BMW M3 CSL E46 vs. Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209

2017 and Richard Pardon

Born slippy 355bhp BMW M3 CSL vs. 507bhp Merc CLK Black. Rising 3 prices have put it on a collision path with the rarer. CLK63 AMG Black. Which one delivers the best thrills per £1? Words Nathan Chadwick. Photography Richard Pardon.

BMW M3 CSL E46 vs. Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209 / W209 Munich versus Stuttgart in a hardcore track battle.

Think useable trackday sportscar, 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 for enthusiasts, but it’s a homing beacon for inverted snobbery. 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 have automatic gearboxes, for when you want to cruise home after a day pounding round Brands Hatch.

The BMW M3 CSL E46 came first in 2003, and to rapturous praise. It was about £20,000 more than the standard M3, but the extensive lightening, stiffening and honing was deemed to have made the £58,000 entry cost worthwhile.

All 422 cars sold out quickly, and rumours abound that BMW smuggled an extra 100 in from other territories to satisfy demand.

Though there was a spell of depreciation, that’s far behind the CSL now. You can still pick up an example with 60-70,000 miles on the clock for £50,000, but if you head below 50,000 miles you’re starting at around £70k. Really low-mileage cars are now nudging £95k. That brings it into direct competition with the Mercedes-Benz AMG CLK63 Black C209, a car with a set of performance figures as big as its name.

BMW M3 CSL E46 vs. Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209

BMW M3 CSL E46 vs. Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209

It’s a rare car but one that helped to inspire a revamp of the AMG brand. It cost £100k and has hardly depreciated – we found a 70,000-mile car on sale for £70,000, though for a low-miler you’re looking at £95k. But can the AMG Black really do the business on track against one of the most beloved modern classic BMWs? And is the M3 CSL really worth all of the market hype?


Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series ONLY 23 LEFT

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 2007, 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…

Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209

Mercedes-Benz CLK63 AMG Black Series C209 road test

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 TVR-style blare all the way to the 7000rpm redline and a watercolour world painted in sheer speed. You’ll be past 60mph in just over four seconds and well past 125mph eight seconds later.

Downsides? The seven-speed Speedshift gearbox may upchange faster than you can blink, but downchanges aren’t as quick. That really only matters if you’re going for lap times.

It’s an expensive car – but then it feels like one. There’s lashings of glossy carbonfibre 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 to the standard CLK AMG 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 mid-corner 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 silly grin normally reserved for scrumpy drinkers.



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 carbonfibre 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 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 17hp over the standard car’s 343bhp, and it packs a high-flow carbon air intake and lightweight exhaust manifold, both straightened to aid engine responsiveness.


BMW M3 CSL E46 road test

And by golly it works. The M3 CSL E46 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 differential – but it feels so much faster, so much more alive. Sixty is swallowed in under five seconds, 100mph in six seconds more.

But while the engine seduces, it’s the steering that inspires devotion. You can feel every ripple, every knot in 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 arm-twirling when you’re on it.

Like most owners, Dan Norris of Munich Legends has junked the standard-fit semi-slick Michelin Cup tyres – this CSL is wearing Michelin Pilot Super Sports. 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. Advances in gearbox technology since the CSL launch make it feel as obstinate as a pre-bedtime toddler. It lacks the tactility of a manual gearshift or the immediacy of more modern paddleshifters. On more open circuits and less complex B-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.




Bruno Pascale bought his CLK Black after watching a lot of Formula 1. ‘The Black was based on the 2007-2008 season pace car, and I fell in love with the burbling exhaust note whenever it was out on track. Mine’s been fairly bulletproof, though the original Pirelli tyres can be tricky to get hold of – I use Nankangs. The engine is pretty picky on fuel – I was caught in the middle of nowhere with only very low-octane gas available, and the computer (and fuel pump) said no, resulting in a $2000 fix.’

TRADE VIEW: Franco Granell at Joe Macari

+ ‘The CLK63 AMG Black is appreciating steadily, and its rarity makes it a much better bet than highpower BMWs.’

‘It’s a bit of an unknown quality, and there’s a lot of competition from similarly fast cars for the money. They go through tyres quickly, too.’


‘You know you’re sitting in something special,’ says Dan Norris of Munich Legends. ‘I love how it feels like a racecar – it’s a machine that doesn’t disappoint. It is very impractical and jerky – it’s quite a boy’s car. There are no grab handles, so the front-seat passenger can feel sick when you’re chucking it around. The major expense on this car was the interior – most of the carbonfibre trim needed replacing, which cost nearly £3000 for the whole job. It also needed a good service and it’s also had AP Racing brakes front and rear – I recommend upgrading the fronts to everybody.’

TRADE VIEW: Dan Norris Munich Legends

+ ‘This is one of the few cars that delivers on its hype – by the time most prospective buyers have finished the test-drive they’re convinced to buy one.’

‘They’re quite fragile cars, which means that we went through a period of resurrecting cars that had been thrashed.’



The BMW packs lightweight minimalism, while M-B brings glossy carbon to the party

Weight to go, M CSL has carbonfibre centre console, door panels, trim and headlining, while the grippy bucket seats are made out of glassfibre.

Alloy there The CLK Black’s 19-inch alloys are 3kg lighter than on the standard CLK63 AMG. Tyres are safe up to 186mph – but the car can do more.

Without a paddle? CSL’s six-speed SMG shifts in 0.8 seconds – it feels longer in traffic.

507bhp! AMG liberated an extra 29bhp over the standard CLK63.

Rare breed Just 1400 M3 CSLs were built, and 422 came here. Several LHD cars have entered the UK as prices have escalated.

