Merely suggesting the E46 M3 CSL could be inferior to another BMW may be punishable by death in the BMW community. However, despite the potential threats against my life, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Now I’m not outright saying the E92 M3 GTS is better than the E46 M3 CSL, but I’m not saying it’s not better either. The M3 GTS actually has a few components that are superior than the M3 CSL’s and they’re better in ways that might actually make it a better car to drive.
First, let’s start with the engine. The legendary M3 CSL has a 3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline-six, with 360 horsepower. It’s a brilliant engine, one that makes well over 100 horsepower per liter, revs cleanly, and makes a lovely metallic noise. However, the E92 M3 GTS’s engine is a stroked version of the standard M3’s V8 engine, so instead of displacing 4.0-liters, it displaces 4.4 liters. However, it’s still naturally aspirated and makes a very healthy 444 horsepower. And yet, despite having two more cylinders and more than a liter of additional displacement, the GTS’ engine actually revs higher than the CSL’s, to a stratospheric 8,300 rpm. As good as the M3 CSL sounds, the GTS sounds better, thanks to its glorious V8’s fast, high-revving nature and its Inconel/titanium exhaust. So not only is the E92 M3 GTS more powerful but it’s also more exciting to use. Point: M3 GTS.
Both cars were sold as automatic-only when new, although there have been some manual swap mods performed on M3 CSLs over the years. However, the E92’s automatic–a seven-speed dual-clutch auto–was and still is far superior to the M3 CSL’s–a six-speed SMG (Sequential Manual Gearbox)–in every way. It’s far faster to shift, it’s smooth around town, it works well in auto-mode, and, more importantly, it’s enjoyable to use. The M3 CSL’s SMG auto is infuriating, which is why so many owners will pay big bucks to swap its SMG out for a proper manual. Point: M3 GTS.
The E46 M3 CSL has a nice interior. It’s essentially the same as a standard E46 interior, just with some carbon fiber bits, the carbon roof, and the sophisticated E46 Series design. Whereas the E92 M3 has proper six-point Recaro racing seats, a roll cage, and quite possibly the best clockfaces of any car I’ve seen in ages. Point: M3 GTS.
One area where the older E46 M3 CSL starts to fight back is in the looks department. Personally, I think the E92 M3 GTS looks better but I’m a loon. Most enthusiasts prefer the look of the E46 M3 CSL and I get it–its handsome, sophisticated design is timeless–so it takes the win here. Point M3 CSL.
The M3 CSL is said to have better steering, too. I’ve never driven either of these cars, so I can’t say for certain but some people who’ve driven both the CSL and GTS say the former is better. And it probably is, considering that the E46 3 Series had slightly better steering feel than its replacement, the E90. Point: M3 CSL.
If you add all that up, it’s actually the E92 M3 GTS that comes out on top, not the iconic, revered, legend that is the E46 M3 CSL. Does that mean the M3 GTS is a better car? Not necessarily. Great cars are always much more than the sum of their parts. However, when it comes to certain aspects of driving thrills–a high-revving naturally aspirated engine, a rapid fire transmission, and a killer exhaust note–it’s the M3 GTS that’s better equipped to excite its driver. The M3 CSL still might be sweeter to drive for many but I wouldn’t blame anyone for wanting the newer GTS.