BMW M3 CSL revisited


Stuck to the front cover of the May 2004 issue of MOTOR was a CD-ROM. For our younger readers, a CD-ROM was basically a crappier version of a DVD, a relic of a time when Facebook was restricted to a handful of US Ivy League colleges and the best game you had on your phone was Snake (and it was good!).

Anyway, on that CD-ROM were teaser videos from that year’s Performance Car of the Year, and amidst all the skids and smoke one video stood out above all the others. It was of a small grey blob slowly emerging through shimmering heat haze, travelling flat-out down an airport runway. Then the noise begins.

It starts as an indistinct buzz, but grows in intensity and volume until its high-decibel wail mimics an incessant air-raid siren. It was this video that indelibly burned the E46 M3 CSL into my teenage consciousness, yet 10 years on the key to that very car sits in my hand.

Why is it here? Well, we’ve decided to take the worn-out cliché ‘don’t meet your heroes’ and throw it in the bin. We plan to revisit some of the greatest cars from MOTOR’s history and see whether time has caught up with them or if they can still teach the new crop a thing or two. As always, correspondence is welcome, so let us know your nominations.

The M3 CSL came second in PCOTY 2004, just pipped by the phwoar-factor of the then-new Lamborghini Gallardo, but the fact we’re driving the original press car proves we’re not the only ones with a soft spot for the CSL. Regardless of how rare or expensive they are, once their publicity duties are done most press cars are simply sold on to waiting customers – there’s little place for sentimentality in the cut-throat automotive business.

Twenty-seven CSLs made it to Australia through official channels, but only 26 made it to customers. CSL BM3 remained at BMW HQ, making occasional display appearances or, once in a blue moon, being re-registered to venture out into the real world. Thankfully, today is one of those occasions.

Despite having done the press rounds, including appearing in MOTOR three times, the CSL shows less than 7800km on the odo when we pick it up. It looks small. Parked next to a new X5 that is perhaps unsurprising, but a check of the dimensions shows the E46 is within a whisker of an M235i, merely 44mm longer, 6mm wider and 39mm lower.

It also looks remarkably subtle. It may have exuded hardcore menace in its day but we’ve become so used to outrageously flared guards, bodykits and fancy black weave that the CSL’s trick carbon fibre roof, front splitter and the asymmetric hole in the front bumper (which we’ll come back to) barely register on the aggression scale.

The biggest difference between a regular E46 M3 and the CSL, though, can’t be seen at all. Thanks to a severe diet, the CSL cuts a whopping 110kg from the kerb weight of a regular M3. Some of the thanks have to go to those lightweight body panels, but the interior is even more extreme. 

Carbon fibre adorns the door panels and centre console; manually-adjustable, fixed-back, fibreglass-shelled buckets sit in place of the standard electric items, the boot floor is made of fibreboard and the stereo and air-con were no-cost options (both thankfully fitted to this car).

It wasn’t just about taking stuff out, though. Slightly different cam profiling and the mother of all carbon-fibre intake manifolds boosted power by 13kW to 265kW at 7900rpm; the steering rack ratio was quickened from 15.4:1 to 14.5:1; springs and dampers were both modified and larger brake rotors were fitted front and rear. Oh, and if you produced a CAMS C3 circuit licence BMW would up the speed limiter by 30km/h to 280km/h.

Then there were the tyres. Wrapped around lightweight 19-inch BBS alloys were extreme Michelin Pilot Sport Cups measuring 235/35 up front and 265/30 at the rear. Never before had such uncompromising rubber been fitted to a production car. Customers who ticked the ‘Cup tyre’ box were required to sign a disclaimer stating they understood the tyres probably wouldn’t work in wet or cold conditions.

A decade on, the super-sticky rubber has been replaced by more conventional Michelin Pilot Super Sports. While it’s a shame not to be able experience the CSL in its raw, unadulterated original form, a threatening sky means the more conventional Super Sports lower the heart rate somewhat.

