Payne: Big BMW M440i Grille-zilla still has the moves

Posted by Talbot Payne on April 5, 2021

The compact-class, BMW 3-series has grown a lot in the past 20 years. Check out the all-new 2021 BMW M440i Coupe prowling my driveway.

Once the 3-series was offered as both a coupe and a sedan, but in 2014 the coupe grew its own dedicated 4-series badge. That new line grew M trims like my 6-cylinder M Performance tester (in addition to a turbo-4-powered M Sport and fire-breathing M4). Its pant size grew, too. The ’21 coupe’s wheelbase has grown nearly half a foot and 450 pounds over my 2001 BMW M3 Coupe. Its wheelbase and weight are about equal to a 2004 5-series, for goodness sake.

And then there’s the twin-kidney grille.

The 2021 BMW M440i gets goodies like a powerful inline-6 engine, rear differential and taut suspension. It's not quite the 503-horse M4 monster, but it's got plenty of giddy-up.

M440i is the first car model to feature grille-zilla — full-fascia kidneys that look like they were taken off the X7 SUV. They are huge. They provoke heated arguments among BMW faithful about whether the grille makes the 4-series look bold — or like a buck-toothed gopher.

But one thing hasn’t changed. The BMW 3/4 series is still the compact class’ performance standard.

Hustling over Doyle Road’s rollercoaster turns west of Hell, the M440i was true as an arrow. The comfortable suspension that carried me on a magic carpet west from Detroit on I-96 was now taut — like the sinewy thighs of a greyhound — in Sport Plus mode. The balanced torso is an extension of my hands. Turning in to a hard, 90-degree left-hander, the car slid effortlessly across the apex to the edge of the road. Right where I placed it.

The car’s added girth is apparent. Its two tons tip the scales like the 4,068-pound, 2004 5-series of old. But the 4’s modern chassis feels smaller. About 2,000 pounds of that weight gain is the addition of all-wheel-drive, which means more grip. Lots of grip.

On a lonely patch of Doyle, I do a launch control-assisted, 0-60 mph sprint. The grip is instant (Car and Driver recorded an impressive 3.8 seconds). The drivetrain roars like a cheetah unleashed.

Ah, BMW’s unparalleled drivetrains. At the heart of M440i is another terrific 3.0-liter inline-6. This one is blown to 382 horsepower with a single turbo — 52 more horses than my 2001 M3 Coupe. The new M4 Coupe (formerly the M3 Coupe — sorry, the alphanumerics will make your brain hurt) now makes up to 503 horsepower by adding a second turbo.

The 2021 BMW M440i weight nearly two tons thanks to all-wheel-drive and lots of electronics - but it can still shred the twisties.

I’ll have a chance to test the M4 sometime soon, but for now 382 horses will do. They make beautiful music.

Sport Plus mode cranks up the volume, filling the cabin with fury. The 8-speed automatic throws off effortless, quick shifts. Diving into a tight right-hander, dual pipes out back bark in rev-marching unison with automatic downshifts. It’s effortless, smooth, intoxicating.

Two years ago, I tested a small-kidneys 2019 turbo-4 BMW 330i M Sport against my (then) brand-new electric Tesla Model 3. Both 55-grand compact sedans. Both rear-wheel drive. Both hot-selling performance compacts.

After flogging them around M1 Concourse’s 1.5-mile Champion Motor Speedway, M1 instructor Alex Della Torre and I emerged with big grins under our helmets. But the question hung in the air: which car handled better?

“The BMW, no doubt,” we both said in unison.

As my 2021 M440i tester confirms, the magic endures. But Tesla has set a new benchmark in technology. The Silicon Valley maker has rewritten the rules with its smartphone-on-wheels experience: voice commands, navigation, screen graphics. Tesla has ridden that experience to the best-selling luxe brand in the U.S.

Everything at your fingertips. The 2021 BMW M440i surrounds the driver in buttons and visual displays to help keep your eye on the road.

For the first time in a long time, the Germans have had to play catch up. M440i is a solid response.

Rather than copying Tesla, BMW has played to its strengths. The California automaker is Apple iPhone simple. The Bimmer is Neuschwanstein Castle posh.

Slip into the M440i and I was wrapped in 14-way, Cognac Vernasca leather thrones. A robotic arm handed me my seat belt (“Your seat belt, mein Herr”) and Mrs. Payne’s on the passenger side too. I expected the coupe’s 112.7-inch stretched wheelbase to add more room to the rear seats, but my 6’5” was a tight fit — though not as tight as a Mustang that requires six-footers to first remove their legs.

The interior of the 2021 BMW M440i is a comfortable place to be with leather seats, sunroof, and layers of digital tech.

In contrast to Tesla’s minimalist three-button cabin, the BMW is littered with buttons. For the starter. For drive modes. Adaptive cruise control. Favorite radio stations. Lights.

Everything but that annoying stop/start button for when the engine stalls at stoplights to gain mpg credits from government regulators. Instead, M440i is equipped with a 48-volt battery (ditching the common 12-volt) to make the transition between stop and start smoother. Mostly, however, it’s there to support the electronic funhouse.

The sculpted dash is dominated by colorful digital instrument and infotainment screens — the latter operated by (take your pick) touch or remote rotary iDrive. Notably, BMW seems to have punted on voice recognition.

“Go to Hell, Michigan,” I commanded.

“Please don’t speak to me like that,” shot back a female voice.

Um. I’m sorry? Stymied, I connected my Android phone, with which I have a better relationship. “Go to Hell, Michigan” was not only immediately recognized by Android Auto (Apple Carplay also comes standard) in the console screen, but it was done wirelessly. What’s more, directions then appeared on the instrument and head-up displays.

That’s a first. Every other smartphone app-capable vehicle I’ve driven segregates smartphone apps to the console screen. In M440i, it’s integrated into all three displays — heads-up, instrument and console — making for a state-of-the-art, visual and voice experience to Hell and back.

The head-up display had other talents. Like scrolling my favorite radio stations via (yet another) button on the steering wheel. The more features in heads-up displays, the better to keep your eye on the road.

Most passersby kept their eyes on that big, fat kidney grille. To my surprise, most approved. I like its retro vibe recalling the sleek 1940 BMW 327 Aero or ’65 2000CS.

Cool peepers. With the 2021 BMW M440i, the German brand brings laser headlights to America.

Shocking as they appear in photos, the kidneys in the flesh are nicely integrated with the nose. Striking blue laser headlights bracket the grille. A lower spoiler and vents frame it like a goatee. Many passersby compared it favorably to the Alfa Romeo’s similar full-faced, tri-logo grille.

Which is appropriate since the Alfa is the rare performance car that can dance with the M440i. The compact Bimmer isn’t so compact anymore, but it’s still got the moves.

2021 BMW 4-series

Vehicle type: Front engine, rear- and all-wheel-drive 5-passenger compact sedan

Price: $46,595, including $995 destination fee ($70,470 M440i as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbocharged, inline 4 cylinder; 3.0-liter turbocharged, inline 6 cylinder

Power: 255 horsepower, 294 pound-feet torque (turbo 4); 382 horsepower, 364 pound-feet torque (turbo 6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 3.8 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 157 mph

Weight: 3,977 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/31 highway/25 combined (M440i xDrive as tested)

Report card

Highs: Grille-zilla ain’t so bad; handling and agility

Lows: Porky curb weight; gets pricey

Overall: 4 stars

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