CSL - Coupe Sport Lightweight are three suffix letters with such reverence and gravitas among Beemer and motorsport fans as these were first seen plastered on BMW's 3.0 CSL dubbed the Batmobile. And the moniker has since been used twice, most recently in the M4 CSL. However, for many enthusiasts, the CSL nomenclature was arguably more resonant in the 2003 E46 M3 CSL, considered one of BMW M's greatest cars in some circles. And we here at TGSA tend to agree with the sentiment. You see, 20 years ago, the Munich-based marque devised a plan to build just 1,383 units of the lighter E46 M3, of which only 65 units found homes in Mzansi.
It, therefore, remains a rare sight on our roads, but there is more to the M3 CSL than meets the eye. At the time, it cost a whopping R400,000 more than the manual E46 M3, which had many scratching their heads at the considerable delta in price between the two derivatives. In case you were wondering, the M3 CSL cost a princely sum of R920 000 when it was launched. Looking back now at the astronomical prices that the M3 CSL has fetched and still commands these days, there seems to have been a method to the madness. So, what made the vehicle special? The E46 M3 was already proving to be on its way to iconic status, thanks to one of the sweetest 3.2-litre straight-six engines of that era, delivering 252 kW and 365 Nm, which were benchmark numbers at the time. With lightweight being the objective of the M3 CSL, the 265 kW and 370 Nm seemed a rather paltry power hike from the standard M3, but the trick was in the CSL's diet, which saw it come in at 110 kg lighter.
This was achieved in several ways, including the pioneering carbon fibre roof, carbon composite materials for the diffuser, front splitter and interior door panels. Meanwhile, the bonnet was hewn from aluminium, the rear window had thinner glass, the boot floor was lighter, and the boot lid had that signature integrated boot lip. Even the front seats are bucket-type, fixed units - even the radio and aircon could be deleted altogether, but most SA-bound CSLs, due to our hot climate, came with the aircon option as standard. Overall kerb weight, as a result, came down to 1,385 kg. The cabin is festooned with that velvety Alcantara material at a time when very few, if any, exotics used the material.
Under the bonnet, the S54 3.2-litre straight-six achieved more power via upgraded camshafts and valves. At the same time, the carbon fibre airbox brought further lightness and endowed the model with that signature induction noise that must be experienced to fully appreciate. Performance-wise, the CSL was 0.3 seconds quicker to 100km/h with a time of 4.9 seconds, while top speed was still limited to 250 km/h, although this could be lifted to 280km/h if you presented your dealer with a racing licence in hand.
The CSL was presented in only two exterior colours, Sapphire Black and Silver Grey, and you could easily identify the model from upfront by the unique 'porthole' on the right side of the valance that channels air to that glorious carbon fibre airbox. Other unique features are the 19" CSL wheels, later featured on the 2005 Competition Pack M3 models. One of the contentious items of the CSL was its SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox), which was the exclusive transmission for the model and offered decidedly jerky gearchanges in normal mode but was more responsive when driving at full tilt. It also introduced Drivelogic, which alters the ferocity of the gear changes by using a toggle switch with five modes. From "soft" to "bang-your-head-against-the-headrest" fury. Tyres were of the semi-slick variety that offered tenacious grip levels once up to temperature but was not conducive for inclement weather as aquaplaning was a snip away. Of course, tyre technology has become better over the years, and many M3 CSL owners now use a milder tyre compound, which offers the best of both worlds.
The current M4 CSL has elevated performance to yet another level and remains an impressive bastion for the CSL nameplate. However, it is the E46 M3 CSL that remains etched in enthusiasts' hearts, the one that pushed the motorsport envelope on a road-going car that, even two decades later, remains a well sought-after model among collectors that will likely hold its lofty value for years to come.