Ironically, the first part of our journey, snaking through outer Melbourne’s morning traffic, could be the CSL’s toughest test. As a hardcore driving tool it should do the maximum attack stuff standing on its head, but what about the everyday commute? The steering is heavy at parking speeds but lightens on the move (just as it should) and the low-speed ride is firm but not particularly uncomfortable. But what of the dreaded SMG? Well, at the risk of getting a clip around the ear from Morley, it’s fine.

Sure, it lacks the instant shifts of a dual-clutch or the slurring smoothness of a good automatic, but treat it for what it is – a manual gearbox with a computer taking care of the clutch – and progress is pain-free. The key is to feed the throttle in smoothly from rest and make sure it’s made a gear selection before applying extra power. Then again, you could make the argument that if you’re going to drive it like a manual, why not just have a manual? And you’d have a good point.

Once clear of the city, the speed limit lifts to three figures and the road begins to twist and turn. Now we find out if the spectacles are rose-tinted or crystal clear; it doesn’t take long for the first impressions to start filtering in.

It’s immediately apparent that grip levels have come a long way in 10 years. Obviously, without its race-bred original tyres the CSL won’t have the grip it once had, but even so, this isn’t a car in which it’s difficult to find the limits, front or rear. Attempt to take a corner in the M3 CSL at the same speed as you would in, say, the new M4, and you’ll find yourself upside down in the crash barriers faster than Pastor Maldonado.

The incessant strobing of the DSC light means it’s also time to trust in the M3’s famed chassis balance and go it alone. It seems strange in the OH&S world we now live in that one simple press of a button can disable everything, but the simplicity is welcome. On dry roads traction is plentiful, though at high rpm power oversteer is there for the taking.

As we move further into the mountains, the weather closes in, the roads become damp and the game changes. There isn’t a whole lot of communication from the front-end; road tests of the time put this lack of feel down to the semi-race rubber, but even on more road-biased tyres you only really sense understeer when the front tyres start to judder and slip wide.

In the wet wheelspin is never far away, but it’s not the vicious flare-ups caused today’s over-torqued turbo monsters, more a slight over-rotation of the rear wheels as the engine howls into its power band. Of course, give it a healthy dose of throttle and you quickly see why no E46 M3 test was complete without the obligatory drift shot.

At no point, though, does it become a problem – you can exercise minute control over the CSL like you’ve possessed it with The Force. Key to this control is the synaptic connection between your right foot and the engine. It allows you to meter out exactly the amount of power you need and play the wonderful S54 3.2-litre straight-six like a musical instrument. Which, in a manner of speaking, it is.

Drop to low revs in third, floor it and CSL reveals its party trick, slowly changing in timbre and increasing in volume as the tacho needle sweeps around to the 8100rpm cutout. Back in ’04, Stephen Corby described it as sounding like “a Formula One car with a sore throat” and it’s a description upon which I can’t improve. No ‘sound symposer’ is required when that tennis ball-sized hole in the front bumper is feeding litres of air into the bucket-sized air intake.

With a full day’s driving to build confidence, the CSL finally has a chance to show what it can do in the dry and over the next 15km burns itself into my subconscious for another reason: by being one of the finest cars I’ve ever driven. It has that knack of rewarding you the better you drive, yet also making you feel like a hero by responding to exactly what you ask of it.

Certain allowances do have to be made, though. With the car loaded up mid-corner, any bump will crash through the car into your spine with a force that varies from uncomfortable to wince-inducing.

Never having driven a standard E46 M3, there’s also a nagging suspicion that despite all the praise, the regular car may be just as good? But then I remember the CSL was seven seconds faster around Eastern Creek than the standard M3. Even if the Cup tyres were worth two or three seconds a lap, that’s a big difference.

Some of you may question the relevance in driving a 10-year-old car, but the CSL is a stark reminder that, while cars become faster, more comfortable and capable – ‘better’ in a purely objective sense – there’s an intangible magic that’s being lost along the way.

Get your free weekly report from the world of fast cars - subscribe to the MOTOR newsletter!

Get your free weekly report from the world of fast cars - subscribe to the MOTOR newsletter!