M3 vs 1M

The end of the old era and the beginning of a new. The E46 M3 CS and 1M take two very different approaches to going fast, but which one’s better?

Words Jethro Bovingdon Photography Dean Smith

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e find ourselves at two ends of the evolutionary path. The black M3 CS is the last naturally-aspirated M3 to feature a straight-six engine. A full stop before a new chapter began with greater complexity, more cylinders and more mass to haul around. It looks lithe and slender, beautifully simple.

The dazzling white 1M is different. It’s short and muscular, pumped up with aggression and spoiling for a fight. It’s a new start. To hell with tradition, this car is Year Zero for a new kind of car from the M Division – turbocharged, extreme and offering a dynamic experience very different to what’s gone before. God, it looks sensational. For a car that marked such a departure for the M Division it has so much confidence oozing from every stretched curve. They’re two contrasting cars but both solid-gold M Division classics. The M3 CS sprinkled much of the CSL magic on to a standard M3 for a much lower price. In fact it was simply a £2400 option pack in 2005 for a total of £43,515. But, crucially, you could marry the CS pack with an M3 manual instead of the SMG system that was standard on the recently departed CSL. Tragically, very few people did. Just 101 examples of the M3 CS were delivered in the UK with a manual box. They’re so sought-after today that good cars easily reach £35,000 and low-milers are known to have been sold for over £50,000.

That is a mountain of cash for an E46 M3. It takes the CS into 1M territory – the latter can be had for under £40,000, but below-20,000-mile cars are well into the £50k+ bracket. Not bad for a parts-bin special. Perhaps that’s unfair, but there were plenty of furrowed brows among purists when this car was launched in 2010 at £40,020, limited to 450 units in the UK. The shock and horror of the twin turbos was bad enough, but the fact that the ‘N54’ 335bhp 3.0-litre straight-six was not an M-specific engine but simply borrowed from the Z4 sDrive 35iS was anathema for M fans.

Well, it turned out okay in the end. So much so that it can stand head-to-head with the M3 CS, one of the all-time greats, and I wouldn’t like to pick a winner without, oooohh, a good thrash around my favourite roads in North Wales first.

Forgive me. I’ve been referring to the little white motorised headbutt as the 1M. You know it as the 1M, right? We all do. But while I mentioned how confident and brazen this little thug of a car appears, it seems BMW weren’t so confident back when it was launched. They called it the  

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1 Series M Coupé. It is a terrible name. So, for now and forever it shall be the 1M. Okay, that’s settled. Now, is it any good?

I always had my own issues with the 1M and I want to see if time has made sense of it. Plus, it’ll be nice to see the start of the new path before discovering if we wish the M Division had just kept on down the old one. So what’s my beef with the 1M? Well, I ran a Valencia Orange car back in 2011 for CAR magazine and although I really, really enjoyed the performance, the look and the sound, I never quite fell in love. The engine wasn’t special enough and the chassis was spectacularly capable in some respects but didn’t represent what I love about M cars. It was all adhesion and aggression but not enough fluency and balance. It gripped and gripped and gripped… and then it didn’t. Exciting but not always for the right reasons.

Even so, it feels good to climb back into a 1M. And the 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged engine’s bassy, badass idle still sounds fantastic. You sit a little higher than seems natural and the six-speed box has a slightly knotty feel to it. The first few miles are familiar but a little softer-edged than I remember. The power delivery, certainly in the context of the new M3 and M4, is smooth and easy to meter out, and although the car feels taller and narrower than it looks and the ride is slightly edgy and unsettled, the 1M feels more languid and easy-going than I remember. Let’s not forget, the 1M has some serious hardware – beneath the swollen bodywork is E90 M3-derived suspension plus the electronically-controlled M differential.

