Lighter Fluid : BMW E46 M3 CSL Driven [review]

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It doesn’t take a lot to ignite the highly-combustible E46 M3 CSL in this straight-six retrospective

SINGAPORE - Yes, let’s get the fact that the dynamic duo comprising the F80/F82 M3 and M4 are probably faster, better and punchier than their predecessors out of the way first. Also, if you’re one of those ‘new=better=best’ types, it’s 'best' to stop reading this article right about… Now.

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Still with us? Well, we’re going to wax lyrical about what could possibly be the best modern road-going M3 ever created and incidentally the one powered by the finest iteration of BMW’s seminal S54 naturally-aspirated in-line six cylinder – the M3 CSL. We’ve decided to revisit the CSL because the new M3 and M4 have done away with the E9x M model’s naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre V8 in favour of a turbocharged straight-six, so what better way to welcome the new models than with this retrospective?



In case you’re wondering, ‘CSL’ stands for Coupe Sport Light, or Coupé Sport Leichtbau in the original German. Of course, long-time followers of TopGear Singapore will remember the M3 gang-bang we shot on the Bell Helicopter premises in issue #7, which featured the E92 M3 GTS and M3 Competition Edition, the E46 M3 CS, and this very CSL.

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In the CSL, the venerable 3246cc straight-six has been tuned for 360bhp, or 110.9bhp/litre, without recourse to forced induction – certainly, no shortcuts were taken, as the entire car is the result of M GmbH’s pure engineering expertise and an indomitable singularity of focus.

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At its launch in 2003, a chief concern was its price premium above the regular M3, since to all outward appearances, it seemed to be indistinguishable from the ‘standard’ car, that is until you really delved into the nitty-gritty. Once you tally-up the bespoke parts on the car, you’ll quickly realise this isn’t a parts bin hodge-podge of bolt-on parts… and then the reason for the premium becomes very clear, since this was the love-child of hardcore engineers, not marketing bean counters.

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Just 1400 units of the CSL were made in a single model year run, with probably less than half of this number in right-hand drive. To its credit, BMW didn’t go so far as to attempt a Henry Ford, so the CSL was available in two colours: Silver Grey Metallic and Black Sapphire Metallic. There are three CSLs in Singapore and this particular car is just into its second COE, although mileage has barely cleared the 18,000km mark.

Although the brand subsequently did come up with a M3 CS (a Club Sport/Competition Pack add-on, although certain markets called it ZCP) towards the run-out of the E46, (likely to appease the people who couldn’t get their hands on the CSL due to its rarity, or couldn’t afford it due to its hefty premium) it only had a few of the CSL’s choice bits.

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Today, the concept of ‘cult car’ refers to cars that have an obvious cult credibility, which could be due more to huge marketing efforts and expense than true talent. To us, the CSL skirts the edges of ‘underground’ collectability, since not everybody has heard of it (some continue to mistakenly refer to the CS as CSL), much less seen one in the flesh. Part of its unicorn status also comes from the fact that the aero addenda aren’t of the overt variety (no tack-on spoilers and loud colours here), and it takes a hardcore anorak to be able to distinguish a CSL from a normal E46 M3.

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Although the S54 straight-six enjoys a slight performance tweak, it is the CSL’s lightness of being that makes it such a formidable track star. Some 110kg has been shed from the standard M3 for it to tip the scales at under 1.4-tonnes. Inside, the transmission console, dash panels and door cards have been replaced by carbonfibre, with a generous swathe of Alcantara serving as upholstery for seats and steering wheel.

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Apart from the unpainted carbonfibre roof (saves 6kg and lowers the centre of gravity) and rear diffuser, the other CFRP bits include the painted front air-dam and front bumper support – the bonnet is aluminium and the rear boot with its integrated ‘ducktail’ gurney-flap is made of Sheet Moulding Compound. Incidentally, anoraks would like to learn that the roof was built at BMW’s Landshut carbonfibre production line, and is the first such application for the M3 – not the E92 M3, which is commonly wrongly attributed as being the first.

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The straight-six under the bonnet is ram-air-fed by a new air-intake system with a gorgeous extra-large carbonfibre air-collector. Of course, the CSL’s entire system has been designed to optimise the additional air-flow, including a bespoke ECU that does away with the traditional air mass meter. True to M’s holistic approach to weight-savings, the entire exhaust system is made of pipes with even thinner walls at the sides. Driven in anger, the CSL’s rumble quickly transforms into a shouty snarl of fury that will instill the fear of god into more sensitive bystanders.

