Black & Light
From the halls of fast car fame it’s apex predator versus anti-social drift king. But which is which – and which is best?
Modern classic track stars from M and AMG face up to each other in their favoured environment
THINK useable trackday sportscar and you think 911 GT3, right? Yes, it's a great car, but hamstrung by an image problem. That huge fixed rear wing may be an altar of worship to some, but it's a beacon of snobbery for others.
BMW and Mercedes offered more subtle trackday machinery in the mid-2000s, cars that were rather more useable. Both offered spectacular pace and immersive handling, but with the space and refinement for everyday use. Both even had automatic gearboxes, for when you wanted to cruise home after a day pounding around Phillip Island.
The BMW M3 CSL came first in 2003, and to rapturous praise (especially at PCOTY 2004). It was about $68,000 more than the standard M3, but the extensive lightening, stiffening and honing was deemed to have made the $210,000 entry cost worthwhile.
In total, 542 right-hand drive CSLs were built, of which just 23 made it Down Under. However, not all were sold, with BMW Australia holding onto an original press car – the very example that almost claimed PCOTY.
Though there was a spell of depreciation, that's far behind the CSL now. Although given so few came to Australia, finding one will be the hard part. For instance, a clean example flirting with the 100,000km marker is asking 130 grand – or $100 more than a brand-spanking new M4 Pure (sans on-roads, of course).
That brings it into direct competition with the Mercedes-Benz AMG CLK63 Black Series, a car with a set of performance figures as big as its name.
It's also a rare car, but one that helped to inspire a revamp of the AMG brand. It cost $299,000 and has held up decently in the depreciation stakes – we found a pristine 46,000km car on sale for $189,990, though a fettled version, but with fewer kays, is up for $153,000.
Yet, can the AMG Black really do the business on track against one of the most beloved modern classics from BMW? And does the M3 CSL really match the hype? It takes a while to get into the CLK63 Black – there's so much to take in – scoops here, polished alloys there and steroidal bodywork addenda. While it doesn't wear its trackday aesthetic as openly as a Porsche 911 GT3, it's clear this Mercedes is far removed from a normal CLK.
We've become accustomed to Mercedes going hardcore, mainly thanks to the mainstream success of the C63, with which the Black shares its engine. But in 2008, when the CLK Black was released, such a hardcore AMG was a shock – its creations had always been fast, but they'd largely lacked the handling finesse that was a trademark of BMW's M division. The CLK DTM and SLK 55 AMG Black had raised the bar, but the CLK Black really grabbed the headlines. And in the low winter sun, it's hard to peel your eyes away from its burly form.
All that pumped-up aggression is matched by the CLK Black's 6.2-litre M156 V8 engine. There's no refined whisper here, but a baritone rumble that's more NASCAR on idle. It has vast reserves of torque too, which it's constantly reminding you of as you try to move off smoothly. Tap the throttle and there's a deep thump from the rear, like an angry drill sergeant hitting you in the back of the head to keep up marching pace. And all this before you get on to the circuit...
Once you do it's clear that this isn't a car for lap times or apex-clipping elitism. Try that and you'll find that the huge engine dictates proceedings with healthy doses of understeer. Instead, the CLK63 is emphatically about sideways entertainment. Very sideways.
Even with traction control on, you can feel the Pirelli P Zero Corsas wanting to let loose, which they do fairly easily. With TC off you can pull tail slides at any speed, yet it doesn't feel intimidating. It's willing to play, and can turn a novice into a drifting legend.
That confidence is boosted by the steering. Even if the overly fat steering wheel looks like a partially
deflated bean bag, turn-in is accurate and there’s plenty of feedback to allow you to gather up the rear. It’s much more communicative than most of its AMG forebears.
You don’t miss a manual gearchange, because the huge torque allows you to drive it on the throttle. On a tight track you could conceivably leave it in third, drifting your way around until you need a tyre fitter. Most of the punch comes in past 4000rpm, by which point your ears are treated to full-on SS-V Redlinestyle blare all the way to the 7000rpm redline and a watercolour world painted in sheer speed – it’s like a V8 Supercar for the road. You’ll be past 100km/h in 4.3sec and well past 200km/h eight seconds later.
