BMW M3 GTS, CSL, Sport Evo – which is the greatest M3? | CAR Magazine

BMW M3 GTS, CSL, Sport Evo – which is the greatest M3?

Published: 18 August 2010 Updated: 01 February 2015

The BMW M3 GTS is a car of superlatives. It is the fastest, most powerful, most track-focussed, most expensive M3 ever, a two-fingered salute to the critics who said the M Division had lost its way after SUV-gate.

So what makes the new BMW M3 GTS so good?

The spec tells you it’s a serious car: the 3999cc V8 grows to 4361cc thanks to a longer stroke; the seven-speed dual clutcher is now standard and is re-mapped to suit the revised powertrain; the interior is stripped; the rear suspension subframe solidly mounted to the body; the single-piston brakes replaced by six-pot front and four-pot rears. See those wheel studs? A stock M3 doesn’t have studs, it has bolts. Studs make it easier to whip wheels on and off, when, say, you’re smoking a couple of sets of rears per day at the track. It’s a little touch, but, just like an MPV’s proliferation of cubby holes, one that speaks volumes about its intended use: this is a serious car for serious drivers.

Okay, but how does it compare with previous über-M3s, and how does it move the game on versus the most focussed new M3 that doesn’t wear the GTS badge – the Competition Pack?

Now, I’m sure there’ll be plenty of arguments about this, but for me the GTS’s key in-house benchmarks from previous generations are the E30 Sport Evo and the E46 M3 CSL. No E36s? No. We could have included the E36 M3 Lightweight, but that was North American-only, and therefore featured the lower-power US engine – we’d sooner have a Euro engine. We could have dropped in the E36 M3 R, but these were Aussie-only and essentially built for a race series. Dismissed. Perhaps we could have chosen the left-hand drive E36 M3 GT. Mmm, not quite hardcore enough in this company, but a great car nonetheless. Ah, the perils of an M3 greatest hits – feel free to grumble in the comments section below!

BMW M3 Sport Evo (E30)

The E30 feels positively pedestrian compared with the new M3, but its responses still sparkle with clarity when you drive it hard on track. It steers beautifully, and you have to be either highly clumsy or wilfully wayward to make the old timer under- or oversteer. Great visibility, comfortable Recaros, lovely car. That dog-leg gearbox takes some getting used to, though, the steering ratio could be quicker, and the engine is horribly coarse compared with the stuff we’re used to these days. The step from regular E30 to Sport Evo doesn’t transform the M3 experience in the same way that the step up to CSL or GTS does – it’s really much the same, apart from the engine – but the Sport Evo definitely deserves its best-E30-ever tag, and the changes were genuinely needed – unlike anything else we’re dealing with here – to keep the M3 at the cutting edge of motorsport, hence the wilder adjustable wings and wider front arches.

>> Click ‘Next’ below to read about the BMW M3 GTS and M3 CSL 

BMW M3 GTS (E92)

Next we’re bang up to date: the GTS. I slip in the Recaro bucket seat, and queue up in the Ascari circuit’s pitlane on a boiling hot day. Shame this car goes with the no air-con spec that comes as standard in GTS trim – I’m sweltering before I’ve driven a metre, and I’m not hardcore enough to make sweating profusely through a trackday worth the kilos saved. Elsewhere it’s all very civilised though – the seats are still comfortable, the rollcage is all behind you, what was the rear seating area is trimmed neatly, and the trim up front is pretty much as you’d find it in any other M3, bar the deletion of the stereo, the addition of carbon trim, a suedey steering wheel, and some simpler climate controls.

Drive it hard and you notice how much angrier and louder the GTS is (it sounds great) than the standard M3, and you really notice the benefits brought about by that larger engine and weight loss, even though the spec says you’re lugging just 70kg less and pushing 30bhp more – this M3 feels both ultimately far faster than a regular M3, and far torquier low down too. The weight loss and stiffer suspension (just the one fixed-rate here – adaptive dampers aren’t available) helps the immediacy of direction changes, the steering feels sweeter and more direct and the front and rear ends stick far more convincingly, meaning you can get on the power earlier and not worry about the front washing wide or the rears spinning up as you do with the Competition Pack – thank the stickier rubber for that. Can’t say I noticed any difference with the DCT transmission, though – it just feels as instantaneous as ever. And while the brakes felt incredibly strong, we weren’t allowed to do enough laps to really test their endurance.

When you drive a standard M3 on track – even the Competition Pack – it takes a short while to recalibrate your expectations, to realise that you have to be patient with the power, to manage the body roll, to cut through the layer of detachment that’s a by-product of the car’s all-round refinement. The GTS simply feels like you want an M3 to feel on track – sharp, lither, more responsive, harder, quicker.

BMW M3 CSL (E46)

But, you know what, an E46 CSL feels more immediate and more pointy than a new M3 too. It also has a great big angry soundtrack. The SMG transmission might be off the pace these days, but the CSL is still a very, very satisfying track toy – and you’ll get a surefire classic for around £25k.

But what really bothers me is that the CSL feels more bespoke than the GTS, its modifications more thoroughly wrought. You can see it in the bodywork: the entirely different front bumper, bootlid and carbon roof – M3s didn’t all have carbon roofs back then, remember. Inside you see it with the completely reworked interior trim, feel it in the heavily revised suspension. It loses more weight than the GTS – around 100kg – and gains 17bhp. Both driving experiences are similarly transformed versus the cars they’re based on, but where the CSL was around 50% more expensive (and crucified for it at the time), the GTS will likely be more than 100% more expensive than a regular M3. Around £120k is a lot of dough, and the CSL – thanks to its rear seats – is far more useable as a daily driver.

Which is the best BMW M3 ever?

Much as I absolutely adored driving the GTS, I left the launch feeling that – engine aside – the car’s concept was less convincing than the CSL, that M’s approach had far more in common with a very serious trackday DIY project than a motorsport powerhouse. It feels like a quick riposte to the naysayers, rather than something that was part of the M3 product plan from the beginning. What would you do if you wanted a hardcore new M3 track toy? You’d buy an early car for £30k, strip it, add a cage, drop in some Recaros, fit six-pot brakes, stiffen the suspension, maybe tack on a rear spoiler. You’d struggle to spend £50k in total. Yet that, essentially, is what we’ve got here.

The M3 GTS is a great car – that is absolutely beyond question – but it’s also one that struggles to justify its extremely high price tag.

HOW MUCH? £34,500 £58,455 (2004)

£120,000 (est)

ENGINE 2467cc 16v four cylinder 3246cc 24v straight six 4361cc 32v V8
OUTPUTS 238bhp @ 7000rpm, 176lb ft @ 4750rpm 360bhp @ 7900rpm, 273lb ft @ 4900rpm 444bhp @ 8300rpm, 325lb ft @ 3750rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive Six-speed sequential manual, rear-wheel drive Seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, rear-wheel drive
PERFORMANCE 6.2sec 0-62mph, 154mph 4.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph, 23.7mpg, 287g/km 4.4sec 0-62mph, 190mph, 22.2mpg, 295g/km
HOW HEAVY/MADE OF? 1200kg/steel 1460kg/steel 1530kg/steel
HOW BIG? 4345/1680/1370mm 4492/1780/1365mm 4645/1804/1387mm


By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator