The new BMW M3 CS is just like the even-faster M3 was, only even faster than that
What we liked:
• More stable at high speed
• Terrific braking power
• Grip, grip, grip
Not so much:
• Saves only 30kg
• Too-fat steering wheel rim
• Limited in number
The M3 left too many people whelmed: good without the greatness that sparked its predecessors. Then the upgrades rolled in, like the Performance Pack and the Competition and each time it felt sharper. Now the CS is as sharp as it’s ever going to get in this body shape, with more power, (a bit) less weight, Michelin Cup tyres and aero tweaks. And it all works.
There was a time when the BMW M3 was the entire world’s go-to junior sports sedan. No other car-maker consistently made fast, small-to-middling sedans in the M3’s early generations and nobody ever did it as well.
And then the V8 came and the M3 was never the same again, losing its delicious poise in favour of muscle and manufacturing convenience. It returned to its sixiness in the current generation, but never quite regained the delicacy. Instead, it became a junior grand tourer.
M knew all of this. It countered by making the M3 faster with the Performance Package, then faster again with the Competition Package and now with the CS it’s as fast as the road versions are ever going to get.
Only 1200 of these suckers will be built (with Australia’s cars being knocked together next month), and they’ll be a hoot — albeit a hoot at $179,900, which is $10,000 less than the M4 CS Coupe but a full $50,000 upstream of the M3 Pure.
By far the biggest gain in straight-up lap and cornering performance comes from the standard Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. They are wilfully; gloriously sticky things and they’re even reasonable in the rain – at least until the rain gets heavy.
But bolting on sticky rubber and calling the resulting car a new model would be a bit cheeky. So there’s more.
The 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged straight six has been massaged again, now pumping out 7kW and 50Nm more than the Competition Package, so it’s probably just as well they’ve stopped building the standard version.
The Competition Package itself brought the power up by 14kW, but now the CS pumps that out to 338kW of power at 6250 (though it revs out to 7600rpm in all but first gear).
It adds 50Nm to the Competition’s 550Nm of torque, too, with 600Nm on tap from 4000 to an oddly specific 5380rpm.
Then there are other important additions, like the 280km/h top speed that comes with the M Driver’s Package, the wider performance range of the adaptive M suspension, the active M differential and a CFRP bonnet to go with the exposed carbon-fibre roof.
M has ditched the centre console and armrest inside, leaving only a lone USB plug behind the handbrake lever, then fitted lighter, heavily contoured front seats.
Does it work?
It’s all enough to haul the CS to 100km/h in 3.9 seconds, which is only a tenth quicker than the Competition, but the real strength of the upgraded engine lies in the way it helps through and out of corners.
It’s deeper and rumblier than you’d assume, too. There’s a sharp crack on start-up, then it settles into an idle that sounds lumpy while not feeling it.
It always starts in its Efficient mode (probably how they get away with an NEDC figure of 8.5L/100km), yet the engine note still has enough menace to be a front-and-centre highlight at kick off.
In Sport or Sport +, it’s a whole ‘nother world, dripping aggression, popping and crackling at every blip of the throttle.
It runs the Sports exhaust system as standard equipment, with the engine’s spent efforts emerging out of four exhaust tips beneath a bootlid-mounted, carbon-fibre spoiler that looks like it’s been swiped off an Alfa Romeo Giulia QV.
For all that, though, the CS isn’t all about its engine, even if its on-paper specifications suggest it should be. It’s all magnesium sump this, variable-geometry-turbocharger that, forged crankshaft here, closed-deck crankcase there, but all you really need to know is that it’s high-tech and it works enthusiastically.
For sure, it’s always there and it’s always ready to attack, especially once it has crossed the 4000rpm threshold.
It’s one of those cars with a performance band so wide that it’s almost always better to short-shift it into a taller gear if you’re approaching a tricky bend or one with bumps in it or lumps across it.
It has three modes to its powertrain’s operating tune, and another three for the steering and the suspension, though they forego the ‘Efficient’ tag in favour of ‘Comfort’.
As usual, Sport + should be used for tracks only, or super-smooth roads. It’s too hard and too aggressive for real-world driving, especially the damper tune, and it’s only ever going to give its best on a closed circuit.