Downsides? The seven-speed Speedshift gearbox may upchange faster than you can blink, but downchanges aren’t quick – which only matters for lap times.
It’s an expensive car – but then it feels like one. There’s lashings of glossy carbon fibre and you really can get a sense of the impressive engineering that went into this car. Those big arches swallow a wider track – up 75mm at the front, 68mm rear – while the coil-over suspension can be adjusted for ride height and camber, and the dampers fiddled with for rebound and compression. Despite all that racecar adjustability, in standard form it’s smooth and compliant over bumps.
Other modifications include an additional oil cooler for the transmission, while there’s a pump and oil cooler for the steering system and active differential. The carbon-ceramic brakes have lots of feel – but if you need to push the pedal hard you’ll find that stopping power is almost governed by how willing you are for your molar fillings to end up on the dashboard.
But for all its racing-car-derived tech, it’s really not best driven like a racing car. That tendency for midcorner understeer, plus those truculent downshifts, mean it’ll never be the scalpel that the M3 CSL is. But if your remit for a track car is wanton sideways fun and to hell with the lap times, then the CLK Black will leave you with a big, silly grin normally. If you want a precision tool, the Bavarian option is worth a look.
It took some gumption for BMW to wheel out its CSL moniker for the E46 M3. After all, that title was last used on the lightened E9 homologation special of the 1970s. A legend in its own batwings.
But it’s more than just a branding exercise. M Division junked the M3’s electric seats, replacing them with glassfibre buckets, and was generous with the carbon fibre on almost every visible surface. The outside has plenty of carbon too – the entire roof is a one-piece unit, lopping 6kg off the kerbweight alone. There’s more carbon in the spoilers fore and aft, and extensive use of glassfibre and plastic in other panels too. The lightweight forged alloys save 11kg, and the track control arms are aluminium instead of iron. In all, 110kg came off – but the main aim was lowering the car’s centre of gravity.
The bucket seats are relatively generously proportioned and the rear chairs are still there – it may be track-enhanced but it’s still practical. We’re not here for the daily commute, though. Time to hit the circuit.
It doesn’t take long for the CSL to bewitch you. Nearly all of the sound-deadening material was junked in the pursuit of weight savings, so you can hear all the rattles, all the crunches and, most importantly, the S54 B32HP straight-six engine. There’s an extra 13kW over the standard car’s 252kW, and it packs a high-flow carbon air intake and lightweight exhaust manifold, both straightened to aid engine responsiveness.
And by golly it works. The M3 CSL doesn’t so much accelerate as suck you from apex to apex like a matchstick in a vacuum cleaner. There’s only a veneer of torque at about 4000rpm, but stick with it to 8000rpm and your ears zing to the rasping buzzsaw engine note. It’s raw, uncouth, exciting and utterly addictive.
Its on-paper stats may not seem too impressive over the standard M3 – especially given the price difference – but it feels so much faster, so much more alive. Getting to 100km/h takes less than five seconds, 161km/h in six seconds more. Safe to say it doesn’t hang about, then.
Out of 1400 M3 CSLs made, a large portion (442 LHD cars) made their way to the UK. Buyers got to enjoy the carbon manifold – unique to the CSL – which also helps contribute to the raucous noise past 5000rpm. It’s also a wonderful piece of engineering art
But while the engine seduces, it’s the steering that inspires devotion. You can feel the tarmac and response is nothing short of incredible. There’s no delay in your commands to the front wheels – it feels as if the drivetrain is directly linked to your synapses. The steering rack has a slightly higher ratio than the standard car, giving you glorious bite around the straight-ahead and less armtwirling when you’re on it.
Most owners junk the standard-fit semi-slick Michelin Cup tyres for Michelin Pilot Super Sports – like this CSL. The deeper grooves provide spectacular levels of grip, even in damp conditions. Throw the CSL into the corner and it feels utterly planted; there’s a whiff of understeer, but backing off the throttle and correcting doesn’t unsettle the rear. At high speeds those carbon spoilers and splitters offer an astonishing 50 per cent more downforce than the standard car, and after a spirited track drive your battered innards will attest to the car’s cornering stability.
