What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL So Special?

The E46 BMW M3 CSL is known as the lightweight legend. The successor to the 1972 CSL with the nickname “Batmobile” might not have the obvious looks of a supercar, but the power, sound and performance is nothing less than legendary!

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

The legendary light-weight E46 BMW M3 CSL

The E46 BMW M3 CSL first appeared in 2003 and was – at the time – the most hardcore BMW ever made! The M3 was already widely recognized for its amazing performance and three generations of the track day weapon existed: the E30 from 1986-1991, the E36 from 1992-1999 and the E46 introduced in 2000. So what was this “CSL” version all about – and what could possibly justify a price tag with a $24,500 USD increase compared to the standard M3?

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

“The most hardcore BMW ever made”

– Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear 2004

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

What is so special about the CSL edition?

Well, the M3 CSL is no “ordinary” M3! The name CSL stands for “Coupé Sport Leichtbau” meaning Coupe Sport Lightweight and the spec list reveals that BMW took the weight reduction VERY seriously. The original roof was replaced with a carbon-fiber roof, the rear windows were made from thinner glass and special composite material and carbon-fiber were used for the rear diffuser, front apron, intake airbox and parts of the interior.

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

The boot floor cover made from lightweight fiber-board confused Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson in 2004 who thought the new material was “cardboard” but it perfectly explains just how serious BMW was about optimizing the model. The CSL also didn’t come with radio, air-conditioning or navigation system but instead, you got an optimized engine based on the iconic S54B32HP in-line 6-cylinder engine and a robotized version of the M gearbox with a shift time of down to just 80 milliseconds. That was quite impressive back in 2004.

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics
What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

Related: Another lightweight monster – the Mercedes Brabus 3.6S

A race car in disguise

The untrained eye might not recognize the CSL as a track day weapon or the super sports car that it is, but the model was and still is famous for its performance. Fans will also say that the unmistakable and instantly recognizable sound emanating from its carbon fiber intake airbox is one of the best features of the CSL. Also the wheels indicate that this is not your normal daily driver and in fact, BMW had to underline this by forcing all buyers to sign a disclaimer before buying a CSL to verify that you understood that the tires would not work in the rain or in cold weather. The special 19-inch CSL lightweight rims were fitted with semi-slick tires as standard.

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

How to identify an original E46 BMW M3 CSL from the outside?

You can identify a CSL by a number of external features such as the special door sills, carbon-fiber roof, the curved spoiler lip integrated into the carbon-fiber boot lid, and of course, the addition of those three special letters on its rear. The single ‘porthole’ on one side of the front apron, which gives the engine the necessary oxygen by means of an enlarged carbon fiber intake airbox, is also very striking and unique to this model.

You can listen to the unique intake and exhaust sound of the CLS edition here:

The 1972 CSL “Batmobile”

The CSL name was first used back in 1972 when BMW unveiled the 3.0 CSL – a special version of the Six CS (E9) developed to race the European Touring Car Championship. Also in the first edition, weight reduction was a target and achieved by using thinner steel for building the unit body, deleting the trim and soundproofing, installing aluminum doors, bonnet, and boot lid, and using acrylic side windows.

BMW 3.0 CSL 1971 Batmobile
BMW 3.0 CSL 1971 Batmobile. Image courtesy: Netcarshow.com

The final version of the first BMW 3.0 CSL was homologated in July 1973 along with an aerodynamic package that earned the model a superhero nickname as the “Batmobile” due to the fins, spoilers and a tall red wing.

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

The price of an E46 BMW M3 CSL?

The original price for a BMW M3 CSL in 2004 was $71,683 USD – meaning that the CSL was around $24,500 USD more expensive than the standard M3. Today, a low-mileage CSL in good condition will cost you $100,000 USD…if you’re lucky to find one!

