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BMW takes its sporting icon into ultra-rarefied giant-killing territory

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Fifteen months ago, BMW’s M division celebrated one of its performance car icons with a fast and aggressive-looking special edition: the 626bhp BMW M5 CS. We road tested it in July last year, and it became the only car in 2021 to be awarded a five-star score.

Now here we are at the end of 2022 with a sense of déjà vu, as Munich sets out to hit even greater heights with a BMW M4 whose jib is cut in similar – if not identical – style.

You won't appreciate the beauty of the CSL's lightweight carbon-composite bonnet and bootlid until you lift them up, feel their weight, and admire the naked carbon underneath.

The BMW M4 CSL marks a celebration of a quite different magnitude: the 50th birthday of BMW M. It is only the third car yet to bear the ‘CSL’ identifier and the first in almost 20 years. So while there have been few BMW CSLs over the decades, this one meets with huge expectations. Not least, perhaps, because this car’s immediate predecessor, the ‘E46’ M3 CSL of 2004, is still regarded as the finest-handling car BMW has yet produced.

That the CSL isn’t just another roll-caged, track-intended limited-run special is what ought to make the following pages so fascinating. How has BMW defined what CSL needs to stand for today, as distinct from how it has defined a BMW M4 GTS more recently, for example? Is this just the fastest, lightest, grippiest and most powerful M4 that it can make in 2022? Or has BMW targeted other qualities to make its ultimate mid-sized M car truly stand out?

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Range at a glance

The BMW M3 may once have been a homologation-special coupé, but it has since become an extensive range of models. Among them is a four-door saloon, two-door coupé and convertible, and also now an M3 Touring fast estate option as well as the new CSL special edition.

If you’re buying a regular M4, there are the M Carbon, M Pro and Technology packages, or there’s the £11k Ultimate package if you want every option in the brochure.

VersionPower
BMW M3 Competition503bhp
BMW M3 Competition xDrive503bhp
BMW M3 Competition xDrive TOuring503bhp
BMW M4 Competition503bhp
BMW M4 Competition xDrive503bhp
BMW M4 Competition xDrive Convertible503bhp
BMW M4 CSL*543bhp

*Version tested

TRANSMISSIONS

8-spd automatic         

DESIGN & STYLING

02 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 rear oversteer smoke

If you’re wondering what BMW has learned about cars such as this since 2004, you’ll find the answer in part in the equipment level of the new BMW M4 CSL – which comes with factory sat-nav, a stereo and air conditioning (all of which the E46 was denied as standard). This car is 100kg lighter as standard than an equivalent BMW M4 Competition, but most of that has been saved by losing its rear seats and seatbelts, replacing its front seats with lighter items and by other lightweight substitutions, rather than by junking equipment features that owners would be likely to miss in 2022.

The CSL’s chassis remains a mix of steel and aluminium but has been braced for extra rigidity across the front suspension turrets and under the floor. Much more of its aggressive-looking bodywork is made out of carbonfibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) than on an M4 Competition: think bonnet and bootlid here, as well as the roof. The stripping of the regular M4’s noise and vibration insulation is worth 15kg alone, however, which is more than all of that expensive bodywork combined. Standard-fit carbon-ceramic brakes contribute a 14.3kg weight loss, and another 4kg comes from various lightweight substitutions elsewhere.

The angry frontal styling is certainly divisive, but turning the volume up on the those ‘Terminator’ looks somehow makes it a more coherent design than an M4 Competition, to my eyes at least. The rest of the car matches the jutting menace of that grille now.

BMW says the M4 CSL weighs 1625kg in running order, although that’s unlikely to pique the interest of those used to sub-1300kg Alpines and Lotuses, or even 1450kg Porsche GT cars. Could the diet have been more effective? Yes, but perhaps experience has taught BMW where to draw the line with its lightweighting of high-end performance models.

The car runs the same ‘S58B30’ 3.0-litre straight-six performance engine as the regular M3 and M4. With turbo boost pressure turned up by some 25%, it makes 543bhp here (40bhp up on the regular M4) and the same 479lb ft as the regular M4 Competition, but it’s available over a broader band of revs. Stiffened engine mounts are also used, with similar ones for the eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox.

