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Progress report: BMW M3 CSL vs BMW M2 CS

M Division’s latest hardcore special faces off against its even more focused forebear

Published: 03 Nov 2020

They’re more subtle than the new BMW M4.

Most things are, but the car on the left has aged just majestically. An unmodified E46 M3 looks fine, but the CSL’s asymmetric front airhole and exquisitely dished wheels can still make most members of the TG office a little bit teary. It was also a sub-8 car around the Nordschleife before there was something called ‘YouTube’ to host an on-board video. The M2 CS could almost have been designed purely for Instagram likes given its cartoonish appearance.

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I bet their dimensions are close.

Yep, 17 years is a long time on Planet Car, so the M3, technically a size above the M2, is just 3cm longer in both length and wheelbase, while its 1385kg kerb weight is 165kg skinnier. Its extra ‘L’ stands for lightweight and this was the first M with a carbonfibre roof.

Here, it’s an integral item to the car’s make-up (unlike on a lardy new M8…) but I’d wager you can ‘blame’ the CSL’s gorgeous and wholly functional carbon for the chintzier grey weave adorning the M2 CS’s door pulls and chin spoiler.

Just how lightweight is the M3?

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It’s an astonishing 110kg better off than a stock E46, while its tracks are 10mm wider and its 3.2-litre straight-six peaks 17bhp higher, at 355bhp. A new carbon airbox also provides one of the most spine-tingling noises in all of performance car history. Here’s a controversial opinion: six is reliably the most ear-pleasing quantity of cylinders. One solitary chase of the CSL’s redline will convince you it’s true.

You’ve not mentioned gearboxes yet…

Moaning about the M3 CSL’s clunky paddleshifter is a cliché, so I won’t. Instead, let’s say I’m far less offended by its thuunnk if you don’t sympathetically lift for each upshift than I used to be. Getting soft in my old age, perhaps.

But against the infallibly professional shifts of the M2 CS’s (optional) twin-clutch auto, the extra involvement of the CSL’s rudimentary equivalent is an enjoyable novelty. Still, we’d all rather they’d just stuck with a manual, and the CS’s choice of two or three pedals reflects the progress BMW’s made in keeping everyone happy.

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What does that button do?

As well as carbon roofs, the CSL also introduced customisation to the M driving experience. So as well as a Sport button to sharpen the throttle response, you could ratchet the gearbox response through five levels of increasing violence. Arguably a bit unecessary, but you want it on at least ‘3’. Trust me.

Beside it, the M2 CS could be quite dizzying, with three levels if sharpness for its throttle, suspension and steering responses, as well as three levels of gearshift severity and three tunes of stability control (on, MDM and off). A close look at the steering wheel reveals two M buttons, though, so you can corral your favoured bunch of settings for both sedate and silly driving into a simple button press. We’re big fans.

Does the CSL lag behind a bit now?

This thing’s still flipping quick and you can’t extend too many of its six gears on road. Which given its final, frenzied leap towards 8000rpm, is a shame. The 444bhp CS is naturally way punchier, but don’t go thinking it leaves the CSL for dead, its 4.2sec sprint to 62mph just 0.7sec swifter than great uncle M3. The onslaught of electronic driver aids since 2003 also means it’s no trickier to drive despite its whopping 133lb ft of extra muscle.

Tell me of handling.

The M3 CSL is light and deft in its feel and response, its thin, Alcantara-trimmed steering  wheel a total delight to use and a silly stylised 12’o’clock marker (like you’ll find in the M2) mercifully absent. You’ve total faith in everything this car does, though with massive 19in wheels, it doesn’t ride with shocking suppleness after a stint in its modern equivalent. It’s still a taut, focused thing.

Holding the M2 CS’s fatter rim afterwards, you can’t help but feel like you’re wearing oven mitts to drive, but in truth it’s a rambunctious little car, one which embraces turbocharging to wonderfully dramatic effect. While not as deft and delicate as the M3 - it’s just a smidge too heavy and powerful to have a hope – it’s still about as glorious as modern sports cars get.

Dig beneath its more gauche carbon and you’ll uncover a kindred spirit to one of the most iconic M cars of them all, and in a world of X6Ms, welcome proof that M Division still holds devilish little coupes close to its heart. Hurrah!

Photography: Mark Riccioni

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