The third-generation M3 is a sports car that needs very little introduction. You’re likely already familiar with journos praising its chassis balance, propensity for sideways fun and its peachy 338bhp straight-six. This is because all of these things deserve praise; especially as the atmospherically-fed engine becomes a rarer sight in the era of the turbocharger.
Now that I’ve had my M3 for several months, I’ve been able to drive it in rain, snow and shine. It’s done the inner-city slog, helped a friend move house, pummelled the motorways on long journeys and come alive on twisty country roads.
Apart from the Tangerine Dream which I share with my Dad, the M3 is my only car. Does it still make sense in the real world?
All right, so I guess none of you came here to read about boot space. Put simply, the M3’s 3246cc S54 straight-six is astounding, mainly because it revs all the way round to 7800rpm. With over 100bhp per litre, the E46 M3 packs a relatively economical punch, too – it has more power than the equivalent 911 Carrera of the early-noughties. The sprint to 60mph is dispatched in 4.8 seconds for the manual and 5.1 for the SMG. The acceleration gets me every time; it’s still so damn fast for a 14 year-old car. It’s particularly fun to treat unsuspecting passengers to a third-gear overtake and watch them melt into the passenger seat.
When you do put your foot down, your ears are treated to that gorgeous metallic, zingy rasp that joins the party from 2500rpm upwards. It may divide opinion on ‘Cutters or E46Zone, but I believe that part of the appeal of that masterful six-cylinder is the aural equivalent of a horde of caged bees joining you on every drive. The engine’s full 269lb ft of torque is only delivered from 5000rpm and above, so you do need to make use of the M3’s six speeds to sustain momentum.
The gorgeous strut brace under the bonnet is tempered by one under the rear of the car, too – with the M3 being immensely chuckable should you want it to be. Being an older car, turning the DSC off really does turn it off, which means that you really need to know what you’re doing to catch the tail. Nevertheless, it isn’t intimidating to slide around, as the steering and suspension both telegraph exactly what is happening to your fingertips. Oh, and despite driving on flooded Scottish roads through the winter, I’ve never once had any understeer in it.
The standard brakes are fine for spirited road drives and daily driving too – I haven’t tracked my car yet, but it’s likely they will fade under repeated hard use.
Verdict: 4/5 stars
Nowadays you can find M Sport badges on the flanks of a brand-new diesel 3 or 5 series, which dulls the allure of the badge for me. The E46 is from an era where little visual clues were key to identifying the M GmbH products from lesser models. Things like the powerdome, aerodynamically-redesigned mirrors and the flared arches tell you all you need to know about the car, without being overly shouty either. Well, until you look at the rear, where a massive M3 script greets you.
It’s a shame that the wing vents are fake and have no purpose, because they look so purposeful. Overall, though, the M3 has aged gracefully in the last decade or so. They look modern enough with the rear LED lights to pass as a newer car, yet are relatively uncomplicated to work on and are not hampered by the earliest iterations of iDrive. Only the liberal use of plastic expanding screws holding most things together under the car or in the engine bay does my head in, as they’re quite prone to breaking or bending out of shape.
Verdict: 4/5 stars
Time has been kind to the E46, I think – it’s nice to see that modern BMWs have returned to the slanted dashboard design seen in older BMs, where the key controls are slanted towards the driver. That said, the climate control system is very basic these days, and the longish gearknob looks a little out of place to me.
The seats are awesome, too – very comfortable, well-padded and with a great range for adjustment. Just hope that the little switches don’t break, though – they control a range of features and range in price from approximately £20 to £60!
Plus, there’s enough ///M logos on the sills, speedo, steering wheel and gearknob to keep most happy, without being too shouty about it. The only real drawback are the black plastic trays and interior fixtures, which scratch far too easily and can look pretty dowdy on an old car such as this if they aren’t cleaned up too well.
Verdict: 4/5 stars
Well, the M3 isn’t exactly economical – with a mix of town driving and countryside runs, I’m lucky if I see about 22mpg. This does improve slightly on the motorway, however, where you’ll be knocking on the door of 30 or 31mpg for the manual gearbox coupe. It’s definitely the price you pay for having all that power on tap.
In addition to the fuel costs, there’s an M3 tax on certain parts which can become frustrating. A genuine rear M3 boot badge, for example, costs £45 before delivery. A full set of OEM brake pads, discs and rotors comes in at about £800, too. Tax in the UK, at least, is £290 per year – the same price bracket as many other non-M BMWs of the same era, such as my old E46 320i saloon.
But if you can stomach the running costs,smaller parts are relatively inexpensive to buy. A set of rear springs, for example, comes in at around £160 – and you can get lowering springs from a third-party company for even less.
Put simply, the car may be cheaper to buy these days, but it isn’t exactly cheap to run.
In a spectacular lack of research on my part, it was only when I went to view my future M3 that I realised it had split-folding rear seats. This means that it can quite comfortably swallow a double-bed, or most of the possessions of a single person moving flat. I’ve done both with mines, and I’m taking it on a run to the skip soon too. There’s five seats, too, with the back seats offering just enough headroom for a sub-6ft person to be comfortable. Add to this a pretty large boot which can hold one-and-a-half suitcases, and you’ve a useful daily driver.
VALUE FOR MONEY
It’s absolutely staggering that you can get this amount of performance for between £6k-£11k at the moment in the United Kingdom. If you stop and think about it, what else offers you an award-winning 338bhp engine, 170mph capability when delimited, a comfortable interior and stable residuals?
Like cocaine or caviar, an E46 M3 is an expensive habit. It’s not economical and for some, the lack of a modern sat-nav or sound system may be too much of a turn-off. But for those that get it, the E46 is a modern classic that can still be used daily as well as taken out for a special drive over the weekend. Yes, the clutch and steering are heavier than most cars, but there’s a reason for this – the clutch is huge and the steering has a great weighting when up to speed. Only the sluggish rack lets it down when manoeuvring at low speed.
As a petrolhead, cars are often adored via the heart rather than the head. This can be quite a risky business with cars, as they’re fundamentally (expensive) tools built to serve a purpose. But with the E46 M3, your heart and head can both benefit from a solidly-built and solidly-enjoyable performance car. Just don’t keep your fuel receipts.
OVERALL RESULT: 22/30