Coffee table book, available now

Related Stories

Is the E46 M3 a holy experience?

The BMW E46 M3 is perhaps BMW M's most famous car. But does it really offer the revered experience you expect 20 years later?

Never miss a new car review!

Well, here we are. You and I, working through this E46 M3 review together. As I write it, angels are singing, Jesus is walking on water, and the seas are parting. So revered is this Bimmer that it would be impossible for you not to have some preconceived notion that this is the M3 you need, and every other M3 is worse.

But is is really true?

E46-m3
2004 BMW E46 M3 Quick Take
Get one:

It does everything well. Everything.

Don’t get one:

Older M3s are more nimble. New ones are faster and more comfortable. The S54 isn’t M’s smoothest engine.

Soul Score: 10

I won’t say this is the best M3 generation. But I won’t say it isn’t.

The BMW E46 M3 overview

E46 M3

What’s the best age? It’s not your teenage years – we’re too ignorant to know better. And your twenties are usually unsettled. Finding your career, your potential partner and all that. And though I’m not there yet, I imagine your 40s and beyond have many good points, but you’re never going to feel as good in your body as you do in your…thirties. Yes, your thirties are where everything in life meets to be truly enjoyable.

E46 M3

Why this long and touted metaphor? Because the E46 M3 is the M3 in its thirties. The silliness of youth is outgrown (E30 and E36), and the oncoming of old age hasn’t happened yet (E90, F80, G80). The automotive world met at the perfect time to bear this BMW fruit. There are things newer M3s do better, but none would do everything quite as well.

Hop in, and let’s drive on water together in this holy experience.

Performance Score: 9. Rough rider

E46 M3
It’s no longer “fast”, but it’s fast enough to be fun.

Speaking of, is this car starting to show its age? Sort of. The S54 isn’t BMW’s best inline-six. The transmission is pretty much the same notchy thing that populate later M3s. And the ride is a bit unruly. But when you combine it all, I’m not sure any car, even a 911, does everything this car does.

Engine

E46 M3
Fast enough to get you in trouble on the street.

Let me start by saying this is a really good engine. It revs so freely, as if the flywheel is made of carbon fiber. You must rev this naturally-aspirated 3.2-liter straight-six to its redline of 8,000 RPMs to extract all the juice (333 horses is available at 7,900 RPM), but the performance feels more accessible than in an S65.

Please understand how high-strung (and high-performance) this engine is. Only Honda’s S2000 and Ferrari’s 360 Modena had more horsepower per liter, and the S54 is where individual throttle bodies started for the M3. There’s a “SPORT” switch in the cabin that sharpens throttle response, but Lou the owner has it coded to just be on all the time. This is the right thing to do – the engine demands you pay attention to what you’re doing.

E46 M3
Seems silly to ever drive without the SPORT button pressed.

This particular E46 M3 is mostly stock, but it does have a Dinan rear section exhaust, and it sounds like all of Germany singing its national anthem as you pump through the gears. Wonderful. About the only criticism I can level at the motor is that it’s not BMW’s smoothest – everything shakes or grunts just a bit too much.

E46 M3
A Dinan exhaust wakes the car up and makes the S54 sound even more glorious.

The S65 that came after it is a better BMW M engine, and the S58 is a better inline-six engine, but the S54 is the best M3 engine. I hope you can understand the distinction.

Transmission

E46 M3
It’s the same as always, yet makes more sense here.

Maybe you met your wife at a bar when you were 30, and for your 20th anniversary, you recreate the date at the same bar. Doesn’t feel the same, does it? Like you’re out of place. Well, this six-speed transmission is great at 30 in the E46 M3 – it’s later when the problems come.

This is where BMW stopped really developing their manual, and every M3 after this one had a variation of it – beefed up for more power, but essentially the same thing. This would explain why it feels very similar to the one in a car 20 years newer.

E46 M3
Rowing through the gears is what this car is all about.

So in a G80 it’s out of place, but in a lighter, more nimble E46, it feels much better. The entire car is a bit notchy, so the transmission simply matches the feel.

The SMG? There’s a reason no one swaps a manual for one, despite doing the reverse quite often.

Chassis and Steering

E46 M3
This might be the best part.

I’ll get to the handling in a minute, but the steering. Oh, the steering. It could make me cry. It’s heavy, direct, and precise. It’s better than any modern Porsche I’ve been in, even the GT4. Never unruly either, or twitchy, the wheel enables you to achieve an almost instantaneous connection with the car.

E46 M3
The E46 has 18-inch wheels that prove the gigantic rims of today are not needed for excellent grip.

Some credit must too go toward the chassis. At 3,480 pounds, it’s not a light car, but it never feels heavy. Minimal body roll, squat and dive – even the streets of Manhattan, where I drove this E46 M3, didn’t upset the chassis. They say this car understeers more than an E36, but having driven both pretty closely together, I can say I much prefer the 46. It’s more planted, and unless you’re going Mach 10, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any understeer at all.

Oh, and it’s comfortable. You can easily take it on a 300-mile drive without incurring any bruises or complaining passengers. That said, do not expect G8X levels of compliance – it’s simply too raw for that.

Brakes

E46 M3
Nothing exotic here, but they work well for street use.

A strut suspension. No turbochargers. And brakes that have but a single sliding caliper and solid discs with no holes. I will never understand why M never got truly serious about brakes until, what, the F80 M3? Perhaps that’s why this owner equipped theirs with slotted, cross-drilled discs.

