I exist pretty far on one side of the spectrum when it comes to how hardcore I want a road car to be. I like manual everything; I want to be able to turn any computer assistance off, even if it's just to whip wide figure-eights in quiet back lots. And even for me, the BMW M4 CSL was too hardcore.
Welcome to the run-up to Performance Car of the Year 2023. This year we’ll be running breakout stories on each of our 10 contenders twice a week, every week until the full all-out comparison goes live the third week of January. Let's get into it.
There are lots of phrases and cliches that we use in the car writing business, and I hate most of them but love one in particular. I can say that this M4 CSL is "too much car," at least when it comes to driving it on the road. It's not that I'm saying the car is too large physically–though it is not small–or that the interior is too small. It's that there is a lot of ... automobile ... to handle. There is a lot of power. There is a lot of torque. There is a lot of grip, and there is a lot of boost. There's just a lot for you, as a driver, to deal with. A lot going on. You could even say that there is a lot of handling; the M4 CSL doesn't just have big tires, it has a rather startling amount of front camber. It dives into a corner, but at the cost of stability.
What's funny about it is that BMW markets this car by what it does without. What makes it less is what makes it more. The CSL does without the M4 Competition's optional all-wheel-drive system, so there is no moment when the front wheels might claw you out of an unexpected slide. There are the rear tires and your skill behind the wheel. That's it. The CSL has no back seats, or adjustability in the buckets you get up front. There is a manual slider for forward and back, and hard-mounted brackets for the rest. If you want to sit lower or more upright, you are pulling over, parking, and getting out some wrenches. There is no sound insulation, either. The dash is (carbon-reinforced) plastic, as is the hood, and trunk, and splitters. The exhaust is titanium and the new lightweight wheels (23.8 lbs front and 24.2 lbs rear, for 9.5 x 19s and 10.5 x 20s if you're curious) are forged, all good for a savings of 240 pounds compared to the Competition trim up from which the CSL steps.
This is still, of course, a rather heavy car at 3640 pounds, and a high-powered one. The 3.0-liter twin-turbo straight-six makes 40 more hp than the M4 Competition, up to 543, though it grunts out the same 479 lb-ft of torque. This is thanks to another 5.8 pounds of boost (30.5 psi for the CSL) and the requisite re-tuning of the ECU. What else could you want, in addition to a big power figure but a lot of torque ready to break the rear tires loose whenever that high boost kicks in? Why be relaxed? Save that kind of driving for the other half-dozen cars in your garage.
The CSL is a nervy car, not made any more relaxed by the state of the tires themselves. These are track-ready Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 Rs, with ultra-low tread, as the car reminded me nearly hydroplaning into the side of a one-lane bridge at half a mile an hour in the middle of a downpour.
Specc'd at 275/35-R19 up front and 285/30/-20 at the back, these tires are exactly what you want when you are howling around a dry race track! And these tires are exactly what you do not want on a real-world road trip, when you know that some days will be bright and others dark and stormy.
Indeed, it's fun to drive a track car on the street, right up until that moment when you are 45 degrees across a one-lane road, waiting for the car to regain traction. I spent the rest of that drive cruising on low throttle, with no desire to put its face into a guardrail.
Given the nature of PCOTY's schedule, the only time I got behind the wheel of this M4 CSL was in that rainy, slick, chunk of afternoon. It is fair to say I did not relish the experience.
My other coworkers got to enjoy it in sunnier moments, literally and metaphorically. "It was boring unless you were absolutely leaning on it," is how Travis Okulski put it, having absolutely thrashed the car on our cold-but-dry trackday at Monticello Motor Club. When another writer said he didn't love the car, Travis didn't need many words for his response. "Shoulda driven faster."
That's what surprises me most about the M4 CSL. It's a genuinely hardcore car, more serious than anything I'd want with a license plate. It is a purist's model. As our contributor Kevin Williams put it, it's kept behind a paywall of extremely limited production and a $140,895 base price tag. Cars like this don't make BMW's bottom line anymore. BMW is, for the most part, a crossover company these days, raking it in selling X5s and X7s to suburbanites and steadily pivoting to electric drive. What other companies do this? It's not like Apple sells a jailbroken iPhone CSL, with a headphone jack and hacker-friendly coding at any price.
That's what's interesting about BMW. While it is still a major car company selling to the mainstream, it does periodically reveal that some real enthusiasts still work there. They can't help themselves but let a few cars–cars that they themselves love–out the door. They did it with the M Coupe of the 2000s, and they do it with things like this M4 CSL. Behind all of those i cars and X SUVs, there's a little bit of heart.