Track car, family car, potential future classic. The M3 CS does everything a regular M3 does only better… Mostly.
As far as farewell gifts go, the BMW M3 CS is beautiful and heartbreaking all at once. It’s captivating by virtue of being the last of the current-generation F80 M3 line.
While it may be an ‘old car’ by contemporary standards – particularly when lined up against the incoming G20-generation car that will replace it – the anachronisms inherent in its engineering base make it a purist's dream. Of sorts.
If you want to step up to an even more legendary, even more focussed CSL you’re also out of luck. There isn’t one – the CS treatment is (ironically) more like CSL-light, in that it goes easy on the relentless weight saving of last decade’s most iconic M3.
Before a complete descent into M-skunkworks rambling, let’s focus on this monster then. M3. CS.
On approach there are a few obvious hints, depending on your angle of attack. From the rear, a discreet carbon rear lip spoiler and diffuser. At the front, a delicate lower carbon chin and vented carbon bonnet. Or from the sides, BMW’s lightweight 763 M V-spoke alloy wheels finished in satin black.
Move in a little closer and this particular car comes spruced up with a few options, like track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres (a no-cost option), carbon-ceramic brake rotors ($15,000) and BMW Individual paint in Lime Rock ($4400).
The price of entry starts from $179,529 before on-road costs, but a car specced like this one asks for $198,929. Consider that, if you’d been quick off the mark, you could have had an M5 Launch Edition for $1000 more, and the M3’s swansong starts to look a little extravagant.
Mechanically, you do get a little something extra compared to a regular M3 with the 3.0-litre twin-turbo straight six wicked up to the tune of 338kW at 6250rpm and 600Nm from 4000–5380rpm, against 331kW/550Nm in M3 Pure and Competition spec, or 317kW/550Nm for a regular M3.
The fatter torque output puts the M3 CS on par with the race-specced M4 GTS, though that car still boasts a superior 368kW. Gee, this is a real nerdgasm, isn’t it? You can manage 0–100km/h in 3.9 seconds according to BMW, the GTS claimed 3.8 seconds, a regular M3 auto takes 4.1 seconds, and an M3 Competition claims 4.0 seconds. Nerdy-nerdy-neeeeerd.
Probably all for nothing too, with the new X3 M just revealed with up to 375kW and 600Nm. No surprises for guessing what the next M3 is likely to have then.
Be that as it may, the CS treatment also touches on the basic spec of the car, so dual-zone climate control gets turfed in favour of a single-zone semi-auto system (how much weight do you reckon a duo-valve heater tap actually adds?), and the centre console armrest and rear air vents are replaced by an Alcantara-wrapped low-rise console.
Alcantara on the steering wheel and dash trims features punched-out 12-o’clock markers and CS logos respectively… Why add stitching when you can subtract material? Unlike the fabric-loop door pulls of the M4 CS, though, the M3 CS keeps its standard door cards.
So, as a very stripped-out car, you wouldn’t expect too much more, would you? Well, keyless entry goes missing, but rear sun shades are still there. Powered front seats with seat heating, leather trim, colour head-up display, adaptive LED headlights, sat-nav, 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio, DAB+ radio, ConnectedDrive online services, and an 8.8-inch screen with iDrive controller are also along for the ride.
On the more performance-oriented side of things, specifically tuned adaptive M suspension, carbon-fibre roof and propeller shaft, Active M differential, sports exhaust, and a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission all make up the standard specification set.
It’s all pretty spectacular as a package too, if you can drive it like you stole it.
Those Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres (265/35 R19 fronts and 285/30 R19 rears) don’t need an eternity to warm up and keep the M3 affixed to the tarmac like a rat to a glue trap most of the time.
There’s still plenty of play from the rear end, though. It’s not a subject of critical acclaim with everyone at CarAdvice, but the propensity to oversteer on demand gives a sense of race car technicality that requires some finesse to balance. It’s old fashioned and quite a bit of fun as a result.
Buried amongst the three-stage settings for steering, engine response, suspension and gear shift modes are everything from approachable to manic stages, though curiously the start-up default puts the engine in Eco mode, with suspension and steering in Sport.
For daily use, Comfort suspension and Sport steering and engine feel more useful. Good thing you can tailor your preferences via the customisable M mode buttons on the steering wheel. Oh, and while the chunky wheel looks great, it’s just (literally, just a whisker) too fat to grip comfortably, which is a shame.