It doesn’t take long for the old character to emerge, though. Get stuck into the car and you need to be prepared to work. The engine is pretty damn good. It doesn’t scream like one of the old warriors but it’s fantastically flexible and charges to the rev limiter. On these roads you could stay in fourth pretty much the whole time but it feels right to work the engine hard in third and even flick down to second now and again. The rear tyres cope very well, taking plenty of torque nice and early in the turns and the front end seems equally pinned. Body control is good but the 1M feels combative rather than truly fluid. It fidgets and drags its knuckles over big bumps and the traction control will suddenly kill power as the wheels flare into spin occasionally over the worst patches.

Slow down a little – a few percentage points – to let the torque do the work and the 1M seems to relax and feels much more impressive. The traction control intervention disappears and the damping remains busy but settles into a sharp rhythm. Now you can start to enjoy the old M thrills – lose the traction control, turn in slow, give the car a big boot of throttle and feel the tail swing into easily-held oversteer. Yum. At full charge this easy-going side seems to have been buried as the big tyres let go in agitated, spiky fashion, but the 1M can still do the old M dance once you adapt to its peculiarities.

The contrast with the M3 CS hits you right between the eyes within about, oh, 100 yards. Now, we’re not strictly comparing apples with apples here. The 1M belongs to BMW UK and is immaculate in every way. The CS has been used as BMW intended with plenty to show for it.

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Luckily, beneath the, erm, patina, sparkles enough of the CS magic to make this comparison relevant.

The CS package was simply a set of 19in CSL-style wheels (the fronts are half an inch narrower), the faster CSL steering rack, revised spring rates, bigger brake discs and the additional M Track mode for the traction control system.

Hop into the CS and it immediately feels longer and lower. I’d like to sit lower still but somehow you get this impression that the front and rear wheels are pulled right out to the corners of the car. The steering wheel is famously fat with a little squish to it – it’s a little chunky and clumsy but it doesn’t offend me. The six-speed ’box has a longer throw than you might imagine and it feels rather imprecise. The 1M’s action, though hardly a world-beater, beats it.

These little criticisms soon melt away. One run through second gear should do it. What an engine! Of course the 3.2-litre straight-six ‘S54’ feels a little weak in the low- and mid-range compared to the 1M but its trebly, sharp-edged tune and the way it furiously revs around to 8000rpm is simply phenomenal. There’s a real racecar vibe to it and its eagerness feels incredibly exotic. The 1M’s motor is impressive, but for the CS make that ‘inspirational’. The numbers say 338bhp at 7900rpm and 269lb-ft at 5000rpm (the latter is 100lb-ft short of the 1M in overboost), but somehow they don’t do it justice. Better still is the beautifully judged power-to-grip ratio.

We can talk about ultimate handling balance later. Yes, it’s one of the defining features of the M3 CS but it’s that fluency I mentioned earlier that really characterises the car. And you feel it all the time, not just when you’re flat-out on a Welsh B-road. The standard E46 M3 was and is a sweet-handling car but it always struggled with short, sharp bumps. On 18in wheels the strange pogo motion they set about was an issue. On 19s it was a real problem. The CS pretty much eradicates this and pours itself across the surface with a really light touch. Its poise inspires confidence and a greater commitment to reach into the engine’s full rev range.

Where it scores over the 1M is in its precision. The engine’s wonderful throttle response (outside jumpy Sport mode) works in combination with the M differential to create an incredibly intimate relationship between your inputs and the behaviour of the CS. You soon forget about the ‘M Track mode’ stability control setting borrowed from the CSL and fly unencumbered by electronics. It doesn’t feel like a leap into the unknown at all. The CS is transparent, you’ve got it on a string. Just enjoy it.

There are weak spots. The steering, although benefiting from the CSL’s quicker rack, is hardly bubbling with feedback (mitigated somewhat by the seat-of-the-pants feel that the M3 provides) and the brakes (also upgraded over a standard M3) are borderline awful. They groan and protest very quickly and wilt not long afterwards. They’d be the only thing I’d upgrade on the CS. Otherwise BMW’s final M3 with a straight-six is pretty damn wonderful. It just seems to nail so many things and wrap them up in a perfectly useable package. For me it’s the very definition of what an M car should be.

