Now that it's been spun off from the 3-Series lineup of sedans, wagons, and hatchbacks, you might think the 4-Series would develop a much different personality--maybe more brash, more cocky? It's just not the case, as the slightly lower, slightly more sporty 4er doesn't do much new compared with the latest 3-Series. It fires up BMW's hallmark in-line engines, flicks through gear changes with manual or automatic ease, and grips the road effortlessly, plotting a clear path to the M range with suspension, power, and brake upgrades.
Build a better Supra, and they will come, in other words.
Two engines are offered in the 4-Series. Neither has any numeric relationship with the badge. The 428i sports a 2.0-liter, 240-hp turbo-4 with 255 lb-ft of torque. It can reach 60 mph in 5.7 seconds when fitted with grippy summer tires and either a 6-speed manual or 8-speed automatic, and can reach a 155-mph top speed.
The 435i swaps in a 300-hp, 300-lb-ft turbo-6 displacing 3.0 liters. Performance is as brisk as the last-generation M3, with 60 mph landing in 5 seconds when the 8-speed automatic is specified (it's 5.3 sec for the manual).
Power pours out from either engine in lump-free buckets. The Bimmer is smoother and quieter than, say, the turbo-4 in Cadillac's ATS. The six-cylinder still pulls with the in-line smoothness that quantifies the value of BMW engineering; it accounts for most of its perceptual superiority to the Caddy and, say, the Mercedes C-Class.
Rear-wheel drive is the standard configuration, but BMW offers all-wheel drive with either powerplant.
An 8-speed automatic is BMW's transmission of choice, but it'll fit a 6-speed on rear-drive coupes for anyone that asks, free. The manual's lovely clutch uptake and clean gearchanges are their own recommendation, but the trans is destined to be rare. The automatic comes shame-free, with 8 well-spaced gears, paddle shift controls, and a sport-shift mode that's quicker than any human we know.
BMW's adopted electric power steering, and it's not a welcome development. It weights up evenly, but cars with large wheel-and-tire kits feel too heavy, and don't track as well as they should, given BMW's long history of beautifully communicative steering. A variable-ratio system is offered, but more complexity doesn't usually add up to clearer, more telegraphic feedback.
BMW has composed the 4-Series suspension of a lot of lighter-weight aluminum, and the body is stiffer. It's a fairly heavy car, and it's crept into grand-touring status as a result. To get around its size, BMW lets drivers pick from a few variables-shift speed, damper stiffness, throttle mapping-to give the 4er a wide range of driving personalities. In truth, it feels most alive in Sport and Sport+ modes. It cuts sharply into turns, the 8-speed snaps off instantaneous shifts, the throttle flies, its stability control unlocks a virtual chastity belt.
The next step toward utopia: the M Sport package, with its lower ride height, firmer springs and dampers, 18- or 19-inch wheels, available summer tires, and the option for electronically controlled dampers. With smart concessions to ride smoothness in the form of near-zero body lean, it's as close to a track-ready effort as the 4-Series comes--that is, until that M4 arrives, sometime in mid-2014.