The first decade of this millennium was a happy time for petrolheads. Various marques displayed gleaming six-cylinder sports cars on their showroom floors and racetracks hosted full grids fighting it out for production car honours.
BMW will forever be credited with giving amateur drifters the sports coupe their hearts cried for. The E46 M3 could comfortably be the dictionary definition for an icon. Every petrolhead knows what they are and every petrolhead should experience driving one.
Although the much-loved 3.2l S54 engine helps you throw 252kw at your problems, this M3 isn’t much of a drag racer by modern standards. The world has moved on. A 0-100km/h time of just over 5s is quick, but not quick enough to deal with the brat pack of modern hyper hatches. Even the hot hatches aren’t far off that time anymore.
That isn’t the point though.
The only rear-wheel drive option among modern hyper hatches is a BMW product (ignoring the latest abomination m135i xDrive), which means the likes of the A45 AMG and RS3 are drag racing monsters that won’t necessarily please the purists the same way the m140i does.
Whether or not that matters in a daily driver may be a subject of much debate, but chances are that you would choose the rear-wheel drive platform for a mountain pass every time.
This particular M3 is about as good as rear-wheel drive gets. With upgraded brakes, springs, an AC Schnitzer strut bar and a CSL bootlid, this M3 offers a small taste of what the CSL must feel like. The taste is delicious, with the only downside being a ride that is hard (but not crashy).
As you get comfortable in the driver’s seat, the car just feels right. This is the optimal size for a powerful sportscar. The steering wheel fits beautifully in your hands and the driving position is excellent. The interior is simple but purposeful. It isn’t as minimalistic as modern BMWs, which isn’t a bad thing. The television function on the centre console is however the single strangest thing we’ve experienced on a car to date.
I mean, who doesn’t enjoy a daytime talk show while carving up a mountain pass?
Speaking of carving, the M3’s defining feature is the handling. In places where a lightweight S2000 becomes twitchy, the 1,570kgs M3 just keeps gripping and gripping. It almost feels like a 996 GT3, with oodles of mechanical grip and amazing feedback from the chassis. A 996 GT3 costs a lot more money than this car though…
To be honest, any true competitor to this car costs a lot more money. A base 996 Carrera certainly won’t get you there, not least of all from an aesthetics perspective. An S2000 gets eaten alive by this car and that’s before you consider the practicality of an M3 vs. a roadster.
The exhaust note is an acquired taste to say the least. Driving at first with the window open on Cape Town’s busy city bowl streets, it sounded like someone was drilling into a wall. We then realised it was the M3 howling back at us with a raspiness that we haven’t heard in any other modern car.
Whether or not the howl is enjoyable inside the car is a matter of personal taste. Luckily, the howl outside the car is mesmerizing. An e46 flying past you at almost 8,000rpm is practically a religious experience. Much like the C63 AMG, the noise is more for the enjoyment of onlookers than for the occupants.
The M3 gets better the more you drive it, especially with a manual gearbox like this one. The downshift from 3rd gear to 2nd gear is an art that needs to be mastered, because the gear ratios practically force you to rev match in almost any situation. It isn’t an easy car to drive, but that’s half the point.
Taking a break to reflect on the experience presents an excellent opportunity to get out the car and look at it again. An e46 M3 wouldn’t be a bad choice for Germany to send to a Miss World pageant. In comparison to basically everything else you could buy at the turn of the millennium at any cost close to this, it is peerless in terms of sheer good looks. There aren’t many Beemers you can say that about.
There is just one downside to this car – build quality. The preventative maintenance advice on an e46 M3 shouldn’t be taken lightly. All the advice you need is right here in this extraordinarily brilliant blog post on the topic from an e46 M3 owner:
So, you need to be careful. You need to do research. You need to make sure a technical expert looks at the various issues and advises you on the work to be done so that you don’t overpay for your M3. Values are rising and good ones are becoming scarce, so don’t wait forever.
Then, you need to point the M3 at a twisty road and take yourself back 20 years to when six-cylinder engines and RWD platforms ruled the world.
It’s not just an affordable sportscar, it’s a giant killing masterpiece. Just remember your TV Licence.