We're on site in Europe for the launch of BMW's new M2 and M5 Competition models, and the new M3 CS rolls onto the stage... let's drive.
While BMW's M Division hasn't followed the 'if it gleams then stick a badge on it' policy that seems to have driven a fair chunk of AMG's booming sales, it is still difficult to keep track of the various strata of cars that get to wear M badges.
At the bottom of the heap are the not-quite M-Performance models like the M240i that get inside the club, but not past the velvet rope to the VIP area. But even above those, and into the realm of the proper single-digit M cars, there are still a confusing number of variants. With the new 2019 BMW M3 CS – short for Club Sport – the latest of these.
Sitting above the M3 Pure and M3 Competition, the CS tops the M3 tree and is essentially a four-door take on the existing M4 CS, albeit with a smattering more creature comforts than its coupe sister. It’s a car that BMW claims has been designed for regular track use and admits that some everyday practicality has been sacrificed to deliver this.
With M cars, extra letters carry premiums, with the CS’s price of $179,529 being $33,000 more than the M3 Competition and $50,000 more than the stripped, whipped M3 Pure. It’s also a number that seems slightly ludicrous when you get into the cabin for the first time and see the old-fashioned grey plastic non-digital ventilation control panel.
It has been carefully designed to look nasty enough to make the buyers of base strippers spring the extra for the full climate. This might save a scant number of grams, but it really cheapens the cabin for no obvious reason other than deliberate piety.
But there are some goodies on the other side of the scales. The CS gains a great-feeling sports wheel wrapped in Alcantara, with this featuring the sort of rally-style ‘Straight Ahead’ stitching at the 12 o’clock position to help you tally turns during the sort of tyre-smoking abuse I soon learn the car encourages.
There is also an Alcantara panel on the passenger side of the dash with an embroidered ‘CS’ logo, as well as some more fabric trim on the centre panel.
The seats are the same heavily bolstered two-tone leather buckets as in the M3 Competition, these having cut-outs that look like they should fit harnesses but don’t. They are both grippy and comfortable, and can be adjusted low for anyone who likes to get their backside as close to the tarmac as possible.
As with the M4 CS, the carbon fairy has been hard at work with the M3 version. The deep-vented bonnet and roof are both made from the stuff, as is the front splitter, rear diffuser, and the aggressively angled spoiler that sits at the back of the tailgate.
Mechanical changes are tweaks rather than major surgery, with the arrival of lighter forged aluminium wheels, some geometry tweaks, a fractionally firmer state of tune for the adaptive dampers, and more aggressive software for the electric power steering, electronically controlled rear differential and stability-control systems.
Oh, and don’t forget the power upgrade: the 3.0-litre S55 twin-turbo six-cylinder having been turned up to 338kW, a 7kW increase on the standard M4 on BMW’s figures.
In short, there are many small changes rather than any single large ones, but the overall difference is still noticeable. The CS feels both rawer and keener than the M3 Competition or Pure, the difference encapsulated in the harder-edged exhaust note that comes from a fractionally freer-breathing sports exhaust system.
On the faster highways that started our drive route in the south of Spain, this had the cabin buzzing with some droning harmonics on constant throttle, but the switch to mountain roads soon had it playing some nicer tunes. It’s not as melodious as the naturally aspirated V8 of the last-gen M3, but its harder-edged note at revs suits the car well. Its ride has a firmer edge, but is still perfectly acceptable with the switchable dampers in their softest setting.
No surprises that there is no discernible difference to straight-line performance compared to lesser M3s.
BMW claims the official 0–100km/h time has improved by three-tenths over the Competition Pack, dipping to 3.9 seconds with the DCT gearbox that is standard – but you’d need a drag strip to tell the CS and the regular M4 apart.
But the CS also has its speed limiter raised to 280km/h, but you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I wasn’t able to confirm its presence in some of the lumpier parts of Andalusia.
But corners are another matter. The CS feels keener to turn, and with more front-end grip to call upon when it does so, thanks to super-grippy Sport Cup 2 tyres and road surfaces that have been sunbaked into the high-50s.
The steering is still lacking something in feel, the electric assistance too light in its Comfort setting and artificially heavy when switched to Sport, but the sheer adhesion on offer – and the quickness of the CS’s reactions – means this isn’t an issue in terms of raw pace.
Get the car turned and locked onto a line, and then you are free to use the throttle pedal to help determine the attitude the rear of the car takes. This ranges from an instinctive tightening and tucking of lines within the full protection of the stability-control system, all the way to switching this off and engaging in the sort of hooliganism that generates enough smoke to be seen from space.
The CS is effectively a last hurrah for this generation of M3, which is set to retire very soon, and as such it feels appropriately like a pinnacle car. Just 1500 will be produced for all global markets, with only a small number of those reaching Australia, and it’s fair to say the rarity is reflected in the price tag.
Beyond choosing between five exterior colours, the only significant choice for buyers on the minimalist options list is whether to go for the carbon-fibre brakes, which carry a sizeable $15,000 supplement, taking the CS to almost $200,000.
That’s crazy money for what is essentially a very highly evolved 3 Series, yet it’s hard not to see the temptation.