The M3 CSL shown in this article is currently for sale at Millennium Heroes in the UK – for more information please visit: www.millenniumheroes.com

If you are more into the 1970s model, Fast Classics have a 1972 CSL for sale – but that also comes with a much bigger price tag! For more information please visit: www.fast-classics.com

What Makes The E46 BMW M3 CSL so Special?
Photo credit: Millenium Heroes / Fast classics

Specifications of the E46 BMW M3 CSL

Power output:

  • Power output: 265 kW / 360 hp (17 additional hp (13kW) compared to the normal M3)
  • Torque: 370 NM 273 ft-lb at 4,900 rpm (an additional 5 Nm (4 ft-lb) of torque compared to the M3)
  • Power to weight ratio: 3,85 kg/PS

Speed:

  • 0-100 km/h in just 4.9 seconds
  • Speed limited to 250 km/h – possibility to raise to 280 km/h with C Racing license
  • Time to complete one lap of the 21 km Nürburgring Nordschleife: 7:50 min

Engine:

  • Engine: S54B32HP in-line 6-cylinder engine (HP for High Performance), Cast Iron Block
  • Valvetrain: DOHC 24 Valves (four per cylinder)
  • Displacement: 3246 cc (3.2-Liter)
  • Bore: 3.43 in.
  • Stroke: 3.58 in.
  • Compression: 11.5-to-1
  • Redline: 8,000 rpm

Gearbox:

  • robotized M Gearbox (SMG) II with Drivelogic and launch control (shift times of 80 milliseconds)

Exterior:

  • Originally available in two colors: Sapphire Black and Silver Grey
  • Wheelbase: 107.4 in.
  • Front Track: 59.8 in.
  • Rear Track: 60.0 in.
  • A single porthole on one side of the front apron
  • Weight: 3,053 lbs / 1,385 kilograms (110 kilograms less than the M3)

Wheels:

  • Special 19” CSL lightweight rims (later also a part of the 2005 Competition Package for the normal M3)
  • Semi-slick tires as standard (Michelin Pilot Sport Cup) 235/35ZR19 (front) and 265/30ZR19 (rear)

Interior:

  • Bucket seats
  • No navigation system, electric seats, air conditioning or stereo (air conditioning and stereo could be fitted with no additional cost)

Special CSL specs:

  • CSL stands for “Couple Sport Leichtbau” – meaning Coupe Sport Lightweight
  • Upgraded brakes with larger floating rotors at the front and larger pistons at the rear
  • Alcantara Steering wheel with a button to activate M track mode
  • Thin-walled exhaust system
  • Sharper inlet camshaft
  • Carbon-fiber intake airbox with opening flap and characteristic intake noise
  • A carbon-fiber roof that weighs 13 pounds less than the conventional roof (first M model to have a visible carbon-fiber roof)
  • Composite materials used for: rear diffuser, front apron, boot lid, intake manifold and parts of the interior.
  • Boot floor cover made from lightweight fiber-board (confused with cardboard by Top Gear)
  • Bonnet made from aluminum
  • Rear windows in special thin glass
  • Special door sills
  • Special curved spoiler lip on the boot lid
  • Suspension system with stiffer springs and upgraded shock absorbers
  • Steering rack with quicker ratio (14,5:1 vs 15,4:1 on the normal M3)

Total number produced:

1,383 (823 left-hand drive and 535 right-hand drive)

In the footsteps of the CSL edition

In 2010, BMW introduced the M3 GTS. Limited to just 150 cars this is one of the rarest M cars ever produced! Just like the E46 M3 CSL, the GTS is based on the engine of the M3 but with optimizations, weight reduction and power increase. The M3 eight-cylinder engine was increased from 4.0 to 4.4 liters producing 30 hp more than the standard model, the weight was reduced with 136 kg (300 lb) and the M dual-clutch gearbox also used Drivelogic which was introduced with the CSL. The ultra-rare M3 GTS is recognized by its bright orange paintwork, matte black details and the rear wing.

Here’s a 90-second review of the M3 GTS:

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