It’s not often a relaxing bank holiday weekend starts with a 3:30am wake-up call, but when there’s a
parked outside your house filled to the brim with Shell’s finest, my hand was pre-empting the alarm clock’s buzzer. Excited wasn’t the word.
It’s a decade since the E46 CSL was first released, so to mark the car’s 10-year anniversary, I joined a group of CSL owners from the UK on a celebratory trip to Munich. Booked on a 5:30am Channel crossing, I made the bleary-eyed cruise down to Folkestone before catching a few more zeds on the train ahead of the 620-mile schlep. With a table booked at a Bavarian bierkeller that evening, it was game on…
First of all I had to fight off the yawns passing through France and the bumpy motorways of Belgium before I could open the M3’s taps, so we’ll gloss over that. But once in the land of derestricted motorways, I found the perfect cure for drowsiness. It’s called induction noise.
Sean and the CSL start the trip to Munich
In the UK I’d only scratched the surface of the car’s visceral performance, but the first sustained blast of acceleration left me slack-jawed. The cacophony under load from the huge airbox sounds like a lion roaring through a carbon fibre didgeridoo and the thrust towards the horizon belies the CSL’s age.
Although it does feel like it was designed and built in a different era to modern performance machinery – for the better, too. Everything feels very nicely mechanical; even on the Autobahn you can tell the steering is meaty and its hydraulic assistance means the wheel ripples with feedback. It’s firm, too, but not so bad it’s a pain to drive on the public road. The dampers have enough compliance to keep rubber in contact with Tarmac and mean you feel just the right amount of the road through your backside.
Taking a motorway slip road for a much needed drink (both the car and driver) gave me a chance to make first contact with another layer of the CSL’s talents. As I turned into a long, snaking off-ramp the message from the front axle was so confidence inspiring – it’s as if the car’s always straining at the leash, daring you to carry that bit more corner speed, exploit the grip and pick up the throttle that bit sooner. That’s what I do, time after time when I get the chance, as the noise unleashed by flexing my right foot is a tonic; an addictive gravely, bassy growl that turns into an all-encompassing rush towards the limiter as the 3.2-litre straight-six motor spins past 8,000rpm.
After a fleeting few turns, grabbing the gas and some gears everywhere I could, it was back on the motorway, with the long cruise punctuated by another fill-up and a straight-line scuffle with a Mercedes C63 AMG. For a decade-old car to peg a 6.2-litre V8 saloon to 160mph while giving away nearly 100hp is impressive. Say no more.
UK CSL registry turned out in force in Munich
Running alongside the railway line for a stretch, I streaked by one of Germany’s high-speed ICE trains, so I knew my average speed must have been good. I arrived in Munich in plenty of time, meeting up with the other guys from the UK
– spying plenty of carbon in the hotel car park the prospect of the biggest ever gathering of CSLs the next day had me and the other owners salivating.
The sight and sound of a gaggle of CSLs roaring from junction to junction disturbed a sleepy Munich at 9am on the Sunday. With BMW’s permission, 40-plus examples of the lightweight M3 lined up outside BMW Welt on, unfortunately, what was a murky grey day. But it didn’t spoil the occasion.
It’s no surprise that a PH Hero car like the CSL has such a following. From new owners to seasoned CSL veterans, the camaraderie between owners is infectious. I found myself chatting to guys who practically live at the ’ring – whose cars boast roll cages, massive billet brake calipers and aftermarket suspension that would shame a British Touring Car – and those who own standard, unmolested CSLs, but the one thing they have in common is an appreciation of the car and its performance.
British BMW fans are passionate about their CSLs
Monday in Munich
I broke away from the bunch on Monday to fulfil my own itinerary and a dream of mine: to drive an E9 3.0 CSL.
Suffice to say it was glorious (you’ll be able to read more about it later this week) and the parallels with the E46 are there. Let’s just say the words six, cylinder and noise, and you’ll get some idea of what I mean.
After my surreal morning viewing the world through a 1970s filter, framed by spindly A-pillars, I got chance to dig deep into the original concept of the CSL with the guys responsible for the 110kg weight reduction and the chassis tuning over the standard car. Following that, it was back down to the BMW Museum for a private tour with BMW Classic press man Florian Moser.
The blue and white roundel’s history is interesting, but it was the M room where my pace naturally slowed. Talk of 320i Turbos with 500hp, E30 M3 DTM cars and a Brabham BT54 Formula 1 car that could make 1,500hp in qualifying trim from its 1.5-litre turbocharged four-pot had me drooling.
Following that and a spot of schnitzel, I re-grouped with the other guys – who had had a day ogling classic M cars themselves over at BMW’s Maissach lock-up – for the run down to Salzburg.
Monday a chance to look at M cars of the past
Originally, I was meant to be joining in with a CSL-only track day on the Salzburgring, but that fell through. So with the group haemorrhaging CSLs left, right and centre, a smaller contingent of cars made the glorious trip up to the Eagle’s Nest – Hitler’s Alpine retreat and 50th birthday present to himself.
The roads were simply stunning and meant I could exploit the CSL’s chassis that bit further. Twisting and winding my way through Sound of Music country, the hills were alive with the sound of 20-odd CSLs ripping the atmosphere through stereo induction roar. The car begged to be driven hard – I could feel the tyres squirming under load, but the sensation from the rear was so good that it gave me the confidence to keep the throttle pinned and wind in the smidge of corrective lock needed to gently blur the transition from apex to exit.
And the steering is accurate enough that I didn’t even think about where the car needed to be on the road. Unlike the old “think it into a corner” cliche, I still had to work the CSL to get the best from it, but it’s so rewarding to do so – the payoff that hit of hard-edged revs, amplified by the lightweight carbon-clad cabin.
Even the single-clutch SMG II sequential gearbox worked well up there when I was flat-chat, but it does serve as a reminder to how far transmission technology has come in 10 years.
Ultimate driving machine on ultimate driving roads
Downshifts are announced with a gruff staccato blip and are plenty quick enough, but it’s up changes that show its age – the torque interruption feels gapingly large compared to modern DSGs and the whole car pitches front to back from the vicious shift. It’s involving though, and you feel every mechanical thump and clunk as it swaps cogs. As I gained altitude, spotting the silvery ribbon of CSLs down in the valley below, I was reminded why we were there and that the CSL is now rapidly heading towards classic status. Put into context then, the gearbox doesn’t seem too bad and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the rest of the car – save for the spongy brake pedal at the bottom of the pass the other side, a known CSL weak point.
10 years on
After my alpine sortie, it was back to Blighty, with an overnight pause at the ’ring to break up the journey. Really stretching the car and then cruising back north through Germany hit home to me just how versatile the CSL is. It’s focused, but not so much so that you can’t, well, drive to Austria and back, explore a mountain pass and then cruise back home.
Nearly 2,500 miles in five days would be tough in any car, but the CSL shrugged it off. As I rolled off the tunnel back in the UK and gently circulated round the M25 I was left pondering M Division’s move to turbocharging, and whether even a modern, normally aspirated limited-run M car like the M3 GTS will be revered to the same degree a decade after it first broke cover. The answer: I’m so not sure it will be.