Dialling it in Carbon panel helps balance weight spent on beefing up the CLK chassis.

Carbon footprint The carbon manifold is one of many bespoke CSL items, and helps contribute to the raucous noise past 5000rpm. It’s also a wonderful piece of engineering art.

Wheel deal Despite looking similar to M3 CS wheels, the front 19-inchers are bespoke to the CSL. At 8in they’re 0.5in narrower than on the CS.

Hardcore Most CLK Blacks have bucket seats, but some US-market cars have comfy leather chairs.

Bespoke Each CLK Black engine was handbuilt – and what a fine job Sandro did, too.




There aren’t many CLK Blacks around, just 700 were built and there are just 23 in the UK. However, the CLK63 Black does share several parts with other cars, which do have issues. Early M156 engines – which includes CLK63 Black production – have been known to suffer from cylinder head bolt failure. Steve Place of AMG Cheshire ( says: ‘The bolts snap off, losing tension between the cylinder head and its gasket, allowing coolant to get in, which blows the block.’

Most cars have been fitted with upgraded head bolts under warranty, or had a replacement engine, but check the service record. If you find a car with a rough idle and a ‘check coolant’ light on, walk away. Aftermarket headbolts are available for around £800 from Weistec ( though according to Steve it’s another £1300 in labour. ‘We’ve had several instances of burst coolant hoses on M156 cars,’ says Steve. The precise cost depends on the leak, but it averages £100.

‘If the gearbox doesn’t change gear, it could either be the valve body or an electric pack issue, which is found out via diagnostics,’ says Steve. ‘Both fixes involve dropping the sump and fixing the fault. A fully fitted replacement electrics pack is £700, while a valve body is £1200.


The carbon front bumper is easily damaged. Stuart Draper of Munich Legends says: ‘It’s £3000 to replace – painted and fitted – and the carbon splitters are £250.However, you can have the carbon splitters refurbished for £100 each.’

Every S54 has to have its head gasket replaced at 100,000 miles. ‘The gasket goes between the cylinders,’ says Stuart. ‘The owner is blissfully unaware until the block cracks.’ A new head gasket costs £1800 fully fitted.

Early cars suffered from the carbon roofs debonding from the body. ‘It’s less of a problem these days because most have been fixed,’ Stuart says. ‘Budget around £1000 to repair one.’

The E46 M3 is notorious for cracked boot floors, caused by metal fatigue around the subframe mounts. ‘Repair includes removing the complete drivetrain, stripping the floor to bare metal, drilling the cracks, welding them and then reinforcing with a plate repair kit,’ says Stuart. ‘After you’ve seamsealed and painted it, you have to inject resin to strengthen it.’ BMW fixed cars under warranty but only if the 1200-mile running-in service had been done. BMW isn’t repairing cars now – Munich Legends charges £2000 for the whole job.


The Modern Classics view

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.

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 A-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 M3CSL is a fabulous car. Get it wound up on the right track or the right B-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 B-road sortie to forget all of 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 £70k- plus 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. Agreat car for £55k? Undoubtedly – but not worth the £70k-£90k being asked for low-mileage cars.

The CLK Black feels every penny of its lofty price tag, from the execution to the drive itself: it feels like it’s on another level to theM3. It paints its entertainment in broad strokes – and tail slides – and that won’t be for everyone. But the chassis is so easy-going 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 a B-road, but that only adds to the allure for us.

Though the CSL glitters, it is the three-pointed star that shines brighter here.




Maximum speed

Fuel consumption




507bhp @ 6800rpm

465lb ft @ 5250rpm

RWD, seven-speed auto

23 (UK)

M3 CSL E46

355bhp @ 7900rpm

273lb ft @ 4900rpm

RWD, six-speed SMG

219 (UK)

Concours £95,000 £95,000
Good £70,000 £65,000
Usable £60,000 £50,500
Project £40,000 £35,500

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 104]}

Thanks to Mercedes-Benz World ( and Munich Legends (




The CLK Black hasn’t really depreciated – its rarity has helped to keep prices up. However, we feel now would be the time to buy a low-mileage car – over the past year the price of a sub-30kmiles car has risen from £70k to £95k. Consider the car cost £100,000 new, and you can see why owners look so smug. We foresee the market for hardcore AMGs hotting up in the wake of Porsche and BMW M-Power market gains. And the CLK Black, with its rarity and stonking pace, is likely to be at the forefront of that.

BMW M3 CSL (E46)

The M3 CSL has been one of the best performers in the modern classics market. While good, useable cars can be had for £50,000, the same examples were little more than half that three years ago. Sub-50k-miles cars are now reaching £70,000, while super-low-mileage examples are touching the £100k barrier. But a warning – these sub-50k-milers have been in dealers for months, and auction results have failed to live up to dealer prices for comparable cars. The CSL appears to have reached its ceiling – for now. But the cult of M is here to stay…

‘The CLK Black feels every penny of its lofty price tag, from the execution to the drive itself: it’s on another level to the M3’

‘The M3 CSL doesn’t so much accelerate as suck you from apex to apex like a matchstick in a vacuum cleaner’

Legal high: full-bore roar at 7000rpm is deeply addictive. Limited-slip-differential has its own oil cooler and pump to keep things hunky dory. We’re just making sure it works, obviously…. Playful rear end means anyone can feel like a drifting legend, even with the TC on. Great on track, maybe less appealing on the road – we love it, though. Stuttgart vs Munich – drivers win, tyres lose. CSL got semislick Michelin Pilot Sport Cups from the factory. A few years later the Sport Cup+ was developed, which used different rubber and bigger grooves, making it less wayward in the wet.

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