Review BMW E46 M3; Their Star Is On The Rise

“Owning a BMW M car is a dream for many, a reality for Lee Hazelden who shares with us his   experience of E46 M3 ownership in this, the model’s 20th year… These cars are currently undervalued, but their star is on the rise” 

Review BMW E46 M3 Their Star Is On The RiseThe story of the much-coveted BMW M3 can be traced all the way back to 1986 with the advent of   the E30 M3. In 1992 the E36 M3 arrived, while the E46 M3 followed, appearing in our lives at the very beginning of the new millennium. The E46 – the third-generation M3 – would continue production until 2006, in total BMW sold 85,000 examples of the model making it the most successful M car to date. Thanks to its lightweight nature (aluminium was heavily employed to reduce weight) and smooth, high-revving 343hp in-line six-cylinder engine, fans drew parallels between the E46 and its forefather – the E30 M3. Its mill was crowned ‘Engine of the Year’, the car’s noteworthy performance credentials were largely thanks to that freshly reworked 3.2-litre S54B32 double-VANOS (variable cam timing) engine – it revved to 8000rpm and developed a usable 269lb ft torque.

Wholly identifiable as a true M car, the E46 M3 boasted a number of stylish features; those wide arches, deep skirts and a unique front apron. While visually arresting, these features were also functional, for example the front end design assisting with engine breathing and aerodynamics. One slightly less revered yet equally important aspect was that it was this generation of M3 which debuted BMW M’s controversial SMG automatic transmission, for many far less preferred over the manual six-speed Getrag gearbox.

In 2003 came a facelift – a case of evolution not revolution as BMW acted cautiously so as not to upset the apple cart following the earlier version’s warm reception. Among the minor upgrades which differentiate the two came revised rear light clusters – now boasting bright LED technology.

It’s no lie to say that the M3 – initially intended as a pure homologation special designed to allow BMW to win Touring Car races – has very much grown its role over the years, today largely defining the BMW sports car. A sub five-second 0-62mph time and a new rear differential setup provided highly impressive handling, the model won What Car? ‘Performance Car of the Year’ in 2001, and ‘Coupé of the Year’ for a staggering four years running too. This was a performance car that could be used everyday and for that it won critical acclaim at the time, praise it has retained in modern times where it could be described as the last of the analogue M3s.

Alongside that reputation for stunning performance and an involving drive, the E46 M3 has become an extremely attractive proposition as a driver’s car, and for those searching for a vehicle that will hold – or better still increase in – value, it’s now a very wise investment. Owners today can typically be divided into two camps, those who simply want to use and exploit the performance aspect of the E46 – those less concerned with future values, and those wishing to own an example primarily to watch it accrue value. However, there is the odd enthusiast who walks the fine line between those two opposing worlds – Lee Hazelden is one such owner.

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At 20-years of age, East Sussex-based Lee might not be your typical E46 M3 owner. While the professional body shop panel beater and mechanic works on contemporary and classic cars on a daily basis, today he’s committed to driving a modern classic BMW.

“I was born into a car family, my dad has owned various cars from a Jaguar XJ coupé to classic Minis and various self-built kit cars – including a 7.0-litre twin-turbo Cobra,” Lee explains. “I first started out with a 1989 Austin Metro – which the current owner now shows. When the time was right I moved into BMWs. After much searching I finally a well-maintained facelift 2004 E46 318i Sport saloon,” we’re told.

“Having quickly developed a taste for the marque I moved onto a 2007 E92 320i M Sport, meanwhile my dad bought an E92 325i Highline M Sport – he then stepped up to an E92 LCI 330i Individual M Sport – I knew I needed to up my game!” Lee laughed.

Having entered a game of ‘BMW oneupmanship’ with his father, Lee wheeled out the big guns as he decided to take the plunge into ownership of what he terms ‘a real M car’. Much searching for the right vehicle ensued before Lee chanced upon his current M3 – the facelift 2003 E46 that you see here. Resplendent in Phoenix Yellow with a Kiwi leather interior (as seen in BMW’s launch brochure for the model), the exceptionally clean, low mileage manual example every much floated Lee’s boat.

“The car’s unusual color combination, rarity and condition drew me to it,” Lee explained.
“The car was in extremely good condition and well maintained when I bought it.” The factory-fitted aspects of this specific car are bang on the money – the non-sunroof model boasts the sought-after manual gearbox, its body is shot in that striking Phoenix Yellow (code 445) hue, all set off by 19-inch style 67 diamond cut wheels. Inside comes an upgraded factory hi-fi, Professional satellite navigation, the so desired optional aluminium trim, Bluetooth and Television. And, leading the completely unobtrusive “OEM+” aftermarket upgrades is a Cobra stainless steel exhaust system.

