THE PHRASE STILL APPEARS on BMW’s American website: the Ultimate Driving Machine. It’s a blue-and-white gut punch, conjuring memories of a time when the company made cars so good, you couldn’t help falling in love with them. The saying holds that it’s better to have loved and lost, but that doesn’t dull the disappointment: Today’s BMWs are no longer the sportsedan standard.

This review originally appeared in the July, 2019 issue of R&T. – Ed.

It’s also easy to forget that the primary definition of the word ultimate is final.

In that sense of the word, at least, the gorgeous blue M4 CS seen here is actually the ultimate BMW M4—as in, the last one. The CS marks the end of the road for the outgoing, F82-chassis BMW M4. (In modern BMW nomenclature, the 4-series is essentially a 3-series coupe by another name.) The F82 will be replaced for the 2021 model year, and the CS is the fourth and final variant of an M-car fraught with controversy and disappointment.

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James Lipman

A quick recap: The M4 debuted in 2015—425 hp, muscular good looks, and a penchant for tire smoke. The explosive thrust from that car’s twin-turbocharged S55 straight-six replaced the linear power delivery of its V-8-powered, M3-badged predecessor, but the M4’s rear end never seemed capable of dealing with its grunt. Combined with numb electric power steering, the car’s personality drifted toward muscle car.

A year later, we got the extreme M4 GTS, with 493 hp, water injection, and a roll bar in place of rear seats. This track special came with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, three-way-adjustable KW dampers, and the promise that only 700 examples would be produced. The only thing higher than the GTS’s rear spoiler was its $134,200 sticker—almost double that of a base M4.

A few months after that, while the GTS was collecting dust in showrooms, the M4 Competition Package arrived. Positioned somewhere between the base M4 and the GTS, it got a little more power (444 hp) and a small price bump (initially just $5500 more than an M4). Although the car didn’t improve upon the base M4 in instrumented testing, revisions to the steering and suspension did wonders, giving a modicum of precision and predictability missing in the base model.

Which brings us to the 454-hp 2019 CS. Pricewise, the car slots between the Competition Package and the GTS, but mechanically, it’s closer to the Comp Pack. The CS makes do without the GTS’s performance-aiding water-injection system, so it’s just 10 ponies over the Comp. It does, however, match the GTS’s 442 lb-ft of peak torque. (Other M4 models twist out “only” 406 lb-ft.)

Like the GTS, the CS was conceived as a hard-core, lightweight M4 variant, and it wears the GTS’s voluptuous and vented carbon-fiber hood. Also like the GTS, the CS is only available with BMW’s dual-clutch automatic transmission, which is absurd. BMW says the automatic weighs 60 pounds more than the manual, making the two-pedal ’box the heaviest option available on an M4. Creating a lightweight special equipped with the heavyweight gearbox is like baking your diabetic friend a sugar-free cake but adding a pound of white sugar to the icing.

Poor Mikey. If only he had known.

Adding insult to injury, the other lightweighting efforts that BMW applied to the CS resulted in a curb weight of 3594 pounds—just 21 pounds less than a base M4 with the dual-clutch. Problem is, those weight-saving measures eliminate genuinely practical features in favor of negligible loss. Take the interior door panels, which do away with a real armrest and are now made from pressed, recycled composite dust. Shared with the GTS, they include a great-looking pull strap for the door handle, stitched with stripes in BMW’s traditional blue-purple-red M colors. It’s a supercool throwback—the only problem is that it throws back to another German company’s lightweight racing cars. When Porsche does this, the strap replaces the actual door-release handle. In the CS, the strap merely supplants a sizable armrest. There’s one molded in the new door card, but it’s so low and small, you can’t really use it.

