BMW Performance: Six-Shooter Showdown

The M3 CSL is among the finest driver’s cars of all time, powered by perhaps the best straight-six engine ever made. Fifteen years on, has BMW’s performance division somehow surpassed itself in the shape of the M2 Competition? Richard Lane finds out

Seven-thousand-nine-hundred. In the same way today’s teenagers don’t recognise the electro-garble of an internet dial-up tone, that number is one I struggle to get my 30-year-old head around. These days we’re supposed to be impressed by mammoth torque outputs conjured barely above idle; 7900rpm is the sort of engine speed at which only six-figure flights of fancy, usually Italian, finally give up everything they’ve got. Written on the spec sheet of a relatively attainable sports coupé, it feels wrong. Sinful, even.

And damn exciting. BMW’s straight six for the millennium – the 3.2-litre S54 – is one reason why prices for even enthusiastically owned examples of the E46 M3 are inexorably on the up. Other reasons include its sweet chassis and near-perfect proportions. For many, when production ended in 2006, it also was the last time the world’s archetypal driver’s car was neither too tubby nor turbocharged. The E46 M3 was der sweet spot, and in terms of pure synaptic pleasure it seems unlikely any successor will get the better of it.

But what if you could exchange some of that magic for an M-car considerably quicker, truly civilised day to day and, whisper it, maybe even a bit more fun? Or, to put it another way, just how good is the new M2 Competition when your yardstick is the best there has ever been?

Everything intensifies for a moment, and then you reach it: 7900rpm. It is spectacular

In the interests of thoroughness, at our service is not any old E46 M3 but the hallowed M3 CSL – a lightweight special. And the M2 Comp is in full anachronism-spec, equipped not with the popular dual-clutch gearbox but a proper six-speed manual.

The newer car hardly needs an introduction, having only narrowly been pipped by Porsche’s astounding 911 GT3 RS at the latest rendition of Autocar’s annual celebration of the finest performance cars money can buy. The big news is that its petit form now comes with a barely detuned version of the twin-turbo 3.0-litre straight six in the M4 – the equivalent of rolling a depth charge into a bathtub. This engine makes 404bhp and drives through an electronically controlled limited-slip differential in the rear axle, which now includes race car-style rose joints. We already know that with them, the Competition addresses the intermittently nomadic rear contact patch of the now-discontinued standard M2. The result is sublime.       

Thing is, the CSL is what you get when you cross-breed that GT3 RS with an E46 M3. And, golly, did BMW want you to know it. The original press information talks about a track-day special at ‘the very core’ of the brand; of an ever increasing ‘weight spiral’ halted only by ‘radical measures’; of Newton’s second law, for pity’s sake. And there’s some justification for this, because the CSL’s modifications make ‘Competition’ seem nothing more than an ashtray upgrade package. There is too much to list but here’s a flavour. The rear windscreen is made of thinner glass and the roof panel is carbonfibre. A carbonfibre front air dam cuts front-end lift by half and the bonnet is aluminium, not steel. Bespoke aluminium wheels save 11kg. Power increased from 338bhp to 360bhp. The boot floor is fashioned from a ‘paper-honeycomb-sandwich’ structure – cardboard to you and me – and the through-loading assembly is glassfibre instead of steel. That last one proves just how serious M division was. In total, 110kg was chased from the chassis for a kerb weight of 1310kg – the equivalent of the current Ford Fiesta ST, plus a small child.

Even on a miserably dank day, these cars look fabulous sitting side by side, 15 years but only 15bhp per tonne between them. The M2 Competition is all brawn, with a rear track 76mm wider than that of the dainty CSL. Fix it dead-on from behind and the wheel arches fan out in a manner that reminds me of Piri Weepu leading the haka. With black accents and sharp creases everywhere you care to look, this example wears its Sunset Orange hue better than I’d expected, and the colossal wheel-and-tyre package never gets any less cartoonish. It could only be the youthful reprobate of the M-division household.

The CSL is nobler. It hails from a time before the kidney grille was bent on world domination. Lower but marginally longer than the M2 Comp, its dimensions exemplify the golden ratio for performance coupé design. Less clutter allows you to appreciate the unmistakable Coupé Sport Licht details. The ducktail is artful, the asymmetric air intake intriguing and the 19in wheels just perfect. This Silver Grey example, one of only 422 built in right-hand drive, is almost painfully good-looking.

I’ve driven this very M3 CSL before, briefly, and admit to not particularly gelling with it. The glassfibre bucket seats – trimmed in a hardy suede substitute called Amaretta – comfortably cup your trunk at the base of the ribcage and hem your thighs in almost as cosily. Problem is there’s not enough adjustability in the column to disguise the fact they are simply set too high. We’ll come onto the M2 in a moment, but one area in which it straight away outscores the CSL is the driving position. M division’s current flag-bearer feels supercar-low by comparison and, with the ability to bring the wheel right out towards your chest, more mature.

