2023 BMW M3 CS | PH Review

Does CSL fairy dust on an xDrive saloon make for the best M3 yet?

By Matt Bird / Tuesday, 6 June 2023 / Loading comments

If the performance (and most certainly the price) of an M3 CS has grown ever more senior over the years, then the basic premise has endured without much change. In taking some of the best bits from the crazy expensive CSL or GTS track star and lending them to a humbler M3, some fabulous cars have been delivered: more usable than the stripped-out circuit cars, more exciting than the standard model. That was all before the current crop of stellar CS BMWs, as well – both M2 and M5 really are BMW M at its very best – and prior to the G80 arriving as arguably the most complete M3 ever, particularly in the xDrive form that’s the basis of this CS.

Everyone will do well to remember all this silver lining when presented with a £120k M3 in all its dubiously specified glory. The Frozen Solid White with gold wheels is certainly preferable to the new Signal Green offered (and pictured; we’ll update later), and the fundamental proportions are spot on, but arguably the last thing a busy BMW design needed was more going on. The gaping CSL grille looks more incongruous on a four-door model that’s not so obviously focused, the exposed carbon bonnet isn’t nice (see the M5 CS for how to do lightweight panels in style), and the chiselled splitter seems to be there only for the sake of it. On a 188mph 3 Series it surely isn’t, but it feels that those not particularly keen on the styling of the current M3 will only be more vocal in their opinion when presented with this car. Even its staunchest advocates would struggle to call it an improvement.

Happily, the interior is fantastic, even without the four individual buckets of the M5. The CS gets its own bespoke carbon chairs up front, and they’re glorious: they look superb, hold you in all the right places and drop so low you feel almost below the sill – perfect. Once over the outside and ensconced within, the CS sets the tone perfectly.

Immediately it feels a firmer M3, which is a tad concerning given nobody’s ever got out of a standard car reflecting on how pillowy it is. There’s undoubtedly real quality to the CS, however, and that’s evident once beyond walking pace. BMW has given this car a more thorough overhaul than might be expected given the slender remit of a CS and the wider ability of the standard car, with recalibrated dampers as well as new anti-rolls bars and auxiliary springs plus an overhaul of the steering. The result, during a limited test drive on some busy roads at least, feels pretty exceptional, that masterful approach to suspension tuning characterised by the M5 CS on display here as well. This CS can be driven in the Sport Plus suspension setting without issue, something you’d never countenance in a standard M3; there’s always composure, travel and poise to spare, even on broken roads and with 550hp shoving you along. It’s a tauter, pointier M3 with apparently no penalty in terms of refinement or comfort, much closer to the CSL experience than the standard car despite a more modest weight saving.

Even employing a Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyre (as opposed to the track rubber that was mooted in the press release), there’s the sensation of a sharper, more urgent M3, despite officially shaving just 10kg. Presumably, the steering tweaks (including camber and axle kinematics) will have contributed to that impression, with the front tyres measuring the same as standard. Probably the new, more rigid engine mounting has some influence as well; there was always a lot of confidence in an M3 front end, which has now only increased. The precision with which it responds to inputs – and the unshakeable faith that results – are notable improvements. As is what follows, the feeling that M cars do better than any other, as weight transfers back and the rear axle drives you away from the bend in emphatic style. 

The familiar exhilaration is upgraded, too, by just how fast the CS is. Employing the same strategy as the CSL of increasing boost for the S58’s two turbos rather than just ECU fiddling, it delivers a proper thump of turbo torque when they come on song. But such is the formidable ability of the chassis that it’s always exciting and never intimidating. Indeed, with xDrive here (as opposed to 2WD in the CSL), the temptation to light the blue touch paper and romp down the road is even greater. Certainly, this feels no slower than the two-seat M4, punching harder than stock even with the same torque. That said, titanium in the exhaust still hasn’t made for a truly glorious straight-six symphony. At most, you could call the CS sound unique. As with all these G8x cars, the angry, metallic drawl isn’t without character, especially here with more turbo whistle, but you never really yearn to hear more of it.

More so even than the CSL, the CS – thanks, again, to all-wheel drive – has the feel of a Nissan GT-R about it. No, really, and yes – that’s meant as a compliment. The grip and the traction the M3 can summon gives it an indefatigable feel on the road, yet with some nuance and reward as well – just as the big Nissan would do when in its pomp. A car this large that weighs what it does has no right to exhibit this sort of agility and control, the damping quality shining through as it always has in an R35. And the turbocharged performance is, appropriately, off the scale. The GT-R was always dismissed by too many as too tech-laden to be a ‘proper’ driver’s car, and it seems like the same accusation could be levelled at this – but, as tends to happen with a CS, it there does feel like there’s something special going on here. Just a shame it isn’t a fast car bargain like the GT-R once was…

Put it this way: an xDrive M3 remains brilliant, no doubt, and the CS represents a chunky premium over an already pricey car. But by offering little improvements in every aspect of the driving experience, from the way it steers to the way it rides, it’s clear that the CS is far more significant than some great seats and an even weirder grille. If nothing else, a standard xDrive M3, a car that we’ve proclaimed pretty much the best 4WD performance car on sale right now, would – incredibly enough – feel like a step down after the CS. Which is exactly how it should be, really, given the premium.

And, of course, that’s what the badge dictates – a CSL on Cup 2Rs would make for a more thrilling track tool, and a normal M3 would suit the vast majority. But for those after the best that this generation of M3 can offer in every scenario, from searing pace to sumptuous refinement, bundled in with xDrive usability and four-door practicality, the CS appears compelling. We’ll know for certain with some additional driving time. If it transpires that this M3 is cut from the same CS cloth as the M2 and M5, those brave enough to take the plunge will hopefully be consoled by the strong residuals in time that will ameliorate the punchy RRP. Perhaps it will remain a tough sell, yet while there are many valid subjective reasons for not loving this M3, precisely none of them will be to do with how it drives.


Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 550@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 479@2,750-5,950rpm
0-62mph: 3.4sec
Top speed: 188mph
Weight: 1,765kg DIN, 1,840kg EU
MPG: 28
CO2: 230
Price: £115,955 (price as standard; price as tested £123,250, comprising M Carbon ceramic brakes, red calipers, for £7,295)

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