Currently reading: Used and amused: £70k BMW M3 CSL vs McLaren 12C
Which second-hand sporting legend should you pick up for £70,000? We host the face-off

What goes up must come down, except when we’re dealing with high-performance cars like the E46- generation BMW M3 CSL and the McLaren 12C, one of which has gone down then up in value while the other has dropped steadily. The result is that these two disparate machines can now be had for the same outlay.

The BMW cost £58,455 new in 2003 and dipped as low as £20k in the jaws of the financial crisis, but last April, a 10k-miler sold online for £73k plus fees. The McLaren 12C retailed at £168,500 on its debut a decade ago, but of 12 examples listed on a classifieds site, seven are £68k-£70k with 15k-40k miles. You can buy a 12C for more, a CSL for less, but there’s sizeable overlap where both are contenders for a £70k pot of cash.

You’ve already guessed a 12C costs more to run, but imagine if one business had years of experience with both, was more affordable than dealer networks, was willing to detail common faults and could provide directly comparable running costs. One place does: Thorney Motorsport, near Silverstone.

Owner John Thorne built his reputation with M3s, often on the race track, and branched out into VXR Vauxhalls via the Lotus Elise-based VX220. Vauxhall even appointed Thorney Motorsport an official troubleshooter for cars that dealers struggled to rectify. Thorne has personally raced in the BTCC and has built Yamaha factory chassis for the Dakar rally raid.

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Six years ago, Thorney moved upmarket into McLarens, identifying it as a niche that didn’t have the independent aftersales support of, say, Porsches or Ferraris. Thorne has run his own 12C for six years, taking it apart to learn more. He was, he says, astonished by the comparison with the VX220: “An 11-man team designed the 12C and nine of them were involved with the VX220 at Lotus. You can definitely see that in how they’re put together, even if the materials are different.”

Currently, Thorney has 350 McLarens on its books, making it the biggest buyer of McLaren parts outside the UK dealer network, with a £300k annual spend.

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Typically, Thorney deals with 12C geometry that’s easily knocked out of alignment, or wear items like upper arms, lower arms and Z-bar links. There are, of course, horror stories, including gearbox failure related to input shaft issues. McLaren replaces the gearbox for £27k, but Thorney has developed its own driveshaft seals, input seals and bearings and, says Thorne, “we can now repair any gearbox around the world for £7500”. Cam phasers are prone to wearing, especially if engines are revved hard before fluids are warmed or run low on oil. That’s a top-end rebuild for £10k. So, yes, 12C ownership can be ruinous if things go really wrong.

But Thorney charges £95 per hour plus VAT and servicing should average around £1500 annually over three years – about £500 for a small service, £2500 for biggies. Thorney also offers warranties for £2850 annually to isolate owners from unexpected shocks.

When you go to drive the 12C, its fine breeding is immediately apparent: you lift a dihedral door, step over a chunk of carbonfibre tub and sit down with backside lower than knees and fantastic visibility through a widescreen windscreen. Press the starter and the twin-turbocharged V8 rouses with its belchy industrial monotone – lacking exoticism perhaps, but now a telltale McLaren signature.

Unusually delicate steering makes this potentially intimidating car feel surprisingly benign – slower and more natural than a Ferrari 458’s, and significantly more feelsome than both it and even the 720S. The ride quality also stands out, soaking up imperfections while taking nothing from this car’s eagerness to carve through corners. It feels low, wide and on the nose, with a striking lack of mass over the front axle. Despite McLaren’s march of progress, a 12C remains fearsomely rapid. The first cars had 592bhp and 443lb ft, but all were offered the 616bhp upgrade soon after (with the same torque rating), which, I think, also smoothed out a sometimes shunty delivery. There’s still lag to a significant 3500rpm or so, but it kicks hard enough thereafter to get the rear tyres spinning and feels downright furious at 7000rpm. There’s no question that this feels a pure-bred supercar, something that parking it alongside a BMW – even a very special one – only highlights.

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While Thorney is more associated with M3 race cars, it does maintain road cars and probably sees a CSL every three months. Although it is based on the regular E46 M3, the CSL driving experience is amped up by significant detail changes: spot them by the unique 19in wheels, new front bumper, carbonfibre roof and ducktail bootlid; feel them by 110 fewer kilograms, the revised chassis and a 3.2-litre straight six bumped 17bhp to 355bhp. You sit, of course, far higher than in the McLaren on bespoke fabric bucket seats, a reminder of the BMW’s proletariat origins. They tilt you slightly forwards – odd initially, but natural soon after.

