Few car brands demand as much respect and recognition as BMW. And the E46 M3 is the poster child of them all. It’s the embodiment of the German car manufacturer at their best, not their fastest.
Whether you remember the E46 M3 GTR from Need For Speed Most Wanted or the first time you saw one in person and fell in love with it’s beautiful design, we all know this car. Before BMW made grills, they made this, and it’s one hell of a car that you should buy.
Not only has the E46 M3 aged amazingly well, but the negative connotation surrounding M car reliability isn’t what it’s cracked up to be with the sweet S54 inline-6 with VANOS, which is BMW’s version of VTEC in a way!
So, keep reading, because we’ve got one hell of a buyers guide on your obtainable dream car, the E46 BMW M3! And if you want to find your ideal M3, you can find one on AutoTempest real easy! You ready? Because I am! Let’s go!
What Is the BMW E46 M3?
So, what exactly is the E46 M3? Like most Ultimate Driving Machines, the E46 M3 is a front-engined, rear-wheel drive, two-door and is available in coupe or convertible form. It was the widest, most powerful, and most performance-oriented 3 Series ever vehicle built on the E46 chassis, besides the M3 CSL, CS, and GTR. And it sits at the top of the food chain as far as the E46 3 Series goes, even though side-by-side, a 330Ci and M3 look similar. The differences behind the wheel of the two are night and day. I would put it this way: the 330Ci is more of a street car that wants to be a racecar, the M3 is a racecar coaxed off the track and onto the street.
Produced from 2000 to 2006, the Regensburg plant in Germany made 85,766 E46 M3’s, but since options were plentiful, each one is special. There was a small facelift in 2004 (known as the 2003.5) where the only changes were LED taillights and a wider handle on the trunk. Maybe they changed a lot on the interior? Nope, just deleted some badging on SMG models.
In terms of drivetrain, the S54 engine was paired with either a 6-speed manual or 6-speed sequential manual gearbox, or SMG for short. SMG weighs about 18 pounds more, is more expensive to maintain, and arguably just as fast as a manual. On top of that, a manual is way more rewarding to drive, especially in a car as driver-oriented as the E46 M3. The 6-speed manual is the transmission to get. The only downside of the manual transmission is that they typically cost a couple grand more on average to purchase. But fun fact: BMW did build more E46 M3’s with a manual transmission than the SMG, so they’re plentiful!
Much of the E46 M3’s popularity is due to its versatility and appeal to multiple demographics. For example, young guys want a good looking and precise track car, a highly modified E46 M3. Or if you’re a purist seeking a functional and pivotal piece of BMW driving history, you may cherish keeping yours as close to stock as possible. The analog yet inspiring driving experience of this car ensures that values for the E46 M3 will only continue to rise.
Exterior at a Glance
The E46 M3 has a body that’s so drop-dead gorgeous that even if the engine was a complete flop people would still buy it. Think Alfa Romeo. M3’s with the ZCP package had 13 different paint colors, and the base models had 12.
I would argue that the E46 M3 is the most beautiful looking vehicle BMW has ever produced, and one of the most iconic of any car manufacturer in history. The fenders flares contribute subtly to aesthetics and performance. The front bumper is lower, wider, and altogether more aggressive than on a standard 3 Series. Around the rear, you’ve got the famed center-mounted quad tailpipes capable of emitting some of the most eargasmic noises known to man.
And even though it looks similar to a typical 3 Series, underneath the widened fenders, almost everything has been manipulated and upgraded in pursuit of greater performance. It’ll leave you grinning from ear whether admiring from afar or shifting gears from the driver’s seat.
Inside the BMW E46 M3
No one does interiors quite like the Germans, who offer beautiful ergonomics and materials pleasant to the touch. And the E46 M3 doesn’t fail to impress. Remember when I said there were tons of options? Well, there are exactly 8 different upholstery colors and 6 different trim colors to choose from, technically 5 without the ZCP package.
In terms of layout, it’s very similar to cheaper 3 Series variants, so how’s the M3 different? Notably, the sporty M design seats, a leather three-spoke steering wheel with fancy stitching, different gear selector, and instrument cluster.
Facts and Figures (Performance)
So, in terms of numbers, what makes this Driving Machine so Ultimate? To begin with, the 3.2-liter inline-six produces 333 horsepower and 262 pound-feet of torque, enabling it to reach 60 miles per hour with either transmission in 5.1 seconds. Car and Driver, however, clocked a 2001 M3 coupe at just 4.6 seconds. That’s a tenth quicker to 60 than a 2011 Mercedes SL550!
Hard launches are a blast, literally. But what evokes the most enjoyment, however, is holding that three-spoke steering wheel and carving corners. A stock E46 M3 can generate up to 0.89 G’s of grip, the culmination of many M division suspension components, and a spritely curb weight of 3,461 pounds.
And while we’re on the topic of performance, let’s dive into the heartbeat of the E46 M3. The S54.
