Give me more less, because less is more

Isn’t it funny how things go? 18 years ago, BMW launched the E46 M3 CSL into an ambivalent world, still relatively unprepared for a machine of such excellence. BMW’s bravery in making such a precisely engineered special edition wasn’t reflected in sales, as dealerships struggled to understand what they had in their showrooms, aided and abetted by lazy reviews from journalists – Clarkson declaring in his usual style that the boot was made of cardboard, and that BMW were charging an extra whatever pounds for a car with less on it. Of course, the truth was a long way from this assessment, and those comments look pretty daft in the light of the plethora of light weight specials that have been developed by pretty well every serious manufacturer – to the delight of the public and journalists alike – in the ensuing years. In fact, the very best from the world of performance cars to hit the streets in the last decade would qualify as ‘less car for more money’.

BMW M2 CS Munich Legends

So, you could suggest that BMW started the whole ball rolling. They weren’t exactly the first, of course, but by taking their game-changing E46 M3 – let’s face it, a relatively humble offering compared, on the face of it, to something like the Ferrari 360 Stradale – they pioneered something that raised the bar higher than a rock star at an after party.

So, what have the boys at the M lightweight division been doing for the last 18 years? Well, it turns out they’re not the hardest working crew out there. They did make a half-hearted stab with the E9X – the scrumptious CRT saloon (5 in RHD) and the impractically orange M3 GTS (25 in RHD) but the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them numbers meant that nobody you know owns one, which is a bit rubbish. Then came the M4 GTS, an unfriendly, overpowered, crashy mess of a car that actually weighed in at only 27kg less than the standard car. A masterpiece it was not.

So, when they announced the new special edition – the M2 CS – the world held its breath. Or I did, anyway. I loved the first, standard M2, after a lukewarm run of M cars that didn’t really float my boat, I felt it was a true return to form. The M2, lets face it, is the spiritual successor to the E46 M3, in a world where the G80 M3 has become a family saloon, wider, and as long as the E39 M5. The M2 feels like a modern update on the E46 M3, with a sublime chassis – a simple but devilishly effective set up with minimal gadgets to distract the driver – more or less one setting and you’re off.

The CS doesn’t have an ‘L’, obviously, and this is partly because it weighs 55 kilos more than the standard car. Yes, you did read that right. What this means, essentially, is that the boys at BMW M are going directly against their own learned lessons. Rather than opt to shed weight, they’ve opted to up the power – 365hp on the standard M2 rises to 444 on the CS (I’m leaving out the Competition here – that’s another story) with torque up from 465 to 550 Nm. It has trick suspension, diff, gearbox and the engine that delivers those extra horses and Newtons is the S55 ‘out of the M4’ rather than the N55 in the original, standard M2. But it is, essentially the same set up, and they’ve ‘solved’ the weight problem with more power. But that never works, does it? The competition version is the bridge here, of course, but that model is nearly 60kg heavier than the standard car. All very confusing.

So, never mind all that – what does it drive like? Well…I’ll be frank; its challenging. Get in, dial everything up to 11 and nail the throttle – and my god – the world around you changes shape in a whirl of spitting gravel, tyres scrabbling for grip, angry engine notes and shattering speed. Even if you’re prepared for action, it will take you by surprise. But unless you’re on track, or perfect tarmac, you’ll run straight into trouble. The tyres just can’t find the grip, the road surface pulls you around so you struggle from steering correction to steering correction, you tram line like a…er…tram and by the time you’ve covered the first quarter mile, you have to stop and rethink. Scared is the word that springs to mind. I tried again and again to nail the thing, searching for grip, stability and fun. I didn’t succeed. So, I set everything to comfort, efficiency and nice. Surprisingly, it didn’t make much difference to the performance, but it did make it more driveable. I remembered that the sport button on the e46 M3 made the throttle almost unmanageable, especially in SMG versions, and that made me feel better.

Well, two days of driving round the Ashdown Forest on terrible road surfaces, potted and rutted like a third world country, gave me a pretty good feel for the CS. By the time my tenure came to an end, I had frankly had enough. The CS is fast, very fast – we’re close to supercar territory here. But to get the feel for what the CS can really do, you simply have to drive like a hooligan. The car is almost perfect on the corners, coping with anything you can throw at it – including mistakes and over-driving (as usual in my case), but if you’re feeling that thrill of approaching the limits of this thing, you are driving too fast, and you’ll go to prison soon.

It’s the ride quality that makes it insufferable. I couldn’t wait to end each journey. The roads in this country are genuinely an embarrassment, but let’s face it – that’s where you’ll want to use it. The CS finds every bump, rolls off the camber, tracks into ruts and generally ruins all the fun. You overtake at your peril if you expect it to be a simple operation – the car heads straight for the far kerb as the horizon slaps you in the face. The combination of immense power and massive instability is certainly disconcerting. On a track, I bet the CS is an animal – but the if I go back to the start of this piece and think about the CSL, I can only say I’m disappointed. You could have fun in the CSL and not drive so fast your wife will leave you in disgust. It wasn’t a car made for daily driving, but at a push, you could just about live with it. And here’s the rub. Like so many things, most modern performance cars seem to be just about more, more, all the time. I’d like to see more less, and less more. Do you see what I mean?

Dan Norris, Straight Six Magazine by BMW Car Club GB (June 2021 issue)

Straight Six Magazine June 2021