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James Lipman

Turns out there’s a reason every driver’s door panel has an armrest: It’s for your left elbow, and because most people have right elbows, center consoles have armrests, too. The CS has no console armrest, just a paper-thin, felt-covered piece of plastic whose only feature is a USB port by your right hip. That location makes sense in other 4-series cars, because it’s inside a binnacle large enough to store both the cord and a phone. The CS doesn’t have that binnacle. The only solution is to buy a long USB cord so you can throw the phone in the cupholder, a third of the way across the cabin. Don’t put it on the passenger seat, or the M4 will blung-blung a warning chime at you interminably, because the weight will make the car think there’s a seven-ounce unbelted human in that seat.

BMW saved more weight by substituting dual-zone automatic climate control for a single-zone semiautomatic system. But since the system uses electronic controls and actuators for airflow, like its dual-zone sibling, the only weight loss comes from ditching the passenger zone. (BMW says the weight saved was substantial. Tell that to the 120-pound person who runs cold and has an overclocked, 250-pound significant other.) The engineers also chose to eliminate the M4’s Comfort Access, the useful system that allows a car to unlock itself when someone touches the door handle with the key in their pocket. They deleted the little antennas in the exterior door handles for weight savings.

When I asked BMW’s press department how many grams that saves, the only answer was nervous laughter. The mass of those antennas probably approximates that of the air in your lungs. (So many questions raised here: If you’re sitting in a heavy base M4 and exhale fully, are you eligible to purchase a Certified BMW Accessory™ “Lightweight” badge? What if you pass a considerable amount of gas? If the engineers were really concerned about this stuff, they could have pulled 50 pounds of electric motors out of the car’s standard power seats.)

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James Lipman

If you sense that I’m frustrated by these changes, you’re right. If you were in the car and listening to someone complain about it on a podcast, however, you wouldn’t be able to hear their voice. Why? Because much of the weight savings from those composite door panels comes from eliminating the midrange speakers held by the standard doors. Hope you like your music with muted vocals.

None of these missing features can be added back into the CS. Save a few costly paint colors, there are only two options. The first is carbon-ceramic brakes, for $8150 (with which our test car was equipped). The second is a $1650 Executive package that adds adaptive LED headlights, automatic high-beams, a head-up display with speedlimit info, and a power rear sunshade. Real race cars have power rear sunshades.

And in related news that is definitely also made of true facts, if you repost this story on Instagram and get 1000 likes, BMW will mail you a million dollars.

Speaking of unexpected surprises not rooted in reality: Our test car, a BMW media-fleet vehicle, showed up on “optional” track tires—Pilot Sport Cup 2s, the same gummy Michelins offered on the GTS—but the tires were not listed on the window sticker. As it turns out, our test car was shipped as an accidental ringer: European CSs come standard with Cup 2s, but the tires aren’t available for new-car order in the United States. They have to be ordered postdelivery—from a tire store, your dealer, wherever—like any other nonfactory part.

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James Lipman

That’s important, because R&T tests cars as delivered to customers, and that rubber gives the CS a significant testing advantage. Unlike the regular road tire found on the ordinary M4, the Cup 2 is a track monster. It produces almost no grip until warm, it takes considerable skill to control at the limit, it really only works in summer, and it’s flat-out unusable in the rain.

We tested the CS first with its U.S.-spec tires, and its performance was identical to a 2015 M4’s, save for a small increase in skidpad grip. With the supersticky Cup 2s, the 0–60 time dropped by a tenth of a second, the 70–0-mph braking distance decreased by six feet, and cornering grip rose by 0.01g. It’s safe to say that if the CS carries any performance boost, it’s due to tires it doesn’t come with.

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The advantages of the Cup 2s come with compromise. Under full throttle, the CS rears back, causing the steering to go light and the back end to squirm as if the subframe were being torn from the trunk floor. On lesser M4s, full throttle usually results in wheelspin and instant yaw—but those cars are pussycat drifters, willing to hold whichever yaw angle your right foot selects. The CS takes more revs, boost, and throttle to break loose, but the tires don’t like big slip angle, and the car is easier to spin. As in the GTS, the traction-control icon flickers during light highway acceleration, when there’s no chance of wheelspin, as if the car’s stability-control system wasn’t calibrated for the tire. Ditto the anti-lock brakes, which clearly weren’t optimized to deal with the Cup 2’s sudden breakaway. In limit braking, the system cycles at a rate that produces groaning resonances in the suspension, shaking the whole car.

