I was a bit dumbfounded when I learned that BMW sold 60,000 units of the old M2. Ok, sure, in the big scheme of things, 60,000 sales over seven years isn't a ton of cars, but for M cars, it's a lot. It made me realize just how much has changed since the dawn of BMW Motorsports road cars.
These are commodities now. In major metropolitan areas, you see M2s, 3s, 4s, 5s, and their SUV brethren often. The first M cars as we know them—E24 M6, E28 M5, and E30 M3—were a very different proposition. The first M6 cost $58,720 when new and with inflation, that's nearly $160,000 today. These cars were specialized, expensive, and hand-built in extremely small numbers, bought exclusively by those in the know.
With an MSRP of $119,695, $42,700 more than a basic M3, the limited-production 2024 BMW M3 CS brings to mind those first M cars. And in more ways than just the price.
If you hear the name "M3 CS" and think "Hmm, that must be a less-hardcore, four-door version of last year's M4 CSL," you'd be right. That CSL was an aggressive car. Stripped out compared with the standard M4, boosted to 543 horsepower, rear-wheel drive only, and frankly, a handful. I spent a lot of time driving the CSL during Road & Track's 2023 Performance Car of the Year testing, and while it was excellent in certain scenarios, it was brutal in so many others. The ride was unbearably harsh and the combination of ultra-track-focused Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 R tires and aggressive negative camber made it tricky to drive on the road. Merging onto the highway on a warm, dry day, it wanted to spin the tires at half-throttle in third gear; on a wet, bumpy road later in the week, it was all-consuming keeping the thing out of the trees.
There were flashes of brilliance, especially on track, but the M4 CSL was just far too compromised. On paper, the M3 CS appears to write many of the wrongs. It gets BMW M's incredible all-wheel drive system to manage the power and a choice of tires—Michelin Pilot Sport 4S and Cup 2, both more sensible than the Cup 2 Rs. Yet, it gets the 543-hp engine tune from the CSL, as well as its unique front fascia and carbon-fiber hood. There's also a significantly revised suspension system with unique anti-roll bars and helper springs, plus a new tune for the adaptive dampers. The hood, plus other standard carbon-fiber trim contribute to a weight savings of "about 75 pounds," BMW says.
The M3 Competition xDrive was already a pretty serious car, and the CS takes things a step or two further. You notice almost immediately on the road. BMW invited us to Greenville, South Carolina to sample its latest offerings, and the city and suburban roads around the area are rough concrete. The CS is firm and loud, with little wheel travel to speak of, though the dampers do an excellent job rounding off the hard edges. And unlike the CSL, you don't hear rocks and dirt kicking up in the wheel wells and the steering doesn't follow every camber on the road.
With immense torque and an impressively flexible engine in combination with a wonderfully smooth eight-speed automatic gearbox, the M3 CS cruises along with ease. On the windy roads of Paris Mountain State Park just outside Greenville, the CS starts to reveal more of its talents. There's enough torque to fire you between corners without ever exceeding 5000 rpm and using the paddle shifters provides up- and downshifts that are remarkably crisp for a torque-converter auto.
It's the chassis that shines though. The road is generally smooth, but there are mid-corner bumps to be found and even banking in tighter corners. The CS feels unflappable. It's as easy to drive as the all-wheel drive M3 Competition, but with significantly ramped-up body control. Turn-in is razor sharp as we've come to expect from the current M3, and the steering is accurate and well-weighted. The all-wheel-drive system is remarkable, too. Mid-corner, the CS doesn't feel all-wheel drive at all—give a big lift and the nose tucks in wonderfully.
The next day, we drove the CS around the handling course at the BMW Performance Center across the road from its huge Spartanburg factory. Our twisty state-park road was far too tight and narrow to really exploit the CS—here its true brilliance could emerge.
It's a speed demon. Shod with the Cup 2 track tires, the M3 CS hands you lap times on a platter. There's immense power and grip, and the all-wheel drive system helps drag you out of slow corners, of which there are many on this course. An instructor warns to be gentle on the throttle exiting the slowest second-gear hairpin, except you don't really need to be. Get back to power as fast as reasonably possible, and the CS rips forward.
The handling course is smooth, but as our instructors showed, the quickest way around involves hitting curbs and kicking up a lot of dirt. It was a great demonstration of the CS's body control. The extra support here over the standard Competition makes a huge difference, the CS remaining rock solid no matter what.
At one point, I unwisely decided to take the course's fast-sweeping right-hander flat out, which you can do, but it sets you up poorly for the medium-speed left to follow. I realized this, and had to get on the brakes hard before the car was pointed straight. The rear just twitched a little to remind me of my lack of foresight, then the car quickly stabilized and I was able to scrub off speed quickly. That super pointy front-end loves a bit of trail braking to get into the corner, and on exit you just let the all-wheel drive system solve all of your problems. This system is so good, I started to wonder what other of life's problems it could solve.
Without time back-to-back with an M3 Competition xDrive and an M4 CSL, it's difficult to say where exactly CS falls on the spectrum. What is obvious is that it is a best-of-both-worlds thing. Still, its appeal is limited given that an M3 Competition xDrive starts at $85,295, and a similarly equipped example is a little over $10,000 more expensive. Thirty thousand dollars for a CS is no small upcharge.
In that way, and in the way it drives, the M3 CS recalls those first M Cars. Not the best option for most people, but rarer, cooler, and more specialized than the regular BMW fare. These days, M Cars are the regular BMW fare, and the CS is a rare groove. It's not for everyone, and that's the point.
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