It is impossible to begin an assessment of the 2020 BMW 4 Series without first addressing the bold new look.
It is impossible to begin an assessment of the 2020 BMW 4 Series without first addressing the bold new look. More specifically, the oversize grille that has divided opinion more than a simple air intake has any right to.
Some love it and some hate it, while more level-headed individuals remind us of how much we criticized the Chris Bangle-era BMWs for their outlandish looks – BMWs that look positively handsome by some of today’s standards. Perhaps two decades hence we will admire the 4 Series as a stroke of genius.
For me, I think it looks much better in the metal than in photographs, and the situation is further improved by the UK law requiring a front number plate, plus the black paint of the car loaned to me for review. Set against a lighter color and with no number plate, and I think the grille would almost take on a life of its own.
But that’s quite enough of that. The rest of the 4 Series is, to my eyes, a good-looking thing. There is perhaps a touch too much vacant space above the rear arches, but I’m splitting hairs here – and besides, you can’t see all of this when driving it anyway.
Before I get going, a bit of context. The 4 Series is no longer simply a two-door version of the 3 Series with compromized rear headroom. Its coupe styling is now further removed from the 3 Series sedan, thanks to a wider rear end, retuned suspension, a stiffer chassis and lower center of gravity – all of which promises a taught, sporty and agile ride to suit the sharp new look.
Step inside, and the 4 Series instantly reminds the driver that BMW hasn’t forgotten the importance of physical hardware in a car’s interior. Among competition hellbent on replacing every button, knob, dial and switch with a large touchscreen display or haptic feedback, the 4 Series is reassuringly tactile.
There are physical controls for climate, media and driving modes, all of which blend neatly with the company’s famous iDrive system, controlled via a large rotating dial next to the gear selector. For a moment I’m slightly overwhelmed by the switchgear, but am quickly reminded of how much easier the physical controls of an unfamiliar car are to use than a touchscreen full of sub-menus.
The 10.3-inch display is bright and crisp, and can be controlled via touch or by rotating, pushing, tapping and writing or swiping on the iDrive controller. It’s an intuitive system and one that doesn’t require you to reach out and poke at the display if you don’t want to. My only real complaint is how the painted silver plastic buttons for the climate control feel cheap and, when backlit in red at night, are quite difficult to read until better acquainted.
As for technology, all versions of 4 Series come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, along with digital radio and integrated navigation; wireless CarPlay and phone charging are an optional extra, included with the upgraded Harman Kardon stereo.
It’s a sporty interior, of course, and that mood is turned up a notch thanks to M Sport styling details scattered across the 4 Series range. This perhaps sits at odds with this particular 420d’s 2.0-liter diesel engine, 190 horsepower and fairly uninspiring 0-60mph time of 7.1 seconds, but I like it nonetheless. If you want more power the 4 Series has plenty of options to suit, right up to the potent M440i and flagship M4 super saloon.
Also a part of the new 4’s powertrain is a mild hybrid system. Being mild, there is only a small 8kW battery pack and 11 horsepower electric output. But instead of being there to provide an electric-only drive mode, the battery and motor serve to help out the engine and improve economy while lowering emissions. In my native UK, BMW claims a WLTP consumption of 57.6 to 61.4 miles per gallon, and I found it never really dips below 50 mpg in real world use.
The mild hybrid system isn’t entirely seamless. There is sometimes a slight jerkiness in traffic, where the system can’t quite decide whether to kill the engine or not (which is done when coasting and at a standstill), and the regenerative braking cuts in and out, making for occasionally unpredictable pedal feel. It’s not really a problem, but something to observe and account for, and which is most noticeable in heavy stop-star traffic – being in London, this is how I spent much of my time with the 4 Series.
Reach an open road and BMW’s ‘ultimate driving machine’ motto comes to the fore. It’s not an out-and-out sports car, of course, and especially not when equipped with a diesel engine producing fewer than 200 horses, but the car feels tight, compliant and has a sporty edge to it that will reward keen drivers without annoying everyone else with an overly firm ride.
There are far more potent versions of this car, like the M440i with its 3.0-liter, six-cylinder petrol engine and near-400 horsepower output.
BMW believes the entry-level 420i petrol will be the most popular, and that isn’t a surprise. If you cover huge mileage then the diesel 420d reviewed here could make more financial sense, and being fuelled from the black pump means it has more low-down torque and a marginally shorter 0-60 time. I’d personally go for the 420i, but wouldn’t hold a 420d purchase against anyone who feels they will benefit from the superior economy.
BMW offers its xDrive four-wheel-drive system as an optional extra, but it really isn’t necessary unless regular snowfall is a genuine concern.
It should go without saying that BMW has nailed the basics here. The driving position is perfect – or rather, it can be made perfect with a fair bit of tinkering. The car exudes quality, rides well and feels precise, although the variable steering, standard on all models of 4, can feel overly sensitive at speed, slightly too eager for a direction change. But the system also means town and city driving is a doddle, aided by the car not feeling overly large for neither London’s congested roads, nor the country lanes of West Sussex.
I’d normally avoid sport mode in a car with a fairly low-powered diesel power plant, but the extra weight the mode adds helps to dampen and calm the overly-eager steering of normal mode. Once out of the city and pressing on, the 4 Series’ revamped suspension and lower center of gravity give it a stability and nimbleness to match the sporty looks.
It’s something of a cliche, but the BMW 4 Series really is all the car many drivers will ever need. It’s smart and stylish (if you can forgive that front grille…), with a broad range of engines spanning from sensible to seriously quick, a well-appointed and comfortable interior with a surprising amount of room in the back, and lots of tech and comfort features included as standard.
When the roads turn twisty, the 4 Series will also likely put a bigger smile on your face than its equivalent-priced German rivals from Mercedes and Audi.
The looks are certainly divisive, but if you can peer beyond the awkward face the 2020 BMW 4 Series Coupe is a brilliant all-rounder.