BMW M3 CSL Driving, Engines & Performance | Top Gear
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Sunday 3rd December


What is it like to drive?

Well, it looks more breath-taking than ever. Its gorgeous alloys sit further apart than a regular M3’s (better for handling) with a touch more negative camber tucking them snugly into those exquisite arches. Then there’s the single porthole in the front bumper, allowing the engine to gulp in a bit more air, and its more curved spoiler at the back. It’s a stunner, and one BMW kept simple by only offering grey or black as options.

Given the CSL’s – well, it’s SMG transmission’s – reputation, you’re almost tempted to leave it at that. A gorgeous item you don’t want to tarnish by actually driving. Well, that would be a crying shame. Because even some slightly hesitant gearchanges can’t ruin what is one of the very greatest M cars.

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Because with a well-timed adjustment of your right foot - a sympathetic little lift as you shift up a gear, or a blip of revs on the way down – it’s really not as jerky as doom-mongers would have you believe. The trick is to accept it ain’t going to be silky smooth and ramp things right up. See, 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 unnecessary, but you want it on at least ‘3’. Trust us.

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 8,000rpm, is a shame. It was a sub-8 car around the Nordschleife before there was something called ‘YouTube’ to host an on-board video. We didn’t even have Bebo in 2003. Its 7m 50s lap time is quicker than the latest Mk8 VW Golf R, which has nearly as much power as the CSL and fancy 4WD and trick differentials to put it down with.

That’s because the M3 achieves its speed through an old-fashioned thing called ‘agility’. It’s light and deft in its feel and response, its thin, Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel a total delight to use with a silly stylised 12’o’clock marker (like you’ll find in an M2 CS) mercifully absent. Everything in here is function above form, however lovely that form may be.

You’ve total faith in everything this car does, though with massive 19in wheels, it doesn’t ride with shocking suppleness like some retro stuff does upon revisiting. The CSL is still a taut, focused thing, but all the more incisive – and addictive – for it. Don’t just ogle, get in and drive it. Because the more you put into it, the more you get out. True of the flawed SMG gearbox, and true of the wondrous car it sits in.

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