The ownership experience of this 61,000-mile M3 has exceeded all of Lee’s expectations, with no reliability issues cropping up to date, he carries out any upgrades and maintenance himself, however scheduled servicing work is undertaken by his local BMW specialist, Munich Legends. Lee considers his car not just a “future classic”, but a current one, it being the “last of the naturally aspirated straight-six BMWs”.
“In my opinion these cars are currently undervalued, but their star is defiantly on the rise,” Lee explained. What, we quiz, are his favorite aspects of the model? “It’s the feeling of being in a special place, with the sense you are in control if push comes to shove,” we’re told. “Having attended the Munich Legends’ ‘Legends In The Fall’ meet last year, and other car events, the only reaction to the car has been totally positive,” he said.

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While we can see that Lee’s experience has been epic to date, does he foresee this remaining his one and only BMW going forward, kept in his custodianship for decades to come? Lee has a short and sweet answer for us: “This is defiantly a keeper. But may take on an E92 M3 too…”

Undoubtedly this is one 20-year old BMW M car enthusiast with impeccably good taste, and interestingly a chap who wishes to care properly for his E46 M3 and use it as BMW first intended. What started out as a lighthearted competition with his dad – himself a BMW enthusiast – has seen Lee get behind the wheel of a highly respected M3, one that will be forever remembered as one of the finest versions, no matter what arrives in years to come to add color to the model’s amazing hierarchy. As we celebrate two decades since the E46 M3 was first launched, the model moves into unquestionable ‘modern classic’ territory, further widening its appeal. Not immune from challenging ownership experiences with word of big bills, Lee’s car is proof that it is possible not only to have a smooth and enjoyable relationship with the E46 M3, but to run one on a daily basis too, despite its advancing years.

E46 M3 Coupé Specification
ENGINE: In-line six-cylinder, DOHC, 24-valve. CAPACITY: 3246cc. MAX POWER: 343hp @ 7900rpm. MAX TORQUE: 269lb ft @ 4900rpm. 0-62MPH: 5.2-seconds. TOP SPEED: 155mph. ECONOMY: 22mpg. WEIGHT : 1570kg. STEERING: Rack and pinion, power-assisted. TRANSMISSION: Six-speed manual/SMG. PRODUCED (RHD): Feb 2001 – May 2006. HOW MANY? (RHD): 12,510. HOW MUCH? (NEW): $49.068 (2001)

What We Said:
What did we think of the E46 M3 during its production run?

“On well surfaced A-roads at the level that most of us mere mortals operate, the E46 just grips. It’s resolutely tenacious and you’re not going to regularly go beyond those limits on the public road. As you’d expect from BMW’s technological tour de force, there are plenty of electronic and mechanical aids to keep you out of the scenery – CBC, DSC and BMW’s new trick M Diff are all standard. The DSC has been specially programmed for the M3, allowing for a little bit more fun to be had before it spoils the party, and in conjunction with that diff you can rely on the rear end of the car to do what you want it to do.

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“Push too hard and the back end will creep out and as the DSC tell-tale light starts to flash you can feel it searching for grip, with the diff sending the power to the wheel with the most. It flatters even the most ham-fisted of drivers, and I never once felt I’d got things so wrong that it was all going to end in tears.

“If I had to put my finger on the one area where BMW has made the greatest gains it is in the steering. Where the E36 feels dull and lifeless, the new car has terrific feel and I instinctively know what the front wheels are doing. It feels almost go-kart sharp in its response to the tiniest input with the more direct rack that’s fitted to the M3 being an absolute joy.

“Not only is the steering a lot sharper, but the safe understeering nature of the E46’s chassis has been given back its balls, to the point that on a dry road it’s the back that will deviate from the chosen line before the spectre of plough-on understeer even thinks about getting out of bed. “E30 fans looking for the suppleness of the original M3 may be a little disappointed, though, as the E46 M3 is a much harder and stiffer prospect. Midcorner imperfections can cause all the electro trickery to go into hyperdrive for a few milli-seconds as it sorts things out while I’m sitting there taking all the credit.

It’s also not the best-riding BMW by a long chalk – you wouldn’t expect it to be – but it’s not at its best on particularly poor stretches of B-road, particularly if you’re not trying hard when it feels very nuggety.

However, the faster you go the better it gets, providing well damped control at speeds I’m not going to admit to here. Yet, don’t let any lingering worries over the ride give you too much of a cause for concern, as the M3’s extraordinary abilities more than make up for its slightly jiggly nature…”

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