Once upon a time, BMW could call its cars the Ultimate Driving Machine without people rolling their eyes and laughing. It's a bit harder to swallow in this era of diesel M-Sport cars, bizarre naming strategies, bloated designs and slow-selling oddballs like the 5-Series GT. Thank God for the E46 M3.
The good news is that the cars that made us care about BMW in the first place aren't going away; they're just getting more affordable, provided you don't mind a copy with a few miles on it and you have a budget for proper maintenance.
Ten years ago, the lovely machine you see above would have cost you something like $60,000. Now, thanks to the miracle of depreciation, an E46 M3 and all its 333 horsepower naturally aspirated straight six magic can be yours for far less than that. Yay depreciation!
(Full disclosure: BMW needed me to drive the 2003 M3 so badly that they sold one to my father, who let me hoon the crap out of it when I went home to Texas for the holidays, because hoonage is what Christmas is really about.)
When the E46 M3 debuted in 2001, the buff books spent a great deal of ink heaping praise on its ferocious speed, its impeccable handling, its impressive gearboxes, and its good looks. But even then, journalists and car aficionados alike may not have realized just how special this car was.
The E46 harkens back to a time before iDrive, before turbochargers, before engine sounds had to be piped in through the speakers by a computer, before touch screen infotainment systems, before Gran Coupes and GTs, before track apps, and before artificial-feeling electric steering.
Yes, it has a ton of technology, but all of it feels solely aimed at making the car go faster. It, and its bigger brother the E39 M5, could be considered among the last great old school M cars.
The case could also be made — and I'm not saying I agree with this, but the case could be made — that now, in 2013, the E46 is the best value M3 for enthusiasts on a reasonable budget. The E30 M3, while an enthralling drive even today, is both exclusive and expensive. The E36 M3 is considerably more affordable, and while it's a superb machine, it carries an unfortunate black mark here in America for being less powerful than its European counterpart. And while the outgoing E92 packs a V8 that represents all that is good and right about internal combustion, it is still new and therefore pricey.
That leaves us with the E46, a kind of Goldilocks car that is pretty damn great at everything.
If you're not familiar with the third M3, this is the one that ran from 2001 to 2006 and represented a return to form for the M brand in the U.S. after the somewhat neutered E36 M3 we got. Its mighty 3.2-liter inline six engine, known as the S54 in BMW parlance, put out a healthy 333 horsepower with a stratospheric 8,000 RPM redline. At 3,450 pounds in coupe form, it was the heaviest M3 yet at the time of its release, but I can personally assure you that its power is more than enough to overcome its heft.
My dad picked up his 2003 M3 convertible with a manual transmission a couple months ago, going the Doug DeMuro-approved Carmax unreliable luxury car route to replace his C5 Corvette Z06, which he sold a while back so he could buy my mom a new car after someone crashed into hers (Good guy, my dad).
He's a pure sports car guy through and through, and while he admits that an M3 is not a pure sports car, it handles better than any sports car he has owned; indeed, he says this is the best all-around performance car he's ever owned.
Like the E30 M3 I drove a few months ago, the E46 is perfectly civilized, calm and 3-Series-like when you want it to be, but when you give it even the smallest indication that you want to go fast, it awakens like an angry dragon. And it encourages very bad behavior. Going 80 mph on the highway? The M3 screams at you to go faster, drive harder, do it more more MORE! To hell with speed limits and that police car that's been following you for miles! It may not be explicitly a street legal race car like the E30 M3, but it's pretty convinced that it is.
After spending the better part of the week in his well-cared for example with just 75,000 miles, I found the M3 to be one of those cars that makes you never want to drive anything else. I drive a lot of cars, but I don't run into that quality very often.
I think at this point we can finally call the E46 a "timeless" design. It looked great when it came out, it looks great today, and it's probably going to look great decades from now. Yes, it's conservative, but it's clean, and has the classic BMW touches without overstating them.
But there's nothing conservative about the brash M3 version. Quad exhaust pipes! M badges! Fender flares! Huge 19-inch factory wheels! Yes, this is the 3-Series that says "I'm here to party, and someone might get stabbed, and hey, is that your girlfriend? She's coming with me now."
Man, is it great in here. You get big, comfortable, well-bolstered seats, a perfectly-sized steering wheel with a reasonable amount of buttons, and four nice, easy to read analog gauges (Some E46s had a navigation option; this car does not). Everything is laid out in a way that makes sense, save for those center-mounted window switches that Europeans love so much.
Like the rest of the M3, the interior is packed with just the right amount of modern features to make things comfortable and convenient without over-technologizing everything to the annoyance of the driver. Unlike so many newer cars I drive, it's not overdone, and that's what makes it so good, if a bit dated. No touch screen? No problem.
It's also got a decent-sized back seat and trunk, making it one of the most practical performance cars around. It's still a 3-Series, after all.
Photo credit BMW
We now live in an age when the M3's 333 horsepower and 262 pound feet of torque may not seem all that impressive. These days, you can get more power and torque out of a V6 Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Rest assured, though — even a decade later, the S54 is nothing to mess around with.
