Claiming the title as the Best BMW M3 Ever
Everyone knows about the E30 BMW M3, the one that started it all. The BMW M3 now spans over 25 years and 5 generations of the ultimate sports-coupe sports-car. The everyday sports car that can do daily driving and then take the track.
But what if we told you the BMW M3 to buy is really the BMW E46 M3? Sold in the USA from 2001-2006, it is considered by us as the best BMW M3 ever made. While the 1st generation – the E30 – has a place in history, the BMW E46 M3 was able to take what was done before and take it to the greater heights.
Lets first look back before we get to the BMW E46 M3. After the un-expected success of the E30 M3 (BMW never thought they would sell that many of these specially made and expensive cars in the USA), they came back with a new M3 with the next generation known as the E36 M3. BMW had some early mistakes with building and selling the BMW E36 M3 in the USA. Again, not expecting a huge wave of enthusiasts wanting the M3, they built an M3 for Europe and then a dumbed down version for the USA market. Specifically the rest of the world got the normal M-Engine for the E36 while the USA got a lower spec engine called the S52. While this engine produced a healthy 240 hp, it lagged behind the 300 plus hp engine the Europeans got. In addition, besides some front spoilers, mirrors and side panels, the E36 M3 was that different from the normal E36 coupes.
BMW learned from this and when they built and launched the E46 M3, they made sure they remedied many of the complaints from US buyers. First the USA market got the same BMW M3 as the European market. That met a car with the same engine, same specs, etc. And this was met with the S54 engine, which is a beautiful naturally aspirated inline-six engine that produced 333 hp at a staggering 7,900 RPM. We will get more to that engine later.
Looks to Kill
Exterior wise the biggest change was to provide a different body to the M3, to make it different from its regular brethren. BMW did this with a revised body, with flared fenders, bulge on the hood, new front bumpers, new mirrors, body panels, side vents, and in the back dual exhausts. This created what is seen today as the most beautiful and proportional BMW M3 ever made. Not as small as the E30/E36 models but not as big as the later E90 and F80 models that proceeded it. Looking at a E46 M3 is seeing a classic in the making, with proper size and proportions. We consider this the watermark of the M3 model history.
The E46 M3 came with standard 18-inch wheels and an optional 19-inch wheel. With the later ZCP (Competition Package), a special 19-inch cross-spoke alloy wheel was offered.
The Heart is a Incredible Engine
The E46 M3 came with the S54 inline 6 engine. Let’s just stop and say its a magical engine. With a 8,000 rpm redline, and 33 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque, this care was one wonderful ride. The engine would rev happily to its redline and because the main portion of its torque was in the middle range, the E46 M3 was always eager to rev, upshift and rev some more. Add to this engine was a raspy-voiced exhaust, Dynamic Stability Control (DSC), a M Differential Lock and a finely tuned suspension. The car could easily go from 0-60 in 4.8 which at its time was super-car territory – and still good in today’s age of 300 hp plus Hondas.
With a curb weight close to 3,400 lbs, the car was the best representation of classic BMW sport cars – great handling, great power, wonderful driving for local roads or for the track. The E46 M3 represented this so well.
The E46 BMW interior was the last generation with an analog feel. This car still had a manual oil dipstick you can use. Moving forward all BMWs including the M’s had oil read thru the computer on the dash. The E46 M3’s interior is open and fresh. With very few buttons or doo-dads that has burdened future BMWs like damper controls, steering settings, etc. Later models in the E46 M3 came with a navigation screen but most had the basic BMW radio system.
All E46 M3s had leather but a few came with the special option race seats, where were fabric pattern seats. Also with the ZCP (Competition Package) option, some cars could come up with Alcantara wrapped Steering wheels and brake release cover.
All in all, the E46 M3 interior was plain but very effective. They were roomy and had a good glass-house effect. Rear seats were roomy, and had easy access from the reclining front seats. You would feel very much at home inside the E46 M3.
Issues and What to Avoid
So the E46 M3 wasn’t perfect. Some of the truths about the car has come out over time.
Low-end torque. In today’s age of turbo-charged BMWs, the E46 M3 is not slow but may feel like it due to the low torque configuration of the engine. To get the E46 M3 up and running you really need to rev up the engine close to 6,000 rpm and only then do you feel the full power of the S54 engine. Most people in today’s cars do not ever go past 5,000 rpms so this will take a change in driving use.
