HOW MANY frustrated racing drivers are there on the road? Judging by the blockbuster success of games like Gran Turismo, millions want to slip into fireproof underwear, pull on overalls and a crash helmet and drive around in circles until the tyres melt.
For most of us, games like this are as close as we’ll come to fulfilling such desires. But for a select few, the engineers at car companies have somehow managed to persuade the money men that the company should build race-ready cars for the road.
This is an expensive business. And that makes the cars as costly as a pouch filled with diamonds. Which means almost nobody can afford to buy them, so the sales can be counted on fingers and toes. Little wonder, then, that bean counters often reach for their ‘PROJECT CANCELLED’ rubber stamp.
How BMW’s engineers manage to keep their fire-breathing pet projects alive under such circumstances is anyone’s guess. It has been crafting high performance cars that are ready for the race track since the 3.0 CSL of the early 1970s, a car so outlandish in its appearance that it quickly earned itself a catchy nickname: the Batmobile.
Some of the highlights that followed include the 2002 Turbo, M1, M535i, the original M3 and the M3 CSL – now all highly sought-after machines.
Late last year, the company launched this, the M4 GTS. Like the hot models that went before it, it’s exclusive – just 30 were allocated to the UK. So there’s little chance of bumping into another one when filling up with super unleaded.
There’s something else that owners will need to fill the M4 GTS with: distilled water. To increase the power of the 3-litre, straight-six cylinder twin-turbo engine, BMW fitted it with a water injection system.
Why? Because it can cool and condense the air going into the cylinders. That reduces knock (irregular ignition), allows for early ignition timing and a high compression ratio, which are good things to have, naturally.
The end result – in this case – is more power. There’s an extra 68bhp, in part because there’s a rather racy Akrapovic titanium exhaust system but mainly due to the trick water injection.
Saab used a similar system on its 99 Turbo, in the late 1970s, and some aeroplane engines have featured it since the 1940s. Compared with conventional engine tuning methods, it’s a relatively straightforward way to give a motor more muscle.
However, the drawback is you have to carry bottles of distilled water in the boot, which soon become dislodged and crash about the place when the GTS’ fantastically powerful carbon ceramic brakes do their best to unseat the driver’s eyeballs. And the five litre reservoir, beneath the boot, needs topping up with water after burning through each tankful of petrol when driving on track, or every second or third tank on the road.
There are other changes befitting of this car’s status as a tyre-smoking, apex-clipping, trackday special. It has orange wheels, which BMW refers to as “666”. There’s an uprated, carbon-ceramic braking system, with calipers painted in gold, in case the wheels weren’t shouty enough.
Behind the wheels sits an adjustable suspension system. A nicely presented tool box is strapped into the boot, so owners can fiddle with things like ride height and the compression and rebound behaviour of the dampers. Will they ever play with this stuff? Not on the road. But at a trackday, it might be fun to experiment – until you get it wrong and the car spins in Eau Rouge…
There are new anti-roll bars, the rear suspension does away with bushes, for a more direct response, and the tyres are Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2. These stick to the road as if by magic.
It’s hard to miss the faintly ridiculous rear wing. Made from carbon fibre (like the roof and bonnet, which is unpainted on the underside, giving you a good look at the weave) it is adjustable, as is the front splitter. A supplementary handbook provides a crash course in mastering aerodynamics.
Inside, cars with the optional (and free) Clubsport package get a half rollcage, painted in orange to match the 666 wheels, a fire extinguisher and six-point racing harnesses for the two seats.
Ah, yes, there are no back seats. And with the rollcage in place, we were left scratching our heads, wondering how to clean the inside of the rear window.
The M4 GTS starts in its ‘Economy’ driving mode. This should be dispensed with immediately, because it makes the car all mealy-mouthed
Who cares? The interior looks fantastic; the driving position is seriously low; the carbon-shell bucket seats feel great; there’s a thick suede-rimmed steering wheel; and the engine start button is calling you. When fired to life, the exhaust note annoys neighbours easily as well as any dispute over boundaries or overgrown trees.
By default, the M4 GTS starts in “Economy” driving mode. This should be dispensed with immediately, because it makes the car mealy-mouthed.Instead, set the driving mode to Sport or Sport Plus. Then the car rolls up its shirt sleeves and unbuttons its collar, ready to duke it out with a winding road or race track. The throttle response sharpens, the exhaust bellows and crackles and the engine gives the car a giant boot up the backside.
By golly, there’s a huge amount of muscle in the middle of the rev range. Flooring the throttle is probably something like how a tennis ball feels the moment Novak Djokovic hits a huge serve.
However, there is a problem: the driver often feels like they’re waiting for the two turbos to wake up. It’s also missing the “zing” that makes the best motor sport engines so spell-binding. Peak power comes at a relatively low 6,250rpm; this is an engine that’s all about brute force, whereas the best race-ready road cars feel like their engines are a blend of metal, noise, sparkplugs and witchcraft.
Sure enough, at the sharp end of the rev counter the engine feels flat and uninspiring – the opposite, in fact, of the previous, V8-powered M3 GTS and the electrifying, six-cylinder M3 CSL. And it’s not a patch on competitors, namely the Porsche 911 GT3.
You also have to steady your right foot. In Sport or Sport Plus, the throttle can set the car shunting uncomfortably when you try to drive it gently.
There’s no shortage of grunt, though. The bare stats can’t capture the way this car can build speed. It can accelerate from 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds and the top speed is 190mph, but that’s just the half of it. Power away from a bend and in no time at all, another corner has arrived at the front of the car. Happily, the brakes are powerful enough to bring on a nose bleed. And the determined response of the front tyres means understeer is never an issue.
The challenge is containing nearly 500bhp, and 442 Ib ft of torque at 4,000rpm, as it attempts set the rear tyres spinning. Here, electronic traction control and stability systems, and an active differential can help greatly, but let’s face it, it would be boring to leave all the nannying safety aids on.
Switch to M Dynamic mode and it’s possible to have tail-out fun without fear of dying in a mangled wreck, as the electronics are still ready to dive in and lend a hand.
The suspension’s damping is perfectly judged. And the feeling of a robust body structure, big brakes, precise and feelsome steering and predictable response from the back axle really mark this car out from a regular M4. This is a precision instrument. But then it should be, given it costs twice as much as the car it’s based on.
It takes time to explore the GTS’ prodigious limits and abilities. And that’s usually a sign of a car that’s built with one thing in mind: driving pleasure.
But you can’t help but wonder what it could have been like with a naturally-aspirated engine that had been tuned the old-fashioned way — using motor sport magic.
Not that it has put off customers, mind you: the GTS is sold out, suggesting quality tools appeal as much as soul-stirring playthings.