I bought my BMW E46 M3 in May 2021 with the following spec in mind: Coupe, Laguna Seca Blue (LSB) on Cinnamon interior, 6-speed manual, big 3 (rod bearings, subframe reinforcement and VANOS) addressed and light mods preferred. Luckily after less than a month of searching I found just that. This E46 M3 had 124,000 on it when I got it and it has about 136k on it now. It’s pretty close to stock with the notable mods (all of which I added) being Ohlins R&T coilovers, Apex ARC8 wheels, PS4S tires, auto solutions shifter, CSL trunk and Cinnamon Recaro Sportsters.
Seating position and driver inputs
I start with this because it’s where the E46 M3 was lacking most for me. The car came with an eBay shifter that was terrible but every stock BMW shifter I’ve felt has been just as bad so I knew that would need to be replaced. Auto Solutions has a strong name in the BMW world and it’s easy to understand why. Putting the shifter in was a vast improvement over stock/what was in the car but it as a comparison point it doesn’t feel as good as any T56 I’ve driven. Still a change that’s well worth it.
Next up are the seats and seating position which I hated. The stock seats offer less lateral support than they look like they would and they were just plain uncomfortable. Several passengers agreed. They also sat way too high. I’m tall (6’5) and headroom was an issue. Lower seats with more bolstering was needed. Enter color matched Recaros which are flat out fantastic and on Recaro brackets they offer way more headroom than stock and really get you down in the car.
I bring all that up to say that now the car feels great but it took some pricey mods to fix fundamentals that I frankly expected to be better for a car that’s so highly regarded by enthusiasts.
Some other related points: the steering is well weighted (not too heavy but not too light) and communicative enough. The gauges and 3-spoke steering wheel are fantastic pieces of functional design and I love the amount of glass the car has and the great sightlines that provides.
Stock power on the car is enough but it’s not impressive compared to even a modern BMW M340i. Despite that, it’s fast enough for most backroads. The clutch engagement feels good and has a nice weight to it. It doesn’t sound like much but a CSL intake would really change the game. In my opinion, the sound from these cars should come from the intake rather than the exhaust. My biggest gripe with the car is it doesn’t feel like it wants to rev. You need to give it a big boot on downshifts and the engine braking is heavy. I assume the car has a stock clutch in it but can’t be sure. A lightweight flywheel is certainly tempting but the common rattle they have would be unacceptable.
This is where the BMW E46 M3 shines for me. It’s simply a stunner, especially in Laguna Seca Blue. The exterior and interior are master classes in restraint. The proportions are classic. This is a car that’s going to look good 40 years from now.
Reliability and maintenance
I’ve heard it said that every E46 M3 needs $10,000 worth of something and that was certainly true for me. While the car looked really nice and presented well, the entire rear suspension was shot (as well as most of the front), various little cosmetic bits were showing their age and I didn’t know when the last valve adjustment had been completed. This doesn’t seem like $10,000 worth of stuff, and it was less than that, but you get the idea. And this is on a car that had the rear subframe and rod bearings addressed. Since I’ve had it it’s also gotten a new fuel pump and fresh filters and fluids all around. If you can’t afford the car +20% more for catch up maintenance in the first year, an E46 M3 (or any used M car) probably isn’t the car for you.
I absolutely love the car as it sits. It’s less visceral to drive than a lot of other enthusiast stuff and as someone’s only fun car it would probably feel dull but it’s the perfect road trip enthusiast car. I live far from good backroads so it’s a great choice for a 5-hour drive out to nowhere and back.
It’s got the looks and that motor is silky smooth. If you have the itch for something mature with an engine, gearbox, suspension and chassis that are in perfect balance, you’ll love an E46 M3. Budget appropriately and plan on some (IMO necessary) mods to improve the experience and you’ll have a great time.