Earlier this month, we drove the new BMW G80 M3 and G82 M4 for the first time. Exactly what the cars are like depends largely upon the settings you choose, of which there is a dizzying array to pick from.
The engine, gearbox, suspension and traction control each have three settings, while the exhaust, steering and the brakes (yes, adjustable brake resistance is now a thing at BMW M) each have two. This gives hundreds permutations, 648 if our calculations are correct. The old shortcut buttons have gone too - if you want to change stuff, you need to click ‘setup’ and have a fiddle on the infotainment screen for most parameters. Best you pull up before doing so, as it’s an involved process.
You do at least get programmable ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ buttons attached to the steering wheel, so once you’ve finally nailed down your favourite combinations, they can be stored and accessed quickly. But, as Alfa Romeo)’s ‘DNA’ rotary selector switch proves, it could be so much easier.
Driving down to the G80/G82 M3/M4 launch in ‘our’ Stelvio Quadrifoglio longtermer highlighted where Alfa Romeo still lags behind BMW (build quality and technology) but also where the Italian brand can go one better. The main and quite remarkable difference is how much more drama Alfa has extracted from its 2.9-litre twin-turbo V6 - boosty mid-range aside, the ‘S58’ inline-six in the M3/M4 is pretty underwhelming.
But it’s the DNA switch I really appreciated after the near headache-inducing approach to driver settings in the latest M cars. It’s a really simple ethos that gives you just enough choice to tailor the Stelvio Q for each situation, and no more.
It offers four main modes: Advanced Efficiency (for poor traction conditions), Normal, Dynamic and Race. Each of these changes the settings for the dampers, torque limiter, steering, gear shifts, all-wheel drive system, exhaust valve, throttle sensitivity and torque vectoring.
The dial starts in A, with one clockwise click putting it in N, and another setting it to D. To access Race you need to turn and hold it for a few seconds since the setting ditches the traction control altogether. It’s not something you want to activate by accident, particularly if you’re in the rear-drive Giulia Q on a greasy day.
Dynamic automatically puts the adaptive suspension in the firmer ‘mid’ position, indicated by the damper icon in the middle of the dial glowing white. Press it once and that light goes off, as you’re back in the ‘soft’ damper mode but with the other stuff left as is.
In ‘Race’, meanwhile, the suspension is in the firmest setting, shown by the damper icon glowing red. Press it once, and it goes white, indicating that the dampers are in Dynamic mode’s ‘mid’ option.
If we had one criticism, it’s that switching to Race is the only way to alter the electronic stability control. There’s no halfway house sport traction option, and since non-Quadrifoglio Giulia and Stelvios don’t get the Race option on their DNA switches, you’re precluded from tampering with the ESC at all.
Otherwise, DNA is a great system. It’s so much clearer and easier to get on with compared to a lot of other setups. And since it revolves around a physical control you don’t even need to look at, it’s safe to alter things on the move. The DNA switch provides exactly the right amount of complication in a simple-to-use package. Approaches like that of BMW M or Hyundai N go way too far (there are over 4000 mode combinations in the i30 N, remember), while cars like the Ford Focus ST don’t go far enough, tying in the sportiest engine setting with a ruinously firm suspension mode.
So there you go - let it be known that it isn’t only in the stereotypical areas of passion and flair that Alfa Romeo can best its rivals.