Although Thorney is more associated with M3 race cars, he maintains road cars and probably sees a CSL every three months. Although based on the regular E46 M3, the CSL’s driving experience is amplified by some important detail changes: spot them thanks to the unique 19-inch wheels, new front bumper, roof in carbon fiber and duck tail trunk lid; Feeling them 110 kilograms lighter, the revised chassis and a 3.2-liter straight-six increased by 17 hp to 355 hp. You are of course seated much higher than in the McLaren on custom fabric bucket seats, a reminder of the origins of the BMW proletariat. They tilt you slightly forward – strange at first, but natural soon after.
If you like chicanery, you’ll think CSL has rubbed their heads with the whole class. It rolls pretty firmly at low speeds, although it’s far from clenching your teeth, the automated manual gearbox can feel unbearably lumpy if you refuse to adapt (just lift like it’s a manual and avoid tight parking spaces) and the initial management response seems sluggish after the McLaren (even though it is equipped with a faster rack than regular E46s).
But the CSL remains a fabulous ride, with the feel of a taut but still pretty springy suspension given a bit of speed, and the gnarly mechanical edge of the automated manual climax with full-bore mass changes that are key to the CSL character. It’s also a beautifully balanced chassis, with a crisp front bite and traction bags, though there is still a decidedly exploitable advantage at the rear.
At the heart of it all is the S54 engine. It’s smooth, fairly quiet, and not particularly powerful at typical speeds (a CSL is actually a bit lighter than a 12C, at 1385 kg, but has 261 hp and 170 lb-ft less and serves both figures a lot. higher in the rev range) but pin the throttle and there’s the most fabulous horn of the single carbon airbox and the white-hot fury as the rev needle climbs to 7,900rpm. It’s the old-fashioned M experience, where you have to twist the neck of the car to really grasp its capabilities, and so you feel completely consumed by the experience.
Thorne describes the E46 as the best racing car chassis BMW has ever made, in large part because, he says, it was designed as a race car first and a road car then. But there are also no illusions that the McLaren is in a whole different league: whether it comes to build, handling, design and, most importantly, performance, the McLaren remains three times the machine.