BMW M boss Frank van Meel is laughing when I approach. "This is the special car you talked about in Qatar, then?" He nods, enjoying the ruse of developing the BMW M4 GTS in plain sight. Qatar was about a year ago, when we drove BMW's MotoGP Safety Car around the Losail circuit, about 12 hours before it was needed to keep the leather-clad heroes in check. Why go through the trouble of disguising a car and using it only for development days at the Nürburgring when you can have access to some of the world's best tracks and the excuse to drive them quickly? As for the disguise, flashing lights, lots of stickers and wings, and a talented wheelman giving the engineers feedback is a clever setup indeed. Countless millions of people have seen it, too, though very few knew it was BMW's next M car in waiting.
Today we're at the Circuit de Catalunya in Spain, 2.9 miles comprising of 16 turns and a hugely long and fast straight. We start in the pit lane with Van Meel talking me around the new BMW M4 GTS, the specification reading exactly like that of the Safety Car. The suspension is unique to the GTS, though; to the lightweight aluminum control arms, wheel carriers, and axle subframes of the standard M4, the GTS adds ball joint and unique elastomer bearings, along with a coilover setup that's adjustable three ways. The chassis man points out it has 16 clicks for rebound and 14 clicks for high-speed compression, with a further six for low-speed compression. The ride height is adjustable and the antiroll bars are thicker. It's all been uniquely tuned to accommodate the GTS's lower weight, greater performance, and sharper focus. This really is a car that BMW expects its owners to take to the track, and fiddle with those settings to get the very best from it. The aerodynamics are adjustable, too. The front splitter going from mild to wild in its most extreme setting, jutting out front with all the subtly of a Japanese Bozozuko-style body kit in maximum attack mode. The rear wing is a little bit more subtle—but only a bit.
The GTS isn't shy then, and continuing that theme are the busy-looking alloy wheels, shod with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires and part painted in Acid Orange. If you do somehow manage to miss the sight of it, then you'll certainly hear it. A standard M4 is hardly a quiet machine, though the GTS has the measure of it. Titanium exhausts not only shed a few useful kilos from the GTS's curb weight, but also gives it a harder, edgier note. That's as close as you'll get to a race car without upsetting the legislators. There are more options, of course, so you can drop the unsprung mass by another 15 pounds by optioning the carbon-fiber rimmed wheels. U.S. cars don't get the full-on option of the Clubsport package, unfortunately, which includes a 'cage, six-point racing harnesses, and super-lightweight carbon-fiber seats. The 300 examples (out of 700 build run) reaching these shores come with a lightened versions of the M4's regular seats, with the 'cage remaining in the back, as much to avoid anyone trying to clamber back in there more than anything else.
In Barcelona, the M4 GTS is as it'll be sold elsewhere, so there are those brilliant seats and those harnesses, which are cool until you realize you've done them up and not closed the door. Loosening them again to do so and reaching forward, you pull some basic web straps, fitted to simpler door cards, which do without fripperies like stowage bins. That, the 'cage behind you, and the lack of seats that it brings with it, add to the specialist, racing feel. Thumbing the starter button only reinforces it more so, as the 3.0L six-cylinder of the GTS fires with a gloriously indulgent flare, and blipping the gas brings the sort of crackling, exotic metallic shriek that's fitting given its pit lane setting.
Ostensibly, it's the same 3.0L turbocharged six-cylinder engine as that in any other M4. Only here, the M people have added a water-injection system to it. There's some clever science behind it, water and combustion not usually friendly partners, but if mixed right, and by right here we mean before the bang, it's got its uses. A fine mist of water is injected into the intake plenum chamber, its evaporation reducing intake temperature. Significantly enough to improve combustion, while also reducing the likelihood of engine knock and unburnt fuel. All of which allows the M4's 3.0L 'six to feature higher boost pressure as well as earlier spark timing. The net result: power's up, as is torque, which sees the significant numbers rise (top speed) and fall (0-62-mph time) accordingly.
