"VANOS kicked in, yo!", "Cracking subframe, mate!" and "Ugh, you’re now a typical BMW driver" are three phrases I’ve come to love since I made the decision to buy a 2004 BMW E46 M3 three months ago. Arguably the best M3 ever built, I’ve yearned for one of these machines since I saw a Laguna Seca Blue M3 advert in an old magazine, and this year, I finally decided to find out what all the fuss was about.
Here are seven things I learned by buying my first proper RWD car:
1. Have a game plan, and stick to it
E46 M3s come in all sorts of weird and wonderful flavours. From pre-facelift ‘03 manuals, to Laguna Seca SMG II track weapons, to ‘CSL-wannabe’ coupes, the good news is that if you want an E46 M3 you’re not going to struggle to find one. The difficulty is in choosing a car that appeals to you, that’s reflective of your own tastes, and which isn’t destined for the local scrap yard!
Before I started browsing cars to buy, I made a short checklist of must have things in my dream car:
- Coupe not convertible
- Post-facelift model
- Manual gearbox (more on that below)
- Full service history with Inspection I and Inspection IIs done at the required intervals
- Overall decent condition that wouldn’t require too much immediate work
I also had a list of things which were important but not deal-breakers including silver-grey paint, nav, parking sensors, the optional Harman Kardon sound system, adaptive Xenons and ideally a car with under 100,000 miles on the clock.
After setting myself a maximum budget of £10,000 - which I was told after consulting M3 friends and previous owners would be more than enough to find a not-too-shabby car - I took to the usual car selling and buying sites in the UK: AutoTrader, PistonHeads and the specialist forum M3Cutters.
The car I ended up buying, a 2004 manual E46 M3 coupe, was found after a month or so of hard searching, calls to private owners and even a visit to British E46 M3 expert and drifting tutor Nick Johnson who unfortunately didn’t have a manual available, and who wasn’t able to convince me to go for broke and buy a £30,000 CSL.
2. Manual vs SMG. There’s no right answer
If you were just a casual E46 M3 forum lurker, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s an all-out war between manual and SMG owners. On one hand, you have the Sequential Manual Gearbox fans who’ll tell you that there’s a reason why SMGs were the only transmission option on CSLs. And on the other, you have the manual diehards who’ll tell you that real petrolheads shift using their left leg, and that you’ll need to remortgage your house to pay for the inevitable SMG hydraulic fuel pump failure.
What I’ve found over the last few months is that there is no right answer.
If you’re the type of person who wants to regularly track your M3, who can’t stand the thought of making every day leg day in London traffic, and who’s smart enough to realise you still own a manual (albeit one where the clutch is electro-hydraulically activated via a pump), then SMG II (and perhaps not the earlier first version) is the way to go.
I tried an SMG gearbox twice. The first was a quick blat in my friend Jon Benson’s car (featured on our YouTube channel), and the second was a longer test at Nick Johnson’s place in Oxford. I found the SMG to be a tad jerkier on upshifts (probably a case of me needing more time to practise) but impressive in the most aggressive S6 mode.
If you’re the type of person who prefers the process of shifting and who wants to master heel-and-toe, however, then the 6-speed manual is the car for you. I decided that I wanted to be that guy. So far, I’ve enjoyed every single moment of being a manual owner and whilst I’m sure installing the CSL rev-matching software update in an SMG makes for a clean match every time, there’s nothing more satisfying than nailing one with your own hands and feet.
3. Fear the dreaded subframe crack
If there’s one joke I hear over and over again at the Car Throttle offices, it’s whether I’ve finally found the crack in my M3’s rear subframe. Sometimes it’s a little more subtle, and someone will exclaim that they’re having a "cracking day!". Either way, I now understand why ‘subframe’ is the most dreaded word for any E46 M3 owner.
Subframes usually crack around the mounting point for the rear suspension on the left-hand side of the car; this is because the rear suspension design is such that the constant loading and unloading of stresses under and off power are focused to this particular area. And it’s an E36 problem just as much as it is for the E46.
Cars that have under 100,000 miles on the odometer or that are under 10 years old can have subframes covered under BMW warranty. Unfortunately for me, my car was a 2004-registered model with 114,000 miles on the clock at purchase.
To give myself as much peace of mind as I possibly could, especially given that I’m no expert mechanic, I made sure to read up on ‘subframe checks’ before I went to view the car. I made sure to check for tell-tale signs on the boot floor, underneath the car with a torch, and went deep on the Service Booklet to make sure the car had been well taken care of with Inspections. The car has not had the subframe resin-reinforced, but I knew that before I went to view it, and it was a risk I was prepared to take. Only time will tell if it was the right decision.