Like its predecessors, this is an engine that loves to rev, rev, rev. You get an ample amount of low-end power — enough to regularly engage your traction control on even medium-hard launches — but things really come alive in the midrange, and the motor screams willingly all the way up to 8,000 RPM. See that notch on the tach that shows the redline? That basically becomes your shift light. Not because you have to to squeeze all the power out of it, but because you'll want to all the time.
It's a nasty street fighter of an engine. Zero to 60 times for a convertible like this one are quoted at five seconds flat, while the lighter coupe version does it in 4.6. The 'vert felt a little quicker than that according to my butt stopwatch, but those numbers are impressive nonetheless.
Brakes are sometimes said to be the traditional weakness of M cars, but I found them to be more than up to the task of stopping this beast. The almost 13-inch rotors front and rear give you plenty of confidence in the corner, and pedal travel is right in that sweet spot that you need.
The M3 is a hard-edged performance car, so don't expect to cruise in total comfort. The suspension is stiff enough that you will be well acquainted with the bumps in the road. But here's the thing: while the ride is harsh, it never really beats you up. Maybe it's because the seats are so comfortable, or maybe because it's been properly tuned to be an everyday car, but I can't go so far as to describe the ride as harsh. It's a good compromise.
It's an M3. Of course it handles incredibly well, duh.
I feel like we have this image of German performance sedans as being staid, buttoned down land missiles; fast, but undramatic. This is not the case with the E46 M3. It's emotional, lively, maybe even twitchy, and always eager to get its rear end out. It's not a car for beginners. Drive it in anger without knowing that you're probably headed for a ditch. Know what you're doing and respect the machine and you can outclass much more powerful and more expensive cars in back roads and on a track.
While the chassis does a great job of staying flat and body roll-free in the corners, a lot of credit goes to the superb steering system, which is tight, heavy, direct and offers a ton of road feel. My father describes it as being telepathic, point-and-go; he's correct.
My tester, er, dad's car came with the six-speed manual. It's got some quirks but I like it. Shifts are light and accurate with a decent throw. Gears are easy to find. At the same token, it feels just a tad rubbery. The clutch is weighted perfectly but its catch point is a bit vague. If the shifter was a little tighter it would be nearly perfect.
The other option on the E46 is the six-speed sequential manual gearbox, called (fittingly) SMG. It's a single-clutch automated manual transmission with paddle shifters. I have never driven an M3 with SMG (I have, and it's good at speed, terrible around town - Ed.), but I've read that it is both amazing to use and an expensive reliability nightmare. I'm sure it's great, but if it were my money I'd go with the three pedals and the stick.
As with any expensive BMW, you get a decent amount of toys here, enough that the car never feels dated in any way. The convertible top is among the easiest and best I've encountered; simply hold a button down and it's down and packed away within seconds, no latches to mess with. You also get heated seats, defeatable traction control, and a "sport" button further sharpens the throttle response.
I barely used it. You only need it in the hardest of hard driving. The car is pretty hardcore in its "normal" mode, if you can even call it that.
For me, the engine sound is the M3's killer app. The screaming tenor wail of that straight six as it approaches redline is downright magical. It's wonderful and angry and intoxicating. It's something you'll want to hear all the time, and the good news is that you will because this fucker is loud. I love the sound of straight sixes and this is one of the best.
But I have one complaint. While the engine sounds amazing, the stock exhaust isn't nearly as prominent and beefy as I had hoped. It's got a decent rumble at idle but otherwise it's too quiet. My father wants to get a better aftermarket exhaust, but not one that, to quote him, sounds like "some damn teenager's shit car." Any recommendations?
There's a stereo too, but it doesn't have bluetooth or an AUX input for my iPod, so I just listened to the classic rock stations my dad programmed in. The Boston, Foghat, Kansas and other Travis Okulski Traffic Jams I listened to sounded good.
And here's where we circle back to why depreciation is a good thing. This once expensive car can now be placed into the hands of you, the people, the 99 percenters, for relatively cheap these days.
Some M3s can be had for $16,000 or even lower, while a few garage queens might go for close to $30,000. I also found quite a few examples on Carmax in the low $20,000 range if you want all of your potentially expensive maintenance to be covered under their warranty, which strikes me as a very good deal. This isn't a Honda Civic, so repairs can get tricky and pricey.
As with any German performance car, finding one that has been taken care of meticulously is more important than one with low miles. But for all you get in the E46 M3 — for all its performance, style, still-relevant tech features, and the way it balances what's good about old and new cars — it has become an incredible bargain.
Engine: 3.2-liter fuel-injected inline six-cylinder
Power: 333 HP @ 7,900 rpm / 262 LB-FT @ 4,900 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
0-60 Time: 5.0 seconds
Top Speed: 155 mph
Drivetrain: Rear wheel drive
Curb Weight: 3,838 pounds (Convertible)
Seating: 4 people
MPG: 14 mpg city/21 mpg highway (U.S.)
MSRP: Approximately $60,000 in 2003