A common thought among BMW enthusiasts is that the E46 M3 CSL is the greatest driving Bimmer of all time. For CSL-duty, BMW took the already excellent E46 M3, stripped a ton of weight out, fitted it with better suspension, bigger brakes, faster steering, and more power. It was–and still is–brilliant. However, it was also quite compromised. It was overly stiff, loud inside, and it used a dreadful SMG gearbox. If only BMW had made a version that drove mostly the same but with fewer compromises. Oh wait, it did–the BMW M3 CS.
Okay, so in America, it was actually called the E46 M3 Competition Package. But, in the UK, it was called the E46 M3 CS and that’s just a better name. Naming aside, though, the M3 CS might have actually been the better car and it probably should be the one to look for on the used market.
What was the BMW M3 CS (Competition Package)? It was essentially a BMW M3 CSL-lite. That meant it had the same upgraded steering rack, suspension tuning, brakes, wheels, and looks as the CSL but kept the standard car’s sound insulation, engine, and–crucially–manual transmission option. Judging by reviews of the time, the E46 M3 CS drove incredibly similarly to the CSL, just with some added comfort, usability, and with a much better transmission.
The M3 CSL was brilliant but its SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox) transmission was a nightmare to use most of the time. It was slow to shift, clunky around town, and it lacked the engagement of a manual. The M3 CS, however, actually was offered with a manual (or an optional SMG), which makes it immediately more attractive to many enthusiasts.
It also looked mostly the same. The E46 M3 CS lacked the CSL’s asymmetrical front air intake and built-in trunk spoiler but it received a similar aero kit and similar wheels. At a glance, you’d have a hard time distinguishing one from the other.
The best part? At the time, its price. The CS (or Competition Package) package was only a few thousand dollars on top of the standard M3’s sticker price. Yet, the CSL, with which the M3 shared so many parts, was almost double the cost of a normal M3. Today, the BMW M3 CS is still expensive but it isn’t as mild-meltingly expensive as the E46 M3 CSL. With its lower price, added comfort, and correct transmission, the E46 M3 CS might actually be a better driver’s car than the CSL.