Shootout: BMW M4 vs Toyota 86 vs Alfa 4C

 Eye of the beholder

Measuring 1183mm in height the Alfa Romeo 4C is the lowest car here. It even makes the 86 look a lot bigger than it actually is; such is the Alfa’s compact dimensions. It’s beautiful to look at because of the fluidity of its design and the way every crease and panel flows into one another. Despite the gaudy carbonfibre headlight covers there’s nothing ugly about it – truly an astonishing example of Italian car design, taking a large portion of its inspiration from such masterpieces as the Scarabeo concept, 33 Stradale and 8C Competizione. Everything you see serves a purpose, its muscular form tirelessly crafted in the wind tunnel for optimal aerodynamics. Look closely and you’re bound to see whispers of Lotus, Ferrari and even the Lancia Stratos lurking in its DNA.

The Toyota 86 kitted out here in Limited Edition (LE) guise may lack the timeless facade of the Alfa but it manages to project a distinctly Japanese appearance, peppered by a large rear wing that forms part of its model-specific Supra-like body kit. It certainly garners its fair share of looks from admirers but the 17-inch wheels appear too small and unfortunately hamper the visual fanfare.

If travelling incognito is your thing, best you give the Yas Marina blue BMW M4 a skip. The incredibly bright hue makes it standout head and shoulders above the Alfa and Toyota in terms of outright visual clout. Compared with the two diminutive sports cars it’s a behemoth, standing proud on a set of 19-inch wheels housed within four swollen wheel arches. It’s pumped up, ready-to-pounce stance and bulging bonnet are clues of the power that lies beneath, but it’s those fabled M badges scattered about that strike fear into the hearts of its rivals.

Belly of the beasts

Nothing compares to the sense of occasion when climbing inside a brand-new BMW. Not only does the M4 smell delicious, the tactility and quality of the materials used in its composition are indisputable. Settle behind the thick-rimmed steering wheel and you’ll notice that while it shares its basic architecture with the standard 4 Series, a collection of veritable racy garnishing such as carbonfibre trim, grey leather seats and M badges boost its aesthetic appeal. It’s a driver-focused place no doubt underscored by a plethora of intimidating buttons inhabiting the steering wheel and transmission tunnel.

Apart from the red inserts on the seats, steering wheel, gear knob and brake lever surrounds it’s all standard 86 in here. While some may find the red inserts a little on the kitsch side it does lift the ambience of the cabin to a certain extent while injecting a bit of exclusivity, too. It’s not as practical as the M4 but it’s certainly offers more space than the 4C with its 2+2 seating arrangement. There’s nothing intimidating about the simple cabin; you sit low, hunkered down within its belly revelling at prospect of driving it through a slithering mountain road.

Compared to the M4 and 86 life inside the 4C is minimalist. Step over the broad sill, sink into the red leather seat mounted just millimetres above the road, cocooned within a carbonfibre monocoque. The lack of luxury items suggest this car wasn’t designed to be driven every day. Sure, it’s got an aircon and a radio with USB functionality but those are afterthoughts rather than necessities to make the driving experience that much more tolerable. There’s no cubbyhole, the seats offer limited adjustability and the dashboard is composed of hard plastic. As the only genuine two-seater here and with a cockpit dominated by a flat-bottomed steering wheel and a digital instrument cluster, it’s sports car intent is achingly obvious.

Here comes the boom

There’s been a lot of debate around the M3/4’s new engine arrangement, particularly from a sonic perspective but the twin-turbocharged straight-six powerplant isn’t exactly what you’d call speech impaired. Sure, it’s not as obnoxious-sounding as its predecessor due to the muffled effect of the turbochargers but the granular; off-beat idle more than whets the performance appetite. Floor it from standstill and the decibels pick up quickly, roaring all the way to 7000rpm before a whip-cracking boom signals the selection of another gear – a properly loud and addictive exercise. The 3.0-litre delivers 317kW and 550Nm of torque to the rear wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission resulting in a preposterously fast straight line experience. Unrelenting waves of torque result in a phenomenal rate of in-gear acceleration and, more often than not you’ll find yourself tapping off for fear of colliding with the horizon.

Its turbocharged four-cylinder engine may only displace 1750cc but the 4C’s 895kg kerbweight bestows it with a healthy power-to-weight ratio of 198kW/tonne – marginally shy of the M4’s 206kW/tonne. That said it feels just as quick as the BMW, if not quicker thanks to all those wonderful mechanical sound effects. Disappointingly, it shares the same keyfob as the Mito and Giullietta but all is forgotten once you fire up the engine which sounds more like a flat-plane crank V8 than a four-cylinder mite. A couple of throttle prods reveal a lively tone underscored by a cacophony of crackles and pops. Press the button marked A/M, click the right paddle shifter, place the DNA selector in D and floor the pedal. The Alfa responds by screaming off the line in a flurry of revs, flatulence and bass. Unlike the 86 and M4 you hear everything in great detail due to the mid-mounted engine, from the turbo spooling under load to the boost-regulating wastegate which sounds like an asphyxiated squirrel gasping for air at full chat – a sensory experience bar none.

