My local BMW dealership was having some kind of Un4gettable Test drive event and invited me along to drive some 4 Series (That still sounds odd to me) BMW's, so naturally I said yes.
The said dealership was BMW of Freehold, NJ, and they had both coupe and convertible variants of the 428i and the 435i. The 428i's were all "Sport Line", while the 435i's were all "M Sport Line" Bimmers. They also had some of the competition on hand to test out and compare, like the MB C350 Sport and the Audi A5. I didn't bother with the A5, as I've driven it before and it was a white, convertible, tan interior Audi, not really my bag.
Now I had heard all about the 4 Series before, from various reviews online, but I had never actually driven any of them. What I had heard was, basically, BMW had lost their way a little and the 4 was good, just not as good as BMW's of yore. Everyone says the steering has gone light and vague and the suspension soft. So I went into the drive expecting disappointment, having driven there in an older, highly praised BMW. Now, I only got relatively short drives so I'll keep the review short and note that extended periods of time with these cars might slightly alter my opinion.
BMW 435i M Sport:
First up was the 435i, which in M Sport guise, is simple awesome. The first thing I noticed was how light the steering was. It's considerably lighter than my e36 and various other Bimmers I've driven. However I was in comfort, so I immediately switched over to Sport +, and what a difference it made. The steering weighted up, not to the old school Bavarian level but heavy enough, and the M Sport exhaust opened up. I immediately felt, and heard, the difference. I pull out of the dealer lot in first, (all cars were auto, so I naturally drove exclusively in manual), and put my foot down. There's a nanosecond of turbo lag, then it just rockets all the way to redline, a pull of the right paddle and I completely understand all the hubbub over the ZF 8-speed. Shifts are instantaneous, followed by a lovely little brip-brap from the exhaust, then back on the power. That 3.0 liter turbo six is a gem, it's just so powerful and linear all the way to redline and it's the last word in silky-smoothness. But what really makes it, is that M Sport exhaust, it has such a wonderful growl on power, makes little burps on upshifts and an addicting pop and burble when you lift/downshift. Just wonderful.
Handling-wise, I have no idea why so many journalists give this car a "Ehh it's okay". It really is great fun to drive. At first I thought it was the M Sport suspension that made it, but when I drove the 428i that notion was gone. It really is a great drivers car. Fast, laser-accurate steering (it's a little vague but so is everything nowadays, and it works so well I didn't mind) helps you place this car exactly where you want to and the chassis is so competent, it makes driving fast feel effortless. Just so well balanced. The suspension is lovely as well, really tight and buttoned down, but perfectly comfortable for everyday use, and I was in the firmest setting. It just really is a great car, and if I had the money I'd buy one in a heartbeat.
Mercedes C350 Sport:
Next up, I decided to test out the Benz. It was a C350 Sport Coupe, and it was surprisingly unremarkable. Not that it was a bad car by any means, just maybe showing it's age a bit compared to the 4. As a car it's really quite good actually. It's steering is great with nice feel, engine is strong, if a bit lazier than the 4's, and the suspension was on par. However it had one HUGE caveat; the transmission. I have no idea how Mercedes thinks this is acceptable. In auto it's okay, but it's kind of ponderous so I quickly switched to manual...which was worse. Shifts are hilariously slow, you can almost count two Mississippi's in between gear changes. Maybe it just seemed so slow in comparison to the brilliant ZF 8-speed, but this thing would be unacceptable in a Hyundai, nonetheless a Mercedes. Other than that, though, the Benz is a really nice car. If you can live with the trans, it's definitely worth owning, just nothing really spectacular.
BMW 428i Sport
I honestly think the 428i surprised me the most. This little guy is quick, and I don't mean for a 4 cylinder, I mean plain quick. I couldn't believe it only had 2 liters. I found myself laughing every time I dropped a gear or two and nailed it because the power surprised me each time. Now this car only had the Sport package, not the M Sport, so it had the fixed M suspension not the adjustable one, a slightly toned down interior and no fancy exhaust. It still sounded pretty good, except at idle which oddly sounded like a diesel. But the lack of the fancy suspension and exhaust didn't detract from the fun one bit. Actually I think I had more fun in it. Probably because of the lighter front end, but it just felt more lively, more willing to play and easier to place on the road. Not that the 435i wasn't easy, because it was superb, but the 428i just felt that much better. And because it's lighter and less powerful, it's less intimidating, you're not afraid to fling it through corners. The body rolled a little more, and the suspension wasn't as perfect, but overall I think it was the more fun car.
Add all of that to better gas mileage, and lower price tag and I think the champ here is the 428i. It was was great fun, was only slightly slower than the 435i (but faster than the Benz), looked fantastic, was comfortable and had a really nice interior. For my money, this would be it. I think even if I could afford it's older brother, the 428i Sport in Black/Black would be my car. And I'd even pick the auto, because I've never driven and auto that good and at no point did I wish for a manual.
So overall, the 4 Series is a truly awesome car, and the best of the bunch is the punchy little 428i Sport.