The reminder the F82 M4 is always ready to bite comes as a rude shock, even for someone with experience of 12,000 miles in one. Mid-conversation with snapper Sim I pick up quarter throttle in fourth out of a mild-looking kink, opting to ride the new-age turbocharged torque. But my coasting approach means the turbos have gone off the boil and, because of the tall gear, they spool up with an abrupt chuff of boost that immediately overwhelms the tenuous grip of cold Cup 2s on damp tarmac.
But that's OK, because we're chilling with everything in Comfort and the stability control very much on. Hang on, it's not okay after all. Spidey senses told me something was coming but the DSC is caught napping and the urgent, arm-twirling intervention is all mine. I front it out but my grip on the fat Alcantara wheel has tightened just a tad.
This is what happens when you're mooching in an M4 CS in the most relaxed of its many modes? Yup. And this unapologetic nature is why I love it so and consider it the best M of the modern age. Perhaps the best there ever will be. A controversial theory I'm on my way to test against what many consider to be a high-water mark in M3 history.
Is there a more PistonHeads car than an E46 M3? I can't think of one, the CS with its garnish of CSL arguably both peak M3 and peak PH. It's the right vintage and value, straddles the 'digital/analogue' divide and sits bang in the middle of discussions about appropriate size and performance for the public road. It's also a benchmark for classifieds speculators and the argument concerning SMG versus manual will never be resolved. It's basically forum gold.
In both E46 and F82 the CS versions represent best-of compilations for the fanboys. The CSL is rightly celebrated for its hardcore cred and gifts a couple of slight but important upgrades to the CS, while a dusting of GTS attitude without the daft price or practical compromises is enough to elevate the M4 version. As you'd hope, given the £2,400 premium charged in the E46 era has increased more than tenfold, meaning the CS costs nearly £27,000 more than an equivalent DCT-equipped M4.
After some generous last-minute match-making from the BMW Car Club we meet our E46 and its proud owner at the base of a well-known triangle of roads in North Wales. Now sufficiently well-known that the western side is freshly punctuated by boot-cooling average speed cameras. What was that about appropriate performance for modern roads?
Alongside the vein-popping aggression of the M4 the M3 looks dinky. Or, to put it another way, spot on. The E46 always was a handsome car but the M3's stance, and the way the CSL-inspired 19s fill out the flared arches, are finger-kiss perfection. It's the same inside too, the simplicity of the interior tastefully complemented by the odd flash of M branding and a plain, fat-rimmed Alcantara wheel. The close-fitting proportions, manageable on-road footprint and excellent visibility all inspire confidence too. This one's an SMG, the stubby selector 'correctly' configured with back for up and forward for down, its mode switch tailoring shift feel from head-nodding lethargy to driveshaft shredding ferocity as required.
It even looks cool under the bonnet, the slanted-over S54 motor squeezed tightly between firewall, radiator and strutbrace. Everything screams 'proper', the only possible exception being the rather puny looking brakes. OK, the CS got the CSL's bigger rotors but they're still small by modern standards and reveal a lesson BMW only really learned in recent times. Enough gawping, though - time to get on the road.
You know that thing when you ride in a car considered stiff back in the day but, by modern standards, now seems as taut as a 2CV? The E46 CS isn't that car, this sub-60,000 miles example resolutely squeak and rattle free and just the right side of punchy on a road like this. The faster CSL steering rack (14.5:1 rather than 15.4:1) is one of the CS's signature upgrades but it still feels low-geared for modern tastes, albeit with meaningful weight and more natural response than the M4's. Again, it's just... right.
And that engine. M cars have had various cylinder counts and configurations but there's surely no finer thing than a revvy, naturally-aspirated BMW six sucking through throttle bodies. At low revs it's smooth and muscular; as they rise it gets more metallic and steadily angrier. And by the time you're closing on 8,000rpm you're ready to sell your soul to the gods of Bayerische Motoren Werke for one more hit. It needs commitment to hold it there but, as with the M4, I'll argue the case these engines actually work better with two pedals and paddles than they do typically long-winded BMW manuals. I know, shoot me for saying so and all that, especially given the 'CSL with a manual option' has long been the CS's USP. But I'd take an SMG over a manual in the E46 much as I would DCT in the new one. It's not perfect but it's got character and requires application to extract its best. That to me makes it worthy.