Within the wheel arches, BMW has widened the regular M4’s axle tracks; redesigned the front hubs to deliver more negative camber; switched to fully rigid mountings for the rear axle as well as for the rear subframe; and fitted new suspension struts with helper springs for both axles, which cradle the car 8mm closer to the ground than the regular M4 Competition. Super-sticky track-biased Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 Rs are standard on the car, but those can be swapped out for more road-appropriate Pilot Sport 4Ss on request.

INTERIOR

07 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 dashboard

For reasons we’ve just covered and others we’ll come to, this BMW M4 CSL seems less likely to appeal to a driver who needs to know that they are getting the lightest and most uncompromising track-ready sports car of its kind to part with the near-£130k sticker price. It still offers a great operating environment, though, and it’s a surprisingly habitable, comfortable and well-appointed place for any enthusiast driver to find him or herself in.

If you do want to maximise the car’s potential for lightness, you will need to stick with BMW’s standard-fit M Carbon Racing Bucket front seats, which by themselves deliver a sizeable chunk – 24kg – of the car’s overall weight saving. With a fixed backrest angle, no adjustable lumbar support and a manual base height adjustment that can only be set in the workshop, these seats were developed especially for the CSL. Our test car didn’t have them, though, coming instead with the M Carbon Bucket seats that are optional on the regular M4 Competition and with which we are already familiar. They may look particularly aggressive but are surprisingly comfortable and adjustable once you’re settled in.

Carbonfibre-composite centre console looks great and is one of a few weight-saving efforts in the cabin. You have to pay extra for wireless device charging.

CSL branding is used judiciously around the cabin, much of it backlit so it appeals all the more after dark. There’s a lightweight centre console made of CFRP but, contrary to what you might expect, it retains some useful storage space and is itself a welcome reminder, every time you glance down for the car’s gear selector, that you’re driving something so rare and special.

Otherwise, those neat but suspiciously tokenistic, track-day-kudos-conjuring design touches that cars such as this sometimes trade on – drawstring-style door handles, elastic-netted storage bin replacements, carbonfibre electric window switches, and the like – generally aren’t bothered with. That the CSL isn’t offered with either a fire extinguisher or a roll-cage tells you a great deal: this is a proper modern performance car fully fitted for regular use; a car clearly very ready for track use, but which, even before you’ve driven it, doesn’t seem easy to define in simple terms as a track car to the exclusion of any other role you might imagine for it.

In the rear cabin, where the back seats would otherwise be, you’ll find a netted storage area that’s plainly designed for a couple of crash helmets. But you might just as easily carry smaller items of luggage or shopping bags. And behind that, in the boot, cargo space is as generously supplied here as it is in any other M4.

Infotainment

14 Bmw m4 csl rt 2022 infotainment 0

While some CSL buyers might like the idea of a stripped-out cabin made as light and lean as possible, few would appreciate living with a £130,000 car without modern navigation or in-car entertainment systems. As such, the new M4 CSL doesn’t go without. If you want a car with wireless smartphone charging, a head-up display or BMW’s Parking Assistant system, you can have those features added, but even without them, the CSL doesn’t appear in the least bit sparsely equipped.

BMW’s Operating System 7.0 isn’t the company’s latest-generation infotainment set-up, as fitted to the likes of the iX and 7 Series, but it’s easy to navigate your way around when the car is on the move thanks to that tactile iDrive rotary input device. A wi-fi hotspot is included, as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto mirroring functionality, and the former worked reliably and well during our testing.

BMW fits a 10–speaker, 205W sound system. Unusually in a modern BMW, it can’t be upgraded. Take that as a hint that you ought to be listening to the titanium exhaust instead.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

15 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 engine

The BMW M4 CSL feels like an M4 with quite a bit more than just an extra 40bhp. On a dry day at the test track, it hit 60mph from rest in 3.6sec and 100mph in 7.3sec, and it covered a standing quarter mile in the sort of time that was reserved for full-fat supercars only a decade ago.