Under the Hood
The 3.2-liter straight-six was more than just a powerplant, the straight-six under the hood of an E46 M3 was more of an engineering masterpiece than an engine. The S54 was the overall International Engine of the Year Award recipient in 2001, and best engine in its class for the next five years.
Also found in Z4 M and later model Z3 M, it was BMW’s highest specific output, naturally-aspirated motor producing 102.6 horsepower-per-liter. Comparatively, the Mustang’s 5-liter Coyote manages only 92.9 horsepower-per-liter.
In the E46 M3, it was paired in some form with an Getrag 420G gearbox, the only difference being whether your left foot actuates the clutch and you throw the gears, also known as the 6-speed manual, or you push a flappy paddle and the computer actuates a clutch for you, also known as sequential manual gearbox or SMG.
The S54B32 revs out to 8,000 RPM, delivering its max 333 horsepower just 100 RPM shy of redline, and it manages a respectable 15 miles per gallon city and 22 miles per gallon on the highway.
So, with all this hype, there’s got to be a downside, right? Let’s get into reliability.
In spite of its looks and the award winning S54, it is a Bimmer, so it’ll have problems. And no, I’m not just talking about the typical E46 window regulator failures. Unfortunately, the M3’s rear subframe design has proven susceptible to cracking and tearing over time. It sounds easily fixable and cheap, but if left unattended could result in serious chassis damage. Yikes!
And even the S54 has a couple issues that may arise, in fact, there were two engine-related recalls on 2001 through 2003 model years. One was for bad connecting rod bearings. The second, although on a lesser scale for VANOS (German for Variable Nockenwellen Steuerung) was for solenoid seal failures.
Owners have also commented on the fragility of the cooling system. If you need another reason to buy a 6-speed E46 M3, it’s that the SMG variant has issues with the gear actuator pump effectively taking you off of the road, which may ultimately leave you scratching your head, unable to start your car.
The E46 M3 has its problems, both plentiful and costly, but it’s just like your best friend, and you wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Now that you’ve got the facts on the BMW E46 M3, it’s time to find out, is it really an ideal car? The max for each category is 2 thumbs up, which means off-the-charts awesome. And the minimum is 2 thumbs down, which means I wouldn’t wish it upon my worst enemy. The first is categorty is “smiles per gallon”!
Smiles Per Gallon
It’s hard not to grin when behind the wheel of a pure M car, but driving an E46 is truly something special. Whether it’s the looks of admiration from onlookers on the street, or your competition in the rearview contemplating how to pass you on the race track. Smooth, precise, and balanced are all attributes of a great sports car possessed by the E46 M3. Throw in the fact that you know you look good while doing it, and the E46 M3 receives two thumbs of approval!
The E46 M3 is the type of car to spark conversation at your local cars and coffee. If you pull up in a E46 M3 at pretty much any car meet, people will notice. Whether you decide to worship the stance gods, or to maintain pure OEM status, it will always be a nice looking car. Prove me wrong! I know you will! Either way, the E46 M3 receives one thumb of approval.
The S54 engine is stout, but it is a BMW, so it has its fair share of problems. The VANOS solenoid, connecting rod bearings, and water pump failures are costly and frustrating. You can save yourself some headache by purchasing a 6-speed manual instead of an SMG. It does have numerous issues, but many of the affected cars have been fixed or been given new engines. I have to shake my thumb on this one.
You don’t feel claustrophobic in an E46 M3, yet it kind of fits around you like a glove. Oh, and you can fit three passengers if you two are contortionists. You’ve got just under 14.5 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk. Reasonable and perfectly acceptable for its segment and era, the E46 M3 gets one thumb of approval.
Achieving fame from video games and respect on racetracks, the E46 M3 is unquestionably good, and now more people want to buy one. Because of its timeless looks and the significance it instilled in people of what a sports car is, the E46 M3 is always sought after. Taking a look at the price trends over the last 10 years, you notice the typical German depreciation at first, but in the last couple years, the price has been steadily increasing.
As the world progresses further into electric and highly sophisticated vehicles diluting the driving experience, I believe that prices will continue to rise in the near future. Therefore, I think buying an E46 M3 is a smart investment, and it earns our first one-and-a-half thumbs up. Insurance is about $90 a month for a 25-year-old male with a clean driving record.
We found a facelifted 2004 E46 coupe that was a 6-speed manual painted in Alpine White III with just under 100,000 miles. It was a bit pricey for the mileage, but chances are any serious motor problems have already arisen and been fixed. Also, this car had KW V3 coilovers and a painted carbon fiber CSL trunk. If you don’t know what those parts are, just know they’re definitely upgrades, and they aren’t cheap.
Look around on AutoTempest and you might just find an E46 M3 as nice as that!
The final score for the E46 M3 is 5.5 thumbs up! So, does the E46 M3 have what it takes to be considered an ideal car? Absolutely! It has style, performance, and the potential of becoming a valuable collector’s car. And on top of that, it’s an absolute blast to drive. So, should you buy one, it’s a no brainer.