Sub-frame. The first Achilles heel of the E46 M3 is the dreaded sub-frame. In a nutshell the body was bolted to the subframe and over time the body that is bolted to the frame would tear. The only way to remedy this is to re-inforce the sub-frame area with new plates. This unfortunately is a costly fix and cost a few thousands of dollars depending on the shop you go to. Every E46 M3 at some point needs this fix done, and should be done as a preventive matter (not after the fact when you see a tear).
Vanos. Again another Achilles heel for the E46 M3. The Vanos are two pulleys in the front of the engine. Due to a bad design, the tabs at the ends of the pulleys can break and fall right into the engine – which is not good. There are many different fixes to correct the Vanos and again should be preventive.
Rod-bearing. Early E46 M3 (2001- pre 2003.5) had a rod-bearing issue. Fortunately BMW did a major recall and any car you see in that year range should have had the rod-bearing fix done by a BMW shop. It will be very rare to find a car that did not have this done since it was a free fix from BMW. But always check the records to make sure the E46 M3 you’re interested in had the rod bearing done if it falls in the years of 2001, 2002, 2003 (pre 2003.5 models).
Bushings. This car has many rubber bushings and at certain or miles (or both) you will need to replace the bushings or your M3 will drive like crap. Usually owners change the bushings around 60k miles or when they do the sub-frame.
Things to Love about the E46 M3
With all that said about the faults of the E46 M3 the positives greatly out-weighs the negatives on this car. This car is a great driver’s car, plus it has the perfect footprint that made BMWs legendary. While this E46 M3 is not the smallest, the power to size and weight ratio is perfect. Some of the best things about owning a E46 M3:
Handling/Ride. The E46 M3 was the first super-car M3 built. Meaning the performance and handling envelope of this car went higher then before and in its time-period matched up very well with more expensive and more powerful cars being sold. The handling alone was worth the price of admission. And the car came with 1 standard ride – there was not settings to harden or soften the dampers on this car like later BMWs. This made the E46 M3 ride so compliant on the streets but become an animal on the track.
Power. The E46 M3 was the first BMW M3 to have a 100/per liter ratio to the engine. Having a 333 hp engine that revs freely to 7,900 RPM does alot to the car characters and this made the E46 M3 a joy to drive and up-shift.
Flared-Fenders. Any car that has flared fenders usually looks good and the E46 M3 was a gold standard to the M3 history. While the first e30 M3 had it, they skipped it for the e36 M3 and then due to popular demand brought it back with a vengeance for the e46 M3.
Body Language. This M3 brought all the design and body cues that has now been use for every M3 to date and other Ms as well. A few to note:
- Side Grills. These grills were used to bring air out from the front-engine and is used in every M car since.
- Twin Dual Exhausts. Every M car now has twin dual exhausts coming from the back and the E46 M3 was the first to bring it to the M line.
- Competition Package. The end of year sportier version of an M car came with the E46 M3. The Competition Package added special wheels, updated steering rack, special interior bits and special colors. BMW has followed this blue-print with future M3s
- Two wheel size options. The E46 M3 was the first M3 to offer two different sizes for wheels on purchase, depending on the wishes of the owner
- Red light for rev gauge. A nice trick on the E46 M3 is the rev gauge. A red light will indicate the top rev during start up. As the engine warms up, the red lights disappear allowing for full revving. This is now done on every M car.
- Carbon roof. The CSL E46 M3 was the first M car to have a carbon roof offered. Now its become common on every M coupe offered by BMW.
The E46 M3 is the next great M3 from the original E30 M3. Its also its own car, a diversion of the blood-line from the first M3, but has created something new. While newer M3s are faster they are also alot bigger, heavier and more complicated. This E46 M3 is a fantastic modern sports car that still has a legacy and connection to the older BMWs that we all loved.
BMW upped the ante when it created the e46 M3. They listened to the critics of the e36 M3 that preceded it and improved upon it so much that the e46 M3 is now a gold standard on what you want in a modern sports coupe. Great handling coupled with great power, a compliant ride, incredible handling capabilities and endurance for everyday use and then use on the track. The E46 M3 came with it all.
This is a future classic guys. Especially if you get a later year Competition Package (ZCP) version, with a 6-speed manual and coupe. You will not go wrong.
Click here to the see the BMW M3 E46 Video