If you’re fond of nit-picking, you’ll think the CSL has rubbed its head together with the entire class. It rides quite firmly at low speed, if far from teeth-clenchingly so, the automated manual gearbox can feel unbearably lumpy if you refuse to adapt (just lift like it’s a manual and avoid tight parking spaces) and the initial steering response seems lethargic after the McLaren (even if it is fitted with a faster rack than the regular E46’s).

But the CSL remains a fabulous drive, with the suspension feeling taut yet still elastic enough given just a little speed, and the gnarly mechanical edge of the automated manual climaxing with full-bore sledgehammer shifts that are key to the CSL character. This is also a beautifully balanced chassis, with crisp front-end bite and bags of traction, if still a resolutely rear-biased, exploitable edge.

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At the core of it all is the S54 motor. It’s smooth, pretty quiet and not particularly potent at typical speeds (a CSL is actually a little lighter than a 12C, at 1385kg, but has 261bhp and 170lb ft less and serves both figures much higher up the rev range) but pin the throttle and there’s the most fabulous honk from the unique carbon airbox and white-hot fury as the rev needle winds to 7900rpm. It’s the old-school M experience, where you have to wring the car’s neck to truly key into its capabilities, and thus you feel all-consumed by the experience.

Thorne describes the E46 as the best race car chassis BMW has ever made, in large part because, he says, it was designed as a race car first and road car second. But he’s also under no illusion that the McLaren is in an entirely different league: whether it’s construction, handling, design and, above all, performance, the McLaren remains three times the machine.

The trade-off, naturally, is drastically reduced running costs. Thorney charges £75 per hour plus VAT labour for BMWs, and servicing alternates between Inspection 1 (£400-£600) and Inspection 2 (£500-£700). CSLs, Thorne says, are generally robust cars. The cracked boot floor issue so common to M3s oddly doesn’t afflict the CSL: Thorne has seen only one, but has repaired 30 regular M3s. Nor is the Vanos variable valve timing issue notorious of the previous, E36 model a problem.

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Sometimes gearboxes can give trouble, but often it’s the solenoid (“a £30 part”) and if not the pump. Thorney recommends an extra radiator for the gearbox if it’s used on track and a brake upgrade. If MPG plummets, the valve clearances need adjustment. The biggest red flag concerns non-original parts: it can be tough to spot reproduction CSL wheels, and Thorney had one customer who instantly buckled two copies on track. Replacement steering racks are £3400 and Thorne has seen them substituted by the standard E46 M3 part, which costs £1700. Finally, sourcing the CSL-specific front bumper can be a headache.

“Really, though,” he says, summing up, “the McLaren and the CSL just aren’t comparable, but I’d have a CSL in the collection as the last time BMW got it really right, and the 12C is the McLaren I’d actually buy because it’s the classic shape, they’re great to drive and they hold their value.”

The £70k question, though, is where would our expert put his own cash if he could own just one? “The McLaren, all day long,” comes the definitive reply.

£70 will also buy a...

Porsche 911 GT3 (996): A direct CSL rival in period, the first GT3 offers comparable performance from a similarly exquisite naturally aspirated six, but it’s more like a McLaren dynamically. It’s more abundant than a CSL and can be had in the low-£50k bracket, but most are up for around £70k.

Ford Sierra RS Cosworth: The CSL wasn’t the first repmobile-based motor to scare supercars, as this car attests. No charismatic motor here, though, just a 2.0-litre YB based on the old Pinto with added twin cams and single turbo. It only just clears 200bhp (or 500bhp with work). Two are currently at £65k and a rare RS500 is up for £82k.

Lamborghini Gallardo: The Gallardo’s mid-engined concept is similar to the 12C’s, but its execution could barely be more different, courtesy of an atmo V10, optional manual gearbox, all-wheel drive and a driving position like you’re piloting a nuclear warhead. Take your pick of sub-40k-milers at £60k-£70k.

Ben Barry


McLaren 12C 2011-2014 review 

Used supercar guide: the half-price McLaren MP4-12C 

Steve Cropley's car of the decade: McLaren MP4-12C

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erolorhun 27 June 2021

Is this the same author formerly of CAR magazine?

Ravon 27 June 2021

As a regular track day driver it's just horror story after horror story as far as McLaren ownership is concerned, even though they are staggeringly fast . I think it would have to be the CSL for me, with a retro-fitted manual gearbox, which seems to be happening to them these days.

si73 26 June 2021
£70k, I'd be going down the 911 route, probably a G series impact bumper car, as they've always been a dream purchase for me.