BMW M3 CSL review

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What is?

Coupe, sports, light. Before the new M4 CSL, BMW only applied the CSL badge to two cars in its history: the 3.0 CSL, a homologation hero nicknamed the Batmobile, and this delicately styled special edition BMW M3 E46, introduced in 2003. All credit goes to M Division, actually: it sure kept the trademark letters and could have applied them to a number of its recent products, but it clearly knows that the L at the end has to be earned.

This M3 certainly did. It weighed 110kg less than the original M3 of the time, which is considerable when there are still two seats left in the rear. His diet was much more nuanced and considerate than just throwing superfluous morsels in the trash (although BMW would like let you lose the stereo and air conditioning if you wanted).

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There’s your carbon fiber roof. It’s now a staple even on two-tonne M8 Gran Coupes, but the M3 CSL was a pioneer. Other areas – the rear diffuser, front valance and interior panels – used motorsport-derived composite materials, while the hood was aluminum and the rear window was made of thinner-than-standard glass.

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Do you think that’s corny? There’s also a carbon airbox attached to the engine, which sheds even more grams while giving the 3.0-liter inline-six new neck-stinging intake noise. BMW also modified the cams and valves to unleash an additional 17 hp, with the CSL producing peak 355 hp and peak 273 lb-ft.

Combine that with the curb weight of 1385kg and 0-62mph took 0.3 seconds less, at 4.9 seconds. The M3’s electronically limited 155 mph top speed stuck…unless you walked into the showroom with a racing license, in which case they’d unleash it at 174 mph. And to think that you now get a similar reward by throwing an extra two grand at VW when you buy a Golf R.

But none of the above is the main talking point of the CSL. It’s tucked between the two bucket seats up front, the fat little cylindrical lever that clicks between reverse, neutral, and first. The M Division got rid of the original manual gearbox from the M3 and replaced it with a single-clutch automatic transmission that shifted…gears…quite…slowly.

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Like a smudge on a model’s face, it took many people’s attention away from all the other wonderful things CSL could do. The speed at which paddle shifters have developed since the early 2000s only exacerbated how choppy and reluctant their shifts could be. But what happens when we see the M3 CSL, and this transmission, chained together two decades later?

What’s the verdict?

Simply one of the best M cars, jerky gear changes and all

The best M car of all time? It’s up there, despite its infamous flaw. All of the most iconic performance cars have a quirky backstory or flaw in their armor that makes owning, driving, and driving a little more immersive. The more effort you put in, the more satisfaction you get…

It is a philosophy that fits perfectly with the BMW M3 CSL. Keep the gearbox in auto mode, drive it like a modern M4 with paddle shifters and you’ll be annoyed by its jerky shifts. Put in a little work, like you would if you were driving a fast manual M3, and you’ll not only fix some of the transmission flaws, but also increase the size of your smile.

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With a factory-fitted manual gearbox, this car is likely to get a perfect score of ten. Every other facet of its chassis and drivetrain is so, so brilliant. But there’s no question that it’s a more interesting car for its weird SMG transmission. And look where we are now with such gearboxes. As with its wide expanses of carbon trim, the M3 CSL was a pioneer in the world of performance cars, owning these things before they were the norm.

It’s perfectly imperfect, and we love it. imperfections and all.

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