The outright grip level of the car’s Cup R tyres clearly played its part getting it off the line so well, but consider that the standard BMW M4 Competition tested last year was more than a second slower to 100mph, and you’ll begin to understand how potent the CSL is. A Porsche 718 Cayman GT4 RS – that other similarly priced, extra-special German sports car introduced this year – is a full second slower to 100mph from rest.

At 2500rpm, the two turbos spool up with a real squeeze to your kidneys

What the CSL can call on, and which the Porsche can’t, of course, is turbocharged torque – and here there is a lot of it. Its power delivery is boostier than the super-linear character we’ve become used to in most modern M cars, and it’s subject to just a little bit of turbo tag.

Even under a lot of load from low revs, the engine responds a touch sleepily, before waking at 2500rpm when the two turbos spool up with a real squeeze to your kidneys. You can see the evidence in our in-gear performance figures: select sixth and the engine will pull willingly enough from below 40mph (so this is nothing like 1980s-style turbo lag) but, even as drag builds on the bodywork, the rate of gain in acceleration doesn’t peak until somewhere between 70 and 90mph.

In normal driving, needless to say, you don’t go looking for ways to expose that slightly laggy engine. The momentary pause-and-rush that greets every dive into the throttle only adds drama to the car’s character, rather than adversely affecting its drivability. The extra definition and detail in the exhaust note, delivered by that new titanium exhaust system, is a welcome addition. The straight six has a more honest and mechanical turbine growl under load than a regular M4 does, with less apparent digital engine noise synthesis and a real edge to its bark on downshifts. In short, it’s great to listen to.

There can be notes of snatchiness and ‘tip-in shock’ from the engine and gearbox if you feed in power at all clumsily at low speeds or when manoeuvring. You can clearly blame those more rigid engine and transmission mounts if you feel so inclined, although in our experience it’s seldom so serious as to be irksome.

RIDE & HANDLING

18 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 front drift

When BMW introduced the current-generation G82 BMW M4 at the end of 2020, it claimed ‘reducing dynamic wheel load fluctuations’ as one of the main aims of its chassis tuning. At the time it seemed like a slightly mysterious turn of phrase, but it was another way of expressing the will to make the car’s close ride and wheel control more fluent and progressive while remaining less aggressive and fidgety over bumps.

While both the standard M3 and M4 showed evidence of that focus when we tested them last year, the BMW M4 CSL really bears testimony to it. Leave its dampers set to Comfort mode and this car has a level of on-road ride suppleness and handling composure that really belies its apparently hardcore positioning. Very few cars that look quite so aggressive, or which harbour quite so much outright track purpose, also ride and handle with such sophistication.

This probably won’t be hailed as the finest-handling M car yet, but as a clear step up from a regular M4, and more of a challenge to decode than an instantly gratifying dynamic treat, it works well as a halo model.

The car’s suspension feels taut like a bow string over a typically flowing, cross-country British road. It absorbs small and medium-sized inputs with remarkable fluency and keeps you settled at the wheel, rather than fidgeting you around in your seat as an M3 or BMW M4 GTS might. But the suspension also has the damping authority to deal with longer-wave movements in one short stroke when needed, and it makes the car feel reassuringly composed, rather than skittish or nervous, when carrying bigger speeds. On the road, therefore, you seldom feel the need to dial the car’s suspension into a firmer setting; when you do, the surface needs to be particularly smooth to make the trade worthwhile.

The car steers with a level of detailed tactile feel significantly beyond that of a regular M4. That extra negative camber makes for extra positivity to the front wheels as you add lock, but it displays nothing in the way of hyped-up directness. The CSL steers really naturally and intuitively and offers lots of confidence and feedback.

The grip level of our test car’s Cup 2 R tyres varied from unapproachably high when hot down to alarmingly low when cold, as such tyres generally do on the road. But the CSL’s driver aids cover well for the moments when the tyres aren’t working so effectively (and buyers can have a standard Michelin performance tyre fitted on the car if they prefer).

