BMW M4 CSL Splash

These special-version motor cars are becoming very expensive. That’s what I thought when the man handed over the keys to BMW’s new £130,000 M4 CSL. He left it on the street - I had a few telephone calls to make before popping out for a look. When I did there were several people around the car. All of them were young. All of them thought it looked fantastic. I ducked any potential dialogue about the styling and, despairing of the younger generations for totally ruining the introduction to this column, headed off for a drive.

They were supposed to hate it. They were supposed to say it had weird Mustang overtones in profile, some Audi lurking in the rear lights, awkward overhangs and an uniterrupted volume behind the door shut-line that robs it of any real stance. And then I could begin with those words!

Chris Harris BMW M4 CSL Dunsfold side shot

But they just thought it looked great. Maybe BMW really does know something we don’t. Never forget: it didn’t just survive the Bangle era, it thrived because of it. No car company has embraced a braver design correction philosophy than BMW did twenty years ago - so perhaps people like me should be more careful when we laugh at some of it recent offerings? Perhaps BMW understands young people?

Can young people afford a £130,000 4 Series? A few could, I’m sure. I’d quite like to see them driving one in the pissing rain, in late November. Even on Michelin PS4Ss it’s an ordeal only worth undertaking if you enjoy scaring yourself. Should a stripped-out M car be any good in such conditions? A GT3 wouldn’t be much easier - likewise any 2WD fancy AMG, but I think modern M cars struggle to defend fair-weather machine status becasue they just dont feel that special. You can add as many ‘CSL’ badges as you like (and BMW M has gone completely potty inside this car), but in essence this is a 4 Series with some wild styling additions and no rear seats. 

For you driving purists, the rear-wheel-drive thing does help the steering, which is weighty and very direct, even if the steering wheel rim itself is crazy thick and padded like a soft duvet. Why do they do that? Traction in the wet, as mentioned, is marginal - but in the dry it’s very impressive. 

The damping genius who signed off the M5 CS has clearly been at work here. There’s an underlying firmness that reminds you of what this car is capable of on a circuit, but every sharp edge is somehow smoothed and controlled. Only plush, expensive dampers can achieve this. Sitting low in BMW M’s superb carbon-shelled seats and drinking-in that damping is when this car feels at its very best. Like it’s worth every one of those very many pennies.

The engine is a monster too, rated at 550hp and 479lb-ft of torque, so I thought I’d employ the most foolproof method of judging motive force and bung a mate in the passenger seat. One who has a very tuned F80 M3. ‘F*** me that pulls hard’, was his reaction. We both agreed that the thing goes like stink and must have around 600hp. There’s a little lag low-down, but other than that it rips. Intake noise is mild, the exhaust isn’t too raucous, and the fake speaker engine noise thing sounds like a 4-year-old making brum-brum sounds.

The gearbox is more problematic. In normal mode it slurs upshifts well enough, but from the outset I missed the the speed and directness of a DCT. In the fastest mode, even on small throttle openings it emits a little parp on each shift, which is either childish or amusing according to how you view the styling. On a track, it’s unimpressive - especially on downshifts, which feel so slow and poorly calibrated against the engine torque. It felt like I was driving something from the early 2000s.

Of course, when you hit all the hooligan buttons, the CSL will party like the best of them. Choose whatever angle/gear/degree of smoke you would like and the car will deliver. It’s a trick I will never tire of and think every M car should be able to achieve - but will concede that it’s mostly meaningless. It also never feels as heavy as the claimed (and slightly alarming) 1625kg kerb weight. 

The pared-back cabin is a bit baffling to me. Having little people means I love the idea of a track monster with rear seats, so removing them spoils things. The new carbon centre console leaves a protruding ridge where your left elbow slowly bruises with each drive. It’s all a bit odd. 

But then these fast 3/4 Series cars have been odd for a long, long time. Yes, the E46 M3 CSL was a belter and it still looks sensational, but that was 20 years ago. 

Since then we’ve had the E92 GTS (crazy pricing, way off a 997 GT3 RS), the M4 GTS (again, silly price and even further off a 991 GT3 RS) and now this. In isolation it is very special, but there are other cars that do its intended job better.

One of them lives in the same building. The CSL confirms for me what an outstanding road car the M5 CS is. Its 4WD chassis gives it year-round usability, it’s just as fast, has better steering, better damping and to my eyes looks miles better. It would no doubt be slower around the ‘Ring with some young lunatic behind the wheel - but who cares?

Until BMW makes a special version of a proper sports car, it will sadly always be on the back foot. But that doesn’t stop it being a rather appealing thing.

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