We’ve been here before, of course. Two decades ago, BMW put the CSL badge on a grey (or sometimes black) 3 Series Coupe flagship, which was lighter, faster and quite a lot more expensive than the standard M car. There was the inevitable evocation of heritage and motorsport and purity and then… not everyone was sold on the M3 CSL. Seriously. It’s hard to imagine now, with pristine ones apparently worth as much as this new M4, but the reception wasn’t as glowing as we like to remember.
In an evo group test it lost out to a 911 GT3 (some things never change, eh?), and it didn’t fare all that well against a standard M3, either, barely any faster and still with sub-par brakes. ‘As it stands the CSL is neither fish nor fowl. Too compromised for general road use… but not uncompromising enough to excel on track, it would appear BMW has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory’ was the damning verdict in October 2003. Yet now it’s one of the most venerated M cars of all time. Go figure.
As a direct result, the approach taken with the latest CSL very much mimics the E46, with the focus more on reducing weight and further sharpening handling than sheer power. Which is an odd thing to write about an M4 now capable of 191mph, but that's very much the space already occupied by the standard car. Going from 510hp to 551hp (torque remains at 479lb ft) hasn’t changed the experience in the same way that less weight and a stiffer body will have. While the 1,625kg DIN kerbweight is the one currently obsessed over (and which this CSL won’t meet, with its electric seats), there’s another one to think about: 7:15.677. That’s the Nurburgring lap time on the old test loop, the fastest ever for a production BMW. For some context, the old M4 GTS, this car’s sort-of predecessor, was a huge 13 seconds slower despite a 115kg weight advantage and DCT gearbox, with only 50hp and 37lb ft less. Like or loathe the CSL, there’s clearly some serious stuff going on under there.
Which is worth remembering the first time you see the mega M4. Because it’s all a bit much in person, even for those more kindly disposed to the road racer look. The red accents only draw attention to where you’d rather not look, the lighter front grille just doesn’t look finished, the E46-aping swept-up bootlid is a bit naff and the sheer size of an M4 now - it’s 4.8m long - means the two-door silhouette struggles for any meaningful tension. A bit like the old Bentley GT3-R (literally an inch longer, since you’re asking) there’s an awkward mismatch between the race car aesthetic and a grand tourer profile. Still, there are some lovely details to ogle, including proper carbon panels (boot and bonnet), those stunning GTE-style yellow Laserlights and some rude negative camber on the front axle. But suffice it to say those not sold on the CSL in pictures probably won’t have their minds changed in reality.
The interior is much like the standard M4, which is no bad thing because it’s hard to fault. There’s now a rentable space behind the front seats with the rear bench gone (minus 21kg), nicely trimmed and ready for helmet storage. The dash lights up with another reminder of how strange it looks and the steering wheel has seemingly got even chubbier, but the CSL transformation is less drastic inside. Thank goodness.
However, this car is immediately and tangibly different to drive, mostly all for positive reasons. It steers with even greater clarity and precision than the already very good standard M4, which is then no surprise when you see how much extra bracing is stuffed under the bonnet. Or when given the entire list of changes: ‘The individually tuned axle kinematics and model-specific wheel camber settings, dampers, auxiliary springs and anti-roll bars optimise steering precision, transmission of lateral control forces when cornering, spring and damping response, and wheel location.’ It’s mostly intended for lap time benefit, of course, but also ‘forming a close bond between driver and vehicle that translates into a sublimely accomplished performance experience’. That’s the bit that feels more important for road use in a CSL; at all speeds the steering revisions mean you’re better connected - despite what seems like less weight - to what the giant front Michelins are doing specifically, and more involved in the experience generally.
Same for the suspension. In the standard model, there’s never any need to venture beyond Comfort for the adaptive M suspension. Body control is very good, yes, but the car also becomes unbearably stiff after that. Not here. Sport Plus is tense, sure, yet more usable than Sport on a regular car. And that’s despite an 8mm drop in ride height. Though a reduced kerbweight no doubt helps (notably unsprung, too, with standard, superb ceramic brakes), there’s some clever stuff going on behind the scenes as well. Turns out Sport for the dampers in a CSL is the Nordschleife mode, which would explain why it isn't much more punishing than Comfort and seemingly the ideal one for Britain.
