Like Hollywood nightclub bouncers this car exudes menace without resorting to the obvious violence of the current range and contains its latent aggression inside smooth curves and a relatively small frame.

A Legend’s Final Fanfare

Few cars feature on the “must own” list buried within the mildly pornographic corner of every car enthusiast’s mind. The E46 M3 will always feature near the top, however. This is the CS, the final edition before a more technology-laden version replaces this icon in 2007, and is one last chance to hail the outgoing icon with a fresh fanfare.

It is a CSL-lite, even in name, a hat doffed to the legendary, £60,000 Coupe Sport Lightweight that took the fight to the 911 back in 2002. The £2,400 option package over the price of a standard M3 buys CSL-look 19-inch wheels, bigger front brakes, a faster steering rack and a more advanced traction control system. Small changes perhaps, but they all add polish to the driving experience that was already blinding in the light.

This is a gilded M3 rather than a base-spec CSL, it’s a tribute act that won’t hit the resale value of the true standard bearer, but it does have a few big plus points. First it comes with real seats, rather than carbon-fibre racing numbers, it has all the sound insulation and it comes with a manual box whereas the full-bore CSL was only available with the SMG semi-automatic.

Now the SMG is faster and generally better in every way than making the change yourself, but then again it’s less fun. There’s something deeply satisfying about matching the change, the brake and the throttle on the way into a tightening bend. The CSL was a faster car, but in some ways this is the purer machine.

The 3.2-litre inline six engine won the Engine of the Year Award at the industry equivalent of the Oscars five years on the run, and takes what looks like a dolled up 3 Series to a higher plane.

With 343bhp and 269lb/ft of torque to play with, it was always going to be a gem. The straight six, selected because of its theoretical vibration free design and honed to perfection over many decades by BMW’s engineers, isn’t the biggest puller low down the rev range, but that provides everyday usability simply by keeping well away from the 8000 redline. Here the engine at least is refined and relatively unobtrusive.

Pushed beyond cruising revs, though, the exhausts crackle, the powerplant comes alive and the car hurtles down the road with real intent.

The 60mph mark falls by the wayside in 5.2s and its forward thrust is only reined in by the 155mph limiter. And the inline six’s song, a high-strung, high-revving metallic scream, is one of the most seductive sounds in motoring. Lots of engines have their own appeal, but a truly great one will encourage you to seek out back roads and stretch the tolerance of the law at every given opportunity just to drink in that noise.

And in a great car the stereo will prove only an annoying distraction, and not one CD came near this car in three days in my possession.

The quicker steering rack keys the car into the road that touch more than the stock M3, giving a confidence boost when it comes to drifting even with 1570kg to take care of. We’ve all seen the M3 driven properly at some point on track, arcing gracefully from one slide to the next, and this rack makes it that bit easier to control and retrieve the slide that much easier. Which makes you do more of them.

It’s hard to believe a car that can slot into the company car park can be so much fun on a winding road. You can cut through bends like a blade with the electronics on, or leave a trail of black lines through every bend. Crucially the Alcantara wheel provides infinite feedback on what’s happening at the rear before, during and after the moment that the lateral g-force finally pulls the car sideways.

Now the payoff is harder work in the car park and round town, and you can feel the M3’s sporting commitment through the seat as it bounces and jostles, but when you hit the right road such things pale into insignificance. And considering the performance on offer, the comfort level is more than good enough, outside of the 911 range there is no better compromise between performance and ride quality.

BMW prides itself on building perfectly balanced cars and relatively untroubled by the demand for creature comforts compared to the M5 and M6, this and the Z4M are the chief exponents of the art. And this is by far the prettiest.

Chris Bangle’s flame-surfaces have won over the masses and BMW’s range is currently one of the most exciting out there. Their performance cars are the best in their class, but this is one of the best looking cars to emerge from their gates. Like Hollywood nightclub bouncers this car exudes menace without resorting to the obvious violence of the current range and contains its latent aggression inside smooth curves and a relatively small frame.

The deep front spoiler, stretched wheel arches, tell-tale quad exhaust exit and side vents, transform a stylish and expensive, but ultimately ordinary sales rep chariot into a whole different animal – but there is nothing outrageous about the M3. It is a stylish reworking and is an elegant car, far more subtle than the 911 and a car that will always impress the cognoscenti.

A CSL would get more drooling groupies, but that was only ever a second car – a hugely expensive weekend toy.

This is a machine you could drive every day and so makes a great deal more sense. The CSL was almost too specialised a weapon, turning it into a full bore sportscar and making the four-seater daily driver aspect redundant. It’s the right balance for a car of this ilk, and at £43,555 it’s expensive enough to prove exclusive yet just within touch of mere mortals who can’t afford a second car.

Now the E46 M3 is guaranteed a place in the automotive Hall of Fame, and this, the rollout edition, is the most polished among them. If you have yet to experience the M3 and this car falls within the budget, you owe it to yourself to drive one.

Gallery: WCF Test Drive: BMW M3 CS