Since its debut in 2014, the BMW M4 has faced something of an uphill battle for the hearts and minds of enthusiasts. Part of that can be attributed to an identity crisis created by the automaker's decision to split off 3-Series coupes into their own 4-Series segment, breaking a chain of two-door M3s that dated back nearly three decades. The M4 also had formidable competition not only from its German counterparts, but from domestic offerings that were becoming increasingly capable both in a straight line and when turning, all while coming in at a significantly lower price point.
Beyond market dynamics, of greater concern was the fact that the M4 served as an example of where BMW had ventured off the path forged by cars like the E46 M3 and E39 M5. Lackluster handling, an uninspired (and partially fabricated) engine soundtrack, and generally middling performance couldn't be dismissed by brand prestige and storied heritage. While the M4 was far from a lost cause, there was certainly room for improvement.
In 2016 BMW gave the coupe's performance credibility a shot in the arm with the debut of the M4 GTS, a hardcore track-tuned iteration of the coupe that dropped weight, added aero, and boasted exotic features like a water injection system that helped bump its output to nearly 500 horsepower. But limited to just 700 examples worldwide with a price tag which was double that of a base M4, the GTS was something of an anomaly—more collector's item than daily driver.
What enthusiasts needed was a model that split the difference between the standard M4 and the over-the-top GTS. The M4 CS is that model.
THE CS RECIPE
The M4 CS follows in a line of Coupe Sport models that date all the way back to the 1960s. More recently the badge has come to denote models which take elements from exotic, limited-production models and apply them to more accessible iterations, much the way the E46 M3 CS did with the E46 M3 CSL.
Outside, the CS scores a new front splitter, hood, and rear spoiler—all of which are made from carbon fiber-reinforced plastic—while light weight forged aluminum wheels measuring 19 inches in diameter up front and 20 inches in the rear are wrapped in ultra-grippy Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 rubber. The overall effect is subtler than the big-winged GTS, but it provides the M4 with an added dose of visual aggression that works very well here.
Inside, the CS offers more evidence of its hot lapping intentions. Alcantara mingles with carbon fiber-reinforced plastic door cards that have been borrowed from the GTS, which feature looped fabric pulls rather than traditional door handles. The standard center console and its armrest is gone, replaced by Alcantara-wrapped padding that's draped directly over the outside of the transmission tunnel.
Heated M sport seats are on hand to keep the driver and front passenger held in place during high-speed maneuvering, and single-zone climate control supplants the dual-zone system found in the standard M4. Despite the race car accoutrements found in the cabin, the M4 maintains its back seat as well as its premium audio and infotainment systems in CS guise, the latter an 8.8-inch touchscreen display with supplementary hard buttons and a rotary selector on the console.
Under the hood is a hopped-up version of the turbocharged 3.0-liter inline six cylinder mill found in the M4 Competition, here making 454 horsepower and 442 pound-feet of torque, which equates to gains of 10 hp and 36 lbs-ft of torque. The GTS's wild water-injection system isn't part of the mix here, though; the newfound grunt was delivered by way of revised engine software and exhaust system tweaks.
All in, BMW says the combination is good for a 0-60 mph dash of 3.9 seconds on the way to a top speed of 174 miles per hour. These numbers are achieved with BMW's seven-speed dual-clutch transmission by default, as the M4's six-speed manual gearbox is sadly not available on CS models.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
The BMW M4 CS is an excellent example of how a number of small tweaks can add up to a big change in character. Press the ignition button and the six-cylinder mill rumbles to life with gravelly authority that sounds leagues better than any factory M4. The revised exhaust isn't race car-loud like the GTS, it simply provides a more soulful note than the standard M4, which adds to the car's character without dominating the proceedings.
Out on the pockmarked streets of Los Angeles, the suspension is not as punishing as you might expect from a track-tuned machine. That's no doubt due to the fact that, aside from some damper tuning, it's essentially the same hardware you'd get on an M4 Competition. That means the CS is stiff, but not annoyingly so. Over the past few years BMW has put some effort into addressing the qualms expressed after the initial debut of the M4, and it shows. The steering is noticeably better and feels much less artificial—aided in part by the meaty Cup 2 tires the CS rolls on—while many of the rough edges that the DCT is known for have been smoothed out. It's still not as refined as a traditional automatic, but you're no longer reminded of that every time you leave a stop light.
Our tester was outfitted with carbon ceramic brakes, an $8,150 option. Although pricey, they complement the CS quite well, providing a firm pedal and confident stopping power without the "grabbiness" and noise that are common drawbacks with carbon ceramics.
City street cruising, the CS feels like it would be a fine way to get around on a day to day basis if it weren't for some of the race car theatrics on hand. Due to the unique, downward slope of the section you'd usually rest your left arm and the tiny bit of fabric over the transmission tunnel, there's really nowhere to put your elbows while driving (at least, for a 6'3 frame like mine) so your best option is to lock your hands at 10 and 2 and pretend you're headed down pit lane at all times. That's fine out in the hills, but it quickly grows tiresome in traffic and around town.
It's little surprise that the hills are where this car is at its best, then. The M4's 3.0-liter inline six has never been lacking for torque, but it pulls with some legitimate authority here. Paired with the endless well of grip provided by those Michelins and the big, pricey carbon stoppers, the CS is happy to be caned for hours on end. It feels like what the M4 should have been all along—a well-rounded coupe with a bit of understated personality that's legitimately fun to drive hard.
But the CS package is its own worst enemy, in a way. As good as the DCT has become, the lack of manual gearbox availability is a profound disappointment. And the concessions made in pursuit of... well, we'll call it "light weighting"... make the M4 CS a less hospitable place to be sheerly for the sake of pageantry. And then there's the price. Outfitted with one option (those carbon brakes), our tester rang up $112,795 after a $995 destination charge. That's a tough pill to swallow for what is ostensibly an upgraded M4 Competition - a model which starts at roughly $75,000.
Still, there's a lot to like about the M4 CS. Its chiseled look, guttural bark, and well-tuned chassis effectively elevate the M4 while still maintaining a semblance of restraint. If money is no object and you've got a track-tuned BMW road car in your crosshairs, the M4 CS will deliver on its promises—albeit with a few asterisks.