BY ANDY ENRIGHT
There aren't many sports cars that are as complete as BMW's M3, reviewed here in its 'E46' guise. This is a sports coupe that will happily undertake the weekly shop, the daily commute and a long distance holiday yet still be able to log a fearsomely rapid time around the Nurburgring. Reasonably reliable, comfortable and beautifully built, this is the car that finally wrested the title of 'everyday supercar' away from the Porsche 911. What's more, it's even something of a bargain, especially as used models are now starting to be priced well below a new hot hatch.
Models Covered: 2 Dr Coupe, 2dr cabriolet [3.2 petrol (M3, CS, CSL)]
Although the E46 3 Series Coupe debuted in 1999, it wasn't until October 2000 that BMW launched the M3 version. Buyers expecting a fast but refined model were shocked to discover that the M3 had gone back to its roots, serving up a more raw, exciting feel than its predecessor, the E36 model. It was also devastatingly rapid and suddenly made the Porsche 911 look a wilful extravagance. Sales were meteoric and the M3 was the car to be seen in for quite some time. Even today, the E46 M3 has a real cachet amongst performance drivers as a car that doesn't have to rely on image. A convertible model followed in March 2001. Offering far better chassis rigidity than the drop top norm, the convertible lost little to the coupe in terms of driveability. An SMG sequential manual option was offered for both variants in July 2001 and this proved an extremely popular choice. July 2003 saw the introduction of the M3 CSL coupe, a very expensive (£58,455 at launch) lightweight model that saw several speculators lose their shirts on when it was revealed that much of its increased capability was down to its track-biased tyres. The CSL was quietly deleted from BMW's price lists in early 2005 at much the same time that a Euro4 compatible engine was introduced into the rest of the M3 range to see it through its last couple of years of production. BMW had one final trick up their sleeve, unveiling the M3 CS, a model that was, in effect, half way between the M3 and the CSL. Fitted with a manual gearbox and offering more direct steering, 19-inch alloys, bigger brakes and many of the CSL's interior refinements, the CS was a fitting finale for this hugely popular model.
What You Get
High profile models like the latest M5 and M6 variants may well hog the limelight, but the M3 remains a tightly focused drivers' car and one of the most enjoyable options around. Part of the genius of this model is the way BMW have engineered a certain playfulness into the car without compromising on its basic competence. It really is a 'cake and eat it' sort of deal, offering a practical four seat coupe body with manageable running costs and safe handling on one hand and on the other, a sideways hooligan nature when the DSC stability control is switched off and the M-differential is working its magic. Faced with such a tempting combination, it was inevitable that some owners would want a little more and BMW served that up in the shape of the M3 CSL, a car that cut weight, added power and became something of a cult. At £58,455 a pop, however, it wasn't what one would immediately dub a conspicuous bargain. That's where the M3 CS came in. This took a few of the features of the CSL and added them to the standard M3, bringing with it just the right nod towards exclusivity to attract owners who felt the M3 was bordering on the dime a dozen. Spend any time in the Nurburgring car park on a public day and you'll appreciate in what esteem the M3 is held by serious petrolheads. You'll also have some difficulty spotting your example in a sea of lookalike metal. The CS will definitely help in that regard. All versions of the M3, even the Convertible, are relatively practical propositions with reasonable rear space and a decent sized boot.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The E46 M3 is a car that demands to be used and used hard. Therefore it's worth taking the time to know the faults that have been reported by owners. Number one is big end shell bearing failure which can mean a new engine. Although by no means commonplace, it did affect earlier cars and the giveaway is low oil pressure. Early M3 models with the SMG gearbox also suffered from total engine failures that BMW fixed free of charge. It's unlikely that your M3 will suffer such catastrophic events but there are a few other niggles that are worth keeping an eye open for. Differentials can fail if a lot of steering lock is used while parking. Airbag fault lights can illuminate sporadically for no apparent reason and front indicator clusters were occasionally screwed on so tightly at the factory that the affixing plastic panel cracked, leaving the cluster dangling from its wires. You should also check for accident damage and tyre wear on all models (especially the CSL), the Convertible for signs of hood damage and kerbing to the vulnerable 19-inch alloys.
A clutch assembly is around £275. Front brake pads are around £95, a full exhaust about £750, an alternator around £150 and a tyre around £135. A starter motor is about £145 and a headlamp is around £185.
On the Road
If one were to pick fault with the M3, the primary issue would be the car's braking performance. With 343bhp on tap, the ability to scrub off speed assumes an enhanced significance, and the brakes, whilst improved over the previous model, still fall some way short of the overall excellence of, for example, a Porsche Boxster or Honda S2000. The gearchange is not without its detractors either. The SMG semi automatic box is surprisingly competent but, for most, the standard car will be more than enough. The engine, the interior and exterior styling, the handling and the packaging are all exemplary, but perhaps the most surprising aspect of the M3 is the noise. For drivers who are used to the silky 3 Series coupes, the M3 will administer a sonic battering; the sugary 3.2-litre engine note turns into an insistent drilling right up to the 8,200rpm red line. Unlike the 'old' 321bhp unit, the new six-cylinder engine doesn't make you work to access that power, it's present and correct at every dab of the accelerator, but still avoids its predecessor's off-throttle jerkiness. Depress the 'Sport' button for even more responsive throttle reactions, seemingly hardwiring you into the car's nerve centre. For those who may feel tempted to drive hard with the Dynamic Stability Control system switched off, ponder for a moment why BMW saw fit to incorporate it in the first place. With all that power passing through those rear wheels, the rear of the car is lively in extremis if a leaden right boot is used. True, a clever differential and an excellent chassis will help to recover a wayward back end, but you'll need to be quick with your hands. The later CSL and CS models are even more fun and even the soft top loses little in the handling stakes. In short, if you can't have fun in an E46 M3, any E46 M3, there's not a lot of hope for you.
No car combines fun and practicality and relative affordability with quite the same panache as the E46 M3. It'll be remembered as one of the best sporting cars the Munich company has ever produced and the CSL will become a collectors item when it recovers from its white elephant image. A low mileage CS is probably the most satisfying of the lot but there's so much choice available that choosing might take some time.