If you’re like me and still waiting for the return of the legendary BMW CSL badge, it could be a while longer yet, or it could be never. Shame, because the 2004 M3 CSL remains one of my most exhilarating driving experiences ever.
It was super lightweight, fast, twitchy and very, very noisy, but it made you feel alive, especially on the narrow country roads in Germany where we got to cane it. I especially remember the race-like bucket seats in grippy Alcantara and the feeling as the SMG slammed through the gear ratios, each time with a proper shove-in-the-back response.
And, the sound, oh that sound. Sheer magic. There wasn’t much in the way of insulation, so it sounded like a factory GT racer at full noise whenever you gave it some hurry-up, which was all the time on that memorable occasion.
You see, it wasn’t a press car from BMW’s HQ in Munich, it belonged to a German doctor mate of ours who also owns the most incredible collection of BMW M3 Evolution models, including a DTM version that he had just purchased for 100,000 Euros. And that was in 2009. You can bet its worth has risen substantially over the ensuing years.
The same goes for the CSL, which was itself rare enough with just 1400 examples built and only 27 units allocated for Australian buyers. Five years later, BMW came out with the hard-to-miss orange E92 M3 GTS in even smaller numbers, which Aussie buyers missed out on entirely.
Next up in the hardcore department came the M4 GTS in 2016 (click here for our review), but with a limited production run of just 700 units and a price tag of around $300,000 plus, they are indeed a rare sight on our roads. They were properly exotic, too, boasting high-tech componentry like a water injection system that helped boost power to 368kW while torque climbed to 600Nm.
The current track-focused two-door formula from BMW comes in the form of the M4 CS (and now M3 CS), one of its most aggressively styled road cars ever. Yet, in the power stakes there’s not much more poke than an M4 Competition with the same DCT transmission, despite wearing a price tag just shy of $190,000 – a $33,000-plus premium no less.
That’s because under the bonnet it packs the same 3.0-litre twin-turbo six, only in this high-strung guise it makes 338kW and 600Nm, but that’s just 7kW and 50Nm more than its less exclusive sibling. In red-light drag terms, it only shaves one-tenth off the Competition's 4.0sec sprint time.
Cashed-up beancounters with a penchant for performance rides can save even more by choosing the $139,900 M4 Pure, which still gets the same engine and seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, but is slower out of the gate claiming 4.6sec to 100km/h.
But it’s not all about launch control and sprint times with BMW’s most potent M4. It’s much more about saving weight and more specialised equipment for those that may want to push harder at the odd track-day event. There are carbon-fibre bits all over the car, including the roof (the Pure gets that too), bonnet, front splitter, rear diffuser and gurney.
Certainly it’s the most single-minded execution of the M4 family currently, boasting more focused kit like split-sized forged wheels (19-inch front, 20-inch rear) shod with sticky (when hot) Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s – the same as you’ll find on Porsche’s hardcore 911s.
There’s more lightweight trim on show inside, too, though nowhere is that better highlighted than by the looped fabric door pulls that have replaced the regular grab handles. Also missing is the standard leather door trim, and in its place you’ll find door cards made almost entirely from compacted natural fibres – meaning there are no door speakers or even door pockets either.
In fact, there’s so little in the way of storage that you’ll struggle to find space for phones, wallets and sunnies if you intend using the CS as your daily driver.
It’s all part of the look from the true race car mantra that says ‘more is less’, and that’s exactly what you get with the M4 CS – well, kind of. There’s still plenty of modern tech and creature comforts on board. There’d want to be, too, for its sky-high asking price.
Stuff like adaptive LED headlights, head-up display, a specially adapted 12-speaker 600W sound system, Navigation System Professional with speed limit information, electric seats and bolster adjustment along with heating for the fronts, DAB+ digital radio, rain-sensing wipers, plus front and rear parking sensors, only form a sample of the M4 CS’s total inventory.
Oh, there’s air-con too, but it’s a single-zone manual system unlike the dual-zone electronic unit in the standard M4. Put that down to weight-shedding, too, though you’d hardly call it a track-ready ‘stripper’.
The subtle seatbelt stripes in M colours are a nice touch, but even the more showy M badges on the front pews that light up when you hit the unlock button look especially cool at night, though some of the guys found that feature a bit kitsch.
