The E46 BMW M3 came in with the new millennium and is already something of a contemporary classic. Perfectly shaped between round and square, joyous to drive before getting dangerous... these are just Damn Good Cars. BMW never sold a station wagon version, so somebody made their own. And it drives as well as it looks.
Unlike its German rivals, BMW hasn’t blessed us with a deep variety of fast wagons over the years. Sure, it had its M division hand-build a small batch of E34 M5 Tourings in the early ’90s, but good luck getting your grubby paws on one of those. It briefly toyed with the idea of an E39 M5 Touring, even built a beautiful prototype, but ultimately that idea was scrapped.
The V10 E61 M5 Touring saw three years of production but unsurprisingly did not make it to North America. It seems BMW was fine conceding the full-size-rocket-wagon segment to Audi and Mercedes, for reasons I’ll certainly never fully understand.
But what about the smaller sports-wagon segment? BMW built one E46 M3 Touring and locked it away at BMW M headquarters in Garching. However, if you happened to see the E46 M3 wagon (aka “M3 T”) that I drove on the street, you’d be forgiven for thinking that “there is another.”
(Full disclosure: I recently met Marc Norris at a local car meet and he casually mentioned he’d built an E46 M3 wagon. I immediately hypnotized him and while under my control I convinced him to let me drive it sometime. Well, sometime came quickly and now everything is different.)
Yeah, this should be pretty self explanatory, but once more for the people in the back. This is an E46 3 Series, the bodystyle you know and loved from the late ’90s to late ’00s, wagon, converted to an M3. The car was originally a 325i and had an automatic transmission. When new, its 2.5 liter inline-6 made 184 horsepower and the car was hardly anything to get excited about. With the addition of the iconic S54 3.2 liter inline-6 rated at 333 horsepower, the wagon is now an enthusiast’s dream.
I’m not just carelessly throwing that out there either, this car is pure petrolhead bait. BMW fans are a rabid bunch to begin with, but take one of the most beloved models in the history of the brand and add the longroof element to it; you’ve got one of those break-the-internet-for-car-nerds situations on your hands. Okay, maybe it’s more like break-the-forums, but you catch my drift. Even those who are not devout worshippers at the temple of Bayerische Motoren Werke are sure to realize this is a special car just based on appearance alone. Well, that, and of course how it sounds.
Okay, so apart from it being painfully beautiful, what’s so damn cool about this thing? To be honest, just about everything. Nothing was overlooked, all the details that make an E46 M3 so desirable are present and accounted for. You walk up to this car and nothing about it screams “project car”. It looks factory fresh and that was Marc’s intention right from the start.
Correct “M” logo double door sills are in place and the textured “Silver Cube” Competition Pack interior trim perfectly complements the light grey interior. The manual adjustment seats, which came from an E91 Touring, are heated, have functional power side bolsters, and are well suited for use in the car. Not only do they uphold the balance of comfort and sportiness that Marc aimed to strike with the build, I think they’re just better seats than those that came in the E46 M3.
Other than a complete BavSound speaker upgrade, everything else inside is as it would have been in an M3. The steering wheel, gauge cluster, shift boot, shift knob and e-brake are all proper M bits. The BMW Professional navigation system has even been programmed to display the “M” logo on startup. When you get in this car, everything feels right. No squeaks, no rattles, no sagging cloth or peeling trim.
In order to get the signature flared fenders of the E46 M3 in place, a little bit of craftiness was required as they don’t just “bolt up.” The front fenders on the E46 coupe were an inch longer than those on the sedan and wagon, so these had to be sectioned together in 3 pieces in order to make them fit. At the rear the fenders were cut right out of the donor M3 coupe and sectioned to fit the natural touring body lines. To look at it, you wouldn’t think anything other than a quick swap was done, it appears completely stock.
All exterior trim was swapped to Glanschwarz (Gloss Black) which the M3 came equipped with. Post facelift (LCI) Bi-xenon headlights were installed to light the way and an M3 CSL front bumper cover with carbon fiber winglets further adds another layer of exclusivity as the CSL never made it to our shores. It took me a few minutes to notice the winglets, but once I did I couldn’t take my eyes of them. To fully appreciate this car is appreciate the details, like swapping the trunk floor to that of an E46 M3 coupe so that a proper quad tip exhaust could be used.
The M3 T is unquestionably mesmerizing to look at, thanks in part to the Stalblau (Steel Blue Metallic) paint, but when you get behind the wheel you’re continually hit over the head with the fact that this is such a damn good machine. The platform was one of BMW’s best and until you glance in the oval rearview mirror it’s easy to forget you’re driving a wagon.
The ride is firm, but not rough, a testament to the quality of the Dinan/Koni Stage 3 suspension kit Marc installed. I have no doubt that this thing would be an absolute beast on a closed course and maybe one day I’ll have the chance to confirm that. For now what I can offer is that it drives exactly like an E46 M3 in the canyons, which is a very good thing. It remains planted when deteriorating roads try to upset it, rotates around corners with this unique grace that can only be found in a wagon and I felt like we were on the same page the whole time. It has the kind of steering that BMW does its best to emulate in its new cars, an achievement it’s fallen short of for a more than a few years now.
The S54 begs you to wind it out to high RPMs and rewards you with sweet, sweet music when it’s obliged. The M3 T has a particularly enjoyable soundtrack thanks to the combination of a Dinan freeflow exhaust and Dinan high flow cold air intake. You’re acutely aware of how deep it is breathing from the pure motorsport sound that fills the cabin, a sound that stays with you long after you’ve exited the vehicle. Nobody does an inline-6 like BMW. Oh naturally aspirated motors, how I miss you so.
Throttle response is instant and as you can imagine there’s plenty of horsepower to go around, roughly 350 according to Marc. Distributing it by running through the short throw Dinan shifter is an absolute joy too. It rides the line of being notchy without being annoying. This is important as the car is driven almost everyday and having owned a car with an overly aggressive short shift kit while living in Los Angeles, I can tell you that is not a good time.
I wholeheartedly believe an E46 M3 Touring would have done quite well had BMW seen fit to put it into production. It’s quite an exceptional vehicle, one that is equally thrilling to drive hard as it is to cruise in. Of course that’s what you look for in any vehicle that pulls double duty for spirited driving and daily use, but it’s especially hard to achieve with a wagon. I can tell you this with absolute certainty thanks to my ownership experience with a B7 S4 Avant. Sure it was fast in a straight line, but it was a pig in the twisties, one of the many reasons I let that car go.
I can tell you this much, if BMW had built an E46 M3 T there’s no way I would have ever bought an S4 Avant. How many people feel the same way I do? I suspect quite a few and that’s a shame because instead of figuring out how to afford building one of these, we could just be browsing the internet for clean examples.
BMW has been making a lot of questionable decisions of late and I think it is fair to say the brand ain’t what it used to be. It’s a shame really because given the direction it’s headed, I know there’s a zero percent chance it will build an M3 wagon in the future. For the iconic model to never get a longroof variant is sorely disappointing. It fits the original ethos of the company so well, but it seems that ethos no longer dominates the decision making in Munich. At least there are guys like Marc out there willing to take the plunge and give us a glimpse at what could have been.
(Correction: This article originally stated that the E61 M5, the wagon version of the E60, was available with a manual transmission. However, only the sedan was offered with a manual and only in North America.)