Even then, the car will be faster and handle better with the dampers in Sport mode and most of the time on public roads it will be more stable and give its best with the dampers in Comfort mode.
It feels a bit floatier and slower to respond to the helm, but it will carry more mid-corner speed, more assuredly. Only on the high-speed autobahn, at well beyond 250km/h, did it feel more secure in Sport mode.
We did some track time in the car at an airfield near Munich and even there it was clearly a better car in Sport rather than Sport +, which remains the impress-the-neighbours enigma it has always been.
The main reason for that is that it’s just too hard, giving the Cup tyres less opportunity to bite the road in the way they love and giving the distinct feeling that it’s skipping over bumps that both Sport rides over and Comfort just oozes across.
Its ride quality in Comfort mode is about average for a mid-size sedan, which is a shock given the forged alloys at both ends and the 265/35 R19 front and 285/30 R20 rear rubber.
It all comes together in an altogether more coherent way than any other M3 in this generation, too.
Perhaps the biggest upgrade to help drivers feel secure and confident has been the huge step forward in rear-end stability at high speed, whether over bumps or direction changes or both.
No longer does it feel like the rear bodywork is climbing up, then over, then across and then down. Instead, it feels planted, flat and calm, with just enough action from the rear tyres to thwart understeer and not enough to pucker the privates.
To do all this, M’s suspenioneering folk insist, there hasn’t been any changes in the spring, damper or bush rates at all and none of the geometry from the forged alloy links have changed, either.
They insist it’s all been done with fine-tuning of the skid-control software, which is astonishing evidence for how far that technology has come. The improvement squeegies out the last iffy piece of handling from the M3, leaving you with a confident, poised and cheery companion.
It’s now happy with you if you want to cruise, drive briskly or hammer on a track and its core handling character doesn’t change as you switch between them.
At the tiller
The steering system’s weighting ranges between relatively heavy and really heavy (Sport +), but it’s always accurate and always fast to react.
The only real issue is that M’s steering wheel rims seem to grow fatter and fatter with each passing generation and now the M3’s wheel feels like you’re holding on to a circular, leather-coated Coke can.
It’s happy to cruise along in traffic, with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission susceptible to awkward clunking downshifts only in the two sportier modes. Otherwise, it masquerades as well as an automatic as the rest of the car masquerades at being a street car.
It’s when the roads bend that the M3 CS comes into its own and now, happily, it adds fast-bend security to its resume. And it’s a burgeoning resume.
It whips into bends with brilliantly strong (optional) carbon-ceramic front brakes and a firm, high pedal, then through them thanks to the tyres, largely, and out of them again with kudos to the differential and the DSC.
It all feels balanced in a way that it wasn’t before, and agile in a way that belies the 1585kg dry weight. And that engine just punches and punches and just when you think you’re on top of all of its tricks, you find launch control and it punches even harder.
The beauty of the chassis set-up on these tyres is that it’s avoided the trap of delivering stratospheric mid-corner grip levels but forgetting to add manners when all of that runs out. The M3 CS is a doddle to handle at the edge of its abilities, either with the DSC on or off.
The DSC will allow more liberties with slight drifts into, through and out of corners than it did before, but it will avoid giving you snappy danger zones with the whole thing switched off.
It will just let the heavy steering go lighter to warn you of impending understeer and oversteer is easily controlled via that fat torque curve and the pretty-good throttle response from the turbo motor.
It is better when it’s being utterly attacked and hurled at the corners, too, with more accuracy from the entire car, rather than just more bite, and it’s incredibly forgiving when you push too hard.
The seats don’t have any trouble arresting their occupants during all of this carryon (at least, not the front ones) and the interior is partly surprisingly comfortable and partly obviously stripped out (especially that centre console).
The stock package will include a two-tone leather and Alcantara mix, a Harman Kardon sound system, Navigation Professional for the sat-nav and climate control.
But is it really worth all that money compared to a standard M3 Pure? When you’re pushing through quick bends and revelling in the stability, you almost have to think that, yes, it just might be.
How much is the 2018 BMW M3 CS?
- Price: $179,900 (plus on-road costs)
- Engines: 3.0-litre twin-turbo inline six
- Output: 338kW/600Nm
- Transmission: Seven-speed dual-clutch
- Fuel: 8.5L/100km
- CO2: 198g/km
- Safety rating: N/A