Trying to decide which of BMW’s M cars tops your list of all-time greats is a little bit like trying to rank your children in order of preference. It’s a seemingly impossible task. Let’s assume though that what you want is one standout model that you could be happy to drive for the rest of your life while forsaking all others, a car you can use on road or track, come rain or shine. Well in that case I reckon it’s the E46 BMW M3 CS that sits at the top of the M-power tree.
In order to explain why, it’s first worth examining some of the other contenders from the BMW M back catalogue. For here we’ll find the company’s only mid-engined supercar – the M1 – or the original homologation special, the E30 M3 with its blistered arches and screaming 16-valve four-cylinder DOHC engine. There’s also six generations of M5 to choose between, from the original wolf in sheep’s clothing E28 version to the four-wheel drive, twin-turbocharged offering that’s currently on sale, offering nigh-on supercar slaying performance with five-seat luxury.
ONE CAR FOR ANY SITUATION
If money were no object and I could make do with two seats I’d be championing the delectable M1, but to my mind an M car needs to be able to fulfil the one-car-for-any-situation role. It needs everyday comfort and practicality yet also be guaranteed to thrill when tackling a sinuous ribbon of Tarmac. It needs to be small enough to feel wieldy, yet have enough space for luggage and passengers. And for me the E46 BMW M3 CS hits the bullseye every time.
Those who know their BMWs will be au fait with the fourth generation of 3 Series, but if you’re not here’s a quick recap. The saloon was launched in early 1998 while the mechanically similar coupe (on which the M3 was based) came along 18 months later with the M3 hitting the streets in 2001. And what a machine it was. Every part had been finely honed by M’s boffins to create the consummate all-rounder of the early Noughties. Even when it bowed out in 2006 – after more than 85,000 examples had been produced – it was still winning magazine group tests and exciting owners with its intoxicating mix of performance, practicality and poise.
UNDER THE BONNET
The M3’s 3,246cc naturally aspirated straight-six petrol engine was an absolute jewel, keen and eager to rev, delivering 338bhp at 7,900rpm and 269lb ft of torque at 4,900rpm. As with every M car before and since there was far more to the E46 M3 than a simple engine upgrade, though – suspension, brakes, steering, wheels and tyres, bodywork and interior were all fettled to raise its game to the highest level.
It also went on to spawn one of the most revered BMWs of the 20th century. The M3 CSL was a stripped-out, lightweight model with revised styling, bucket seats, a carbon roof, quicker steering, bigger brakes and a soundtrack to die for thanks to a carbon airbox. And yet this is not the version I’m here to champion. No, for me the CSL isn’t the ultimate E46 M3, in part because it’s fitted with BMW’s clunky Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG), which might be fine when you’re chasing the redline and apices, but proves a pain in the backside for the rest of the time. And talking of pains, the CSL’s fixed-back seats aren’t for everybody.
WHY THE CS IS THE ULTIMATE M3
No, arguably the ultimate E46 M3 is the even more exclusive CS version – just 275 examples were made for right-hand-drive markets – and it combines the best of the standard car and the CSL, featuring the latter car’s faster steering and bigger brakes. It’s that rare thing in that it’s a jack – and a master – of all trades.
It’ll pound the motorways never breaking sweat while returning 30mpg, the fully adjustable leather seats providing the perfect driving position, the taut suspension serving up suitable levels of compliance. It’ll put up with urban drudgery, the engine calm and docile, lugging in sixth gear from 20mph without complaint, and offering seating for five people (at a pinch) and their luggage.
Hit the open road though and the BMW M3 CS comes alive. A press of a rocker switch on the seat pinches the side bolsters a little tighter; the Sport button sharpens up the CS’s throttle response; and the little on/off button on the steering wheel backs off the traction control to allow the chassis to begin to move without letting things get out of hand. Pushing a couple of buttons, in other words, transforms the car from a pair of comfy pyjama bottoms into a pair of lycra running shorts.
INSIST ON A MANUAL
Tricky turns, camber changes, nasty bumps, dips and crests, the M3 takes them all in its stride. To make fast, safe progress you need a machine you can really trust and the CS is it. Grip levels are superb, there’s bags of feel through the hydraulically assisted steering, and the chassis has laser-like precision.
It is worth noting that while the BMW M3 CS was available with the CSL’s SMG transmission, you really should insist on the manual gearbox instead. The SMG might ultimately offer faster shifts but the manual adds to the overall experience and suits the car’s analogue nature. Getting your heel-and-toe downchange just right before scything through a bend is just about as satisfying as driving gets.
All the while that inspirational engine is egging you on. For six years running BMW’s 3.2 straight-six won its category in the International Engine of the Year awards and it’s not hard to see why. The combination of everyday tractability and supercar savagery is classic M GmbH. The way the needle flicks round the tacho from 4,000- to 8,000rpm is simply astonishing and the hard-edged straight-six howl is utterly addictive.
What makes the CS driving experience so special is that the brilliance of the engine is matched by each and every one of the car’s other components, whether it’s the direct and feelsome steering, the controlled ride, the adjustable chassis, or simply the fact the car can also be completely docile. Add this level of driver involvement to the CS’s exclusivity and the fact you can still pick one up for comfortably less than a CSL will cost, and it ensures the CS will always have a place in the pantheon of BMW greats.
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