There is one very frustrating thing about being a motoring journalist for only the past five years – I’ve realised how many great cars I haven’t driven. I know it isn’t always possible, but wouldn’t it be great to have experienced the first model in a series and then follow the evolution through to its latest iteration?
The more I think about it, the more I cherish every opportunity to drive – or ride shotgun in – a classic, as I did recently in editor Hannes Oosthuizen’s Opel GT.
When referring to an older car, the word “classic” is often the incorrect term to use. For me, it means a car – from the past – that has an ageless quality and appeal. A classic can be a fairly modern car.
One of these cars – one of BMW’s highlights over the past two decades – is the lightweight E46 M3 CSL. It had been around for a few years when I entered motoring journalism, so I never got a chance to drive one… Until recently.
At the track
I met this particular CSL at Killarney Raceway just before sunset. The Beemer’s doors and engine lid were open, the extensive use of carbon-fibre on the inside of the doors and induction box bathed in a soft orange glow. It was magnificent.
Some of the significant changes over a stock E46 M3 were a revised boot spoiler, wider arch extensions, wheels and tyres (semi-slicks), and lightweight bucket seats. There’s simply no mistaking the CSL for the regular car.
Power came from the same 3,2-litre straight-six, but tuned to develop 265 kW instead of 252 kW (however, owner Mike Nathan claims this CSL punches out 276 kW…). Don’t be fooled by the small gain in power – extensive mass-saving measures saw the car shed 110 kg, upping the power/mass ratio.
Even from the passenger seat, I could immediately sense the CSL is a lot more alert. The brakes bite hard, it gets off the line with surprising vigour and the sound… Oh, the sound! It swirls around the sparse cabin and pounds your eardrums into submission. Thank the loss of most of the M3’s sound-deadening materials – the mechanical cacophony as the engine sucks in air, as the exhaust exhales it and as the engine spins eagerly to 8 000 r/min is unlike anything I’ve heard.
Mike knows his car well and, as we headed through turn two at Killarney, he illustrated this knowledge by letting the rear tyres lose grip before correcting the slide with a deft touch. Without really trying, and on cold tyres that limit entry speed onto the back straight, we managed just over 220 km/h before braking for turn five.
In the driver’s seat
Back in the pits, Mike handed me the keys… By then, it was almost completely dark but I wouldn’t be deterred from experiencing a car that’s been heralded as one of BMW’s best.
The SMG II gearbox might not be the smoothest shifting transmission, but it’s important to remember this car was launched seven years ago; it gets the job done. There’s no doubt that a gear has engaged – each cog thumps home after a pull or push of the steering wheel-mounted paddles. After only two corners, I was impressed with the quick, precise and communicative steering. It is superb and shades the E92 M3’s helm for feedback and accuracy.
As a corner opened up, I had to finely judge the amount of throttle input compared to the steering angle (especially on those slippery semi-slicks). I often got it wrong – the CSL rewards its driver precisely because it takes time to learn its behaviour. One thing that was immediately apparent is how much more eager the rev-happy six feels than the current V8 as it reels in its 8 000 r/min red line.
“I did a silly amount of mileage during the first month with this car,” said Mike smilingly… I completely understand why.
Once those semi-slicks are warmed through, this car will be an absolute hoot to drive. Now, more than ever before, I hope BMW considers a lightweight version of the upcoming 1 Series M Coupé.
As a slightly naughty aside, a well-known British journalist recently wrote that, if BMW continued the development philosophy it employed with the original 1972 CSL and its younger namesake, Porsche might not have had it so good with its RS models.
*Thanks to owner Mike Nathan for allowing me to drive his car. It’s for sale for around R480 000 and is still covered by its motorplan. For more details, cell 082-779-9980. What are you waiting for?
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