As cars get more technologically complex, the only option for manufacturers is to take the driver out of the equation, making for a driving experience that’s getting more numb by the second. That’s why cars like this thankfully autonomous-tech free masterpiece E46 BMW M3 are becoming the go-to car for enthusiast collectors and drivers alike. Here’s how you can own one for used Honda Civic money.
The 2001-2006 BMW M3 is one of the best driver’s cars ever made. That is a declaration made not only by me, but by countless commenters, journalists, and automotive wannabes. I bought and sold the roughest example in existence that I sorely miss to this day, so I can certainly understand why the car-loving public makes such a fuss about this naturally aspirated six cylinder German coupe, the six speed manual transmission version in particular.
With such a tremendous following, it’s no small wonder why prices for good condition M3s have been steadily increasing, with the later model manual coupes commanding the highest premiums.
However, there is still a cheaper alternative, and it begins with the letters S, M, and G.
The flappy paddle SMG transmission option on the BMW M3 was the needy oops-baby of the platform for a few arguably good reasons. Unlike the phenomenal DCT or DSG double-clutch gearboxes used in performance cars of late, the SMG was a single clutch setup that took away the third pedal and replaced it with computers.
The only issue was that this particular computer was the same kind that you’d see on a ‘80s high school textbook, surfing a wave of numbers on a zebra print overlay. It made the car react as if it was taken over by a socially awkward yet unruly teen that was learning how to drive stick, every single day. More gas! MORE GAS! STOP RIDING THE CLUTCH, DANNY!
As if BMW simply wanted to spit in the faces of their collective owners, they inadvertently made the SMG the most failure-prone component on the M3—and on a German car made in the early aught, that’s saying a hell of a lot. The hydraulic and electric SMG pump that regulated the gear changes was prone to leaking and outright seizure over time, making the car completely undrivable when this one expensive component went on the fritz, as it often did.
What these combined issues did was make the SMG variant of the car less desirable to the real drivers in the crowd that would accept no less than gears they could row on their own.
That means that SMG-equipped cars can now be found for thousands of dollars less than their manual counterparts, lesser still if they need mechanical attention. With a plethora of cheap M3s on the market, here’s how to make your dream M3 for a fraction of the price of any born-this-way manual.
Changing from the slop fest SMG to a rifle-action manual requires the purchase of parts, either from a dealer or from a reputable online used parts dealer. Unlike BMW’s E60 M5 and E92 M3, the E46’s SMG and manual options use the same gearbox, allowing for cheap conversion from one to the other - a process made
simple less daunting by following the tutorial made by user MP675 on M3Forum.
While the required parts list can be quite extensive, the grand total for every part, new from the manufacturer, is only around $1200 - a bargain when you consider a good condition manual car will set you back four or five grand more than a comparable SMG model in today’s market.
When all the parts are gathered, it’s time to get to work with the filthy job of taking off a dirty transmission, modifying it, and putting it back in your used car to make it new again. Novices need not apply, but they can outsource the job to a reasonably priced independent mechanic - it should cost around $1500 or less in labor fees.
For those that aren’t afraid of smashing your nails against metal, I’d urge you to look over the entire detailed tutorial. I’ll outline the main procedure here.
First, you need to take out the SMG pump and transmission, which includes removing the exhaust, plastic underbody, and unbolting the driveshaft from its rubber coupling, called the guibo. Remove 11 bolts and yank it off the engine. On second thought, don’t yank.
You should end up with an SMG transmission that looks more machine than man. Now’s the point where you give it a heart, or brain, or any other arbitrary trait that makes a human a human.
You have to remove the gear selector, all viscous couplings, and change the transmission’s bellhousing to the manual version, making sure to then tap the hole used for the car’s gear selection sensor.
After affixing the slave cylinder to the new bellhousing and installing the throwout bearing, it’s time to
hack modify the car’s interior - the fun part. You’ll have to remove the shifter blockoff plate and weld or rivet the transmission support brace in the tunnel.
After that finicky job is done, you can start the not insignificant job of reinstalling the transmission. After that’s done, the clutch master cylinder must be mounted, the brake pedal removed, and both clutch and new brake pedals must be installed.
The brake pedal has to change because the footpad on the automatic version is much wider, plus it would foul on the new clutch pedal and look weird as hell.
After that, you should modify the interior plastic to accomodate the throw of the new-to-the-car clutch pedal and wire in the clutch safety switch. This is the component that does not allow the car to be turned on while in gear, making this swap indistinguishable from stock.
Now that all the mechanical components are in place and functioning properly (after a thorough top-up and bleeding of all fluids) you have to find a place that will code the car to the correct transmission combination. Any BMW specialty shop or independent shop that has a dealer-level scanner should be able to version code the car. If you don’t do this, the car will run but poorly since it doesn’t have any idea what transmission it has, and that’s kind of important.
A shop shouldn’t charge you more than a few hundred bucks at the most for this service, and when it’s done, the car will be, for all intents and purposes, a stock BMW M3 with a manual transmission.
You’ll now be able to sell it for more money, you’ll have peace of mind that there will be no more costly SMG pump rebuilds, and your left foot will finally have something to do other than develop an annoying itch.
If you had followed the steps here (laid out in detail in the full tutorial) and initially bought low, you’d have one of the best BMWs every made for the price of a used Honda Civic with a transmission that will quit way, way after you have.