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Buy the new BMW M2 Competition or get a used BMW E46 M3 CSL?

By Andy Enright, 16 Sep 2019 Advice

Buy the new BMW M2 Competition or get a used BMW E46 M3 CSL?

Two of BMW’s finest M cars go head to head in a hard-fought, circa-$100K showdown. Where’s your pile of loot going – new or used?

HOW GOOD IS A BMW M2 Competition? Don’t worry, ScoMo hasn’t been offered a road-testing job here at Wheels, we’re just curious to see how Garching’s little monster fits into the hierarchy of all-time great M cars. That list would have to include the likes of the E39 M5, the seminal E30 M3 and the exotic mid-engined M1. In there with a podium shot would also be the fantastic E46 M3 CSL and, given that these change hands from around $110,000, it looks a direct rival for the M2 Competition if that’s your budget and you want a charismatic and rewarding rear-drive coupe.


Just listen to the thing! The E46 M3 CSL delivers one of the greatest straight-six soundtracks at any price, helped by a carbonfibre airbox for a truly distinctive sound. Its remit was clear: lap the Nurburgring in under eight minutes. To achieve this, head of body Hans-Bruno Starke and chassis development engineer Peter Schmidt had four key areas to work on: weight, aerodynamics, suspension and tyres. Power was a secondary concern, although changes to the engine management, cams, headers, intakes, valves and exhaust handily lifted peak power from the regulation M3’s 252 to a healthy 265kW.

This was the first M car to pioneer the carbonfibre roof, saving 7kg and lowering the centre gravity. Around 50kg came out of the interior, with lightweight seats, centre console, glass and door panels. A couple of kilos came off each wheel, with aluminium lower control arms further reducing unsprung weight. The carbonfibre front bumper shell is a pure racing part, helping to subtly shift weight distribution rearwards. Final distribution was 51:49 front to rear, still not quite Munich’s much-vaunted 50:50.

Based on a hoary old Clarksonism, many believe that the boot floor of the CSL is made of cardboard and can’t hold any weight. Not so. The underside of the boot is metal, the same as any M3 but it does have a lightweight cardboard boot liner. It’s a CSL-specific BMW part numbered 51477895990; removable honeycomb-paper composite panel.

A plastic composite bootlid with built-in spoiler was developed as much for aerodynamic benefit as weight saving, but a huge gain came from the gumball semi-slick Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres. Later Cup+ tyres offered a little more wet weather versatility. The CSL rides 10mm lower than a stock E46 M3 and the suspension has been seriously gym-toned. Springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, bump stops, king pins; all were upspecced. A quicker steering rack and bigger front brake discs were also fitted. Somewhat controversially for the time, the CSL foresaw a trend: no clutch pedal for the flagship sports model. It took Porsche more than a decade to catch on to that particular trick. The SMG II ’box (in effect a robotised manual) seems a little quaint now, but it’s still a riot to crack up through the ratios.

As a used purchase, an M3 CSL makes a lot of sense. Prices are highly variable. We’ve seen cars start at $110k, stepping up to $150k for the very best examples, but all are collectable and, even in this current wavering classics market, have scope for serious value gains.


While the E46 M3 CSL might sound fantastic and offer a bulletproof financial proposition, it also faces an inconvenient truth. The old stager packs 265kW and gets to 100km/h in 4.8 seconds. Buy new and you get 302kW and 100km/h coming and going in 4.2 seconds. Or, if you prefer, 12.5 percent quicker. It also features launch control, a far superior transmission, niceties like sat-nav, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and the not inconsiderable bonus of having a steering wheel that’s not ingrained with a decade and change of some other person’s DNA.

We’ve put the M2 Competition up against the best of its new rivals and it’s come out on top each and every time. We thought the brilliant Alpine A110 would finally have the M2’s measure, but as beguiled as we were by the French lightweight, when it came to the question of handing over the cash, every last one of us said we’d be heading to a BMW dealer.

To contextualise the M2 Competition, consider this. The brand-new Porsche 992 Carrera is more than double the price, delivers less power, less torque, less space and isn’t any quicker. You want a 300kW+ Mercedes-AMG coupe? You’ll have to wait until next year for the new CLA 45 and you’ll only get four cylinders for your money. While all-wheel drive will ensure the AMG gets the drop off the line, we’d be extremely surprised if this layout results in a chassis as rewarding as that of the M2 Competition.

Drive an M2 Competition against rivals and you appreciate the expertise that has gone into this vehicle. We love the way that BMW has had the cojones to pick a spring and damper setting and then just stick to it rather than offering multitudes of modes. BMW backed itself with this car and it’s very, very good.

Specs comparison

Price now From $110,000 $104,900
Engine 3246cc 6cyl, dohc, 24v 2979 6cyl, dohc, 24v, twin-turbo
Output 265kW/370Nm 302kW/550Nm
Transmission 6-speed automatic 7-speed dual-clutch 
0-100km/h 4.8sec 4.2sec
0-200km/h 17.3sec 14.4sec
Drivetrain RWD RWD
Doors 2 2
Weight 1385kg 1575kg
Country of origin Germany Germany

Wheels staff pick

Alex Inwood

If ever there was a head v heart decision, this is it. The head says the M2 Competition is the obvious choice. Its performance destroys the CSL’s, it should be unfalteringly reliable (unlike the 15-year-old CSL), it’s tech infused and connected, plus it happens to be one of the most exciting and capable performance coupes getting about. But who buys this kind of car with their head? This kind of purchase is all about how the car makes you feel and by that measure, the CSL has the M2 licked. Beautifully proportioned and firmly entrenched as a modern classic, the CSL is also likely to go up in value. The fact it has an evocative and raspy straight-six soundtrack, beautifully balanced dynamics and is fast enough to be exciting but not so fast so you’ll lose your licence, is just a bonus.

Cameron Kirby
Staff Journalist

I’m at risk of getting myself in a lot of trouble here, but I just don’t get the E46 M3 CSL. That's not to say it is a bad thing, or those that it does appeal to are wrong; I was just never bitten by that particular bug. So it's an easy win for the M2 Comp. What a ripper daily driver it would make! I don't think I'd ever arrive at work with a frown in that thing. It has so much character and is a real performance bargain. If I ever got a little bored (unlikely), a new exhaust and ECU tune would spice things back up.

Andy Enright
Deputy Editor

As much as I love the M3 CSL, I think its clunky transmission would be a deal-breaker for me. I’ve seen CSL manual conversions, but have reservations about the effect on residuals. If I wanted an E46 M3 coupe, I’d be tempted to buy a stock manual model and fit the CS wheels and an aftermarket carbon airbox for the CSL sound. That’d be fifty grand well spent. Doubling the budget – for me at least – runs into slightly diminishing E46 returns, so my $110K would go on a new M2 Competition. In black. And I’m not a fan of the fussy alloy wheels, so I’d be tracking down a set of those dished five-spokes from the ‘old’ M2 for it. And maybe an Akrapovic titanium exhaust to give the CSL a run for its money on acoustics.



We’ve asked a variant of this question in the past when we compared BMW’s M4 with the M3 CSL.

It’s worth watching this one just for the CSL gloriously sideways and at maximum noise. If I watch it again, I know I’ll probably start second guessing my choice of the M2 Competition, so it’s over to you.

Reckon we’ve got it right? Or are we way off the money (literally)? Find your best and let us know in the comments what you’d buy.