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Other less visible weight savings can be attributed to the use of lightweight foam for the carpets, as well as a paper-honeycomb-sandwich structure for the floor of the trunk and a sandwich mixture of thermoplastics and foam instead of steel for the through-loading ski-hatch.

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The CSL is only available with the brand’s SMG-II robotised transmission. By today’s dual-clutch standards, the 80 milliseconds shift times can seem tardy, but unlike the ‘seamless flow of power’ boast of the dual clutch systems, the SMG-II really connects the driver to the car, as the ebb and flow of the engine’s performance during up- and down-shifts is akin to a living, breathing organism who works in concert with the driver when the going gets fast.

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As a testament to the CSL’s frenetic go-faster credentials, radio and climate-control are no-cost options; while we can see the need for air-con especially with Singapore’s recent spate of scalding temperatures, we didn’t really use the hifi much, since the raw, aural pleasure of the induction note at wide-open throttle tingled our spines and raised our hackles with its melodic mechanical fury.

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The suspension has been modified for even more agile reactions, yet the damping is never anything less than civilised for daily use. Like the GT3 RSs, the CSL credibly demonstrates that a properly-fettled hardcore sportscar needn’t be too hard or uncompromising on anything less than a perfectly smooth race-track. The steering ratio has been modified from the standard M3 to serve up even more visceral responses to helm inputs and provides a vividly natural and organic feel when you’re carving up corners… and you will do such carving with relish and a lick of the lips in anticipation of the blood-letting to come.

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And this is just the sort of car you want to be tackling a series of corners in, since there’s so much more depth to the CSL’s character than mere century sprint timings. There’s an innate balance to the car that enables you to really exploit the chassis, since it’s eminently adjustable when you’re hustling the car along. Both steering and chassis allow you to precisely place the car – one thing’s for sure, it rewards a smooth and accurate style of driving, especially in ‘Sport’ mode with its enhanced throttle response.

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There’s so much feel and communication from the combination of seat-of-pants and steering that you and the CSL are always ready to go… all of the time! The CSL is not so much twitchy as it is alive and always eager to do your bidding, with all preconceived impressions of grip and lateral forces completely upturned the moment you turn a wheel in anger. In lesser cars with not as sublimely-sorted a chassis, such traits could almost be considered nervous and skittery but not so with the CSL. Despite the amount of grip you feel on turn-in, the CSL can be as slippery or as precise as your gas pedal and steering inputs dictate, since it inspires nothing but confidence – the best part? It’s possible to have fun with the car at relatively low speeds, since fun is still a function of friction and you never get that overly ‘planted’ feel in the CSL as you would on newer cars.

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The M3 CSL is a modern relic from more genteel times when a car’s performance and talent could speak for itself without recourse to big aesthetic embellishments and OTT posturing to make a point.

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Unfortunately, this has proven to be a double-edged sword, since this level of anonymity means only the long-time cognoscenti remain aware of the existence of a CSL and would be able to pick it out from a line-up. The new M3 and M4 have hit the market with a huge fanfare with looks that indicate a clear intent and brook no nonsense – we unabashedly run both ours, as well as the UK’s impressions of the duo, since the M3/M4 continue to evoke the kind of reverence better reserved for royalty and religious personalities. PHOTOS: ZOTIQ VISUALS / DAVID KHOO

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BMW (E46) M3 CSL
Engine: 3246cc, inline6, nat-asp
Power/rpm: 360bhp/7900rpm
Torque/rpm: 370Nm/4900rpm
Transmission: 6spd Sequential M Gearbox
0-100km/h: 4.9secs
Top speed: 250km/h (electronically limited)
Kerbweight: 1385kg
Fuel consumption: 11.9l/100km
CO2: 287g/km

This feature first appeared in TopGear Singapore #28 [Jul'14]

David Khoo
Author: David Khoo
David is a big petrolhead who has been dabbling in the car trade since 2001 and currently oversees Top Gear Singapore. His stories often take an eclectic slant from the predictable, and he's able to craft a compelling read that lets you see the cars (often old!) in a new light.

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