In short, the tires don’t work well here—surprising, given that they’re a quasi-factory application. The CS is likely better without them.

Stay beneath the limit, and the CS is blisteringly quick, like all M4s. The steering and suspension are effectively carried over from the M4 Competition Pack, which means some of that car’s qualities are shared, positive and negative. The steering’s enormous on-center dead spot disappears as front-tire load increases, offering feel missing in the base M4. The carbon-ceramic brakes are fantastic, though the pedal is inconsistent, with a long dead zone at the beginning of its travel when hot. And the straight-six sings like a garbage disposal choking on a mouthful of sporks. The S55 has never been a musical engine, but it’s particularly harsh here. There’s a pronounced, thunderous resonance at high rpm, mixed with a chorus of coarse yowling. Like a lot of new cars, the base M4 uses its stereo system to augment engine note, but the CS doesn’t, and the loudest driveline sounds come from the muffler letting out flatulent barks on upshifts. The glorious music you expect from a straight-six is buried under layers of unpleasant noise.

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James Lipman

Every car is ultimately a series of compromises, but on the long drive home from track testing at Thunderhill Raceway, with elbows flopping and an iPhone flinging around like a tetherball, it became clear that the CS is a tolerance stack-up of bad ones. An M4 Competition Package, at less than $75,000, makes for a reasonably nice, albeit expensive, high-performance car you can live with. For the CS’s additional $30,000, much of that livability is gone, exchanged for a carbon-fiber hood and no additional performance.

Alas, the CS gives us an opportunity to reflect on its generation of BMWs and how that generation was characterized by change. The F30-chassis 3-series sedan, the basis for this generation’s F80 M3 and F82 M4, arrived with a powerful but passionless four-cylinder and anesthetized, electrically assisted power steering, birthed amid a new corporate focus on cost cutting. Thanks to the tremendous momentum brought by BMW’s previous decade of success, a limp version of the company’s most important car landed not with a thud, just quiet consternation.

The M4, too, marked a sea change for the M3 lineup, and not just because of the new name. (Previously, all M-developed 3-series models were badged M3; with the F30-based car, BMW adopted Audi’s practice of escalating badge numbers with price, dubbing the sedan M3 and the coupe M4.) This was the first M3/M4 generation with a turbocharged engine, the first with available carbon brakes, and the first to turn what had once been a surgical track instrument into a big hammer. Though the F82 isn’t substantially heavier than its E90 predecessor, it feels like a big muscle car, continually overwhelmed by its own power.

Future M-cars will be followed by Competition Package, then CS, then CSL variants—just as the Porsche 911 has Carrera, S, GTS, and GT3, each model a step up in focus and performance. But the ingredients are what Munich got wrong here, not the recipe. From Carrera to S to GTS, Porsche’s prices grow incrementally with each step, and each variant is as livable as the last. It’s only once you arrive at the GT3 that you lose anything in terms of usability—but that small loss is offset by an order-of-magnitude bloom in performance and personality.

The GTS was the 911 GT3 of the M4 lineup, and it was a charming machine. Ultimately, though, it was too much compromise for too little gain, and the car proved a tough sell in America. The CS should be the highest-performing M4 variant with no reduction in livability, but it’s exactly the opposite: all the sacrifice, none of the payback.

There have been signs of hope from this company over the past few years—the riotous M2, the Comp Pack revisions to the M3 and M4, and even the over-the-top GTS—but the CS isn’t one of them. This ultimate M4 is definitely not the best; it’s merely the last.

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