The front seats narrowly miss their mark too. Incredibly grippy and right-sized in most aspects, but without lumbar support the flat backs are a short-haul proposition. Adjustable bolstering is a nice inclusion for the narrow-framed at least.
Be that as it may, the engine is the star of the show, not the interior bits. It certainly sounds the part too, with more rumble from the pipes from idle right up to redline, and burbly, gurgly overrun in the right conditions without becoming obnoxious, antisocial or over the top.
Throw all of that into a cement mixer and add a shovel load of your favourite road, and the results are pretty spectacular. You can carry big speed into corners and stomp the big carbon-ceramic brakes to great effect – there’s not much pedal travel, but a fabulously sensitive range of adjustment via pressure.
There’s no low-speed squeal or shudder either (at least there wasn’t during our time with the car at the height of summer; results may vary in colder climes), which is a bit of a rarity for serious performance brakes.
The steering has a just-right amount of heft and responds cleanly and accurately to inputs. Comfort mode is a touch too light, and Sport Plus might be too weighty for some, but there’s a real Goldilocks patch in Sport mode.
The M3 CS is a real driver's delight. Obviously enhanced by driver-focussed tech, but still analogue-feeling enough to convey a real sense of driver participation. It can flatter at times, but still urges you to build your skill set.
With four doors and a fully functional rear seat, there’s also the suggestion that, unlike the M4 CS, the M3 CS could be something of a Jack-of-all-trades. It’s not, though. In an urban environment, the CS drops its bundle in many respects.
The throttle tips in a little too aggressively from standstill, which makes grinding traffic shuffles a chore. The suspension’s track-ready rock-hardness tortures over speed humps, driveways, expansion joints and cat's eyes.
While it might not be a popular opinion, there’s not any real need for adaptive dampers either. The car can already hold the road like the Buzzsaw roller-coaster at Dreamworld, in its softest setting. Firming up the ride only adds aggravation, not ability.
You’ll love the crisp shifts and mechanical thumps from the M-spec dual-clutch transmission, but may not be as enamoured with the lurching low-speed characteristics and occasional harsh 2–3 part-throttle shifts around town.
There’s no manual option for the CS either, unlike the rest of the M3 range, though technically a manual would make the car slower. Still, if you’re into DIY shifting, pulling a paddle isn’t quite the same as the ballet between revs, clutch pedal and gear lever.
BMW's cheerful claim of 8.3L/100km fuel consumption deserves scrutiny. The best figure clocked on a highway run was in the high 11s, the worst urban figure was mid 17s, and after a week of just about everything average consumption settled at 15.2L/100km. A figure not out of step with the performance on offer, but another instance of a highly optimistic consumption claim.
If you manage to graze the low-hanging CS-specific carbon front splitter, you’ll have one more thing to lament. Hit the open road and the accompanying tyre noise adds another sour note. Because, the M3 isn’t an everyday supercar in a sensible suit. It’s more of a single-minded chassis trapped in the body of a middle-management executive sedan.
That’s not a bad thing. If every car were sensible and logical, there’d be no reason to get excited about purist special editions like the CS. In fact, the only thing that makes the M3 CS look a little silly is the existence of the cheaper though similarly equipped M3 Pure (the last of which were built last year, by the way).
For exactly $50,000 less you've got a car that, although lacking in ‘specific’ tuning, comes with a decent haul of creature comforts and is so close in performance terms that adding $50K of your own mods – be they from BMW’s accessory catalogue or via the aftermarket – could potentially yield more impressive results.
Collectibles aren’t bought on the basis of logic. Limited numbers and unique specifications mean the CS is, and should remain, desirable as a factory-built pseudo racer for brand devotees.
Not only that, but you can bet the next M3, when it arrives, will pack in more tech. It’ll no doubt be quicker and more powerful. It’ll boast improved athleticism though more advanced software. It will celebrate tighter, more calculated stability and dynamics controls.
In short, it’ll be less about the feel-good experience of the driver behind the wheel, and more of a triumph of BMW’s software engineering departments. That old-fashioned feeling is one of the things that makes this M3 CS great, and made heroes like the M3 CSL before it even greater.