BMW promised to make 1000, at £58,445 each – nearly £20k more than a standard M3 – and ended up fulfilling orders for 1383 cars.
Hunkered down and bulging with track-ready muscle, the CSL brings the Sport Evo’s visual presence to the E46.
Its wider tracks, bigger 19in wheels and bespoke aero kit don’t quite mimic the E30 – the arches bulge from the wings rather than blending into the body, and the splitters, spoilers and intakes more accurately direct the airflow – but the overall effect is evocative.
Inside, it feels just as purposeful with suede seats, steering wheel and handbrake, plus glossy carbonfibre detail on the doors and centre console.
The rest is black and grey, and the CSL feels more austere and less richly finished than the E36 GT.
The carbonfibre intake manifold dominates the BMW M3 CSL’s engine bay
You forget about the interior quite quickly, however.
The ‘six’ fires into life with a bark and the SMG automated manual clunks into gear with race-car attitude.
There’s a slight coarseness to the exhaust note as the car warms, and the ride is just the wrong side of forgiving over a rough B-road.
But as the oil temperature climbs and the rev-counter warning lights fade away, a flex of the throttle ignites the CSL’s spectacular character.
Piling on the revs elicits a growl from ahead and a shove from the seatback as the 265mm-wide Michelin Pilot Sports grab the road surface.
The more focused M3 GTS (left) sits lower than the CSL, but it’s a more challenging car to drive fast
You feel their tenacious hold through beautifully weighted steering, giving complete confidence to remain committed as the engine’s tone shifts to an epic, full-bore howl above 6000rpm that carries, probably for miles, to a heady 8000rpm limit.
The snappy gearshifts benefit from a brief lift, and prodigious braking successfully brings you back to earth, but just like the E30, it’s a car that feels natural to drive fast.
Why don’t other E46 M3s feel like this? It turns out that nth degree took some finding.
No less than 95kg was shaved off the kerbweight: 7kg thanks to the famous carbonfibre roof, with other savings in the carbonfibre doors, an aluminium honeycomb boot floor, a composite rear bulkhead, thinner rear glass, and the loss of the radio, air-conditioning and electric seats (although all were available as options).
The suspension was thoroughly reworked, including more aggressive geometry and bespoke aluminium rear control arms, while a sharper 14.5:1 ratio steering rack replaced the existing 15.4:1 item.
Both of the later cars feature distinctive aero tweaks, the CSL (right) with a ‘ducktail’ spoiler and the GTS with a rear wing
Power was edged up by 17bhp and torque by 4lb ft thanks to hotter cams and lots of work on the intake and exhaust systems, including a carbonfibre intake manifold.
There had been plans for a V8-powered E46 M3, and even a short-lived, non-homologated GTR that took advantage, then became a victim, of the American Le Mans Series regulations of 2001 and 2002 respectively.
But it was the subsequent E92 3 Series that finally brought an eight-cylinder M3 to market in 2007.
The S65 engine was itself a derivative of the V10 seen in the M5 three years earlier, and was 15kg lighter than its predecessor’s ‘six’ thanks to finally adopting all-aluminium construction.
It would eventually form the basis of a variety of racers, notably BMW’s 2010 Z4 GT3.
The M3 GTS has deep bucket seats in the sparsely trimmed cabin