Yes, yes, it’s not a fair fight. It’s a 2 Series versus a 3 Series, it’s a £60k car from 2003 versus a £60k today, and the very first iteration of an M car versus the latest evolution. But hey, when you get access to a CSL and an M2 at the same time, you’ve got something going on. We’ll do 1M and M2 at some point in the future, for sure. There is a link between the E46 and G87, too, as end-of-era cars. The CSL is the true naturally aspirated, straight-six M car, the configuration most famously associated with Motorsport BMWs; 30 years of them reached their peak with the gray car. And now we have the final non-hybrid M car, which from now on will be all electric; not the final version (at least, hopefully not), but a pretty significant milestone nonetheless.
Driving the M3 CSL has been a dream for 20 years now. On the brink of puberty and with some idea of what cars I really liked, 2003/4 was an unforgettable time. It just seems more special now. As well as coupes (350Z, RX-8, Monaro) and hot hatches (Focus RS, 147 GTA, Clio V6 255) and many, many more road racers: cars like the 360 Challenge Stradale, first 911 GT3 RS and, of course, the CSL. A lighter, stronger, stronger, more exotic version of one of my favorite cars, I’m obsessed. How obsessed? I had induction noise recorded on a Clarkson DVD to wake me up for a paper round. And you thought you were a weird kid…
So there was some excitement. And maybe because of that, maybe because of the cult status, and maybe because of the values attached today, driving the E46 CSL is a mixed bag. Of course, the engine is absolutely sensational, a reminder of how intoxicating a great atmospheric power unit can be; 360hp still feels fast 20 years later, and throttle response is out of this world. The sound will live with me for a very long time indeed. It didn’t take long to be reminded why the S54 is so adored.
A lot of it is pretty glorious, too. Of course, BMW’s balance is in place, helped this time by compact dimensions and sensibly sized tires (including rear Michelin narrower than front M2 rubber). This gives confidence from the outside, which is always nice when someone lends you their precious old car. And, of course, the CSL looks glorious: the wheels, the roof, the bootlid, the gaping intake hole in the front bumper complement the E46 M3 perfectly. Not a day goes by that CSL won’t stop and stare at you. Especially when the alternative is a new M2. Even as a fan of the 2 Series, the old stager doesn’t show it in a favorable light.
But, in all fairness (and in the harsh light of 20 years later) the CSL is somewhat less than perfect. The adult in me was a little disappointed; 13-year-old Matt was sad. The SMG really hasn’t aged too well – it takes all three changing gears in the car to understand why they’re being swapped for a manual, apparently in their groups. You can get over its flaws, but it’s a shame it didn’t come from the DCT era. A paddleshift performs well with its track-oriented nature, but a gearbox that wasn’t impressive in 2003 really won’t cut it today. pity. How a car with such amazing brakes was launched is also a mystery. And while we’re used to thinking about the old car’s steering, I’m not sure the CSL’s rack – faster than a standard E46 – is any good example. It’s a nice old M3, I think, but it’s going to be hard to part with what’s being asked for them now. At £50k or more they are intriguing modern classics; now they feel like a lot of money for the experience offered. Sorry guys.
The fact that the M2 still felt exciting after the CSL bodes well, I think, for the future of what seems to be a divisive model. It’s arguably a less refined driving experience than the M3, but that can be said of any car against something like its 2003 equivalent. You’re inevitably a bit detached from the action, but there’s still plenty to enjoy it. The immediacy of the front end is a revelation against the old car, and while there’s no doubt more to buy, the fact that there’s more torque from the S58 means it’s some (far) from one-dimensional. Even with standard brakes, it stops very well. Yes, it would be nice if the smallest M car was a little more compact, and it would be wonderful if every new BMW could sound like a CSL, but how wide should the new M2 remit I think it really is wonderful thing.
Furthermore, even though it wasn’t a conventional twin test, having the CSL with the M2 made me more optimistic about the future. No, an end-of-the-line special for this M2 won’t be as pure or as good as an E46. And no, it won’t be a cheap car either (but then neither was the CSL). All that said, the standard G87 is a great base from which to work; BMW has shown with recent CS models that it can work some chassis magic too. A two-seat, 500hp, manual M2 CSL can (and should) be a fitting farewell to the pure combustion M cars.
SPECIFICATION | 2023 BMW M2 (G87)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo, straight six
Infection: eight-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 460@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 406@2,650-5,870rpm
0-62mph: 4.1 sec
Maximum speed: 155mph (177mph with optional M Driver’s Pack)
Weight: 1,725kg (DIN)
CO2: 220 g/km
SPECIFICATION | 2003 BMW M3 CSL (E46)
Engine: 3,246cc 6-cyl
Power (hp): 360@7,900rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273@4,900rpm
Maximum speed: 155 mph
Price: £58,455 (2004, £100,285 in today’s money)
#combustiononly #car #compared