Elements of the old M3 are insurmountably good, but it isn’t as ‘together’ as this M2

The thing about a poor driving position is that, unless it is terminally awful, very quickly you forget and forgive. This is no chore when the engine is from your dreams. It starts off placid enough. At 2500rpm, only the surgically precise pick-up – courtesy of natural aspiration and six individual throttle butterflies – gives a flavour of what is to come. By 3000rpm, when the twin-turbo M2 is surfing along on 405lb ft of torque, there’s still laughably little in the way of propulsion but a hacksaw-boom commences. The blend of gnashing valvegear – held open for longer to capitalise on the increased mass of air sucked loudly into the CSL’s carbonfibre airbox – and exhaust bellow is, if you’ll excuse the cliché, straight from the pit lane. At 4500rpm, the bass drops out, the torque kicks in and the noise begins to convalesce, simultaneously hardening, smoothing and rising in pitch. Imagine feeding marble through a wood-chipper. From 6500rpm, the crankshaft really begins to accelerate, cutting loose as the now-screaming, reprofiled double-Vanos cams get to work. Everything intensifies for a moment, and then you reach it: 7900rpm. It is spectacular.

The M2 Competition can’t match that. Nothing the affordable side of a well-known 4.0-litre flat six can match that. Still, if turbocharging makes the newer S55 engine a bit one-dimensional, it also makes it deliciously tractable, not to mention massively powerful. In any gear and at any speed, the smaller-engined car will simply drive away from the CSL, despite its 240kg penalty (yes, that is rather a lot considering it is a more ‘junior’ model). So much torque also allows you to more easily work the rear-drive chassis, and it’s here that today’s inter-generational battle really starts to sizzle.

On road or track, the balance of the CSL is astonishing, even if the steering ratio (quickened over that of the standard M3, from 15.4:1 to 14.5:1) still feels lazy compared with the darting M2. Admittedly, in this department both cars want a little for feel, but only in the low-slung CSL does it appear that your backside is resting on the rear differential while your hands clasp the front axle, with its widened track. Bulkier bodywork designed to meet crash standards and a better-stocked cabin mean that, for the M2, the feeling has been lost, and it’s never coming back. In the CSL, the extremities of the chassis seem to alter their trajectory as one. Unquestionably it is the more fluid chassis, though you can cover the length of a tennis court during the torque interruption prompted by an upshift from the SMG automated manual ’box.

It’d be a chessboard were this Competition equipped with BMW’s latest dual-clutch ’box. But even with the slower manual (indeed, because of it), now is when the M2 begins to claw things back. The controls – pedals, steering, gearshift – might not be up to Cayman levels of precision but are sprung and weighted in beautifully holistic fashion and better involve the driver. Brake, downshift, turn, accelerate: it’s as though you’re operating an arrangement of taut, short pulleys. Individual elements of the old M3 are insurmountably good, but it isn’t as ‘together’ as the M2 Competition.

And this is a mischievous chassis. The balance is more rear-biased than that of the ultra-neutral CSL but the centre of gravity is higher. Compared with the older car’s impervious dynamic cool, the firmly sprung M2 seems almost too keen to stabilise any roll, and can feel more frenetic. But it also wants to oversteer, and will do so like few others can – that is, massively but controllably, seemingly in any gear – if you loosen the ESP and uncork all that torque. It is as addictive as it sounds.

So addictive, in fact, that you might miss the magic, because M’s latest ware is more subtle than that. Temper your approach, get the right combination of steering and throttle (don’t worry, it’s a big target) and rather than ‘breaking’ away, the M2 will simply raise itself up en pointe. Bliss. The yaw-damping of the CSL might be astonishingly good, and the vertical body control so sublime
you don’t at first notice it, but it doesn’t live quite so happily in the dreamland between grip and slip. That’s where so much of the magic happens when you don’t have a race track at your disposal.

So the M2 Comp is more fun, but the CSL is more precise and, maybe, the more rewarding car. I don’t know. It’s so close that personal preference will be the deciding factor.

But to drive these coupés back to back and discover an almost identical genetic code is joyful. BMW M GmbH hasn’t always got things right of late, but today’s stars are what its cars should be all about: palpable balance, abundant but not overbearing power, control and the agility that comes with a modest footprint. And soul. Either would be a dream to own, but if I had to choose one on which to blow £55,000? With a gun to my head, it’d have to be the glorious M3 CSL. But only for seven-thousand-nine-hundred reasons. A

Photography Luc Lacey