious machine, which private buyers might also like.
In 2014 the two badges moved yet further apart with the launch of the Gran Coupé, a four-door 4-series, which is selling like ice cream sundaes in July. Last year's sales figures tell their own story; the 3-series saloon sold 24,855, the estate 9,788 and the unloved GT hatchback 2,089, while the 4-series coupé sold 9,136, the convertible version 4,258 and the Gran Coupé 10,085.
To keep the 4-series (coupé, convertible and four-door Gran Coupé) fresh, there's been a gentle facelift and a slightly revised interiors and drivelines.
Just to quickly recap on this car's BMW 3-series underpinnings. That’s a largely steel bodyshell with aluminium wings and a MacPherson strut front and multi-link rear suspension using aluminium links. The 4-series bodywork is unique apart from the 3-series bonnet. The coupé is lowered and stiffened, slightly shorter and wider, and runs on the same wheelbase.
The chassis changes include wider tracks front and rear and uprated damping. With the rear wheel arches pulled out like a Seventies special saloon, the 4-series is anything but retiring; brutal perhaps rather than pretty. It’s also less useful than the saloon, since getting into the rear seats is a chore and involves limbo dancing under the arms that deliver the seat belts to front-seat occupants. Once in there, there’s a surprising amount of leg room, but headroom is in short supply. The 445-litre boot is shallow but large for the class – the cabrio's boot is 370 litres.
All 4-series come with a choice of three petrol engines: a turbocharged four-cylinder delivering 184PS (badged 420i) or 252PS (430i); and the top-model, 326PS six-cylinder unit in the 440i.
There are three diesels: the frugal and tax-efficient 190PS four-cylinder 420d, which is the most popular 4-series model, and two six-cylinder engines, the 258PS 430d and the 313PS 435d, which has four-wheel drive as standard (it’s an option on most of the other models). Gearboxes are a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic, the latter being standard on most of the six-pot diesels and petrol models.
Prices start at £32,580, with the 2.0-litre diesels starting at £35,055. We drove the £41,790, 248bhp/258lb ft 430i convertible and the £43,430 321bhp/332lb ft 440i coupé.
Of the two, the Munich-built coupé is the best looking. The Regensburg-made drophead has a folding metal roof and while its top-down appearance is clean and smart, with the Webasto-made roof raised it looks bumbling and unattractive. Stephan Kessel, the 4-series product manager, says there's a balance between a hard-top roof line that looks good when erected and a low deck line when it's folded; BMW chose a compromise weighted in favour of top down.
"So why not drive with the roof down all the time?" Kessel says. But why have a steel roof at all? Kessel says it's about the desire to offer full model line up and since the 4 cabrio is bookended by the 1-series drophead and a 6-series, both with a fabric roofs, the steel roof is seen as providing as much a model choice as the 4-series badge on the boot. Really?
Body changes are few, there's a new front and rear valance, new LED headlamps and rear clusters and a bit of trim around the front. The interior gets a new steering wheel and trims including dubious brightwork and door-card material that looks sourced from the saucier end of an Agent Provocateur catalogue. You'd be hard pressed to recognise the coupé’s interior from that of any other high-end 3-series and that's the point; the 4-series just takes its starting point from higher up the range.
The trouble is the standard leather feels a bit tacky and the overly thick steering wheel clumsy and unpleasantly abrasive. The switches in the centre of the wheel aren't particularly intuitive to use and while the column gear-change paddles are great, the central gear selector is frustrating - as are the over-complicated controls for the safety and warning options, and the trip computer. This over-elaboration contrasts with the simplicity of the rest of the cockpit, particularly the large speedometer and rev counter.
We drove the four-cylinder convertible first and rather wished we hadn't. It's competent enough, but its turbo engine growls unpleasantly and grinds its presence through the body. You have to fight to get at the power and at the price this didn't seem worth it.
Then we fired up the six-cylinder coupé. Six vcylinders in line, perfect balance with twin camshafts popped on top like a couple of Cadbury's Flakes on a 99, this is where BMW made its reputation. The twin-scroll turbo twist, however, means that the six's endemically sparse low-end torque is filled with turbo whoosh - and what whoosh it is.
The coupé never feels over-powered, just well powered and beautifully balanced. It's all complimented by the lovely ZF automatic gearbox, which is never more than a finger pull away from accessing the yowling engine note and almost contemptuous overtaking power.
The handling, particularly the turn-in, was marred by the winter tyres (it snowed during the launch), but you could feel quality and accuracy there. In contrast to other models on the same tyres (including the convertible) the coupé could still be pushed with confidence and provided enough information through the wheels to let you know what was going on.
And while the low-speed ride was busy and cacophonous over bumps, if you take the winter tyres out of the equation the overall damping control is lovely; soft enough to remain effortless over long distances while being sharp enough for enthusiastic cornering.
On paper this 4-series is just a coupé version of the ubiquitous 3-series. But it's more than that, mainly because of the superb straight-six engine and fine balance.
The £57,965 M4 is faster and more obvious, but in some ways the 440i is a more subtle, and arguably more of a purist's drive. A bit like BMW used to be.
BMW 440i Coupé
TESTED 2,998cc straight-six turbo petrol, eight-speed automatic gearbox, rear-wheel drive
PRICE/ON SALE £43,430/now
POWER/TORQUE 321bhp @ 5,500rpm, 332lb ft @ 1,380rpm
TOP SPEED 155mph
ACCELERATION 0-62mph in 5.0sec
FUEL ECONOMY 41.5mpg/28.25mpg (EU Combined/Urban)
CO2 EMISSIONS 159g/km
VED £810 first year, then £140
VERDICT You can view the 4-series as a slightly cynical attempt to distance BMW from 3-series fleet sales, but the German company has made a fine car – particularly the two-door coupé, which in six-cylinder turbo petrol form is a fine-handling machine. Leave the extra kit on the options list, eschew the lacklustre cabrio but get that six cylinder coupé and you'll have a highly covetable machine. Not all BMWs are the ultimate driving machines, but this one is.
TELEGRAPH RATINGFour stars out of five
Audi A5 Sportback, from £33,090
Better looking than the BMW and more economical. Lovely, well-appointed interior, but watch the options. Not at all bad to drive, but lacks the sparkle of the rear-drive BMW, while the four-wheel drive models are very expensive.
Infiniti G60 Coupé, from £34,305
Two doors, four seats and a choice of 200bhp, 2.0-litre four-cylinder or 400bhp, 3.0-litre V6 power. Nissan's luxury marque looks increasingly quixotic in Europe and no fleet manager in their right mind is going to let you have one, but they're a bit different and handle quite well.
Mercedes-Benz C-class Coupé, from £32,120
The two-door C-class is better looking and classier than the BMW, and it makes a better job of marrying modern connectivity and a good looking cabin. But Merc's V6 petrol engines are not as nice and it lacks the BMW's uncanny ability to make a car feel great on the road.