Even in the middle of July, the area that encompasses the Nrburgring circuit writes its own weather forecasts. Summer in the Eifel Mountains usually brings scorching heat, but it also can unleash cold wind, dark skies, and persistent drizzle--as it has today. Navigating such weather from behind the wheel of the very serious BMW M3 CSL can't be good for one's blood pressure, but it definitely gets the adrenaline pumping.
After a brief warmup driving regular M3s equipped with BMW's paddle-operated six-speed Sequential Manual Gearbox (SMG), we are let loose in the CSL. This most hardcore M3 is set to go into limited production about a year from now. Germany is expected to get at least 1000 cars, but other key markets, such as Great Britain, Australia, and Japan, will have to be content with triple-digit allocations. As for the United States, BMW North America says it has no plans to bring the car here. We think it should. Visually, the lightweight M3 hasn't changed much from the CSL concept first displayed at last year's Frankfurt motor show, but the engineering was tweaked quite a bit in an attempt to make the vehicle more affordable. Says Gerhard Richter, the research and development chief of BMW's M division: "We eliminated extremely expensive exotic materials and tried to establish a business case that would strike a feasible balance between production volume and one-time investment." BMW has yet to do the final calculations, so it's difficult at this point to predict a sticker price. But according to various sources, a CSL will command approximately $18,000 more than an SMG-equipped M3 coupe--close to $70,000. For this princely sum, you get an iota of extra horsepower and a "substantially reduced curb weight of just under 3080 pounds," notes Richter. In other words, the M division weight watchers have shaved off almost 400 pounds from the standard M3. As a result, the power-to-weight ratio should improve by well over ten percent.
In their quest to lose the fat, the M engineers resorted to unconventional solutions--such as replacing the steel roof panel with one made of carbon fiber composite material. This surgery cut only fifteen pounds, but, more important, it lowered the car's center of gravity, which had a positive effect on handling and overall agility. Other carbon fiber pieces include the flaps in the front apron, the rear diffuser, the rear spoiler, the inner door panels, and the center console. The racy bucket front seats are molded from fiberglass composite. The rear glass is much thinner than before, the luggage deck is a featherweight honeycomb panel, and the bespoke nineteen-inch BBS wheels are some four pounds lighter than the standard rims. Gone for good are the navigation and audio systems, as well as power windows, mirrors, and door locks. The plush carpet and most of the sound-deadening material have been excised as well, as have the foglamps, the tire-pressure monitors, the side air bags, and the air conditioning (although that last item can be added back, if you insist). Fortunately, the rear seats are still in place, so you can enlighten the kids and frighten the neighbors.
The CSL's interior has lost a lot of the M3's equipment but none of its class. Even the generously applied carbon fiber trim looks decent here, and the seats are supportive and surprisingly comfortable despite the absence of adjustable backrests. And the suede-wrapped steering-wheel rim is a particularly nice touch.
The engine looks familiar and has an unchanged 3246-cc displacement, but the instant you start it up, the six cylinders play a totally different tune: louder, metallic, increasingly aggressive as you blip the throttle, less orderly on the overrun. "The power output is now in excess of 350 horsepower," states Richter, grinning broadly. The throttle response can be modulated from razor-sharp to instant-on by pushing the familiar Sport button, but what marks the biggest difference between standard and CSL is the way the revs pick up after upshifts; it feels as if they removed the flywheel. They didn't, but Richter says the improved response is down to reducing internal friction, taking some weight out of reciprocating parts, and straightening the intake and exhaust manifolds. "Not a big deal, really," he muses, "but it works."
It certainly does. The factory claims that the M3 CSL will handily out-accelerate the standard M3 coupe (for reference, we recently clocked a 4.9-second run to 60 mph in an M3 with a standard six-speed gearbox). Top speed remains unchanged at 155 mph, unless you find a friendly electronics expert to remove the governor. Theoretically, fuel consumption should be three to five percent better. In reality, however, the CSL is so intoxicating, you're likely to be using more throttle more of the time, especially since the aural accompaniment is so sensational. The throaty intake rasp, the orchestral exhaust roar, and the high-pitched change of rhythm during upshifts are as memorable as a first kiss.
The chassis dynamics match the high-flying expectations. Taking weight out was a crucial first step, but speeding up the communication between car and driver--through modifications to chassis, steering, and brakes--was equally important. As good as the standard M3 brakes are, the CSL's bigger rotors (stolen from the M5 parts bin) are better. Calibrated at 2.7 turns from lock to lock, the steering is about five percent quicker than the regular M3's, and its on-center response is even sharper. The transmission engineers further reduced the SMG's already lightning-fast shift time. At its most aggressive setting, the SMG's gearchanges are now so brutally abrupt that the low-traction warning light flashes regularly during upshifts and downshifts on wet pavement. The stability control system itself also has been reprogrammed to cut in a little later and to act more progressively, but this artificial interference with the car's balance is actually more irritating than helpful.
To make the CSL more sure-footed and responsive, the engineers fitted a front strut brace and employed metal-on-metal suspension mounts to reduce play and compliance to an absolute minimum. Driving the CSL requires a more delicate touch than a standard M3. Too much lock can have a much more dramatic effect on the flight path than in the base M3, and too much throttle can kick the car off-line much more easily. This means the CSL is the perfect tool to sharpen your reflexes, to hone your skills, and to iron the kinks out of your driving style.
The third factor that was instrumental in creating the CSL was the tires. The M engineers selected Michelin Primacy Sports--235/35ZR-19s in front, 265/30ZR-19s at the rear. Because of the sparse asymmetric tread pattern, they may not be street-legal in all places, but on the Nrburgring, they were a revelation. Their behavior at the limit proved somewhat hairy in the rain, but as the track dried, they just got better and better. Apart from sensational grip, they give the CSL truly amazing directional stability and pleasantly benign breakaway behavior.
Before encountering this car, I was perfectly happy with the regular M3 in my garage, but now that I have tasted blood, I want the new coupe, and I want it bad. The CSL goes better, responds with greater spontaneity, and makes absolutely irresistible noises. BMW will offer the modified suspension only with the lightweight body, leaving me one option: to put my name on the waiting list and start saving money, preferably by cutting the food and drink bills. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good way of improving one's own power-to-weight ratio.