It’s fitting that a whiff of cordite has settled around the BMW M4. This car is a weapon; a stealthy Bavarian bullet, with an especially menacing air when there’s a smoking shotgun in the boot. I’ve been culling Wiltshire’s population of clay pigeons at the Barbury Shooting School near Swindon, taking a break from my mission on the BMW’s motorway namesake.
This car was honed on the Nurburgring, but it’s the autobahn that established its reputation as the ultimate five-seat express. Due to this, and the riff on the badge, I’ve decided to drive the length of Britain’s M4 motorway from London deep into Wales and back again.
At 189 miles in length, the M4 cuts east-west from Chiswick, past Reading, Swindon and Bristol, and across the River Severn to Pontarddulais, beyond Swansea. As I leave the capital in the mirrors the rain is lashing down, causing a percussive effect on the BMW’s carbon-fibre roof. By the time I exit the motorway at Junction 14, darkness has descended and a fog envelops The Pheasant, a 450-year-old coaching inn overlooking Lambourne, Berkshire’s Valley of the Racehorse. With its 11 guest rooms and cordon bleu roasts, the Pheasant has long sheltered those travelling between London and Wales; originally drovers herding livestock, rather than drivers hurling M4s.
The BMW M4 is a beast, indeed. Exacerbated by the foul weather, it is rather skittish. Woken by the cockerel at The Pheasant, I make the short drive under the motorway to Hungerford to explore the antique shops before rejoining the M4.
While the engine resists pulling at the leash and the suspension does a reasonable job of flattening the bumps, it is still a tauter ride than you’d expect from such a performance car. The BMW may wear a business suit, but it’s got Anthony Joshua’s boxing shorts on underneath. Put it in “track” mode and rumble over the joints of the Second Severn Crossing and you’d better hope there’s an osteopath in your corner.
It’s the bridge’s suspension that has my attention, though. The sun pokes through the charcoal clouds and creates stripes across the black leather interior as it glints between the overhead poles, framing the green Welsh coast in the distance.
At the signs for Cardiff, I slip off the motorway and take the A48 towards the genteel seaside town of Penarth. My destination is the Michelin-starred dining room of chef James Sommerin, on the seafront esplanade near its Victorian pier, with a tasting menu largely plucked straight from the glaucous water lapping the shore - except the partridge, which arrives just before two dessert courses, which hails from my next destination: the Brecon Beacons, where I will be able to let the BMW off the leash.
The rain has stopped and a dry line is emerging on the M4 as I zero in on its closing chapter. The end of the road is signalled by the unremarkable Pont Abraham service station, a McDonalds and a small roundabout. But beyond lies a mecca for sports car drivers. I take the A483 to Ammanford, and then the B-road to Glanaman and Brynamman before plunging into the Breacon Beacons and threading around the emerald hillsides towards the Black Mountains.
The sports setting cannot condone the potholed tarmac, so I keep the suspension on Comfort while selecting Sport Plus for the twin-turbocharged, straight-six engine. The M4 comes to life as the roads get twisty; what seemed harsh and unforgiving before is now sublime and encouraging. This car is capable of accelerating from 0-100mph in 8.6 seconds, but the brakes and chassis ensure it remains planted for the next tight turn.
I’m starting to love this car. I still think it’s too harsh for British roads, and unskilled drivers would find it more than a handful, but a proper “driver’s car” it inarguably is. The best five-seat driver’s car in the world? On smooth roads, probably. The electric power steering is a little on the numb side, but the torquey engine and chassis dynamics are top notch.
I’m headed in a very round-and-about way to The Pig Near Bath for the night, a country hotel promising Wiltshire’s finest pork. So, at Abergavenny, on the eastern edge of the Beacons, I head south down the A4042 before reconnecting with the M4 at Newport and cruising eastwards across the Severn to England. I peel off at Junction 19 for 15 miles, taking the A4174 that cuts between Bristol and Bath before arriving in a deer park leading to The Pig, aka Hunstrete House.
This handsome Georgian manor, purchased by Robin Hutson’s burgeoning Pig empire in 2013, is furnished with characterful clutter. The décor is a credit to Hutson’s wife Judy, who scoured bric-à-brac stores to arrive at country rock star chic. I’m not sure it suits the teutonic BMW all that well, but it inspires my agenda for tomorrow: heading to the gun range.
Hand-eye coordination is clearly a necessity when manning the BMW M4, and one I hone four motorway junctions further along at the Barbury Shooting School, predicting the course of high-flying skeet and blasting them to smithereens.
On the stretch back to London, the M4 munches the remaining miles while its firm suspension reminds one of the abilities that lurk under its business suit. This car is a heavyweight bruiser, a four-wheeled 12-bore designed for sniper-precise cornering and cannon-like acceleration. But it has an Achilles’ heel: Britain’s bloody awful road surfaces.