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Wednesday 8th February 2006


BMW M3 CS

Nick Hall takes one of Bavaria's finest exports and finds there's little it lacks

BMW M3 CS
BMW M3 CS

Niche cars are out of control in the modern world and if you want a two-seater Sports Utility MPV Hatchback Turbo, you’ll find it somewhere. Some are utterly pointless -- think Golf Plus. Some, like the BMW M3 CS, however, are carefully polished diamonds.

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This is a halfway house between BMW’s outgoing BMW M3, soon to be replaced by the new shape 400bhp fire-breathing 3 Series, and the formidable M3 CSL. The strictly limited CSL was launched in 2003 and instantly became a legend, taking the fight to Porsche’s 911 and Ferrari’s 360 but, at almost £60,000, it was an awful lot of money for a 3 Series BMW. It also came with just one transmission choice: the SMG semi-automatic.

Undoubtedly it was the fastest way to change gear at the time and BMW is at the vanguard of movement. But while perfect, clutchless gearchanges are available at the blink of an eye, speed through technology isn’t for everyone.

Taking the clutch and manual box away sterilises the experience and robs the driver of the satisfaction achieved from a perfect downchange on the way into a corner, with the merest hint of opposite lock to catch the slide.

Cars like the M3 are all about those times when the family is at home, a familiar road opens out in front of you and invites you to attack. It’s an aggressive machine and the SMG appeared totally at odds with the ethos of the lightweight, full-blooded CSL.

It makes sense

So this, the last model that will come from the E46 line-up makes an awful lot of sense. At £43,555 it’s expensive, but still in touch with the real world, and it’s different enough from the standard M3 to be well worth the investment – sharing many of its more exclusive predecessor’s features without impinging on its exclusivity.

The CS is something of a CSL-lite, not quite as hair-raising, not quite as loud. Crucially, though, it has a proper gearbox and that makes for a more basic kind of fun.

The £2,400 option package over the price of a standard M3 buys CSL-look 19-inch wheels, bigger front brakes, a faster steering rack and a more advanced traction control system. As the standard M3 is often lauded as the best coupe on the planet, BMW risked gilding the lily with such minor changes, but it has pulled it off.

The extra cost is a mere triviality, but order the Interlagos Blue, red, anything but black. As the CS has no distinguishing badge, a black CS would look like a bad, home-brewed CSL copy and that’s just not the thing to do to an M3.

Inside there’s an Alcantara-clad steering wheel, which adds to the sporting vibe, but isn’t the most forgiving thing on a long trek and could in fact spawn a new generation clad in stringback driving gloves . Still, the seats are far more comfortable than the CSL’s borderline racing buckets and the M3’s overall ride defies belief for a car with such sporting purpose.

The best compromise?

The M3 is the best compromise between performance and practicality outside of the more expensive Porsche 911 range. It’s still firm and the wheel needs a strong hand to keep the car online at cruising speeds, but 300 mile-stints in this car will melt away when you consider the speeds you’ll be doing.

And when this car hits one of those back roads, without a Gatso in sight and tightening off-camber bends, you won’t mind the extra effort in the car park, as the M3 CS truly comes alive.

The quicker and more sensitive steering rack makes has a major plus side, though: racecar-sharp turn-in. It’s as if the front wheels are connected to human hands by nerves, rather than a medley of components.

Bodyroll is negligible and BMW’s famous 50/50 front/rear weight balance means that the 1,570Kg M3 CS will flick through bends with perfect sports car poise. With the electronics off it will slide, but it’s never threatening and you’d have to really provoke it to throw this car into a hedge.

The M3 and the 911 are two of the only cars you can jump into and feel at one with, a car with a crystal clear limit and infinite feedback through the wheel. There’s a reason why the M3 legend is revered throughout the automotive world and it’s a driving experience everyone should try at least once.

Heavy hips

It’s not the lightest machine in the world, thanks to being loaded up with creature comforts and none of the weight-saving measures of the CSL, but a well balanced car can handle a few extra kilos on its hips without sacrificing that all important poise.

The 3.2-litre six cylinder that powers the M3 CS has won the engine Oscars for five consecutive years, which isn’t surprising when you feel how the 343bhp and 269lb ft of torque are delivered.

It accelerates to 60mph in 5.2s and will hit the electronically limited 155mph top speed without trauma. Mid-range acceleration is ballistic and four a car with four seats, it’s hard to believe the response from the inline Six pumping menacingly under the bonnet.

Pushed hard it also produces a metallic scream that will stay with you right till the 8000rpm redline, and potentially forever. Outside of the exotic supercar class, and the V10 M cars, this is one of the finest sounding engines in the world.

Finest driver's car

The new M3, when it arrives in 2007, will boast a 400bhp V8 engine and far more tricks than this machine. Until then and perhaps even after, this will remain the finest driver’s car in the BMW range. In keeping things simple, the Roundel might just have found a niche we can all appreciate.

Author: Nick Hall