Whatever, they work. The pedal provides firm feedback, and that’s the important part. All the upgrades you can throw on won’t change how they feel. If you’re going to track this thing, yes, get better discs with improved cooling. But for street work, they are just fine.

Utility Score: 7. Subtract Two

E46 M3
There’s enough room here to fit most for decent trips.

No sedan. Sedan. Then, no sedan again. It would be the last time BMW would make the mistake, but the E46 M3 only comes as a coupe and convertible.

Nothing wrong with that. After all, the M3 started out in life with just two doors. And you’ll find sedan-like room inside, with an accommodating back seat that allows children and people you don’t like to ride in relative comfort.

One reason I’ve loved every M3 I’ve driven is that I just fit in the car comfortably. No contorting or hitting my head on the roof. So it is here too. Add in the fact that the trunk has plenty of room to make this a daily, and you probably won’t miss the four doors.

Probably.

Fuel Economy: 4. Air needs fuel

E46 M3
Loves to rev. Loves to drink.

Take a look at this.

My G8X gets 18 miles per gallon. My E9X got 18 miles per gallon. This E46 M3? What’s that? 18 miles per gallon? These are real-world averages, not what some computer in a giant warehouse says a car should get.

I’m not poking fun at the E46 – it’ll probably do a little worse that more modern M cars because you’re always yelling at it to go faster. But a mile or two per gallon isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

Of course, a new M3 makes 503 horsepower from 3 liters, so squeezing more horsepower out of a smaller engine indicates some progress has been made. But how much depends on what you value in your sports car.

Features and comfort: 6. Holy seat

E46 M3
No carbon, or other pretentious bits.

That thirties analogy I made earlier? It sort of applies inside the E46 as well,  not just its performance.

Built in the early 2000s, it was a time before phones and screens took over the world. A time when buttons needed to be laid out logically and clearly because that’s how you interacted with the car.

Oh, and the 46 is a big improvement inside over the E36, which has an interior that did not age nearly as well. It’s another reason why this might be peak M3.

How will I know where I’m going?

E46 M3
This is all you really need.

What do I need to go fast? A clear, large tachometer and speedometer. Lots of glass to see out of clearly. HVAC buttons I can glance at, or commit to memory, so I don’t need to look down for more than a second. New cars don’t have any of that stuff.

It’s unpretentious in here. All black, with a hint of titanium silver. Not a hint of carbon fiber (carbon is pretentious, sorry). The right amount of buttons on the steering wheel. Navigation was an option, but thankfully not on this car. You already carry the best entertainment and navigational system right in your pocket, no need to clutter the dash with screens.

E46 M3
We’re not all decked out in M badges yet either.

Slight weirdness. This would be it for window buttons on the center stack. That long and tall shifter that seems to be made out of a single cow’s apparatus is out of place – grab one from an F10 M5 to see what I mean. And no dual HVAC settings, so complaints of “I’m cold” are bound to happen from the right side of the cabin.

I love the seats – perhaps a bit high but nothing like the Audi RS4. Even the cup holder’s placement makes sense (mostly). Cheapness is ever so slight – remember this was an expensive car in its day, so the plastics are a little cheap. But I nitpick. It’s a wonderful place to work.

Mean and clean

E46 M3
The size difference here is apparent.

In fairness the E36, though good-looking, was really very pedestrian on the outside. To combat this, M gave the E46 some flair.

Quad tail pipes on an M3? Started here. Ditto the side gills. The power dome in the hood. But given its in-between nature, this is also the last M3 to get fog lights, single-wing side mirrors, and door guards.

E46 M3
Side gills started here.
E46 M3
Quad tail pipes too.

I think a regular E46 looks a bit dated at this point, especially the post-LCI versions. This car’s wider stance and squat appearance give it more juice, and you don’t notice how small it is until you park it next to a modern 2 Series. Yes, it’s smaller than even an M240i.

Does it look better in Phoenix Yellow or Interlagos Blue? Maybe.

The BMW E46 M3 is as good as cars get

E46 M3

I like the S65 V-8 better. I like the F80’s looks more. And I like the lightness of an E36 when the roads get twisty.

But we know car design is about compromise. Give and take. Modern cars are technically better, but it’s not hard to argue that they’ve lost something along the way.

So we’re left with this M3 as the one to worship. Now let’s be reasonable – you should not be purchasing one for $92,000. It’s not that kind of experience, like a GT4 might be. It doesn’t have the rawness – that visceral experience that the very best sports cars have.

E46 M3

But a GT4 is also much more focused than this E46. And least we forget that this car is approaching 20 years of service. It remains a remarkable achievement, and it’s one you should consider picking up at a reasonable price if you’re an M3 fan.

We have only pictures and memories to relive our past. But hop into an E46 M3, and you’ll be able to experience how good things were in real time.

Better get the holy water ready.

E46 M3
E46 M3

2004 BMW M3 Coupe Specifications

Vehicle Type: Front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 2-door coupe

PRICE

Base: $46,000

POWERTRAIN

3.2-liter naturally aspirated inline-six
333 hp @ 7,900 rpm
262 lb-ft @ 4,900 rpm
Six-speed manual

DIMENSIONS

Wheelbase: 107.5 in
Length: 176.9 in
Width: 70.1 in
Height: 54.0 in
Curb Weight: 3,450 lbs

EPA FUEL ECONOMY

Combined/city/highway: 13/28/20 MPG

Want your car reviewed?

If you live in the tri-state area and want me to check it out, send me an email! 

Support the cause

Commissions may be received for product links on this site. Help out if you can.

I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

4 thoughts on “Is the E46 M3 a holy experience?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *