Jeremy Clarkson, notorious disapprover of BMW’s, once claimed that the BMW M3 CSL was “BMW at its absolute best.” Strong words and important ones for what the brief history of the CSL model means in to BMW as a performance brand.
“Coupe Sport Licht” or “Coupe Sport Light” for those who don’t speak Deutsch. It’s three simple letters but they embody the philosophy of BMW M. In the history of the brand there have been only two instances of a CSL model: the original BMW coupe – the E9 3.0 CSL, and the 2003 E46 M3 CSL. There have been other light weight models in the E36 but only two considered worthy of the CSL title.
Both cars found immediate success in their respective time periods. The original CSL was an absolute dominator in Europe in the touring car scene while earning notoriety in the United States with an overall win at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1975 followed by the same achievement at the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona. As a road car, the CSL was a success despite an energy crisis and rapidly evolving auto industry. This first big, BMW coupe has reached near legendary status with important racing CSLs and even well kept road-going CSLs fetching substantial sums in the last decade.
The E46 M3 CSL, only produced for one year, had a less racing-oriented focus (no factory race car equivalent was ever constructed) but it achieved no less status among motoring enthusiasts. The CSL came ready to compete at weekend track warrior events with a carbon fiber roof, heavily trimmed down interior, revised cams, larger intake air box and the infamous near-slick tires which required a waiver be signed by the owner to release BMW from any responsibility for less than desired results.
In only a year of production BMW produced a modern legend. The M3 CSL, sold outside of the North American market, became a regular fixture at track days at circuits like Spa-Franchorchamps, the Nurburgring, Oulton Park, etc. with a decisive Teutonic consistency and reliability delivering performance and punching power above the M3 CSL’s price point. Like the first CSL, this second iteration of the CSL namesake proved worthy of carrying on the ideals of the best of BMW. High-revving, naturally aspirated engines, light weight and improved driving dynamics.
Fast-forward 6 years on and a renewed energy crisis, with fuel prices driven by conflicts in the Middle East and the credit crunch, saw the automotive landscape change. Mitsubishi and Subaru left the WRC, BMW left F1, many “special” works projects for performance cars were abandoned in favor of R&D costs focused on fuel savings – much to the pleasure of the green parties – and Toyota. Automotive enthusiasts felt the impact of automakers shifting to non-performance. Generally speaking, we were all scared of what the value of a gallon of gas and our neighbor’s home would do to our favorite brands.
BMW saw this as an opportunity to remind everyone that, despite Efficient Dynamics becoming an increasingly central piece of their marketing, Munich still produces legendary performance cars – hence the BMW M3 GTS.
Debuting in hey-is-that-McLaren-Orange paint and with a half cage, racing wing, substantial weight savings and revised brakes and suspension, the M3 GTS was supposed to be the yin to Efficient Dynamics’ yang. And it was. The GTS was one of the most hardcore road cars built by BMW for track enthusiasts and the closest production car BMW have produced to the similarly minded Porsche GT3 RS. Problem solved for the track day BMW enthusiast, right?
Wrong. The M3 GTS was too track-oriented and, more importantly, too expensive at nearly $150,000. At that pricing point, the case could easily be made for the Porsche GT3 or even a Porsche GT2 instead which offered similar, if not better, performance and more amenities that the GTS could hope for. BMW was punching above their weight class again, but in all the wrong ways. Back to square one it would seem. The M3 GTS was still very successful but you could go spend a little bit more money and just bring home a dedicated M3 GT4 track car like one gentleman near Lime Rock, CT did.
Which brings us to this wonderful “concept” presented by the affable Dr. Kay Segler in the last few days. This is the car BMW enthusiasts need. Not a dedicated track car but one that blurs the line between compromises of performance and luxury. Something manageable for the road but ready and willing when you click in at the front gate of the Nurburgring. This is the type of recipe for a car that made the M3 CSL an instant success and why you can always see an original CSL running at historics race. Take a great road car and just make it better – nothing more. Simplicity.
While this sedan concept can’t by definition be a “CSL” just by number of doors – it can still be the modern spirit of the CSL moniker. Something that takes the excellent platform of the E9X M3 and pushes the performance margins just a bit further out while still keeping the price relatively in check. Something that doesn’t break your spine while driving to work or the local circuit and doesn’t break your bank account either. That’s BMW at its best – performance, relative luxury and driving dynamics all for less than an arm and a leg.
One of BMW’s long-term strengths has been to know both their customer base and their role in the automotive market. I hope that with this lightweight concept we see a return of a CSL equivalent in the E90 M3. Something that takes the best of the M3 Competition Package and the M3 GTS and rolls up into a beautifully packaged track-focused sedan.
3.0 CSL photo courtesy of Old Boone