Peak power is quoted as 493 hp, up from the 431 hp of the standard M4, and that new peak is developed at 6,250 rpm. Torque improves to 442 lb-ft at 4,000-5,000 rpm, allowing the M4 GTS to reach 62 mph from zero in just 3.8 seconds. The top speed is limited to 305 km/h, or 189.5 mph here, though despite the additional performance, BMW claims it's just as efficient. Something for nothing then, or at least something for a 5.0L tank of distilled water in the boot where the spare wheel would usually sit. The difference, says Van Meel, is in the upper end of the 3.0L engine's performance, the water-injection system only really effective at 5,000 rpm and above, right up to the 7,600-rpm redline. The reality is different. Despite an engine, which internally is unchanged, it feels quite removed from its regular M4 relation. There's more immediacy, regardless of revs, less obvious lag, the 3.0L's muscularity more apparent everywhere, to the obvious advantage of speed. Where a standard M4 is satisfying to street racers and the types who buy M cars these days, this car appeals to the type of enthusiast who liked the e36 and e46 M cars. While it has more power, it's the power delivery change that matters. No doubt that will be lost on current f8X owners who run out and fret over how to improve their cars' numbers to match the GTS.
Like the numerous M specials before it, there's no real particular element that stands out as defining the GTS. Sure, that engine's stronger, more eager, and—thanks to that freer-breathing titanium exhaust—so much sweeter sounding. But it's combined with a chassis that, thanks to the revisions, allows you to make the most of it. The weight savings are nominal—especially when you consider the bulk added back in by the 'cage—but the entire car feels like there's less mass, creating less inertia, the sensations upped significantly as a result. The first thing that strikes me, as with its Moto GP safety car relation a year or so back, is the steering. The standard M4's steering is, at best, average. The GTS elevates it past good and into the sphere of great. There's an immediate connection, the steering wheel telling you everything that's going on at the front wheels. That's direction, grip, and surface detail, so the unique settings that the M4 GTS rides on are to the enormous benefit of feel. There's no slack, so the turn-in is immediate, removing the numbness that's so apparent in the standard M4. That's on a track, of course, but the people who tarmac Spanish roads so they're glass smooth didn't get the memo when doing the Circuit de Catalunya. It's bumpy and the topography is more road-like than those who access it, which, as Van Meel admits, was a tough challenge to set up the car for. If the steering works here, it'll work on the road, being communicative and rich in detail, rather than busy and overbearing.
On this track, the BMW M people suggest they might have liked to soften the GTS off a bit. That much is obvious following Turn 1, the rear bumping and squirming as it copes with big compressions mid-bend. Thing is, there's no drama in it, the GTS translating what's going on to you with a clarity that would be impressive in something weighing half as much again. It is a detailed, interesting, and hugely engaging drive. Hilarious, too, the chassis allowing a huge amount of yaw from those rear wheels, the GTS flattering its driver, so it's easy to adopt a fast in, slide out approach to cornering, powering out with as much lock on the steering as you like. The brakes are mighty, the carbon ceramic rotors shrugging off the repeated high-speed stops down the main straight, retaining good feel and not going long in the pedal.
If there's a weak link in the setup it's the transmission, the paddle-shifted M DCT automatic feeling like it's playing catch-up, so it's good rather than great, lacking the intimate immediacy that everything else offers up. In short, this is a driver's car, in the vein of the very best. If you don't take my word for it, consider that it's been around another track, yes, that one, in 7 minutes, 28 seconds. That's Porsche Carrera GT fast, or if you want a slightly more contemporary reference, Ferrari 458 Italia. Exotica quick, in an M car. All of which kind of makes the additional money BMW M asks for it seem very reasonable indeed. Take a drive in it and you'll not question that one bit, as it's the car the M4 should perhaps have been from the outset... More of this, please, BMW M.