Revisiting a Hero - BMW E46 M3
I still remember reading the first reviews of the E46 M3 from when I was a young whippersnapper. The motoring press absolutely raved about this car. It was widely hailed as a return to form for the M division after the damp squib that was the E36. Once the E46 arrived BMW got back its kudos. One review from that time was so unashamed in its adoration it even compared the acceleration to that from a motorbike “when overtaking no gap is too small” I remember reading. Well perhaps that’s not quite true, but the M3 was a real revelation at the time, 338 HP and 5.1 secs to 60.. these were mighty impressive figures in 2001 and still more than respectable today.
I shared a house with Chris Harris in our university days. A few years later I was dumbfounded when he morphed from a cheeky little shit to a respected car journalist but I have to agree with what he has to say about this car: “Most people immediately recognised that they were in the presence of greatness, and the E46 M3’s legacy still endures. It looked right, it sounded right, it felt right. Sometimes a car’s overall talents actually exceed what you’d expect even considering the excellence of the individual components. This was one of them”.
Seeing one on the road for the first time made me go wobbly at the knees. In Clarksonese I’d be saying that it felt as if someone had put a furious weasel in my pants and then my head exploded. Yes, I liked it that much. Unfortunately I am not Clarkson so it’s enough to say that to me it looked like a mini supercar. The muscular haunches, those side vents, the four exhausts.. the M3 simply had the perfect balance of aggression and style and stylistically it is still the most successful M3 of the lot.
Fast forward 15 years and I’m fatter and greyer but my lust for this car is undiminished. With my 964 becoming ever more track focused, a couple of years ago I decided to look for a daily driver and I finally had the opportunity to fulfil the dream of having an E46 M3. The CSL version was lauded at the time but a little too focused for my needs and in high demand.. hence also high priced. The half way house CS was a possibility but again seemed overvalued to me. There were loads of cars about, but once you’d removed the convertibles, the SMGs, chavved ones and the high mileage cars then there was not really much to choose from. When I stumbled on a full history two owner manual coupe with 59,000 miles on the clock I did not hesitate to snap it up.
They say you should never meet your heroes in case they disappoint. Not this time. The 3.2 litre inline-six emits a metallic rasp and wants to scream its way up the tacho, never pausing till the 8000rpm limit. The steering feels precise, not the most feelsome setup but there’s enough coming through so you know what the front wheel are up to. The box in this manual car is typical BMW, a little notchy and with a longer throw than would be ideal, it works well enough but is perhaps the least successful part of the package. On a standard set up under steer is present and getting the back end out on roundabouts is not as easy as I expected. Switch off the over intrusive traction control, switch to the sport setting for faster throttle response… and just boot it out in second gear. The back end requires provocation to break away but is pretty controllable once it has. Some owners opt for a “square” set up with same size tires front and back to make things more neutral but I’ve read varying reports on the success of this approach. To be fair in daily driving and up to 8/10th it is not something you would notice.
Perhaps the most surprising thing is just how good an all rounder the M3 is, long journeys are a pleasure. There is a little tire noise and 6th gear feels a little short for motorway cruising but the seats are fantastic, the ergonomics good and the interior is still a very nice place to be. This has to be one of the best all rounders of all time.