Final hurrah for F80 M3 is a best-of compilation to savor.
When it first landed in 2014 the F80 generation M4 and M3 faced a critical reception. There were few complaints about performance or the insatiable appetite for oversteer. But the power delivery and sound of the new turbocharged engine were criticized while poor steering feel and ride quality were also marked down.
Credit to BMW – it's listened to these concerns and over mid-life facelifts, new options like the Competition Package and introduction of the Porsche 911 GT3-chasing M4 GTS the signature M car has been restored to its proper place as the class benchmark for performance sedans and coupes. This M3 – the CS – takes all of that and wraps it up into one formidable last hurrah. Or, to put it more crudely, a raised middle digit to the haters.
The two-door M4 (also available as a CS) may have inherited the spirit but the four-door sedan is the car that kept the M3 badge and, therefore, has the most to live up to. Arguably it actually looks more dramatic than the M4, despite the sedan format. Thank the need to accommodate the coupe's broader rear axle for that, the wide-arched stance of the M3 giving it a dramatically aggressive look.
The CS is even more punchy, thanks to extensive visible carbon fiber on the front splitter, roof and trunk lid Gurney flap. The hood is also carbon fiber and is taken from the M4 GTS, complete with distinctive cooling vent and accentuated power bulge. Unique grey-painted 10-spoke wheels – 19-inch front and 20-inch rear – are a huge improvement over those featured on the Competition Package and GTS while at the rear slash-cut stainless steel exhaust stubs hint at improvements in the soundtrack department. In Frozen San Marino Blue paint the CS is hot sedan perfection, both understated and yet unmistakably potent, bristling with aggression yet capable of (just about) cruising under the radar.
After the brief flirtation with high-revving V8 power in the previous generation, the M3 and M4 reverted to BMW's traditional straight-six format. Not that you'd describe the S55 motor as old-school, BMW throwing every trick in the book at it to create a modern turbo engine with the character of a classic M-division six.
First launched with 426 horsepower and upgraded to 444 horsepower for the Competition Package, the CS gains a further tweak to 454 horsepower. The torque gains are even more dramatic, going from 406 lb-ft in the standard car to 442 lb-ft.
0-62 mph drops below four seconds to 3.9 and the CS is unshackled by the usual top speed limiter and tops out at 174 mph. And it's utterly savage in its delivery.
Where the first F80s suffered from unconvincing electronic enhancement to the engine sound the CS's exhaust has a more authentic growl, erupting into a searing howl at high revs. And rev it will, the M3 motor delivering typical turbocharged mid-range muscle but also keen to rev out to over 7,000 rpm. At which points life gets very exciting indeed, clever boost management maintaining throttle response even when you're on and off the accelerator.
Stick shift was an option when the F80 launched but, frankly, the fast-acting M DCT seven-speed dual-clutch is a better fit and is fully integrated with the car's active differential and stability control systems.
Another advantage of the turbocharged engine is real-world cruising at 30 mpg-plus. With the potential to halve that if you're really having fun. Unlike the previous V8 you at least have the choice.
There's now a new 3 Series on the block and the fact the M3 feels old-fashioned inside is a sign of how fast-moving and competitive this sector is. There are no complaints about the quality or functionality; it's just clear this is a car from a generation back compared with rivals and the overall vibe is old-school German sobriety.
Traditional BMW fans will like that though, likewise the subtle embellishments added for the CS. These include Alcantara on the dash, steering wheel and center console, the two-tone Competition Package seats with their distinctive lumbar cut-outs and M-braided seatbelts and – hold the phone – a brand new start/stop button, resplendent in bright red.
You sit noticeably lower in the M3 than you do in many newer equivalents, this sporty seating position adding a level of seriousness in keeping with the M division's traditions. Visibility be damned; the fact your sightline is little higher than the top of the steering wheel makes you feel like a DTM driver. Rear seat space? If this is your priority an M3 probably isn't the car for you – see driving impressions for why.
While nobody complained about the F80's performance, the numb steering and spiky damping were genuine limiting factors, especially on wet and/or bumpy roads. The combination of fierce power delivery and fluctuating tire contact patch meant the M3 struggled to get its power down, constantly battling inconsistent grip and DSC interventions. One answer to that was to switch to the more relaxed M Dynamic Mode on the stability control. In BMW's words, this "allows a greater degree of wheel slip, making it possible to perform mild drifts" but the reality was an appetite for oversteer even talented drivers found challenging.
Thankfully modifications to the adaptive dampers, steering, stability control, and Active M Differential have reached a pinnacle in the CS and what was previously scary is now simply exciting. As stock the CS ships with Michelin Cup 2 tires; for this test on wintry UK roads BMW had wisely fitted it with more all-round Pilot Cup Sports but, either way, it's clear the previous wildness has been tamed without being dumbed down.
There's now real steering feel for starters, the wheel gently nudging this way and that while informing you of the M3's naturally focused turn-in. The rack is, perhaps, a tad slower than ideal but the M3 turns in so quickly and naturally you soon learn to live with it and enjoy the way this instantly brings the famous throttle adjustability into play. Zero understeer, maximum oversteer.
It sounds scary but, with the rough edges smoothed off, the CS is simply blisteringly fast, entertaining for drivers of all abilities and utterly thrilling. That it now offers a sense of this on wet and bumpy roads as well as dry smooth ones is a measure of how BMW's evolutionary tweaks to the F80 have reaped huge rewards.
Nothing went wrong, rattled, squeaked or let us down in a week and several hundred miles of hard driving. As you'd expect of a typical one-week press loan but previous experience of six months and 10,000 miles in an early production M4 coupe was similarly trouble-free and BMW's reputation for quality and reliability seems to hold true.
Although now technically out of production BMW still lists the standard M3 sedan at $66,500 MSRP, the $4,750 Competition Package is pretty much a no-brainer given the extra power, 20-inch wheels, M Sport seats and other embellishments.
Whether the step towards $100,000 ($98,250 plus $995 to be exact) for the CS and an extra 10 horsepower is worth it is open to question. Well, it would be for anyone other than die-hard M fans, who'll recognize this car for what it is – nothing less than the pinnacle of the F80 era M3 and the ultimate combination of performance, style and desirability.
Limited production with around 550 of the 1,200 to be produced coming to the US is simply the icing on the cake, upfront cost offset by the fact the CS will always be the one people want and prized accordingly. Your money will be safe. And in the meantime, you'll be having too much fun to worry.