Plenty of soft-to-the-touch Alcantara trim around, too, covering the overly thick-rimmed steering wheel, centre console and parts of the dash. The front seat bolsters are covered in the same material as well for proper torso-hugging effect and lifting the ambience of the entire cabin.
There’s also some M4 CS-specific equipment on board, too, like the larger 80mm sports exhaust system with stainless steel tips. But like the M4 Competition, the CS also gets adaptive suspension and an active differential, though with bespoke settings.
All of this adds up to a significant 35kg lighter footprint than its M4 Competition sibling, though up against the bargain-basement DCT-equipped M4 Pure that weight-shedding advantage falls to just five kilos for a kerb weight of 1580kg. Plenty more than the properly stripped-out 1385kg CSL hero Beemer described earlier in the piece.
The last time I drove an M4 CS was in 2017 at Winton, but ever since I’ve personally been keen to try it on regular roads around home base in Sydney, in the hope I liked it just as much as the track session.
Visually, it’s got noticeably more character than any other M4 variant, and if anything, it stands out even more on the road. That alone might be enough to tempt some BMW fan boys with a solid bank account and a craving for exclusivity.
The sports buckets are quite brilliant at holding you in the perfect driving position, but you’re also deeply buried in them, so getting hold of those door pulls each time you climb aboard becomes a bit of a yoga trick after a while. Though, I'm not sure I’d want to give up those seats for anything.
And, call me pedantic, but I just don’t see the point of such an outrageously thick-rimmed steering wheel, which I struggled to get comfortable with even after a week with the car. And especially during longer stints behind the wheel, when my puny-sized hands began to ache. Other high-performance carmakers seem to have found more of a balance in this regard.
No such issue with the noise. Even on start-up, the wake-up bark is louder and more committed than lesser M4s. And there’s more of that angry race car-like snarl finding its way into the cabin too. Give it the beans and you’ll be rewarded with a furious crescendo of a snarl that’s more metallic than the standard M4 (intimidating even) and noticeably more angry than even the Competition version.
And, my god, does it go. Second-to-third-gear thrust is just mighty and it hunkers down and simply never stops pulling. This is proper Porsche Carrera S territory (it's actually quicker) and with all the bells and whistles you could ask for.
However, the low-speed jitters from the CS’s DCT transmission weren’t completely eradicated with the introduction of the LCI updates – at least in Sport, and especially when you’re negotiating roundabouts or pulling out of a busy intersection. And, frankly, it starts to wear a bit thin after a while. Conversely, it’s also a bit doughy in its least-manic setting, meaning it can take a while to effectively learn this car’s seemingly bespoke throttle mapping in the various drive modes.
Put that aside for one minute, and we’re still fans of BMW’s dual-clutch gearbox for its quick shifting in the sportier settings and general character during rapid-fire upshifts and downshifts at full tilt. Only Porsche’s infallible PDK transmission does a better job at this level.
There’s another problem, too. When we drove the car at Winton a while ago, the weather was particularly warm and allowed those track-focused Cup 2 Michelins to reach optimum grip in no time, whereas our on-road experience during much cooler temperatures meant the rear end wasn’t as tied down as much as we would have liked – leading to a more conservative attitude behind the wheel.
The M4 CS can struggle to properly contain its 600Nm output to the rear axle under more enthusiastic throttle applications, making it a bit of a handful at times, and that alone can make it a slightly nervous proposition in the more aggressive settings. It seems far more suited to the track in this regard, which is not exactly what this reviewer was expecting – or wanting. More of a balance would have been ideal.
It’s also a firmer ride than any other M4 Competition, too, not that it should come as any surprise given the CS’s hard-mounted suspension components. And that’s fine, except for the fact that this car is equipped with adaptive suspension with various modes including Comfort. Unfortunately, that’s not the best description of what is still an inherently busy ride over a variety of suburban road surfaces, which is exactly where this car will likely spend most of its time.
In the end, at least for this reviewer, the M4 CS fails to properly excite as it surely should each and every time you climb aboard. It’s not any one thing, mind you, but the sum of many.
Sure, the M4 CS does most things slightly better than any of its M4 siblings, including the Competition version, and there’s no doubt about its exclusivity and standout looks. But ask me if I think it’s worth another 33 grand over the former or 50 more than the Pure with a similar transmission – and the answer would be a resounding no.
I’m still holding out for the next CSL.