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Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

Matt Robinson May 16, 2013 No Comments on Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL
Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL
Overall Score






The King Is Dead…

But what will be its successor? The E46 M3 CSL gets our man all misty-eyed at the passing of a normally-aspirated era we may never see again

As I get out of ‘161 BMW’ and close the lightweight, carbon-clad door, I sigh to myself before walking round to the back and giving the motor an affectionate pat on its ducktailed rump. “They don’t make ’em like this any more,” I say, ruefully.

Am I talking about a 3.0 CSL Batmobile? No. All right, a 2002 Turbo, then? Nope. This ‘classic’, this machine which has me a bit misty-eyed and gooey, was made all the way back in the dim and distant days of… 2003. A massive 10 years ago. It’s only an E46 M3, at the end of the day, but three little letters on the bootlid signify that it is so much more.

This is my third time in this particular Coupe Sports Lightweight, which belongs to BMW UK’s heritage fleet. It’s a silver-grey example – the vast majority of the 422 RHD examples came in this colour, as opposed to black – that’s been pampered for the mere 16,000 miles it has covered in the past decade. Well, I say pampered; it is when it’s in BMW’s workshops outside Bracknell. When it’s in the hands of motoring journalists, I’m guessing the poor thing has had the thraping of its life on multiple road tests. But, to all intents and purposes, this CSL is as near to the ‘as new’ experience as you’re going to get with one of these things in 2013.

Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

Honest guv, it might sound like I was going too fast but I wasn’t. Really…

It has been brought to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ (SMMT, to those in the ‘biz’) annual Test Day at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, and at first there’s a tinge of disappointment upon seeing it, because BMW is supposed to be bringing its example of the aforementioned Batmobile – a car I have not yet had the pleasure of driving. Turns out the Seventies classic needs some fettling, so the modern CSL is here instead. I have, though, driven a number of M3 CSLs and so I’m not really going to learn anything new from getting in the E46 again.

But then I remember the purity and focus of an E46 M3 CSL, and I recall that the Hill Route here is really rather good (albeit spoiled by a stupid 55mph speed limit on the day… well, 55mph-ish). So I cajole Simon into having a go behind its alcantara-rimmed steering wheel, and then decide I will follow suit as it would be rude not to.

About 25 minutes later, Simon and I look like we’ve been told for the first time that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. He, in particular, was enjoying the M3’s charms so much that the militant marshals of Millbrook pulled him over for a ‘quiet chat’, despite the fact he was going no quicker than other traffic – he’d simply knocked the SMG box down a gear to hear the CSL’s induction scream that much better and incurred their misguided wrath in the process. I, meanwhile, felt like I’d betrayed the old girl – a multitude of other, newer high performance cars have passed my way since my last thrash in the hardest of M3s and I’d probably had my head turned by some of their less-focused charms.

Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

Carbon fibre roof to lower weight and C-of-G.

The fact remains, though, that the M3 CSL still has the ability to stun you rigid. Simon, who is normally a fan of a much older machine than this, is clearly flabbergasted by his first drive of the CSL. He wants more. He has a look of Bavarian addiction burning in his eyes. And I know exactly why, because compared to a ‘normal’ M3, this thing is exceptional.

For a start, we have the induction noise which so confused Millbrook’s flag-bearing Thought Police. The CSL’s S54 breathing through its carbon fibre creation is improved for better bhp, and as a result you get a visceral, race-car howl as a pleasant side effect. The SMG ’box has sharper wits than the same item in a cooking E46 M3, due to improved software allowing full-bore upshifts in just 0.08 seconds. All the carbon fibre cladding inside and out makes the CSL around 110kg lighter than a comparably-specced M3 of the time, while the carbon roof lowers the CoG – this works with uprated anti-roll bars, a wider track and tougher rear suspension arms to add the last few motes of sharpness to what was already a pretty decent basis car in the dynamics department. The steering is quicker, the alloys at all corners lighter, the shrieking exhaust louder. The awesome buckets pin you in place even if you’re as well padded as I am, and the brakes – single-piston sliding calliper affairs which were criticised by track users of the CSL in its early days – are more than capable of dealing with road-related stopping requirements. The only thing this one doesn’t possess is the semi-treaded Michelin Cup tyres, which offer phenomenal grip but are near lethal in bad weather; BMW UK has fitted this one with more conventional year-round sports rubber.

Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

Different bootlid from standard E46 M3.

All of the above, tyres or not, makes the M3 CSL fabulous. It’s a true driver’s car – not rewarding the lazy who won’t wring anything more than six-tenths out of it, and not possessing forced induction torque so your nan could go quickly in it either. BMW gave us a scintillating engine and rapid-fire gearbox, so use them, for God’s sake. The 360bhp powerplant bestows plenty of pace on something sub-1400kg (27½ cwt or 3087lb), but this is no point-and-squirt car, the amazing levels of grip, feedback and handling all allowing you to stoke through corners at an indecent lick. It’s wasted on the Hill Route at 55mph, of course – sledgehammer to crack a nut and all that. But the clarity of its responses in all departments shines through nonetheless, and it leaves you wanting more every time you get out of it after a drive.

Of course, a CSL was never the day-to-day option even in 2003, due to its potential residuals and limited production run coupling up with a less-than-comfy low-speed demeanour. And now that a goodly proportion of them have either been written off, exported to foreign climes or inappropriately tuned by the modders of the world, clean examples like BMW’s own car are only appreciating in value. You would definitely need something like £35,000 to prize this one out of Bracknell, put it that way.

But it’s a bargain, because to return to my original point, this is an ‘end-of-an-era’ car. BMW itself is moving to forced induction, and that includes the once-hallowed sanctity of M Division, and pure engines in hardcore cars like the CSL will not be permitted in the rainbow-hugging apocalyptic world we are surely heading to. There are others you could have for less money – Renaultsport Clio Cup, Honda S2000, Mercedes 190 Evo II – but none that pack the genuinely stratospheric all-round abilities of the CSL.

It’s definitely the best M3 ever made. It’s almost certainly the greatest M car of all time. And as driver’s cars go, you’ll be hard pressed to find better at any age or price. We won’t see its like again. Bag one now, while you still can, because it’s truly sensational.

Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

SMG gearbox is oft criticised, but this variant is superb.


  • Body Front-engined two-door coupe
  • Engine 3246cc 24v straight-six
  • Transmission RWD, six-speed SMG clutchless manual transmission with M Differential
  • 0-62mph 4.9 seconds
  • Top speed 155mph limited (190mph derestricted, if first buyer had racing licence at time of purchase)
  • Max power 360bhp @ 7900rpm
  • Max torque 273lb.ft @ 4900rpm
  • Fuel consumption 24mpg (claimed combined)
  • CO2 emissions 287g/km
  • Price from £25,000+ for used examples… if you can find them
Driven: E46 BMW M3 CSL

Small badge, big difference.

The Truth & Nothing But…


+ This really is an example of driving purity focused into one truly desirable machine. Contemporary reviews at launch bafflingly described it as “not £20,000 better than a standard M3”, whatever that means, but there is little to fault about the CSL, and at a push it could even be a daily driver (if terrifying depreciation doesn’t faze you). One of the greatest of all time, this is a jack and master of all trades.

– Normally-aspirated straight-six screamers like this have been killed off by the Green menace. With BMW already admitting the next M3 will be a twin-turbo six (down from an NA V8) and the M5 already sullied with forced induction, the CSL is a fine example of an extinct breed – which makes us very sad people here at Dep-O. Bring back NA performance!

∴ One of the finest ever driver’s cars from a marque known for making exceptionally well-sorted chassis. Unless you’re a ‘Newplate Norman’ who cannot bear to be seen in anything that isn’t fresher than an iPhone 5, you’re really not going to get anything more rewarding or breathtaking for around 25 large. Buy one. Right now. Do it!

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