M3: the last word

Do trees have ears? If they do, then this lot providing a dingy canopy over one particular section of the road from Blankenheim to Mayern have heard it all. Maybe they turn their branches in interest for the occasional impatient blare of a flat-plane crank Ferrari V8, or the silky roar of a V12 from Maranello or Sant’Agata. But the guttural bark of a Porsche flat six and the metallic bray of an M-division straight six must be so common as to not even warrant a flutter of interest.

It is their loss today, because this M3 has its throttle pinned from 2000rpm in third gear and my ears are almost beside themselves, craning out over the lowered window. The noise starts with a deep, cultured rumble, but suddenly at 3000rpm it wakes up and roars an ugly, almost rattly sound – like a wrench running along the bars of a lion’s cage. Gradually the induction roar and hiss from the four stubby exhausts overwhelms everything and the note hardens until it’s screaming round to the cut-out. If ever you needed to explain to a little green man with three eyes and a nifty silver space suit why diesels, turbocharged engines and electric motors simply don’t do it like a highly tuned naturally aspirated petrol engine, point them to this straight six.

2023 BMW M3 CS review

Amid all the accelerative fury, a small, yellow road sign in the ditch almost goes unnoticed. It reads simply: Nürburgring.

This is more than just a personal pilgrimage to the ’Ring – it is a journey to see the works M3 GTRs take on the Porsches and Vipers over 24 gruelling hours in arguably the world’s toughest and best annual motor race. And it seems fit to take the M3 CS – the final iteration of the six-cylinder M3 – to watch the V8-powered GTRs in their final race.

Although the CS might have two-thirds of a CSL’s nomenclature, realistically it’s about one quarter of the lightweight special. For an extra £2400 over the regular M3 coupé you get the CSL’s gorgeous 19-inch wheels, drilled brake discs, chubby Alcantara steering wheel and an M-track mode that dials back the stability control’s threshold. But most crucially, the CS also gets the CSL’s tighter steering rack: 14.5:1 versus 15.4:1. And finally – in a move that makes paddle-shift Luddites like me rejoice – it’s available as a manual.

The eight-hour drive east from London is no problem in the CS. One of the real strengths of the M3 that leads to its enormous popularity is that, despite being a 338bhp sports coupé, it is perfectly happy being used everyday for the most mundane of journeys. You notice the wind noise in the old 3-series bodyshell, the interior looks ancient compared with newer BMW offerings and the pedals are nastily off-set, although the Three’s driver focused interior and uncontrived appearance are a pleasing sight to these eyes.The dreary hours of Belgian motorway pass with that engine growling away behind the bulkhead saying: ‘I’m ready. I might be okay behaving sensibly like this, but really I’d like to be going for it. Flat out.’

There is British interest at the front of the grid for the race, as one of the GTRs has reigning ETCC champ Andy Priaulx among its four-man driver line-up (see panel, above). The weather is atrocious as the race gets underway. It looks absolutely terrifying as over 200 cars – everything from an old Mini to a 750bhp Porsche 911 Turbo race car – battle around the 13-odd-mile track in the spray, with 200,000 fans camped around the circuit.

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As night falls I rumble out to the Antoniousbuche section in the M3 and stand next to the access gate for public days, just feet from the main straight before a fast curve under a bridge. The GTRs are audible when they are but a wincing ball of white light on the horizon, a high-pitched wail of racing V8 bearing down on the back-markers like a shark in a swimming pool of goldfish. A rapidly flashing blue light blinks in the top corner of their windscreens to warn the helpless Astra and Civic drivers that something very quick, and very serious, is bearing down on them. There can be no more dramatic sight in motor racing today than to stand here, in the cool night air, watching these awesome cars pass at 180mph with the flickering glow of campfires lighting up the mountains for as far as you can see.

When the moment comes, the CS memorably delivers on the road. Having taken our photographer back to the hotel at around 1.00am, and with grim determination not to sleep during the night’s racing, I turn the CS’s nose back in the direction of the circuit.

Searingly quick along the straights, the CS is a delight to heel and toe down the ’box when the endless hairpins with their cold Armco loom out of the darkness. And there’s so much power oversteer available, too. This CS still isn’t a great communicator through the steering wheel – rather it’s a seat-of-the-pants sort of car – but the easily judged balance lets you play with the angle of the car on the throttle, even when the stakes are high, as they are now between narrow cordons of Armco with a nasty drop over the side. Here you need a confidence-inspiring car and the M3’s chassis gives you just that. And what aides that confidence, and alone makes the CS worth the extra money over the standard M3, is the CSL’s steering rack. Crucially, it removes the small dead-zone around the straight ahead that was the M3’s biggest dynamic blot. Arriving back at the circuit with pinging discs and wide eyes, I mentally file the experience in the ‘drives to remember for life’ folder in my brain.

The GTRs score a memorable one-two, with the Priaulx car coming first, and as the CS leaves the press car park sideways for the last time it seems a fitting end to this chapter of fast Threes – as if the E46 is saying goodbye on all fronts. It seems inconceivable that an engine so raw and full of life will not be in the next M3. This is an engine that speaks to you, that you form a bond with. And yet as the forests of the Nürburgring recede in the rear-view mirror, I am comforted that the straight six may live on in spirit in the forthcoming M2. And, best of all, the next M3 gets a 400bhp V8 – four-fifths of the M5’s monster V10. Knowing the engineering talents of BMW’s M-division, there’s no way it will be anything other than mega. Then, maybe even those trees will turn when they hear an M3 coming…

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Adam Towler

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