This is going to sound like a classic “bad thing is actually good” take, but hear me out: I think the big, ugly nostrils on the BMW M3 and M4 are good, and I’m tired of pretending they’re not. That’s been my view since I first saw the mole rat posts. It’s my view now.
Everybody’s always whining about how cars are focus-grouped and legislated to death and nobody takes any risks anymore and there aren’t any maverick execs executing their vision. But as soon as someone steps even close to the line, everybody sobs and clutches their pearls. “What have you done to the M3!?”
I didn’t encounter the David E. Davis story about the BMW 2002 until I was an adult, and I had no interest in the M1, which came and went before my time. But for a big part of my life, BMWs were the on a separate plane of existence — untouchable cool. Cooler than Porsche and Ferrari because they weren’t making sports cars, they were making hot rod sedans that could run down the sports cars.
I’ll never forget staring at the pie-plate cooling fans stuffed behind an E36 M3's bumper in the parking lot of our local mall, then spotting an M3 Lightweight on Front Street. I’ll never forget sitting in Alex Roy’s M5 and hearing him say it was the last great BMW we’d ever see. I’ll never forget reading Jonny Lieberman’s M Coupe entry in the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage. Seeing a Laguna Seca Blue E46 in the parking lot of the restaurant I worked at in college. All these unassuming cars, tweaked and tousled to deliver big speed for those in the know enough to buy one. The underdog, the q-ship, the wolf in the sum of the sheep’s parts.
In 2021, BMW is not a plucky underdog. Depending on the year, BMW is the leading, or second-leading seller of luxury cars in the world. It builds big, expensive, techie cars and crossovers and it sells the shit out of them, presumably at a good margin. At some point, BMW had to stop making the kinds of cars that formed the contours of its mythology. And stop it did.
It just didn’t know what to do after that.
The consensus among BMW fans, enthusiasts and the media seems to be that BMW itself has been trying to figure out what to do for the last decade or so. There was the i8/i3 detour, a front-drive hatch with a cool roundel on the C-pillar? I have no idea if these cars are still being made. There were a couple of potent but forgettable M cars. (People who would know say that the new M2 CS is great.)
I’ll admit that I — a person who has never so much as owned a used BMW — was once big mad at BMW for “losing its way.” Some of the meanest reviews I ever wrote were reviews of BMWs from the early 2010s. I’m sure at one point I’d have said BMW just needed to recapture the magic of the E39 or E46, or whatever. As German executives were fond of saying last time I saw one in real life, “It is not possible.” If you’re the one counting the money, I’d imagine it’s not even desirable.
BMW can’t fully break free, the M3 still has to be a sport sedan. So it seems like you either break off in a new direction or be endlessly dragged back into conversations about how the cars you’re building today aren’t as good or as engaging or as handsome as the cars you can’t and don’t want to make anymore.
To me, looking at this car, it’s clear that BMW wants to make a break. There’s more evidence in an utterly mortifying try-hard social media effort and more still in that video where the cars are mean to each other. Someone at BMW has made a choice.
The much-maligned Concept 4 of 2019 was the first time in a long while that I got the sense BMW was headed in a direction. It was a break. The design felt familiar, but only tangentially related to BMWs of the past, more referencing than revering. It was also one of maybe three show cars I’ve seen in the last 10 years that I remember at all.
The regular 3 Series and 4 Series come close to delivering on the promise of the Concept 4. The M cars get there. They are perverse, avant-garde, shocking and kind of ugly. At least visually, they’re a firm rejection of a big part of the golden-era BMW ethos. The people who worked on the E39 might recognize them, but they could not have conceived of them themselves.
A lot of cars look vaguely BMW-like right now. The M3 and M4 look like BMWs from another, scarier dimension where people do drugs that come in a vial and glow blue. It’s good, it’s exciting it makes other sedans look dated instantly. BMW has caught shit for designs went where others were not ready — or not equipped — to follow, and they were vindicated. I think they will be here too. Remember how mad people were about the Bangle cars? They may have seemed like another break at the time, but they’re just part of the BMW myth now.
I’m still only vaguely aware of the cars that BMW currently sells. I even lost track of the M cars after, I think the E92s. I haven’t driven the new M3/M4, and I didn’t love the last one. So, I’m not really equipped to say if it’s any good. But as far as styling goes, this is a watershed for BMW. This is something different, an expression of a new ethos. You may not know it now, you may hate it, but it’s what you’ve been asking for.