The big problem is the SMG II semi-automatic gearbox. While it feels satisfyingly meaty in operation, and each 0.08-second shift is 0.8 seconds quicker than a standard M3’s SMG, it feels like it takes an age to downshift. It lacks the tactility of a manual gearshift or the immediacy of more modern paddle shifters. On more open circuits and less complex country roads it feels much happier and easier to drive around. But on this smaller, tighter track, it feels sulky.
The brakes, while progressive, don’t inspire as much confidence as you’d hope. Combine that with the uncertainty of the gearshift time and you really do have to maintain your concentration to get the best out of the CSL. It’s not a power-oversteer superhero – it’s much more cerebral than that.
The joy comes from hitting those apexes, perfecting those lines, matching the downshifts to the braking, getting everything right in search of the perfect lap.
The M3 CSL isn’t for everyone – but for those it bewitches, it becomes an obsession.
Ultimately, BMW and Mercedes approach the trackday special recipe from two directions. The more serious BMW is the equivalent of golf; you’ll always be in pursuit of the perfect lap, and you’ll be back at it again and again. The Merc is rather more like football – it’s as serious or as silly as you want it to be, though best enjoyed with good humour (just not drunk).
The CLK Black is the most entertaining on the track. But while its propensity to go sideways at all times, even with the traction control on, is great fun on the relatively safe confines of a circuit, for some it could be less welcome on damp, busy roads. As it happens we love its unhinged character. Despite this, you can’t help but enjoy it on track or road – if you’ve got the stomach for the latter. It feels properly exciting, yet utterly refined when you just want to relax on the drive home.
The M3 CSL is a fabulous car. Get it wound up on the
right track or the right back road and it’s truly superb. It’s still a firm ride but the damping is slightly softer than the CLK’s, and there’s more exploitable fun at legal speeds. The CSL is also much more predictable on the supersticky Michelins. But it’s a car that only gels when you’re fully on it, and will annoy when at a relaxed, but brisk pace. The SMG II may have been lauded in its day for its speed, but now, in modern traffic and with a decade of gearbox development ahead of it, it feels clunky and slow. However, it takes just one sortie to forget all that – engine, sound, chassis balance and steering are sublime.
Either car is so different in philosophy, there’s a case for owning both in a dream garage. The M3’s pleasures are less obvious than the Black’s – it’s a car that needs to be learned and adapted to. If you’re looking to spend how much these command on a track toy, you don’t want to be making excuses. In the real world the CSL may offer greater tangible entertainment, but only in short doses and in the right conditions.
The AMG CLK63 Black Series feels every penny of its lofty price tag, from the execution to the drive itself; it feels like it’s on another level to the M3. It paints its entertainment in broad strokes – and tail slides – and that won’t be for everyone. But the chassis is so easygoing and so willing to play on track that it’s hard not to be won over. Again, it’s not perfect, but the torquey delivery mitigates its gearbox woes more easily than the CSL’s. You’ll also need strong resolve to drive the CLK as hard as the M3 on your favourite, twisty back road, but that only adds to the allure for us.
Though the CSL glitters, it is the three-pointed star that shines brighter here.
Limited-slip differential has its own oil cooler and pump to keep things in check... we’re just making sure it works. Who wouldn’t with such a playful rear end which means anyone can feel like a drifting legend; even with the traction control left on
Carbon fibre adorns the centre console, door panels and some trim while the grippy bucket seats are made from glassfibre. SMG II cuts 0.8sec off shift times while the CSL rides on bespoke 19-inch alloys The CSL came with semi-slick MichelinPilot Sport Cups – BMW made customers sign a disclaimer stating that they understood the tyres wouldn’t work in wet or cold conditions
Carbon panels also adorn the CLK’s interior and help to counter weight spent on beefing up the chassis. Each M156 V8 was handbuilt while AMG liberated an extra 21kW over the CLK63. The 19-inch alloys are 3kg lighter and the tyres are said to be safe up to 300km/h – but can do more