- Photo by Jordan Butters

Is a manual BMW M3 CSL better than one with the paddle-shift?

The M3 CSL's standard SMG transmission might have stopped the car achieving true greatness, does a manual gearbox turn it into a true legend

1y ago

Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera and then written about it. When he's not writing he can be found trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.


I don’t want to shatter any illusions here, but most motoring journalists and automotive photographers are not always bastions of modesty and good taste. You see, nothing is funnier than jokes about gear knobs. Waggling, gripping, stroking and twiddling are all boastfully performed throughout a photoshoot with a gear knob. Then, when it comes to photography, someone will want to ‘flash a knob’ and knob shots will be shown. It’s endless fun. For them, you understand, I wouldn’t dream of being so puerile, as I take knobs seriously.

But it’s like my filthy colleagues have rubbed off on me somehow, because after recently having a ride in a regular BMW M3 CSL, I found myself thinking that you’re often left unsatisfied, and wanting to try it again but with a more substantial knob – not the small stump it has as standard. Not the sort of smut I usually think, I hasten to add, my mind is normally full of mature content.

The thing is, if there was ever a car that was castrated, and left with only a measly stub, it was the CSL. Literally, as its semi-auto gearbox meant it only has a four-or-so inch gear knob to brag about, and figuratively as its sub-par transmission hindered it in achieving real greatness. Or at least that’s the theory because very few have tried a CSL modified with a manual gearbox.

I understand the E46’s SMG transmission has its fans, but please don’t write or comment to tell me how amazing it is ‘if only you drive it correctly’. I’ve heard that, I’ve tried it and although it’s far from the worst semi-auto box out there, it still isn’t great. And anyway, it’s worth trying a manual version, isn’t it? You should try anything once.

Photo by Jordan Butters

Photo by Jordan Butters

First, let's remind ourselves what the M3 CSL actually is. It’s a special edition based on what’s often touted as the greatest version of M3: the E46 generation. It was limited to just 1383 cars in total, with only 422 right hand-drive models. But its rarity has little to do with its reputation. Here’s why it’s so loved:

It's lighter. At 1385kg, it weighs 110kg less than the regular M3 coupé thanks to a carbon fibre roof, a flimsy boot floor, forged wheels and a rear window made of extra-thin glass. That’s where it gets its name, too: CSL stands for Coupé Sport Leichtbau – that’s German for lightweight.

It's more focussed. The CSL is equipped with a quicker steering rack (14.5:1 compared to the standard M3’s 15.4:1), different spring and damper rates and its rear track control arms are made from aluminium and located with ball joints rather than rubber bushes. The front wheels are a sizeable 8.5 inches, too. That’s width, not length, and 0.5 inches bigger than the regular M3’s. There’s a semi [slick] at each corner, too, as the M3 CSL is rubbered-up with Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres.

It's more powerful. The engine made a total of 355bhp and 273lb ft of torque, 17bhp and 4lb ft more than the regular car. Not a huge performance increase, I grant you, but the S54 straight-six in the standard car already produced 104bhp per litre, so gains were always going to be small. The CSL’s extra shove comes from a huge carbon intake (without a mass airflow meter), a larger induction manifold, optimised valves and long duration cams.

And, of course, it only came with the M3’s semi-auto gearbox called SMG. But oddly, the gearbox in the SMG is the same as in the manual. The only difference between the two is who changes the gears; a human or a machine. That means converting an SMG E46 M3, even a CSL, to a manual isn’t as tricky as you might initially think; you even use the exact same gearbox, just with a new bell-housing. At Everything M3, who did the conversion on this car, the process can cost as little as £2,000 and, once it's done, is totally reversible.

But does it make it a better car?

Swapping the automated changes for a gear lever and clutch pedal have a profound, and quite brilliant effect on the entire car. Somehow the information that it transmits from the tyres, through the chassis and into your derrière, is even clearer. Perhaps, because you don't have the distraction of a mildly frustrating gearbox, you can focus more of your attention on what’s good – no, great! – about the CSL.

Photo by Jordan Butters

Photo by Jordan Butters

You can feel how wide those front tyres are, you can sense how all four corners share grip as equally as they can muster, and the way it wants to rotate and change direction, rather than pitch and roll, is so distinct. Even on this slimly English winter tarmac, you’re treated to a vast stream of feedback.

Then there’s the engine, thanks to its megaphone of a carbon fibre airbox it emits an induction noise that manages to be both hard and aggressive, as well as being smooth and high-tech. The noise itself might not actually be any better because of the manual gearbox, but as you are in full control – and the SMG ’box isn’t going to blip the throttle on downshifts, only you can do that now – every noise it makes is just a fraction sweeter, more satisfying.

With a greater connection to the tarmac and extra control over the car, thanks to the clutch more than the gear stick itself, the already biddable CSL becomes even more obliging. It does everything you ask of it, and as it's such a suitable size for UK roads, you can demand all sorts and it simply responds.

The manual change is not itself an outstanding aspect of this CSL, it’s probably not even in the top five best things about the car. Instead, what it does do is unlock a whole new level of brilliance to the CSL, allowing the way it handles and its engine to be even more enjoyable. It turns out size really does matter and in the case of the BMW M3 CSL’s knob, bigger is better.

Read more in Modern Classics magazine (Feb 2020 issue, out 3rd January)

And if either version of the M3 – paddle shift or fully manual – is always going to be a fantasy purchase for you, why not treat yourself to this awesome radio controlled version? Go on – it's new year, you deserve a treat!

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Comments (29)

  • Awesome write up. For more on this build follow @cslmanual on Instagram!

      1 year ago
  • Paddles are not my cup of tea. I like to shift my own. Just the fact that I have total control of my horse is the best

      1 year ago
  • Manual please – though having been a passenger in this car pre-conversion I have to say the SMG seemed pretty decent. Clearly it's one of those things you just have to get used to driving to get the best out of it...

      1 year ago
  • I’ve driven a manual and an SMG II M3 and both were great. The SMG did some really impressive tricks such as launch control. The manual was simply a delightful car to drive.

    My old frustration with a manual was the time the great shift came off in my hand on my E30. It was funny afterwards but at the time I wasn’t best pleased.

      1 year ago
  • The 🐐!

      1 year ago