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Neighborhood Terror: Is the E46 the best M3?

I hop in a BMW E46 M3 for a shoot and to see why it's considered the best M3 of all-time. But do I think it is?

E46 M3
BMW E46 M3

I missed the E46 boat. Too young to purchase one new, I hopped on the BMW train with the E92 and haven’t looked back (mostly). But when I hear about sublime steering response, nimble handle, a motor from the heavens and typical M3 comfort, I couldn’t help but wonder how true it is. Does it stack up to today’s M3? I grab a 2001 Phoenix Yellow one and find out.

The styling of the E46 M3

This car has aged much better than the E36 it replaced. It maintains typical BMW proportions and with an overall modern look.

But I’m not convinced this is the best-looking one. Think of the overwrought styling of the G80 – many of those styling queues can be traced back to this car. Side vents, quad tail pipes, fender flairs…it all showed up for the first time on this generation. A lot of what defines how an “M3” looks starts here, good or bad.

BMW E46 M3
I’d call it a purposeful look.
BMW E46 M3
Quad pipes started here for the M3.
BMW E46 M3
Phoenix Yellow is a beautiful color to shoot, espcially in the fall.

The S54 is an average M motor

This engine was amazing when the car came out, but M already knew they were pushing it. Since the 6-cylinder was becoming uncompetitive, BMW M came out with the V-8 for the GTR to race with (unrelated to the S65), and the rest is history. The S65 that replaced the S54 is lighter, more powerful, and better-sounding.

The power band mimics a Honda (VTEC just kicked in yo!), but that helps make the E46 a lot of fun. Coming from the G80, the lack of torque is apparent, but the E46 is the M3 suited most for the street.

Still, speed counts for something, and I think the S65-powered M3 provides more theater here.

BMW E46 M3
It’s not slow by any means, and you can enjoy the S54 on back roads even revving it out.
BMW E46 M3
Real gauges!

Handling matters

If this is peak M3, it’ll be because of this chassis. Compliant and comfortable, but firm enough to keep body roll to a minimum, the E46 M3 is definitely more fun to drive on the street than the F80 or G80.

It’s also much lighter than later M3s, and hydraulic-assisted power-steering give actual feedback through the wheel. You can enjoy this car at 40 mph and 140. It feels so good, even in this example with over 130,000 miles.

BMW E46 M3
Tech and road rules have added weight to the current M3. Not so with the E46.
BMW E46 M3
Steering is sublime. You feel imperfections in the road, and that makes it a talkative drive.

It’s a little rough around the edges

If the F80 is modern and rough, then the E46 M3 is its direct predecessor. The car is loud and raucous, and it clomps over bumps while newer M3s might glide over them, without losing any handling ability.

And hey, iDrive is great, and so is Bluetooth for your phone. The absence is noticeable. Still…

BMW E46 M3
It’s a little rough around the edges, but not a bad thing if you enjoy driving.

It’s almost as good as the E9X

I love this car for what it doesn’t have. A simple SPORT button adjusts throttle response, and nothing else. The shifter vibrates at idle. Road imperfections transmit through the wheel. It has no pretense of being a grand tourer, as later M cars do.  And you can exploit its full potential on the street without worrying about jail.

While you might not want to drive this car as a daily, it’s certainly capable of being your weekend warrior or track car. There’s a feel here that just doesn’t exist in the G80, and it’s all the better for it. It’s smaller size and weight make it far more toss-able, while still presenting a usable back seat.

Why do I still prefer the E9X? At the end of the day, it’s the engine, and it doesn’t give up much in every other sporty area in comparison. Both cars represent something BMW had to sell in order to meet market demand: soul.

BMW E46 M3 Mega Gallery

BMW E46 M3
Comp wheels are still the best.
BMW E46 M3 BMW E46 M3 BMW E46 M3 BMW E46 M3 BMW E46 M3
BMW E46 M3
Thanks to Kaizer for letting me tag along!
BMW E46 M3 BMW E46 M3
BMW E46 M3
Fall is a great time of year for this car.

Special thanks to Kaizer for bringing along his beautiful E46!

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