Living up to the hype: The BMW E46 M3

Featuring a redline of 8,000 rpm, the U.S. spec E46 M3 had a peak horsepower of 333 hp and peak torque of 262 lb-ft; weighing roughly 3,400 lbs depending on the specific options on the car. All of these numbers add up to a 0-60 of 4.8 seconds and a top speed of 170 mph when the speed governor is removed. // Photos and text by Nathan Christian

The BMW E46 M3 is one the most respected and sought-after modern performance cars of all time. Having recently done a review on the E46 330ci ZHP, I figured it was time to add the E46 M3 review to accompany it. The 2003.5 E46 M3 I had for the day is owned by my long time friend, Jake, who has previously owned one other E46 M3 which was equipped with the Competition Package (ZCP) and SMG II transmission. I had driven that car in the past but never posted a review about it, so throughout this review I'll add some insight about the Competition Package and SMG II transmission.

The particular M3 I had for the day was an Imola Red 2003.5 M3 with the full Dinan S package and a six-speed manual transmission where you can row your own gears, no SMG here!

The E46 M3 is powered by a 3.2-liter inline-6 (S54). The S54 featured 6 independent throttle bodies and a redline of 8,000 rpm. The U.S. spec E46 M3 had a peak horsepower of 333 hp and peak torque of 262 lb-ft. The E46 M3 weighed roughly 3,400 lbs depending on the specific options on the car. All of these numbers add up to a 0-60 of 4.8 seconds and a top speed of 170mph when the speed governor is removed. With all of that said, this is a Dinan S tuned M3, so some of these performance figures may be slightly off. This car is dangerously smooth and easy to drive at speed. Like most performance BMW’s, this car warps speed and has the ability to make 80 mph feel like 40 mph.

How does the M3 stack up against its little brother, the 330ci ZHP? Overall the two cars are very similar, but as you’d imagine, the M3 packs a much harder punch when you dig into the throttle. Handling characteristics felt comparable between the two cars, but both had modified suspension systems. The shifts in both cars were precise and the clutch feel was nearly identical. For the enthusiast on a tighter budget who has always wanted an E46 M3, the 330ci ZHP is a great alternative for a fraction of the price.

How does the standard manual transmission stack up against the optional SMG II transmission? In all honesty, I liked both. I’m a firm believer in having three pedals, but the SMG transmission was surprisingly fun and involving. I think that I also wanted to root for the underdog here. The SMG gets an astonishing amount of hate, mostly from people who haven’t even driven one. The other portions of “haters” are those who have incorrectly driven an SMG transmission car.

To make it as simple to explain as possible, when you shift a SMG car, you need to lift off the throttle like you would in a car with a clutch pedal. This allows the car to transition to the next gear as smooth as it possibly can. Most people who complain about the SMG are complaining about how rough and jerky it is, because they’re shifting with their throttle still planted to the floor. I’m not trying to go into a never ending rant here, I just want people to give these earlier SMG cars a chance, without counting them out based off what they read on the internet or heard from a friend. Another thing to note about the SMG transmission is that it is a single-clutch transmission and should not be compared to dual-clutch transmissions like VW’s DSG. So how’s the standard manual transmission drive? It’s like a normal BMW with a stick shift. There’s nothing crazy or exciting about it. Shifts are short and precise with little slop. No complaints.

Comparing the Competition Package (ZCP) to the standard M3, the Competition Package gives you cross-drilled brake rotors, A tighter steering ratio of 14.5:1, M Track Mode for the Dynamic Stability Control, 19” BBS manufactured wheels, and an alcantara wrapped steering wheel with the deletion of cruise control. Though I can say that I could feel a difference between the steering ratios, that’s really as far as the driving differences separated these cars on the public roads. In the long run, I’d imagine not having cruise control in the Competition Package car could be inconvenient at times.

On the exterior, this Imola Red E46 M3 is sporting some wheels from a later model year Competition Package M3, Eibach lowering springs (soon to be on Fortune Auto coilovers), and a Dinan badge on the trunk to let everyone around you know it’s not a stock M3. The simplicity of the E46 is what makes it such a timeless car, I mean just look at that side profile!

On the interior, Jake’s M3 has “M” stitching on the steering wheel, shift boot, and handbrake boot. The seats are classic black leather with the easily recognizable “M” logo imprinted into the headrests. The dashboard is very simple and easy to read at speed. Although the simplicity is nice, the interior is where the E46 M3 shows its age in this time where cars contain entertainment systems that are as advanced as your smartphone is.

Overall, the M3 is everything that everyone says it is. Refined, fast, and timeless are just a few words I can use to describe it. The market for these cars is holding steady with nice examples with a clutch pedal fetching well over $20,000 USD on a bad day. The “tax” on these E46 M3’s is almost as bad as the “tax” for a 240SX or AE86, except that the E46 M3 came out of the box with the performance to match the name. And, these early 2000’s BMW’s have aged extremely well. It’s a truly amazing machine that will be recognized for decades to come.

Nathan Christian lives in Lee's Summit, MO and enjoys daily driving his Laguna Blue Honda S2000. Check out his Instagram account (@speedenthusiasts) to view more of his work.

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