New CS version of the M3 has a tough act to follow as the baby brother to the five-star M5 CS

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Which way is the new BMW M3 CS going to go? Its bigger brother, the BMW M5 CS, is perhaps the greatest M car of the current era, a super-saloon that set new performance standards while retaining everyday usability. On that basis, much the same recipe in a smaller package opens up a path for another modern great to emerge.

Yet the M3 CS also shares much of its hardware with last year’s BMW M4 CSL, a fine car but not the icon of the duo of CSLs before it, the fact it was extreme neither here nor there.

Rest assured that the M3 CS “is the little brother to the M5 CS”, insists BMW M development boss Dirk Hacker, who says his team looked to simply “repeat the philosophy” that served them so well with the bigger car. The only real difference, he adds, is that one has eight cylinders and the other six. 

A relief to hear, though you don’t have to drive too far yourself to realise that this is another monstrously capable car that seeks to serenade rather than scare you. 

A disclaimer to start: we didn’t actually get to drive too far ourselves as this was the shortest of first drives in BMW’s first demonstrator, and we covered barely 30 miles. Still, even over this short drive a superb driver’s car was able to reveal itself, one that returns some of the deftness of M3s of old that’s always been lacking in the current-generation BMW M3 Competition

With that in mind, you’ll recall we’ve been here before with M3 CS. When BMW last put a CS badge on the M3 at the end of the previous generation, a power boost of just 10bhp made the billing of it as a new version seem a bit arbitrary, and the type of special to shift the last bit of production at the end of a car’s life. Yet it was about more than the power: in becoming a CS and the numerous other chassis tweaks that went with it, it helped turn that M3 into a more playful machine. 

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This time the power boost to its turbocharged 3.0-litre straight-six engine is 39bhp over the standard M3 Competition on which the M3 CS is based, taking it to the same 542bhp as the M4 CSL. This is achieved mostly by increasing the turbo boost by 0.4 bar to 2.1 bar and by some tweaks to the ECU.

The engine, torque for which remains at 479lb ft, gets stiffer mounts to better connect it to the body, and is hooked up to an eight-speed automatic gearbox driving all four wheels. There are some changes to the active differential to work with the power boost and the all-wheel-drive set-up is more rear-biased, though if you so wish you can make the car fully rear-wheel drive by turning the stability control off. Forgive your correspondent for not experiencing this with a queue of people to drive after me and on unfamiliar roads, though the M3 CS showed no ditch-finding tendencies…

Being all-wheel drive helps the M3 CS record a 0.3sec faster 0-62mph time than the rear-wheel-drive M4 CSL, at 3.4sec. A new titanium backbox is fitted for the exhaust, which sounds louder but not antisocially so over the M3 Competition. 

The steering, chassis and suspension are also overhauled, Hacker saying changes to the shocks, coils and anti-roll bars in particular have all been done to increase the sportiness and track potential of the M3 CS while not removing the M3 Competition’s overall compliance. 

The front alloys are 19in and the rears 20in, and both Pirelli P Zero and Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres are offered, the latter being equipped to our car. Both feature simply to ensure a plentiful supply for buyers due to production demands. On that point, while the M3 CS is a limited-run model, a precise number has not been placed on it.

Those alloys are lightweight, one of a number of weight-saving features and parts on the car that save 20kg over the M3 Competition. These include a new bonnet, air intakes and splitter at the front, and a spoiler and whopping diffuser at the rear. A carbonfibre roof also features as standard, the material used liberally inside as well as to trim the likes of the shift paddles and the exterior mirror housings. Carbon-ceramic brakes are a £7295 option and were fitted to our test car. 

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The front seats are M Carbon buckets, though they are electrically adjustable, a point that Hacker uses to highlight again that this is not an M3 devoid of creature comforts. To that end, and unlike in the M4 CSL, the rear bench remains intact. 

In total around 15% of the car has been changed over the M3 Competition (although the price has gone up by 35%, to an eye-watering £115,900), Hacker saying this is not a better M3 but a different flavour of the M3, one in dynamic positioning terms that settles nicely between the M3 Competition and M4 CSL.

You recognise this immediately. Even in the Road driving mode with everything in its least aggressive setting (the driving modes retain the almost bamboozling level of configurability), it feels a car more alert and alive than the M3 Competition without feeling compromised on the road. It will happily potter through town or cruise on an A-road knowing that its time will come when you find a more enticing run of asphalt.

And when you do… the M3 Competition is no slouch, yet the M3 CS feels substantially quicker across all speeds. There’s a real force to the way it accelerates, the upshifts feeling crisper and even more precise. While the exhaust is louder, the car still has a stealthy vibe and an almost effortless way of gathering pace. Much like the Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio in that regard.

Accelerating with that force, you’d think bumps, scars and crests in the road might keep your hands rather busy on the fantastic-feeling Alcantara-wrapped wheel, yet the suspension does a great job at smoothing everything out. While things happen quickly, it all still feels so predictable and controllable, the body control quite remarkable. 

The ride is unsurprisingly firm but not shockingly so, nor again compromising the car’s broader appeal. To that end, it feels more like an M3 Competition than a car created in pursuit solely of a Nürburgring lap time. That it can do both makes it all the more impressive. 

A track will reveal its limit handling more, but there is so much grip that you really have to push to disrupt the M3 CS’s stability. It turns in very sharply and feels resistant to understeer, a playful on-demand squirt from the rear axle raising a smile when you squeeze the throttle exiting a corner. It can take corners at speeds that an M3 Competition simply can’t, and you’re able to raise more of a smile while doing so. 

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And breathe. On this short first acquaintance, the M3 CS shows that it is able to excite its driver more than the M3 Competition ever can, and it does so while not completely sacrificing the donor car’s broader appeal. It’s a welcome development of the M3, then, although the kind of step you’d hope and expect for such a price premium.

Is it worth the price upgrade? That’s the one place where this review will hedge its bets, as more time, miles and familiarity will reveal the answer to that – the M5 CS was worth its own similar hike, remember. Good value or otherwise, the M3 CS is the latest evidence that CS is becoming M shorthand for showing the brand at its very best. 

Mark Tisshaw

Title: Editor

Mark is a journalist with more than a decade of top-level experience in the automotive industry. He first joined Autocar in 2009, having previously worked in local newspapers. He has held several roles at Autocar, including news editor, deputy editor, digital editor and his current position of editor, one he has held since 2017.

From this position he oversees all of Autocar’s content across the print magazine, autocar.co.uk website, social media, video, and podcast channels, as well as our recent launch, Autocar Business. Mark regularly interviews the very top global executives in the automotive industry, telling their stories and holding them to account, meeting them at shows and events around the world.

Mark is a Car of the Year juror, a prestigious annual award that Autocar is one of the main sponsors of. He has made media appearances on the likes of the BBC, and contributed to titles including What Car?Move Electric and Pistonheads, and has written a column for The Sun.