Comfort and isolation

19 Bmw m4 csl rt 2022 rear corner 0

The M4 CSL is a less refined, more unfiltered sort of car than a regular M4, as our noise meter confirmed. But it isn’t the kind of hardcore special that demands earplugs in order to drive it, much less a lie down in a darkened room at the end of a particularly long drive.

Some surface noise and bass-drum rumble emanate from those rigid-mounted axles over rougher asphalt, and the odd sharp edge can clunk its way into the cabin at low speeds. But the fact that this is seldom a harsh-riding car is further proof that it is intended as a genuinely usable road-going BMW rather than some sort of track-day trophy car. A regular M4 Competition generates 68dBA of cabin noise at a typical 50mph UK cruise; the CSL makes only 69dBA, while a current Porsche 911 GT3 (with fitted roll-cage) makes 75dBA.

Our test car’s optional seats, though a little tricky to berth, offered good comfort levels and plenty of adjustability, although the way the cushions are shaped in support of your thighs can make you peculiarly aware of the right-sided pedal offset.

It might only be for the CSL’s standard ‘racing bucket’ seats, then, that we’d have to record any significant caveat to the score of a surprisingly civilised car here – if only we’d tested them. All-round visibility isn’t impacted by any roll-cage or monstrous rear wing, and on-board noise levels and ride comfort are both entirely livable.

Track notes

Bmw m4 csl track notes

Track times suffered the effect of mismatched Cup 2 R tyres, with one of our car’s rears having been changed the day before after a puncture. The dry lap times suggest it would indeed have gone quicker than the mid-engined Porsche Cayman GT4 RS tested in the summer in optimal conditions.

The driver modes’ most extreme track settings are a shade too firm for the bumpier corners and bigger kerbs; back them down a notch and the M4 carries speed more assuredly. The car moves around quite a bit at the limit and demands plenty of concentration and commitment, though, and it’s not as benign as the regular M4 Competition. Those Cup 2 R tyres, meanwhile, grip incredibly hard but give up their hold on the asphalt more suddenly than a more normal performance tyre might.

A boosty delivery doesn’t always make the BMW perfectly predictable when cornering hard under power, but it always makes it fun.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 Lead front driving

The BMW M4 CSL’s price makes it a very expensive performance BMW. The fact that, in real terms, it is actually slightly less than was asked for the last-generation BMW M4 GTS in 2016 is unlikely to soften the blow.

For a once-in-several-model-generations chance to snap up a CSL, of course, wealthier M division regulars will pay. Dealers appear to have managed their allocations carefully, though, and no examples seemed to be on the open market, priced at a premium, at the time of writing. When they appear, they should hold their value well.

Black is a good colour for a more toned-down and stealthy look. Have the optional carbonfibre bucket seats (nco), the ‘50 Years of M’ roundel badges (£300) and the vehicle tracker (£500). Avoid adding any unnecessary weight.

Owners should expect a respectable 30mpg on longer trips, and both cargo storage and ride comfort would certainly support touring trips as well as pleasure drives and track days.

VERDICT

21 BMW M4 CSL RT 2022 static bridge

M division has waited a long time to bring its CSL badge out of storage. This was certainly the right year to do that, but is this BMW M4 CSL the right car? That question can’t be answered quite as easily or emphatically as some might like, even with a full road test’s worth of data at our disposal. This car is fast, dramatic and characterful; challenging as well as absorbing to drive; and fiery at times, while also being surprisingly mild-mannered at other times.

Most surprising of all, though, is its on-road dynamic sophistication and usability. Rather than aiming for even more diamond-hard track specialism than the BMW M4 GTS had, BMW clearly understood that the CSL sub-brand needs its own flavouring – and that’s quite complex on the palate. But it’s also direct, accessible and widely gratifying.

That you don’t need to seek out a track to experience this car at its best is at once a surprise and a key strength. And when you do, that you’ll find an M4 that’s more demanding to drive than the standard car, as well as being significantly fierier and faster, is all part of the appeal.

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.