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

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