BMWs M3 line is packed with fantastic cars through the years. From the boxy E30 to the unusual G80, the M3 has always been the benchmark for performance cars. Every M3 is great in its own way but which one is best? Many argue that the E46 is best. Personally, I like the E46 the most. So, what makes the E46 so great? Is it really that good or is it just overrated? Well, let's find out.
BMW launched the E46 M3 way back in 2000 and it was an instant success. So, what made it so popular? We are going to look at 5 areas that make this car great.
The legendary S54B32 is the heart and soul of the car. The engine makes up a huge part in why these cars are so loved. This straight six, cast-iron block, individual throttle bodied, naturally aspirated engine is tremendous. The sound is addictive and thanks to the individual throttle bodies, the engine response is razor-sharp. The engine runs to the rev limiter of 8000rpm with ease. These engines were hand-built and have a higher specific output per litre that the BMW engine in the McLaren F1. The M3 has 106bhp per litre, not bad for a NA engine. Peak power (338bhp) was at 7900rpm and 80% of the 365Nm is available from 1750rpm to 8000rpm. This is an incredible achievement for a NA engine. No wonder why the S54B32 won the overall International Engine of the year 2001 and won Engine of the year in its class from 2001 to 2006.
This is where the E46 M3 really comes into its own. With a kerb weight of just 1,570kgs, this car is light compare to modern cars. Weight kills cars handling so being so light makes this car agile and feel alive. The suspension is custom make for the M3 is it works perfectly with the chassis to give you that beautiful analogue feel that's lacking in modern cars. The quick steering and tight chassis makes it nimble and gives you the ability to feel what the car is doing underneath you. It's shocking how dull and numb modern cars feel compared to the E46 M3. It really feels like it has a soul.
So now that we have covered the engine and handling, let's talk about performance. BMW claimed the 0-100KPH time was 5.2 seconds, but Car and Driver recorded a time of 4.5 seconds. That’s still very fast by today's standards. Top speed was limited to 155mph or 250kph but without the limiter, the top speed is around 175mph or 280kph. Next up, lap times. Back in 2000, it lapped the Nürburgring in 8:22 Just 4 seconds slower than a Ferrari 355. To me though, the numbers only tell half the story. The way the car drives is better than cars with more power or cars with better lap times. The balance and feel is where this car shines. If there was a way to measure that then this car will definitely be high on the list. The E46 M3 is streaks ahead of its competitors and gives a lot more expensive cars a run for their money.
The E46 M3 has always been a dream car for me. I was just 4 years old when these cars were launched so I didn’t even know about things like power and handling, but I loved it. This was due to the beautiful styling. The right size kidney grills, slightly flared arches, power bulge on the bonnet, coupe shape, little spoiler at the back, and the 4 tailpipes sticking out the rear just makes this car beautiful. Not too showy but different enough from normal E46s to stand out. It was just the perfect balance of everything that made this car stand out. It also has some trademark BMW performance cues, such as the front fender vents and bulge in the bonnet. Most importantly, it has stood the test of time. Most cars don’t age well but the E46 M3 aged better than fine wine. Another great thing about the E46 M3 was the colour options. There were 14 colour options over the years. From white to black, yellow to blue, red to dark green. The colours all looked great but the best to me was Laguna Seca Blue.
Construction and Build quality
German cars are known for build quality. E46s were built in a time when build quality was still good. Everything feels solid and still works like it did when it was new. The construction of the cars was also top-notch. Like we mentioned earlier, the engines were hand-built but BMW went even further than that. The engine isn't dry sumped but it does have a scavenge pump to make sure there's oil no matter how hard you are cornering. To save weight, the bumper bars were made from Kevlar/carbon fibre composite and the bonnet is made from aluminium. The brake discs were also special. The centre bell is made from aluminium for heat dissipation and weight loss while the flat working section is cast iron. Want to know something even crazier? The exhaust has its own crumple zone. The 4 tailpipes sticking out the back could damage the entire exhaust system in a rear-end collision. So, BMW designed the tailpipes to crumple, saving the rest of the system. Attention to detail like that turns a great car into a legend.
Like all good arguments, there are 2 sides. This discussion is no different. Like every other car, the E46 had some issues or areas where they were not so good. So here are the 5 things that aren’t great about this car.
All cars are plagued with issues and this car is no different. However, this car's common issues could be very expensive. With the engine, common faults are VANOS issues which could get expensive with the S54 engine, water pump failure, and early cars had a rod bearing issue. These rod bearing issues should have all be sorted by now, but they do still, unfortunately, happen on the rare occurs. The other main problem is subframe cracking or tearing. Before buying a car check for this problem. Just remember, it might not look like there are cracks but there still could be cracks under the subframe mounts. Luckily, there are many kits to prevent this. It's also recommended to do value adjustments. With all these issues, buying a car that has service records showing maintenance has been done is essential. Maintaining your car will also lessen the chances of having major issues. It's also very important to do a Pre-purchase Inspection (PPI) at a trusted shop.
No spare wheel
To save weight in performance cars, BMW takes out the spare wheel and replaces it with a compressor (air pump) and sealant. This seems good on paper but to me at least is not. Sealant expires and chances are, it won't work when you need it. It's also a temporary fix. But the biggest problem by far, what if the problem is more severe than just a puncture and the tyre is completely destroyed, or the rim is bent? We have experienced this problem in our F82 M4 while driving to Hartbeespoort dam on a Sunday. Good luck with BMW roadside assistance out there on the weekend. Just put a spare wheel BMW!!!
To many, the one thing to avoid is buying an E46 M3 with the SMG gearbox. SMG stands for Sequential Manual Gearbox and it's actually the same gearbox found in the manual car. The only difference is that the clutch is electro-hydraulically operated via a pump and wired to computers. These gearboxes are known to be slow to change gear and clunky. I haven't driven an SMG M3, but I know a few people who have owned them whose judgment I trust. They say that the SMG ruins the car and takes away from the driving experience. Every gear change is very jerky and is like getting hit in the back of the head. So not good reviews but it gets worse. The SMG gearboxes also have a few issues which could be costly to fix. Few techs will know has to fix it and diagnosing the exact problem could be difficult. We recommend avoiding SMG boxes.
It's crazy to think that this car was launched 21 years ago. Since then, many things have changed in the motoring world. 338bhp is a lot but now you can get that in a hot hatch. Cars nowadays have turbos with no lag and clever ways of putting the power down. This means that the E46 M3 doesn’t feel that fast anymore. Back in the day, it was blindingly fast. But nowadays, it's not as impressive. NA engines also don't have that much torque compare to turbo engines. This lack of torque in the E46 M3 makes it feel slow low down in the rev range. This is amplified after getting out a turbo car. Now let talk about the interior. Cars have built-in screens, driving gadgets, and features that make living with a car easy. The old E46 M3 doesn’t have much in terms of technology and this is a downside. We have come accustom to the luxuries of modern-day life so these M3s seem old and not as fancy.
Even though the E46 M3 is turned 21 years old this year, they are incredible cars. There are common issues but if you buy correctly, get a PPI and maintain your car, you shouldn't experience anything serious. Compare to modern cars, they feel alive and agile. There's no fuss or electronics getting in the way. They are the last analogue M3 made in a time where quality was more important than profits and feeling the car through your backside was still possible. It feels engaging and pure especially compare to modern machinery. It's easy to see from behind the wheel with the NA engine screaming to 8000 rpm why these cars are so great. To me, they aren't overrated. They are perfection wrapped up in a beautiful body. It's definitely a future classic.