Pin-ups: 2003 BMW M3 CSL review

Road testing a pin-up: The legendary BMW M3 CSL

By Tim Kendall | 5th May 2013

Vital Statistics

  • Model: E46 M3 CSL (2003)
  • Engine: 3.2 6cyl (360hp)
  • Transmission: 6-speed SMG
  • Price: £58,000 (2003) from £27k used
  • 0-60: 4.9 secs
  • Top Speed: 155 mph (limited)
  • Economy: N/A
  • Options fitted to test car:

DrivingTalk road tests a pin-up – the 2003 BMW M3 CSL

I think an old cliché once said we shouldn’t meet our heroes. In real life, they’ll be shorter, uglier and probably have bits of cornflake stuck between their teeth. Occasionally, I’ve mused that the same applies to cars. It doesn’t matter if the car hack establishment waxes lyrical about some shiny new thing, or gives you a eyeful of double-page-spread carporn to feed your petrolhead lust. If you haven’t sat in it, driven it, prodded its buttons, or twirled its steering wheel with your ham-fists, ’tis nothing more than a day dream.

When BMW released the M3 CSL in 2003, the planets weren’t properly aligned for me, so it’d be another ten years before my encounter with the Coupé Sport Leichtbau. It’s one of those cars that’s always held a special mystique for me, more so since I’ve found myself infatuated with older M-division stuff.

So it’s with a sense of relief that from where I’m sitting, I can reveal there aren’t any cornflakes stuck in its teeth.


The CSL delivers a concentrated hit of ‘M’

The BMW M3 CSL – What’s cool about it?

For one, your neighbour probably hasn’t got one. Yes, you can pick up a vanilla E46 M3 for £5k if you look in the right places. But,and I say this in my best M&S voice, this is not just an M3, this is a  more powerful, lighter M3, one of just 1,400 built and 422 UK market cars. With it’s oversized ducktail spoiler, deep-dish lightweight rims and carbon fibre roof (for a lower centre of gravity) it also looks quite stunning. Dribblesome even.


2003 BMW E46 M3 CSL

I //M Legend…

Behind the wheel. What’s the E46 M3 CSL like?

Well now, it’s a bit good.

That alcantara-trimmed steering wheel is just the right fit – not too thick and wonderfully tactile. A few bobbles along the edges give away the fact this car is approaching its tenth birthday, although as BMW UK’s very own cherished CSL with just 17,000 miles on the clock, it’s as fit an example as one could hope to find. Its minder, BMW PR man Gavin Ward, wears an expression that says ‘break it and I’ll see to it you never work in motoring journalism again’ as he hands me the keys. Seems they’re attached to 161 BMW. Given its deliciously unmolested and immaculate state, I can see why.

The semi-fixed buckets might feel a bit snug for the broad-of-frame, but once in, you’re in. And quite frankly that’s where you’ll want to stay before you’ve got to the business of even starting it. Some cars just ‘fit’ and the CSL is one of them, with all the contact points, right down to the carbon interior door panels, feeling a bit more motorsport-bespoke than the standard car. All of this heightens the sense of occasion, important when BMW were asking close to £60k for the CSL when new.

Mustering 360bhp, the 3.2-litre straight six isn’t significantly brawnier than the standard M3 mill – something that must have troubled a few BMW salesmen back in the CSL’s mid-noughties heyday, particularly given the £20k premium over the poor man’s M3.  Indeed, the CSL never actually flew out of the showrooms back in the day. However, it’s a useful 110kg lighter. It also sings from a much louder hymn sheet and that metallic, hard edged M3 timbre is more intense thanks to a carbon airbox.

Speaking of intense…what about that oft-maligned SMG gearbox? I found the CSL’s automated manual pleasingly old-school and mechanical against today’s backdrop of super-efficient dual-clutch ‘boxes and eight-speed autos – even in the most ferocious setting it’s not whip-crack quick, but the pay-off is a clearer sense of the forces channelling under you and through the transmission. It’s talkative and urgent, like the rest of the car.

Talkative is another word to describe that motor – but loud would be more accurate. Hollow, spikey, angry loud in an almost uncouth way, but then the car has the substance to pull it off. A shouty ‘I’ve got the mouth and the trousers’ attitude is one of the CSL’s trump cards.

2003 BMW M3 CSL engine

The M3 CSL got 360bhp: an increase of 17bhp over the standard M3

Pudding or soufflé? Does the M3 CSL handle?

Of course it does. A wider front track and quicker steering rack make the CSL feel more pointy and urgent than the cooking E46 M3, which itself was hardly a pudding. But the enthusiasm with which it responds to steering inputs and bites into corners is frankly pretty gripping. And grip it does, not that I lean on it too much – mechanical sympathy over-rules the urge to get the Beemer’s bum wagging.

Blatting around the twisty hill route at Millbrook, with all of its compressions, cambers and corners, the CSL is about as relaxing as going for a ramble on the hard shoulder of the M25, but it’s completely engaging. And that’s the point of a more powerful, harder edged, lighter M3 after all.

Here’s the very same car being Jeremy’d:



Pin-ups: 2003 BMW M3 CSL review

  • Performance: 8/10
  • Ride & Handling: 9/10
  • Economy: 5/10
  • Equipment: 6/10
  • Want one factor: 9/10

The Verdict

So now I've met it and ragged it, is the M3 CSL still a hero? Well, yes. For a concentrated dose of 'M' you can't get much better than this. and my dalliance with the CSL has left a nagging and expensive desire to own one. Trying to be like Clarkson is the lowest form of motoring journalism apparently, but he was right when he said of the CSL (this very car in fact) 'It's BMW at its best'. Hear hear Jeremy.


  • One of the great BMWs. Undiluted 'M'
  • Gearbox a bit old-tech these days

By Tim Kendall
5th May 2013

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