Moreover, ball-jointed control arms on the rear have allowed secondary spring rates to be lowered (which BMW says also helps damper response), and trundling around in the real world means the CSL sort of achieves the track car holy grail: it’s both more comfortable and better controlled than the standard car. You’d think nothing of charging to the Nordschleife in it tomorrow. This is no stripped-out and unbearable road racer; despite the overt styling modifications the CSL is brimming with subtle, nuanced improvements in the way it drives - even at ordinary speed - that mark out as something a bit special.
Outrageously fast, too. Perhaps it’s been a while since experiencing the current M3 and M4, or maybe BMW are being coy with its numbers, but this CSL romps along far more convincingly than the weight and power would have you think. Ignore the 0-62mph time, where the CSL is just two-tenths ahead; instead look at 0-124mph, where the standard car needs 12.5 seconds, and this requires only 10.7. Once up and running, the CSL is monstrously quick, chomping through gears even more greedily than usual.
What a shame, then, that from an experience point of view - and for this tester at least - the S58 straight six and eight-speed auto is less enjoyable here than the ordinary M4. BMW makes much of a titanium exhaust and reduced sound deadening, though it’s hard to be certain the extra noise is welcome, a metallic drawl that can be overbearing for occupants, let alone passers-by. Sport and Sport Plus bring all manner of awful overrun burps like every badly modified M4 you’ve ever heard, and it’s useful that the default Efficient mode is just fine for throttle response. Because you won’t want to use any other. Active Sound Design just means more blare, too, so that can go off.
In a normal M4, the eight-speed auto mostly suits. In this leaner, meaner, more urgent and less forgiving variant, its occasional sluggishness is at odds with the intensity of the rest of the experience. To counter this, BMW has introduced an ‘extremely sharp shift action’ for the CSL that apparently makes it change faster than a Comp. That may be true, but it also means a horrible thump from the gearbox going up or down reminiscent of the bad old automated manual days. At points, you wonder if it’ll upset the car with its newfound violence, and turn down the shift speed from maximum attack. Only then you’re left with a car that can be optioned with a Michelin Cup 2R tyre changing gear like a 340d. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but knowing how good BMW DCTs were in M cars a decade ago makes this inferior replacement somewhat galling.
Now, confession time: despite all the waffle, we didn’t have as long with the CSL as would have been ideal. We will revisit it, hopefully on a track and definitely with some more interesting roads. There’s already plenty to be encouraged by, however. The CSL is a car that engenders confidence, the effort invested in both axles meaning you can really trust how it’s going to steer and how power is getting to the road. It’s more communicative than might be imagined for something so heavy, even if it still wants for that final bit of brilliance which some rivals might arguably possess. When BMW has even rigidly bolted the rear subframe to the body, with no rubber at all, for the benefit of wheel location and stability, you know it means business. And it resonates on the road, too.
Sure, this wasn’t the test for M Traction Control or the drift analyser, but the CSL drives out of bends with greater conviction than a Comp. The rear axle feels so dependable and precise, meaning you can meter out exactly the power desired. Which, when working with an immensely trustworthy front end, makes for a properly engaging M car experience. The use of the standard Pilot Sport 4S tyre here rather than the Cup 2R will have helped, bringing the limit down a bit and allowing the driver to feel a balanced, engaging chassis at its best. An M car sense of mischief remains, albeit with more focus and ability as well. A longer drive can’t come soon enough - which is typically a good sign.
Despite its flaws, then, from looking a bit weird to an ordinary auto gearbox, it’s pretty glorious to drive. And there feels to be so much more to discover when the opportunity arises. That same special touch applied to the M5 CS feels to have migrated, where methodical improvements across the board have made a great M car into a truly unforgettable one. Maybe it’s not the reimagined M3 CSL many might have hoped for, and it’s probably not going to get the better of a 911 GT3, but it’s hard not to come away from the go-faster M4 without feeling persuaded. Certainly, the 100 UK customers should be very excited about their imminent new BMW - it’s a heck of a lot better to drive than it is to look at.
SPECIFICATION | BMW M4 CSL (G82)
Engine: 2,993cc, twin-turbo straight-six
Transmission: 8-speed auto, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 551@6,250rpm
Torque (lb ft): 479@2,750-4,950rpm
Top speed: 191mph
Weight: 1,700kg (EU, with driver, and standard manual seats)
Price: £125,955 (price as standard; price as tested £126,950 comprised of BMW M 50 Years badges for £300, BMW Individual Paint for £695 and M Carbon Bucket Seat Comfort Pack (Electric Memory Seats, M carbon bucket seats, Front heated seats) as a no-cost option)
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