The long-term test car is a staple of automotive media. A manufacturer delivers a car to a journalist, usually for between three and 12 months, so they can see what it’s like to live with.
From the outside, it looks like the ultimate blag – and there’s no getting away from the fact this is an incredibly privileged position to be in.
However, it serves an important purpose, because when a new car is launched we write reviews after a few hours behind the wheel at a carefully prepared launch event. This is enough to get a great idea of what it’s like to drive and what the interior is like, but perhaps not enough to notice niggling ownership issues that may arise.
Having attended the launch of the BMW 4 Series last year, we were offered the chance to run one for six months. I was looking forward to it, because at the launch I was hugely impressed by how it drove and how comfortable it was, so it felt like a car I could happily live with for a while.
And perhaps more importantly, angry internet commenters were up in arms about the styling, with the front grille drawing many complaints. I thought it looked fine in person, so was intrigued to see whether six months with the car would eventually warm me to it.
Running one of these cars is a two-way street. BMW doesn’t just give us the car out of the kindness of its heart. During our time with the long-termer, we run it as our own and write about the experience.
Unfortunately, my test car was delivered just as the UK went into its third national lockdown in January. That would mean that at least half of my time with the car would be spent under heavy restrictions.
It was incredibly frustrating having my drives in the car limited to food shopping and checking on vulnerable relatives, but on the rare occasions I could drive I was reminded why I’d loved the car at the launch.
Ours was essentially an entry-level model. This being a sporty coupe, the basic trim is still pretty impressive, being an M Sport. This means it gets a racier exterior appearance, some gloss-finished parts, heated seats, automatic air conditioning and heated front seats.
We had about £8,000 worth of options on top of this. The bulkiest was the Technology Plus Pack, which at £3,650 adds extra driver assistance, a head-up display, wireless charging and a few other extras. It’s worth getting for the adaptive cruise control alone, but aside from the head-up display the rest of the kit isn’t hugely appealing, making this a pricey extra.
We had the 420i engine option, which is, again, the entry choice. It’s a 2.0-litre petrol engine that makes 178bhp and 300Nm of torque. It doesn’t have the kind of pace you’d expect from a sleek and sporty coupe, but in this specification the 4 Series just works well as a comfortable and stylish cruiser.
There are much more powerful versions that excite, but what impressed me with the 420i is that if you just took it easy and enjoyed the drive it was the perfect long-distance companion. The ride was comfortable, the driving position spot on even for taller drivers like me, and you could easily hit 40mpg.
My one complaint in this regard, though, could be related to the seat design. If I was doing a two-hour-plus journey, I’d find I got a hint of pins and needles in my left leg. Such journeys are rare for most, but as lockdown restrictions eased and new car events started up again, I found myself doing two or three of these a month and getting a little irritated.
Despite the engine performance lulling you into a more relaxed driving style, when faced with curves and no traffic ahead, it could more than hold its own. The steering was light and didn’t inspire huge confidence on turn-in, but the ability to hold on in a turn was present and offered up plenty of fun considering the comfort also on offer.
The 420i’s coupe styling means it’s not the most practical thing, but as a single guy who lives alone and doesn’t have hobbies that require a lot of equipment – even a Smart Fortwo could carry a pair of football boots and shin pads – the BMW’s boot proved more than adequate.
With 385 litres it’s really not bad at all, and ignoring the awkward aperture that would make getting larger items inside difficult, I found that even on the rare occasions I needed a lot of space the boot was more than up to the job.
At one point I joined some friends on a cycle ride, and my bike squeezed in with the seats folded down. It took a bit of jiggery-pokery but it got there in the end!
The perfect example of an experience that would only be had through a long-term test came when the car updated itself. I was really impressed with BMW’s owner apps, which let you find your car using GPS, lock and unlock the vehicle remotely, and even use the parking cameras to check its surroundings.
One day my phone asked if I’d like to update my car. The update was downloaded and sent to the vehicle, which was unusable for about 45 minutes. Once it was done, there were few noticeable changes, but it was cool to know software improvements could be made without needing to visit a dealer.
Interestingly, one change I did notice related to the safety equipment. The lane keep assist, which nudges the steering if it senses you’re drifting out of your lane, is something I turn off on almost every car I drive as I find it irritating and disconcerting.
This turns back on every time you start the car for safety reasons, but I noticed after the update that once I turned the lane-keep assist off I never had to turn it back on.
I’m also convinced the adaptive cruise control’s shortest distance setting made you slightly closer to the car in front, but that might be in my head.
All in all, I really enjoyed my time with the BMW 4 Series. My irritations were minor, nothing went wrong and it was fun to drive as well as being decently economical.
And as for the styling? It really grew on me. It’s awkwardly frumpy from some angles but that front grille looks great and I genuinely like it now.
If you’re looking for a comfortable, stylish coupe, I can highly recommend a 4 Series. And if performance isn’t too much of an issue, don’t be put off by the 420i’s entry-level status…
Model as tested: BMW 420i M Sport Coupe
Price as tested: £48,425
Engine: 2.0-litre turbocharged petrol
Max speed: 149mph
0-60mph: 7.3 seconds
Emissions: 153-146g/km CO2