A true everyday supercar, the third generation of BMW’s M3 is a stunning thing to own – as long as you find a good one. We’ll show you how
How much to pay
• Project £8,000-10,000 • Good £12,000-15,000 • Concours £16,000-20,000 •
Running cost ★★★
DIY friendly ★★★
The third iteration of the flagship BMW 3 Series, the M3 E46 was the first to genuinely blend everyday practicality with supercar performance.
The first-generation M3 was a homologation special, designed and built to allow the brand to go racing in touring cars, where it was incredibly successful. Then, the second-generation model was built on the E36 platform. It was the first of the new, coupé-style body shapes, but still a curious mix of the angular lines of the E30 before and the E46 that would follow. Many felt it somewhat lacked the character of its predecessor, but it did replace the four-pot with the first straight-six.
However, it was with the introduction of the E46 in 2000 that the M3 was back – and it returned with a vengeance. It got the all-new 3.2-litre straight-six with variable valve timing on both camshafts, and a monstrous 343bhp at 7900rpm. It was available in both coupé and convertible form, and the trademark staggered wheels sat beautifully under the smoother and perfectly proportioned flared arches.
For many this is the purest M3, with its big engine, rear-wheel drive, decent transmission (if you avoid the troublesome early SMG) and just enough electronics to keep everything under control if you want an easy life. Leave all the aids on, and you can happily pootle down to the shops, go for a grand tour or get your pulse racing on a fast, flowing A-road. Turn it all off, if you’re feeling brave or on a track day, and you better be on your A-game. This car becomes lively very easily, and when it all gets out of shape, it does so quickly. But you’ll still be wearing a huge grin…
Your AutoClassics BMW M3 E46 inspection checklist
A decent service history is vital – and in particular, the early, 1200-mile running-in service. This was essential to remove the preparatory running-in oil that BMW supplied the car with from the factory. It must have been removed at 1200 miles and replaced with proper oil.
The VANOS variable valve-timing system can give all sorts of issues, so it pays to be on the lookout. A familiar check for those in the know is to listen for the sound of a marble in a tin can from the top end of the engine; this can indicate wear in the VANOS pump, and possible failure. That’s expensive.
Another possible issue is the retaining bolts for the cam gears coming loose. This is not something you’re likely to be able to check when looking at a potential purchase, but budget to have them replaced with more reliable versions as a matter of course if it hasn’t already been done.
If the car goes into ‘limp mode’, this can also potentially indicate big problems with the system. These can be issues with the VANOS solenoid, or a possible complete system failure, which is a very large problem. Check for any engine-warning lights and, if possible and the seller doesn’t mind, any stored fault codes. You may be lucky with a Bluetooth adapter in the OBD port and a phone app, but it’s safer with a proper code reader.
Cars built from 2001-2003 may have been the subject of a recall for problems with big-end bearings. Check to see whether any models you are looking at was subject to that recall and, if so, ensure the work was carried out. If not, engine failure could be the end of the game.
Gearbox and drivetrain
There are two version of transmission for the E46 M3, both based on a manual six-speed gearbox. The first is a traditional manual operation with a fairly heavy clutch pedal. Check to see when the clutch was last changed to get a handle on its likely life expectancy – they have a hard time.
The second is a clutchless version of the same gearbox, meaning a manual trans but with no clutch pedal. Shifts are initiated by a lever or steering wheel-mounted paddles.
The first version of the SMG gearbox – known as SMGI – is widely regarded as a bit of a disaster. There were issues with virtually every aspect – hydraulic-pump failures, drive-band failures… almost everything. However, the second-generation SMGII was far more reliable. Check any potential buy’s system for smooth and fast gearchanges, and try to test it in every mode, including the most aggressive – you might need to be a little persuasive here.
The limited-slip differential can be a little noisy, but uprated oil can help cure this. The unit can also be a little clunky on drive take-up, the result of worn or broken-up mounting bushes in the diff back plate. The remedy is a replacement back plate with an oil change.
Suspension and brakes
Another, somewhat more worrying source of clunking from the rear can be cracking of the subframe, or the body where it mounts. This is again the result of repeated on/off drivetrain stresses, and is usually, although not always, found on the left-hand side of the subframe where it mounts to the bodyshell.
The official BMW repair – for young-enough cars – was to replace the failed metalwork and inject strengthening foam. The independent option is to remove the subframe and repair it and the bodyshell with reinforcing plates. The consensus has it that pretty much every M3 is likely to suffer this somewhere along the line.
Brakes are not quite as well specced as the rest of the car, and if you push them hard they won’t last particularly well. If track days or serious driving are likely to be in your future, then a harder material will help stretch the change intervals and give you braking to match the acceleration.
Tyre Pressure Monitoring systems are based on wheel speeds and not actual pressure, and these can throw up spurious warnings on the dashboard. If all pressures are fine (on a proper gauge) then firstly check there are no brake issues (seized calipers can cause a problem) then reset the warning light from inside the car. This should solve the issue.
Broken rear springs can be another common problem, giving rise to differences in ride heights and all sorts of handling woes and noises. Something else that can affect ride height across the car (from personal experience) is if the back dampers have been replaced. The mounting fittings may have been put back in the wrong order, meaning one side sits slightly lower than the other.
Expect a convertible to inevitably have more scuttle shake than a coupé and to be louder, even with the roof up. However, with the soft-top down on a nice day, it’s a remarkably pleasant place to be. Make sure the roof goes down and up smoothly, and that the material is in reasonable shape.
As you would anyway, a good check around the bodywork for evidence of accident damage is essential – especially on the rear, which is likely to be the end that goes off the road first. Look for cracking in the plastic bumpers, overspray underneath panels, different-coloured paint and odd panel gaps.
Wheels can suffer from failed lacquer, with moisture getting underneath and causing corrosion. Check any rims that look like they have just been refurbished, to make sure it’s a proper job.
The bracket for the headlamp self-levelling adjusters can corrode and cause the levelling to fail, but this is a straightforward fix.
On the convertible in particular, check for any wet patches that could indicate the roof isn’t sealing properly. Ensure that the windows, which auto-down slightly when the top is going up, close properly after the mechanism finally seats.
Make sure that all the electrics work – there is a lot going on inside, so check climate and cruise controls, and that the stereo is working. Also listen to all the speakers – older cars can suffer from one or more speakers cutting out through age or perished wiring.
The standard alarm can be temperamental, going off for no reason. Locking the car with the key in the door or a second press of the key fob to disable the interior sensors can prevent this, but it leaves the car vulnerable. Some point to a faulty bonnet switch as the culprit.
- 2000: E46 BMW M3 launched.
- 2001: V8 M3 GTR homologation special launched. Six cars sold.
- 2004: M3 CSL lightweight special launched.
- 2005: M3 CS competition special launched.
- 2007: E90 M3 launched.
The E46 M3 is a simply staggering car. It is capable of the kind of practicality you’d expect from a diesel oil-burner for lugging children or luggage. Yet it also offers performance that far outweighs the promise of the already-aggressive exterior.
The sound from the individual throttle bodies is pure music, and the acceleration is outrageous. First and second gear are interesting, but it is third where things start to get serious. With a near-8000rpm red line, this ratio can make your licence a distant memory before you even compute that you’re well into three figures. It is that fast and that capable. You really do need to keep an eye on the speedo.
Watch out for the fuel gauge, too; it moves almost as fast, but in the opposite direction…
Picture courtesy of BW Media UK
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