Thankfully the tarmac has dried a little by the time I swap back to the M4 and I'm able to appreciate its talents. It feels big, outside wheels slapping cats' eyes as I thread it between dry stone walls before the road opens out into the faster top section. As was, before the addition of the new roadside furniture at least.
The CS has some obvious visual additions over that Austin Yellow M4 I ran as a long-termer, these include the GTS's vented carbon bonnet, carbon Gurney flaps and some utterly gorgeous forged wheels. Inside, door cards made of 'compacted natural fibres' with looped fabric pulls, seat cut-outs and lashings of Alcantara live the 'because track car' dream without actually compromising on creature comforts or practicality. The slash cut exhaust tips also look great and the noise coming out of them is much more authentic. Oh, and another 10hp and 36lb ft is a nice little bonus over the Competition Package version too.
But it's the dynamic changes that really shine through. Picking up from the Competition Pack, the CS has further detail improvements contributing to a significant overall advantage. Admittedly, the confusing range of configurability still leaves you wondering if you'd be having more fun if you'd set the dampers to this or the steering to that. Programming one of your M hot keys to Sport for everything and MDM DSC would be my pro tip after trying every possible combination.
Where the CS really comes together is in those part-throttle, fast-corner-over-a-bump situations I'd have backed out of in my M4 long-termer. Underdamped in Comfort, jittery in Sport and worse in Sport Plus that car was a handful on anything but smooth surfaces, constantly fluctuating contact pressure on the rear tyres and binary boost igniting a blaze of orange DSC light any time you were on it. For all that I still loved it, mind.
There's still a sense of that wildness but the CS is much more resolved, especially as the road dries. The Cup tyres give more weight and authority to the steering and an even sharper front end. And the throttle, stability control and diff all work together, subtly feathering power delivery for maximum traction and pushing the CS hard into the turns as the diff meters the torque across the rear axle. When it goes right you even get an anti-lag style crackle as the clever boost management keeps the turbos spooled while DSC trims just enough throttle to hold the line. Even the damping is now on your side, maintaining consistent tyre contact, even over harsh bumps. This is now an M4 you can really, really lean on and trust, the more so if you keep it high in the rev range where the boost is more consistent and the throttle response nice and linear.
Driving it like this demands you really apply yourself though. Your palms will get sweaty. And you'll be travelling very, very fast indeed. But where most fast road cars reach a natural limit the CS just keeps egging you on, promising more of everything if you'll only commit. There are plenty of big horsepower BMWs with M badges these days. But this is the one the M guys really nailed their colours to.
It's a fast and savage car that'll chew you up and spit out the bits if you're not up to the challenge. And for that reason, I think it's more than a swansong to the F82 - it's a swansong to cars of this type, executed with a defiant raised digit to ideas of restraint and responsibility. Quite simply it's the best M4 we'll ever get. And its M3 equivalent arguably the best we ever had. In both cases it's CS for the win.
SPECIFICATION - BMW M3 CS (E46)
Engine: 3,246cc 6-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual/6-speed automated manual (SMG II)
Power (hp): 343@7,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 269@4,900rpm
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
MPG: 23.7 (NEDC combined)
Price: £51,440 (new) c. £20,000-up
SPECIFICATION - BMW M4 CS (F82)
Engine: 2,979cc 6-cyl twin-turbo
Transmission: 7-speed M DCT dual-clutch auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 460@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 442@4,000-5,380rpm
Top speed: 174mph (limited)
Weight: 1,655kg (EU with 75kg driver)
MPG: 33.6mpg (combined)
Price: £89,070 (£96,120 as tested, comprising Lime Rock Grey paint £2,600; Reversing Assist Camera £330; Sun Protection Glass £320; BMW Icon Adaptive LED headlights £1,200; BMW M Head-up Display £825; Apple CarPlay preparation £235; Online Entertainment £160; M Alcantara steering wheel £375; speed limit display £220; delivery and registration £785)
1 / 23
Chat about all things motoring
The Pie & Piston
Chat about everything else…
Win on Sunday, talk about it on Monday
Not all cars are created equal
Meet your hero Matt Bird in person
Need to get something off your chest?