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Right at the outset we said how these cars represented the end of one era and the start of another. That’s pretty much how it played out on the fabulous roads of North Wales. The 1M perfectly describes the direction that the M3, M4 and M2 have since taken. It’s an aggressive car with enormous performance that’s available at any revs, in any gear. The chassis is bristling with intent, too. It really does fly across the ground and has so much turn-in grip and traction. There’s balance, too, and the 1M simply refuses to wash into understeer. Be warned, though; eventually those fat 265-section rear tyres will let go. And when they do you’d better be ready…

The M3 CS takes a different approach. It’s still a car of tremendous potential but it dances where the 1M stomps and while there’s ultimately less grip to play with, the edges of its abilities are softer. In the 1M you’re wary of a sudden spike of oversteer whereas in the M3 CS you court it. Very few cars feel as progressive and playful while offering such an intense and exciting engine. It really is some package.

As you can probably tell, given the choice between an immaculate M3 CS and a gleaming 1M I’d go old-school. That incredible 3.2-litre engine feels more special every day and I love the M3’s sublime balance. However, the 1M is a hell of a car, too. It has a fantastic sense of purpose and the driving experience matches the hard-as-nails aesthetic. The limited build numbers also guarantee it iconic status.

The bottom line is that either of this pair of M Division classics offers that dreamy combination of stellar dynamics and true investment potential. In other words, you really can’t go wrong.

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Need to know - BMW 1 Series M coupe

Xenon headlights can fail they're £700 each too.

A lot of first owners got a little carried away so make sure you check for accident damage. Uneven colours across panels will be a dead giveaway.

Front wheelarch liners can become dislodged when reversing the car on full lock so check to see if they're still attached and aren't flapping loose.

Charge pipes can come off due to a factory clip that's not up to the job. More secure aftermarket alternatives are available.

Elements in heated seats can fail, replacements are available.

A lot of 1Ms will have seen track use, which is of course all a part of the fun. If however, you hear a groaning noise coming from the differential, the car you're looking at will have lead a hard life.

Wastegate rattles can usually be traced to the gasket joining the turbocharger to the rest of the exhaust system. It's an easy, if fiddly fix, parts are still available from the main dealer.

What to pay

Concours £60,000

Good £30,000

Useable £25,000

Project N/A

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Need to know - BMW M3 CS (E46)

Listen for clicks and noises from the back end when accelerating and braking. This could indicate cracks and play in the rear subframe mounting area. The torque of the M3 engine was too much for the metal surrounding the subframe mounts leading to dangerous damage if left. Caught early it's not a big issue but if there's significant damage here it'll cost well into four figures to put it right.

Interior leather wasn't of the highest quality and coloured shades can fade. Look closely for cracks and scuffs as well, they're easily hidden with leather polish by an unscrupulous seller.

Suspension bushes take a hammering on these hard-driving machines. The weight of the E46 also contributes. Replacements are available and it's often a good time to upgrade to polyurethane.

Corrosion is common in the wheelarch lips and is an easy if somewhat expensive fix, if it's caught and treated early enough. Front wings bolt in so replacement is simple.

What to pay

Concours £35,000

Good £25,000

Useable £18,000

Project £10,000

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Specifications

BMW M3 CS (E46)

Engine 3246cc, 6-cyl, DOHC

Transmission RWD, 6-speed manual

Power 338bhp@7900rpm

Torque 269lb-ft@4900rpm

Weight 1570kg

BMW 1 SERIES M Coupé

Engine 2979cc, 6-cyl, DOHC

Transmission RWD, 6-speed manual

Power 335bhp@5900rpm

Torque 369lb-ft@1500-4500rpm

Weight 1570kg

Performance

BMW M3 CS (E46)

0-60mph 5.1sec

Top speed 155mph

Economy 24mpg

BMW 1 SERIES M Coupé

0-60mph 4.9sec

Top speed 155mph

Economy 29mpg


Lewis Plumb1M, M3, BMW, M Sport