It was at the 1973 Frankfurt Motor Show that BMW stepped into the ring with it’s impeccable BMW 2002 Turbo. This was the first production car to be fitted with a turbocharger and produced a fairly impressive 170bhp. Little did we know that this was the beginning of a new era of German performance coupes and saloons that would bear the blue and white logo we’ve all so fondly grown to revere. After the 2002 came the E21 3-series to keep the brand fresh and sticking to their passion for making driver oriented cars. In 1981 they introduced a fresher 3-series, the E30. Along with the E30, BMW brought out a motorsport focused version of the basic model called the M3 equipped with a high-revving 4-cylinder 2.5L engine generating 235bhp. A few years later brought along the E36, a car that truly defined motoring in the 1990s. The inline-4 engine had 2 more cylinders strapped on and the power at it’s final upgrade in 1995 was hiked to 316bhp.
It was in 2001 that we first saw the true madness of BMW’s M-division come to light with the introduction of the utterly ground-breaking E46 M3. The smooth and timeless lines combined with an aggressive stance on the road ensured that this was the sort of machine that you can’t keep your eyes off. A growling 3.2L inline-6 generating 338bhp that hit 62mph in a shade over 5 seconds and would keep going until it hit 192mph, that is if you were brave enough to take the limiter off. Available with a choice of a 6-speed manual or a silky smooth Getrag Drivelogic SMGII 6-speed semi automatic gearbox, this was a true drivers car. Available as a coupe or convertible and in an array of stylish and eye-catching colours this was a car to be seen in as much as any Ferrari or Porsche of the time.
But is it really one of the best cars ever made? The competition between these German coupes and saloons was fierce with Audi pulling out all the stops on it’s excellent RS4 and Mercedes doing much the same in the lair of AMG. Some complained that this E46 was too tame compared to the E36 and E30. While other manufacturers were looking towards economy with the use of turbochargers and superchargers bolted onto smaller displacement engines, BMW still relied on gas guzzling naturally aspirated lumps. Well our question was answered in 2004 with the addition of three letters ‘CSL’ standing for Coupé Sport Leichtbau and while only generating 17bhp more than the standard model, this limited series run of 1,400 cars is still regarded as one of the best production cars of all time. The CSL stripped everything that was deemed frivolous in the basic M3 (Sat nav, electric seats, etc) and dropped the total curb weight by 110kg. The whole aesthetic was flipped on its head as BMW looked towards it’s F1 team for aerodynamic inspiration. Unique CSL body pieces were crafted from carbon fibre and glass reinforced plastics were used where possible. Even the standard rear window was replaced by one with even thinner glass to remove weight. It wasn’t just about reducing the basic weight though; by making the roof out of carbon fibre they achieved a 7kg weight loss but also managed to lower the centre of gravity of the whole car and reduce the flex in the body.
Sufficed to say, all this work with aerodynamics, engine modifications and weight reduction, as well as a total overhaul of the suspension system, created a beast both on the road and the track. But it was also a thing of beauty, BMW had managed to take an originally stunning car and make it an art-piece. These days we see a lot of manufacturers make cars go faster by removing everything possible, such to the point where the car stops being a car at all. It becomes a toy, used only when the owner can be bothered to take it to a track. What was achieved by BMW was exactly what they had hoped to achieve with the introduction of the 3-series almost 3 decades before when the E21 was released A car that’s oriented for the driver. The M3, and the M3 CSL bridged the gap between track-monster and commuter. It’s no surprise that the CSL is a rare sight these days, you’d find it difficult to get change out of £20,000 for even a high mileage and lower spec CS, while the CSL will fetch anywhere up to the price of a brand new M3 in today’s market. The M3 CSL began something of a revolution and certainly had a part to play in the design of German performance cars from then on.