The 86’s naturally aspirated 2.0-litre flat-four boxer produces a healthy 147kW and 205Nm, but could do with a whack more torque to properly compete with the turbocharged BMW and Alfa – they simply blow the 86 away from a performance perspective. While it never feels underpowered its lack torque means it’s unable to keep up on the straights. It’s still an impressive performer however, but it requires a considerable amount of effort from the driver to wring every kiloWatt from the motor. Of the cars assembled here it delivers the only analogue experience, an aspect heightened by a short-throw six-speed manual transmission, neutral steering and a raspy induction noise.

Rhythm and bruises

The Toyota 86 is without a doubt the most balanced machine here. The more you drive it, the more you enjoy how effortless it is to steer through a set of curves. The steering is near perfect delivering a combination of feedback allowing you to confidently lean on the car’s stellar levels of adhesion through twisty transitions. While the ride quality is pretty hard it never feels unbearable which goes to show why so many owners use it every day. Its only real weakness comes in the form of a lack of torque, which causes a loss of momentum and rhythm on corner exit.

At 895kg the 4C is by far the lightest vehicle here but the 40/60 rear-biased weight distribution means the weight balance often shifts from a neutral position to the rear axle resulting in mild understeer. The unassisted steering is a touch vague around centre but it’s still accurate enough to trace the fastest line through a curve. The agility and stiffness of the carbon tub is a testament to how easily it changes direction and the levels of lateral grip are massive and confidence-inspiring. These attributes bode well for the racetrack but don’t quite translate into a compliant on-road performer – it’s just too focused, connected and taxing to use as a daily driver.

On paper the M4 has all the technological gadgets you need to tackle a mountain pass. It’s the most digital of the lot coming with such extras as adaptive dampers, carbon ceramic brakes and seven-speed M double-clutch transmission – all the ingredients to make for a seriously precise drive. It does however have a downfall: its kerbweight. While 80kg lighter than the E92 at 1537kg the M4 is the heaviest car here and naturally takes the driver a bit longer than the 4C and 86 to come to terms with its dynamics. Out on the road the M4 delivers good pliancy over bumps and ruts regardless of mode and the steering is sharp, too – weighty and full of detail. While it’s not the easiest of cars to drive fast, especially on public roads.

Verdict

Despite initial doubts the Toyota 86 proved it does belong here after all. While heavily underpowered, it delivers outstanding value for money not to mention superb steering – completely uncorrupted and full of feel. Nothing came close to the pureness of the Toyota 86 enabling the driver to access almost 100 per cent of its power at all times. Sadly the lack of torque let it down, which exposed it from a performance perspective.

The BMW M4. What a beast. It’s so powerful and torquey that most of the time it’s intimidating to fully exploit. After driving the 86 and 4C the M4 feels almost – dare I say – soft, such is its comfortable ride quality, predictability of the steering and cosseting cabin. Of the three it’s the best all-rounder but we’re not here to choose the most practical coupe… The M4 is fast, no question but as a driver you want the vehicle to shrink around you when driven at its limit and the hairs on the back of your neck to stand up when the engine shouts in anger and, there’s only one car here that manages to tick all these boxes, the 4C.

The Alfa Romeo is far from perfect but its foibles are oddly appealing. Not only is the unassisted steering a nightmare in parking situations, it can go light in fast sweeping transitions and the ride quality is unforgiving at the best of times. Truth be told the 4C is the most engaging, most frantic and purest car here to drive. While it lacks the outright refinement of M4 and 86 when you eventually find the right piece of road and everything comes together in an explosion of sound, emotion, feeling and telepathy you smile because you know you’re driving a precision tool. Would I choose it over the M4 or 86 to drive every day? As a father probably not, but it’s without a doubt the car I’d choose as the ultimate driver’s car of the bunch.

Mandla85

Welcome to my corner of the automotive world! I'm Mandy Lawson, better known as mandla85, and I'm absolutely obsessed with everything related to cars and motorsports. You bet I'm interested if it has four wheels (or sometimes two!) and an engine. For me, cars aren't just a means of transportation; they're a passion, a lifestyle, and an endless source of fascination. I love diving into the world of automotive engineering and design, exploring the latest trends, and uncovering the stories behind the machines. Email / Facebook