Sport Cars

M3 CSL, BMW’s biggest M car?

As a self-proclaimed M car fan, it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to simply be in the presence of an E46 M3 CSL, let alone drive, live with and truly get under the skin of what is possibly BMW’s greatest M car skin to be allowed to walk.

Written by: Jake Smithard

20 years after its introduction in 2003, the CSL is growing in popularity as more and more of us look back to older generations after each clinical new car launch. The CSL is anything but clinical, one of the many reasons I love it so much!

The CSL completed the popular E46 platform and showed what the M Division experts were truly capable of when they were set out with the sole aim of building the ultimate driving machine. One of the main goals was to improve the driving pleasure of the car, with agility and steering behavior being the top priority and also taking advantage of the E46’s already excellent chassis. The aim was achieved by taking a more traditional performance approach, saving 110kg over the standard car rather than adding unnecessary power – a philosophy that resonates with me.

You could be forgiven for not immediately recognizing a CSL, considering there are subtle design differences to a standard M3, but they’re greater than the sum of their parts. It features a wider track, a lower ride height, flared arches, a classy ducktail, an exposed carbon fiber roof, lightweight BBS wheels and a single air intake that replaces the fog lights. All of this combined with the boxy, compact design makes for a car that just “fits” me.

As soon as you open the door and climb over the cushion to settle into the bucket seat, you’ll quickly notice that the seating position and interior are more like that of a race car than a road car. Slide the seat back and forth with the old-school lever, make a few adjustments to the steering column, and getting comfortable won’t be a problem. If you look around, you’ll find a mix of Alcantara and carbon fiber, all fused together to create a focused yet comfortable interior. The only bit of color in the sea of ​​gray and black comes from the orange and red blocks in the upper levels of the tachometer, which seamlessly move the rev limiter as the car gets up to temperature.

On the road, the M Division diet pays off and exceeds all expectations with a real sense of precision, allowing you to place the car exactly where you want it on the road with fantastic front end turn-in. For me, the emotional steering feel is always one of my biggest advantages when I get out of the car after a hard drive and the interaction with such an amazingly balanced chassis creates a convincing combination.

A big talking point with the CSL is the SMG single-clutch automated transmission, as there was no manual option from the factory. The best way I can describe it is brilliant, but equally rubbish! The car wants to be driven hard to get the most out of it, and when you downshift properly it feels as crisp as anything else. Treat the transmission like a traditional manual transmission and it will transform the experience. Using the gear selector in the middle of the car above the paddle shifters helps tremendously by fooling your mind. It’s a car that you have to work with and learn to drive smoothly rather than just getting in and dragging the paddles to the floor with your foot. This is especially true in cold weather or at low speeds. Outside its natural environment it can be quite grumpy, but that just highlights the character and personality of the car, and ultimately I feel like it suits the car and I wouldn’t change it.

We can’t talk about the CSL without talking about the 6-cylinder inline engine combined with the carbon airbox that creates that unholy intake noise that is so typical of the CSL. You crave more noise and are looking for every moment you can put your foot flat, no matter what gear, the induction noise takes over the experience and assaults your senses, making the whole car hiss and it to you the back tingles.

Overall, the CSL is a car that will make you smile and remind you why you are a car enthusiast – for the purity of driving and the real connection to a car. It’s not perfect, but the things that get under your skin the most usually aren’t.

Jake Smithard – Membership and UK Tours

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