4. Don’t be afraid to check everything during your test drive
This is an obvious tip, but a point which can be ignored in the rush and excitement when viewing a car. I drove 25 miles to meet my dealer, and after ten minutes or so of chit-chat, I decided to look for as many possible issues as I could. I pressed every button, turned every knob, moved every electric seat, and barring uncovering a few issues (blown fuse in the right speaker, some interior loose trim, cracking on the driver’s bolster) I decided I was happy with the interior. I then checked oil levels before and after starting the car, checked for steady idling and then headed out for a test drive.
The E46 M3 has a 3.2-litre inline-six engine rated at 338bhp. Given that I had been driving a Peugeot RCZ R as a long-term test car during the preceding months, the BMW felt remarkably quick and decidedly more raw given its age. Again, on the route I was constantly listening out for any knocks, bangs or otherwise out-of-place noises that would signify an issue, and once the engine had thoroughly warmed up, I made sure to do a few 20mph to 60mph accelerations (warning the dealer in advance, obviously).
5. Know what modifications you want to make, but don’t rush it
Once you’ve spent any sum of money on a car, it’s tempting to compile a crack list of ‘must-have’ modifications to turn your sedate coupe into a street-eating monster. I should know, because I made one myself.
My initial shopping list included CSL replica alloys, Euro exhaust tips, CSL rear boot lip, 10mm spacers front, 12mm spacers rear, KW V3 coilovers and a Stage 2 tune and carbon airbox. The total for this random assortment of modifications? An eye-watering £4500.
Of course, adding these to a stock M3 wouldn’t have made any sense. First, I quickly decided that I didn’t necessarily want to turn my E46 into a CSL-wannabe, and I’ve come to love my 19" diamond-cut alloys. Second, there are basics which need to be tended to before trying to squeeze out a few more horses from the straight-six unit - giving the car a good clean (thanks to Zenith Detailing for fixing my paint chips, cleaning my engine bay and for the beautiful detail), changing bushes on the control arms, changing brake pads and tyres…You get the idea.
In my opinion, getting the car back to stock condition before whacking on mods is the right thing to do, if only to give you the solid foundations you’ll need to build on.
6. Be prepared for many, many things to go wrong
If you buy an E46 M3, the first thing you need to understand is that you’re buying a 10-year-old car at the very least. That means it’s likely to have been around the block a few times with the mileage to show for it.
The first issue I ran into was the car not starting one morning. Initially, I was worried that it could be the alternator, but after calling out the AA, I was informed that the battery wasn’t accepting charge. A trip to Euro Car Parts and a spanner later, I fitted my battery and haven’t had any issues with starts since.
The second problem was the dreaded EML (Engine Management Light) appearing. This was even more worrying than the first, but fortunately I have a friend with a code reader who cleared all codes and suspected it to be a lambda sensor failure.
The reason I bought this car was to get my hands dirty and start to pick up mechanical knowledge. The internet is your friend and chances are if you have an issue, someone has had the same frustrating, head-banging moment before…
I now find myself perking up my ears whenever I hear an unfamiliar sound from upfront (VANOS kicked in, yo!) or a knock from the back, such is E46 M3 life.
7. E46 M3 ownership is one of life’s greatest joys
This list wouldn’t be complete without talking about the most important aspect of E46 M3 ownership; the driving experience. And my word, what an experience it is.
Fire her up and you’re greeted by a thrum and rasp only a straight-six can muster. When the car is cold, you feel every single shift, you feel the differential, and you feel the road through the wheel. It’s this directness which I love and which modern cars do an unfortunately fantastic job of hiding.
Once the car is warm, the orange shift lights move around the dial to 7900rpm, and that’s when you realise you’ve bought a performance vehicle. The M3 builds speed linearly as you’d expect being naturally aspirated, and that encourages you to accelerate to redline in every gear. This is a fast car, taking 4.8 seconds to hit 60mph (5.2sec for the convertible). The soundtrack, even with a stock exhaust setup like mine, is utterly encapsulating, filling your ears with what can only be described as an aural symphony.
And like any great rear-wheel drive vehicle, the M3 likes to step out predictably when you disengage the traction control. I’m no drifting expert, but I feel like every month I’m improving as a driver, learning new things about the car and finding new limits to its grip.
Whilst M3 ownership can be costly, and can be the source of mighty rage when things go wrong, it’s worth it when you can line the car up on your favourite B-road where it’ll put an almighty grin on your face.
Now go on and call me a stereotypical BMW driver…