- E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

A few years ago, I was still a wee lad in university. I had a course called Internal Combustion Engines. It was easily one of my favourite, as you can image. Studying engines and calculating bhp, torque, combustion efficiency, and exhaust flow for grades? Sign me up! It wasn't just the content, though, as magnificent as it was. The class itself was taught by the coolest professor there is. You may think you've had a cool teacher, coach, or instructor, but I've got the standard by which all educators must be measured.

For one, they have to teach something that is cool. Does it get cooler than Internal Combustion Engines? (No, it doesn't). This one is also a true petrol head, so much so that he sticks around after class and argues about cars, lap times, and racing... and occasionally does so in the middle of class. He also takes you to your first High Performance Driver Education (HPDE) event. But if all of that isn't enough, a few years later, he lets you drive his baby - an E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 - on a race track. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a cool professor should be like. And his car? THAT is what a cool BMW should be like.

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

How does a 15 year old BMW measure up on track?

For years, I've held this belief: an E46 M3 is the best M3, thereby making it my favourite 3-series, and thereby making it my favourite BMW. I've been in every generation M3 on track, from an E30 all the way to the F80. I've read a lot about all of them, talked to people who tracked them (and a few who raced them), heard them at full chat, seen what they're capable of, etc. All of this resulted in me favouring the E46 M3 above all others. I found it to be the perfect sweet spot; the best example of the breed. But I had no experience behind the wheel of one... Until now. Before driving it, I was worried this might be a case of "never meet your heroes". But it wasn't. Not even close.

I posted about my track drive of a Cayman GT4 not too long ago. You can read my review here. I actually drove both cars on the same day. As you'd expect, this 15 year old M3 does not stand a chance against a Cayman GT4... but only if you take out your stopwatch and start timing. If timing isn't a priority, this M3 makes one heck of a case for itself, even though we're comparing an excellent, relatively new, mid-engine Cayman to an old M3 costing a fraction of the price.

If the GT4 has great steering and communication through the chassis, the M3 is a stereotypical Italian in comparison; it's shouting and waving its hands to get its point across. You can feel everything that is going on at the tires, and not in the way a cheap car or stripped-down race car would be. There is just an abundance of information making it through the chassis compared to new cars. The Cayman GT4 feels like it would never put a wheel wrong because THE CAR can't do wrong. The M3, though, is different... It makes YOU feels like YOU will never let it put a wheel wrong because you know exactly what the tires and the chassis are doing.

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

The Handling

I can't speak a whole lot for the balance of a stock version, because this one isn't. It's a Dinan S1 (Stage 1) and it's properly lowered (not on cheap eBay springs) with cambered dialed in to -2.0 degrees. The tire stagger is gone. Instead, there are 265/35/18 tires all around instead of the factory sizes (225/45/18 fronts and 255/40/18 rears). Needless to say, the stock balance is likely different from this one, which is very neutral and could be provoked into rotating with even a gentle prod of the throttle.

It is certainly not loose, which is good, but feels as close to neutral as you'd want a street/track car to be. It's also very composed and did much better than I expected over our track's roughest sections, remaining stable and controllable. I really wish I had driven a stock one to see what it's like, but even if you assume a little less neutral at the limit and a little more body roll, it'd still be fantastic. If it does understeer, it so easy to get the back end to rotate under power - like a proper front engine, RWD sports car.

With that said, you'll have to turn the driver assists off if you want to allow a bit of yaw. Traction control is terrible. It'll keep you from crashing, but it's very frustrating. It aggressively cuts power as soon as it detects spinning. The aggressive power cut results in the engine bogging down so when you get back on the power, there is a noticeable delay. If you're still learning the car and/or track, I can see that being very frustrating if you want to keep the safety nets (which you should). This significantly under-performs modern traction control systems I've tried on track which are far more seamless. It's no worse than something of similar vintage, though. Thankfully, the engine is far better than the traction control saddle that is straddling it.

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

The Engine

The engine is an absolute masterpiece. Dear BMW... what on earth happened?? How did you go from this masterpiece that is the S54 engine to, well, anything else in a 3-series today? For a naturally aspirated, high rpm screamer, there's a surprising amount of low end power - the mark of a proper straight six engine. That power is massively linear too, all the way from idle to redline. Combined with great gearing, you can wind the engine out, shift, and repeat... over and over again. It's fantastic.

And the noise... straight six, relatively uncorked, individual throttle bodies, and 7,900 rpm redline. What else could you possibly want out of a sports car engine? It's powerful, with no weak spots, linear, flexible, responsive, and loves to rev. Sure, it could use a bit more hp, but there isn't a single great sports car out there that couldn't use more power.

The owner has been tracking this M3 for a few years now (although not heavily). I don't know how reliable these engines are when regularly pushed, but if they aren't problematic, there's absolutely nothing to fault under the hood.

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

The Steering

Steering is a sore subject for a lot of modern cars, chief of which is BMW because they used to set the standard here. I actually drove a BMW M4 on the same track. Boy, what a difference. I'll be writing a separate review about the M4 in another article, but for now, I can tell you that the M4 would be so much better if it could learn a thing or two from this car.

It's amazing how much newer the M4 is, yet this E46 M3 feels like it is a far better sports car. There's real organic feel in the steering and real information about the tires make it through to your hands. Combined with great steering response and balance (and camber, of course), the car feels so light and tossable, imparting the sensation that it weighs hundreds of kilograms lighter than the newer M4, despite this M3 being less capable in outright grip and "only" 70 kg (150 lb.) lighter, give or take.

The Brakes

The story continues for brakes. Braking feel and modulation are very good. There was no fade that I could tell, although I didn't go 10/10th (i.e. didn't consistently push the car to the limits lap after lap). And the brakes are floating calipers, not the sort of gigantic fixed monoblock calipers with a thousand pistons you find on everything these days. It's hard to believe - and very disappointing - how the industry and the market for sports car have made everything "better", yet the vast majority seem to have forgot the essence of what makes a sports car great.

And it's not like this car couldn't hold its own in outright braking performance. When tested by Car and Driver, a 2003 M3 stopped from 70-0 mph in 161 ft. That's 10 ft longer than a current M4 with massive carbon-ceramic brakes, much bigger tires, and newer and more grippy tire compounds. Honestly, if you think about it, you wonder how the M4 did so poorly with all that braking hardware compared to the lowly, 15 year old E46 M3.

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 at Atlantic Motorsport Park - Graham MacNeil ©

The Best M3?

Put it all together, and you get a car that really feels special. It's very difficult to put a finger on one thing. In fact, you can be sure that it's not one thing - it's the entire package. Some call it the X-factor. I bet you if James May drove this car, it would give him "the fizz" in spades. This made writing about the car very difficult.

It doesn't quite excel at any metric, but it just makes you happy to drive and push around the track. I can tell you the steering, the engine, or the chassis is great. I can tell you it sounds great. I can tell you a lot of things I liked about it. But what I can't tell you is how good it all comes together. The only way to truly know is to go out and drive one on a nice back road or, even better, on a track. If, like me, someone hands you the keys to one, TAKE THEM.

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