September 27, 2023

M3 CSL, BMW's Greatest M Car?

20 years on from its launch, the CSL is growing in popularity as more of us are looking back to older generations after every clinical new car launch.

As a self-proclaimed M car fanboy, having the opportunity to just be around an E46 M3 CSL is a privilege, let alone getting to drive, live with and really get under the skin of what could be BMW’s greatest M car.

20 years on from its launch in 2003, the CSL is growing in popularity as more and more of us are looking back to older generations after every clinical new car launch. The CSL is far from clinical, one of many reasons why I love it so much!

The CSL concluded the popular E46 platform and showed what the M division boffins could really do when they were let loose with the sole aim of making the ultimate driving machine. Making the car fun to drive was one of the main targets with agility and turn-in being a top priority, plus exploiting the E46’s already brilliant chassis. The goal was achieved by taking a more traditional approach to performance and shedding 110kg off the standard car rather than adding silly power — a philosophy that resonates with me.

You would be forgiven for not spotting a CSL straight away given subtle styling differences over a standard M3, but they equate to more than the sum of their parts. It has a wider track, lower ride height, flared arches, classy ducktail, exposed carbon fibre roof, lightweight BBS wheels and a single air intake replacing the fog lights. All that packaged together with the boxy compact styling results in a car that, for me, just ‘sits right’.

From the moment you open the door and climb over the bolster to nestle yourself into the bucket seat, you quickly realise the seating position and interior are closer to that of a race car than a road car. Slide the seat forward and back with the old-school lever, make a few steering column tweaks and getting comfortable isn’t an issue. You look around to find a mixture of Alcantara and carbon fibre, all blended together in a focused yet pleasant cabin. The only bit of colour in the sea of grey and black comes from the orange and red blocks in the upper echelons of the rev counter which seamlessly move the rev limiter as the car comes up to temperature.

On the road, the M division’s diet pays off and exceeds all expectation with a real feeling of precision, allowing you to place the car exactly where you’d like on the road with fantastic front end turn-in. The emotive steering feel is always one of my biggest take aways when stepping out of the car after a blast and coupling that with such an amazingly balanced chassis results in a wining combination.

A big talking point with CSL is the SMG single-clutch automated gearbox as there was no manual option from factory. The best way I can describe it is brilliant but equally rubbish! The car wants to be driven hard to get the most from it and when you hit the downshift right it feels as crisp as anything else. Treat the gearbox like a traditional manual and it will transform the experience, using the gear selector in the centre of the car over the paddles massively helps by tricking your mind. It is a car you have to work with and learn to drive smooth rather than just jumping in and pulling the paddles with your foot to the floor. This is especially true when cold or at low speeds, it can be rather grumpy when not in its natural environment but this only feeds the character and personality of the car and ultimately, I feel it suits the car and I wouldn’t change it.

We can’t talk about the CSL without talking about that in-line 6 cylinder engine mated with the carbon air box, creating that unholy induction noise so iconic to the CSL. You find yourself craving for more noise and your hunt for any moment where you can put your foot flat, it doesn’t matter the gear, the induction bark takes over the experience and attacks your senses, making the whole car fizz and your spine tingle.

Overall, the CSL is a car that makes you smile and reminds you why you are a petrolhead — for the purity of driving and having a true connection with a car. It isn’t perfect, but the things that get under your skin the most usually aren’t.

Jake Smithard – Membership & UK Tours

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