Does the E46 M3 Really Deserve All its Hype?

We all know the E46 and we've all heard the stories of how good it is to drive. But are the stories a bit... exagerated? I borrowed one and found out.

32w ago

Any car guy born the late 80s and early 90s at one point or another has lusted after an E46 M3, it’s just a fact. I was born just a hair too late to properly be a part of that generation and personally spent more of my time lusting after the E92 generation M3, but I always liked the styling of the E46 and like everyone else, I always made sure to unlock it in every video game it was in. Over the years I’d grow curious about them again and check in on prices to see if they were still attainable when I was old enough. Fast forward a bit more, and while I’m helping out with sales and marketing at a friend’s detail shop, a supercharged E46 comes in. Naturally I was really excited, but of course it was a customer’s car and I only got to move it around the parking lot and pose it for our marketing pictures. It wasn’t much of a drive, but it whetted my appetite just enough to leave me wondering if all the hype surrounding the E46 was really true.

For those who aren’t aware (which shouldn’t be many of you on a website like this one), the E46 M3 was produced from 2000 to 2006 and is considered by many to be one of the best “M” cars BMW has ever produced. It featured a 3.2 liter straight six “S54” engine producing 333 horsepower here in the US, while in other markets it produced 338. It was offered with a six-speed manual gearbox or BMW’s “SMG-II” paddle operated transmission and in coupe and convertible configurations. During its production run and still to this day the E46 has been lauded by reviewers and enthusiasts alike.

Today, the E46 is still one of the best-looking BMWs ever made, and many consider the era of BMW it came from to be the best era for BMW in its entire history. As far as styling is concerned, the E46 was from a time when German performance cars weren’t flashy – AMG cars didn’t pop and crackle on every gear change and M badges and carbon fiber weren’t plastered all over the exterior. The styling is simple and subtle, which in my opinion is the main reason it has aged so well. On the interior, things aren’t as good. The materials aren’t bad, but the head unit on some cars featured what is now a very dated media screen, and sadly many of these cars have had many owners and have fallen into lesser condition. However, there is a modern head unit available that looks identical to the period unit but has all the modern features one would want, and almost every trim piece is available on the aftermarket so reconditioning a tired example isn’t too terribly difficult.

Obviously, though, the real question is the driving experience – does it live up to the legends? Well recently, I was able to find out. On the day in question, I had three BMWs that I was driving and filming: an i8 (which I reviewed last week here on DRIVETRIBE and on YouTube), an E39 M5 (coming next week here and on YouTube), and the E46. Jumping between the three cars and driving them on the different roads we used made one thing very, very clear immediately – the legends were true. The particular car I was driving had a few modifications – rims, exhaust, tune, the standard stuff one would expect from a higher mile car owned by an enthusiast – but they don’t seem to change the experience as much as enhance it.

The first thing I did with the M3 was find an empty road in Mexico and do some hard pulls to get a feeling for the power. The E46 was fast in its day, but by modern standards a high four second or low five second 0-60 time isn’t terribly impressive. However, it makes an excellent noise during that run and the gearbox feels good as you shift through it, both of which certainly add engagement to the experience and make it feel a bit quicker. So while it isn’t terrifyingly fast like some modern cars, it doesn’t feel slow by any means. In the past few months, I’ve really come to realize that 4 or 5 seconds is about the ideal 0-60 time. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to Mexico and pulling hard in an F12 that will get there in 3 seconds, but the reality is on most roads that one would want to drive spiritedly acceleration like that will quickly get you to the kinds of speed that can give you a serious case of dead or silver bracelets from the local constabulary. With cars like the M3 though, you can properly bury your foot in it and feel like you’re using all the power without being afraid of the Grim Reaper or your local traffic judge.

The next location I took the M3 to was my favorite twisty road. I’ve been on it a lot recently, with the 348 Spider, 912, and GranTurismo I reviewed, as well as the three BMWs on the day in question. In the past I’ve also had a manual first generation Gallardo, the 599 and F12 I’ve reviewed, and the Mustang and Camaro I used to own go through that road, so I think it’s fair to say I’ve driven a decent selection of enthusiast cars through there, and I can say that aside from the 348 (which is hardly a fair comparison), the M3 was my absolute favorite to drive on that road. I don’t think I was able to properly put it into words in the video because I was just so engaged and enamored with the M3 at the time, but the whole time I felt connected, planted, and entirely surefooted. I wasn’t going full out as it wasn’t my car and I was still getting the feel for it, but with every corner and every gear change I could feel the car begging me to give it more – edging me on, goading me into pushing harder. When I pulled back in after getting the shots on that road, I really had to resist the urge to jump onto a major online automotive marketplace that isn’t paying me to mention them so I won’t call by name and start searching for E46s that were available in my area.

The final location was down on some more normal roads – some quite rough, some quite smooth. On those roads, the M3 was loud and rough. Of course, the modified exhaust was a part of that, but the reality is if you’re not buying a mint condition garage queen example, you’re almost certainly going to have a modified exhaust because it just sounds way too good to not have one. But that does make it a bit noisy inside when added to the little rattles from the interior. As I mentioned, the E46 has quite stiff suspension that helps in the corners, but hurts going over bumps. Also, reliability can be suspect since it is an old BMW. But then again – does any of that really matter? Is anyone really going to daily an E46 M3 in 2021?

To answer those questions, respectively, hell no and quite possibly. The fact of the matter is the E46 is an enthusiast’s car through and through. If you’re buying one to be your fun car and your daily, you’re not the sort of person who gives a damn if it’s a bit uncomfortable over bumps or a bit too noisy inside. If you’re buying one, you’re buying it for those moments when you can put your foot down and slice your way through corner after corner. If you’re buying one, you know full well that you’re going to spend a ton of money on maintenance. But if you’re driving one, you know full well that it’s absolutely worth it.

As a final note, I'd again like to thank Chris Lee ( @m3.raw & @chrisleestudios ) - this time not only just for helping me film and shooting stills, but for letting me spend some time behind the wheel of the M3. Check his profiles out for car related antics and some amazing photography.

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Comments (1)

  • First of all, it's the best looking M3 out there.

    Second, I like it better on track than on the road, let me explain that to you...

    A friend of mine owned an M3, and his dream was to go for a couple of laps on the Nurburgring. So, I had no trouble finding a birthday present for him, we went there together.

    I'm by no means an experienced track guy, but I've seen more tracks in the years than he had, and at some point he handed the car over to me as he felt insecure, maybe it was me playing the navigator, knowing the track by heart from racing games, he still loves me though 😉

    It is absolutely great for driving there, feeling exactly what happens under your butt and the steering feel is fantastic. It's better at being a track car than a road car if the tarmac is less than perfect. And nothing is more scary than going backwards because diesel spill in an exit corner...

      7 months ago