The Clarkson review: BMW 435i M Sport (2014)

I can see the mankini peeking out over your waistband

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WHEN I first moved to London, during the war — with Argentina, that is — Knightsbridge was a quite genteel place full of old ladies and sausage dogs. It was an oasis of calm in the centre of that magnificent 1980s whirlwind. It isn’t any more. Now it’s one of the noisiest places on earth.

This is because it has been bought, pretty much completely, by gentlemen from the Middle East, all of whom drive extremely loud supercars. You can hear them start up from three streets away, and you can hear them leaving the lights from back in Qatar. A Ferrari drove past me last night fitted with exhausts like 120mm guns being played through the Grateful Dead’s sound system. And then there was a Lamborghini with a bark so loud it could frighten an old lady’s sausage dog to death.

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There are rules on how much noise a car can make, but because they are rules they can be broken. Many supercar makers have worked out how. They have noted that the EU noise inspectors, who test a car before it is allowed to go on sale, take their reading when the engine is turning at 3000rpm. So the manufacturer fits a valve in the exhaust system that opens at 3001rpm. This means all is lovely and quiet for the men with clipboards. But then, just after they’ve smiled and put ticks in the right boxes, all hell breaks loose.

Today most fast cars make a racket. Jaguar even fits a discreet little button that enables you to turn the silencer into a trumpet. So when an F-type goes down your street, it feels as if the Royal Artillery has just opened up with everything it’s got. I shall be honest. I like a car to make a noise. I loved the muscle-car rumble you got from AMG Mercedeses before the turbochargers came along. I love the melancholy howl of a Ferrari F12. And the shriek from the Lexus LFA was up there with Roger Daltrey’s scream towards the end of Won’t Get Fooled Again.

So I was surprised and, yes, a little bit disappointed when I put my foot down for the first time in BMW’s new 435i coupé. This is the sporty two-door version of the 3-series. In the past it would have been called the 3-series coupé but BMW has decided to give it a name of its own, which has allowed the stylists to have a freer hand. A much freer hand, as it turns out, because the only panel this car shares with its four-door stablemate is the bonnet.

The rest is all different and all new and nowhere near as dramatic as I’d been expecting. Yes, it’s lower and wider than the saloon — the rear wheels are about 3in further apart — but it lacks visual presence. And on the face of it, that doesn’t sound such a good idea.

When someone buys the two-door version of a four-door car, they are spending more money and getting less practicality. And the only reason they would want to do this is: they want more style. And with the 4-series I’m not sure they’re getting it.

Which brings me back to the noise. Floor the throttle and all you get is a gentle hum, the sound of an engine that is doing a spot of gardening or maybe popping down the road for a pint of milk. It doesn’t really sound as though it’s making much of an effort at all.

Maybe it isn’t. Because even though it’s a 3-litre turbocharged straight six, it’s producing only 302 brake horsepower. That’s 14bhp less than you get from the 3-litre turbocharged straight six in the smaller BMW M135i. What we have, then, is a car that is more expensive than the more practical 3-series and slower than the 1-series. A bad start.

But here’s the thing. While it is extremely enjoyable to put your foot down in an F-type Jag and listen to all those pops and bangs as you lift it off again, I have a sneaking suspicion that after a while it might become wearisome. Certainly if I’m arriving at an adult’s house in my AMG Mercedes I do everything in my power to stop the engine from sounding as if a yobbo is pulling up outside.

So, in the long run, a car that hums rather than shouts might be a more rewarding companion. And a car that is quietly stylish without being tartan might be burgled and vandalised less often. We see this a lot with BMW these days. There was a time when they were brash and driven an inch from your tailgate by men with inadequate sexual organs. But not any more. BMWs have become . . . gentle.

With the 435i you still have the near-perfect weight distribution and an extremely low centre of gravity. The engineers have worked their traditional magic to make everything balanced and just so. It may not be the fastest car in the world but it is extremely rewarding to feel it turn one way as you go round a roundabout and then the other as you leave. Some cars wobble about; some lurch. A BMW just does as it’s told.

A BMW also has extremely impressive antilock braking. Many good cars these days are fitted with a system that cuts in too early. It thinks you’re panicking and about to crash when you are not. A BMW waits for you to be an inch from the tree before it says, “Excuse me, sir. Can I be of any assistance in these troubling times?”

A BMW accepts that you are not a nincompoop. It accepts that you may be a very good driver, and that you may want to have some fun before the electronic nanny tells you to come inside and wash your hands before dinner.

Let me put it this way. If you have an Audi or a Mercedes or a Jaguar, you are telling the world that life is treating you well. If you have a BMW these days you’re not really saying much of anything at all. You’re like the quiet, grey man on the bus. Nobody notices you. And certainly nobody would guess that under your dignified, grown-up clothes, you’re wearing a lime-green mankini.

In the 435i you really are, thanks to a little button that changes the characteristics of everything. Most of the time it’ll be set to Comfort, but you can go to Sport+, which sharpens up all the important stuff. It’s nice. I loved driving this car. I loved being in it as well.

As with all BMWs, there’s no unnecessary detailing, no silly fuss and no superfluous gadgetry. You have a little readout at the bottom of the rev counter that is unintelligible and has something to do with polar bears, but everything else is A* common sense. I even found myself thinking that the optional head-up display was a good idea.

Let’s be in no doubt. The 435i is not for everyone. It is not good value and it is no use for showing-off. But if you miss the way Knightsbridge was. Or if you want a getaway car that no one will notice. Or if you are a grown-up. I can’t really think of any car that is better.

Verdict ★★★★☆

Proof that less can be more


BMW 435i M Sport coupé

2979cc, 6 cylinders
302bhp @ 5800rpm
295 lb ft @ 1200rpm
8-speed automatic
0-62mph: 5.1sec
Top speed:
39.2mpg (combined)
Road tax band:
H (£285 for first year)
Dimensions: tbc
L 4638mm, W 1825mm, H 1377mm

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