Press "Enter" to skip to content

This site contains Ebay partner affiliate links, which may earn us a commission at no additional cost to you.

Realization of a Dream: 2003 BMW M3


To say this has been a long time coming would be an understatement. You see, a small BMW was very nearly my first car some 20 years ago. As a teenager, I had dreamed of driving behind the wheel of a Roundel through many high school classes and once out, I carefully searched for just the right car for my first foray into the Bavarian realm. I had a pretty well established background, too – having grown up with a ’82 633CSi, ’85 635CSi, M5 and 735i 5-speed in the family. But, being a teen, I was not particularly well versed nor was I actually careful about what I looked at. What came up was a somewhat green 2002tii, and without being able to drive it or knowing enough to look under it, I put a deposit on it. When a car-dealer friend of mine came along with me to pick it up, the door of the car we arrived it hadn’t fully shut before he said “Carter, walk away.” The tii was full of rot and while it probably could have been salvaged and would have made a neat car for someone, it was nowhere near my budget level. A few weeks later he turned up with a then-9 year old Audi 4000CS quattro for around the same amount at the BMW, and my two-decade love affair with the Ingolstadt firm began. But BMWs have always been in the front of my mind, and someday I promised that I’d buy one.


“The one” that I wanted was the one that quite a few people do – I really wanted an E46 model which isn’t particularly abnormal by any means. A close friend had bought a convertible around 2006 and even a few short trips behind the wheel confirmed that it was a tremendous amount of fun to drive. I had also been privileged to drive a few (and ride in even more) at the track. While certainly no race car with their 3,500 lb curb weight, the M3s nonetheless always conducted themselves with the utmost poise. I’ve driven a lot of different Audis on the track, and none of them have been naturally suited there. Sure, you can make them go really quickly but comparing most to BMWs or Porsches on track is a bit like watching a bulldog trying to race some greyhounds.

But I didn’t really want a track car. Indeed, in the past few years I’ve regretted some of the modifications I made to my Audi Coupe GT. Yes, it’s lots of fun at the track, and the raw feel of the car is great in short bursts. But for the amount of time that it spends on track these days (read: none), I wish that it was softer, more comfortable, quieter and easier to live with. So over the past several years, my wife and I have discussed getting a M3 as a nice driver to enjoy as a whole family. We looked at a tremendous amount of them and plenty of evenings were devoted to balancing color, modifications and miles. It’s become – or at the very least, is becoming – difficult to find clean, unmolested examples of E46 M3s. They hit the point where they were quite affordable to yahoos, and as with the E30 and E36 models the downward spiral began. Maintenance was forgone in the pursuit of modifications of questionable taste, and those that were really good were asking extremely high selling prices. One thing was for sure – the car had to be Phoenix Yellow Metallic, the color both my wife and I loved the most on this chassis.


We came close on a few occasions; our editor Paul looked at an extremely rare 60,000 mile 2006 ZCP 6-speed manual in Phoenix for me, but the seller was a touch high on price and I was less than excited that it featured a VF supercharger but ran the stock ECU. We were close, but it was over our budget ultimately. My wife flew out to Chicago to visit some friends, and while there looked at another. With 110,000 miles, it wasn’t in nearly as good shape. There were plenty of add-on cheap looking carbon bits, a Schnitzer-inspired spoiler and rust creeping through. That, too, was a no-go. We had spent most of our time looking for the elusive all-original manual, and though I’ve seen a few pop up, they’re a dying breed. One example kept surfacing in my searches though – on eBay several times, it was a 39,800 mile example that was all original, looked impeccable but was a SMG. Off the bat, I was not excited about the transmission, but after talking at length with my E46 owning friend, the conclusion was reached that we needed to purchase the best example possible.


I hemmed and hawed. I wanted to find something wrong. The seller had zero feedback and there was no detailed description of maintenance. The Autocheck lacked any real information. So, finally I sent him a message, and we started conversing. A reader of ours was kind enough to run the VIN through Carfax, where it came up with effectively the same info as the Autocheck – namely, little had happened. Of course, as my M3 friend pointed out, not much would have happened in 40,000 miles. I paid a BMW dealer for a PPI, which the seller was kind enough to take the car to. The results were, at first, scary as the dealer came back with $6,500 worth of work that needed to be performed. Of course, it was typical dealer BS, frankly – for example, they wanted $650 to replace the battery. After some negotiation on some potential repairs, the deal came together and I booked tickets to Baltimore to pick the car up.


I didn’t sleep much before the flight, and even pulling up to the apartment I was concerned the car wasn’t going to be as represented. Indeed, as our Uber ride pulled up to the address, there was no M3 in sight. But as we stepped out, the magical sound of the S54 sang behind us, and turning around I saw the beautiful example. The seller had bought the car in 2006, and since then had traveled a scant 10,000 miles in it. Most of the time, it just sat in a garage, and it showed. While not immaculately clean, it was clearly in top condition. Walking around the car it was hard to find fault. Under the hood was clean, the paint – while dusty and in need of a good wax – looked nearly new on every surface. Inside was only very minor wear. In fact, the only real way to tell this was a 12 year old car was that the tires were mismatched and fairly tired. But rolling down the road, it drove tightly and felt strong. The deal was done.

My friend and I then faced a 385 mile ride home. Fueled up on Panera Bread treats and adrenaline, we pointed the nose northward and the journey began. Along the way, my friend read up about the transmission and the various features. Much has been made about the SMG gearbox, but I have to say that over the entire journey it only did one thing I wasn’t expecting (which was probably my fault) and shifted wonderfully. In manual mode, it did exactly what was asked when was asked with crisp shifts. In full automatic mode, it was happy to quietly and smoothly change gears. It’s not an automatic, and you can tell – so you can’t really drive it like one and expect it to be perfect. Conversely, it’s also not a manual – but if you drive it almost as if it was an manual without a clutch pedal, it’s very smooth. Along the ride, both my friend and I marveled at the condition of the car and the upgraded features from his 2001 example. A 2003.5, it has the dynamic tail lights and a few other upgrades that were added along the production run. It has backup sensors, Harmon Kardon, power seats and sunroof, and the cold weather package. Inside, the black Nappa leather is lovely and after 9 hours of driving through not the best roads I was never once uncomfortable.


What’s the plan? Well, this is a car for my wife and I to enjoy with our son. That’s it. It’s simply gorgeous, and certainly the best example that we could afford – but maybe one of the better ones in the country. It really is in amazing condition and looks nearly new in virtually every way. Ultimately, you can deride the transmission, but it was the transmission that kept this car stock and made it affordable for me – unlike how many of the manuals come to market. The only upgrade we plan on doing is to the wheels. The shadowline Style 67s are correct, but in my eyes don’t suit the design particularly well. Planned for replacement are either the upgraded polished and forged Fuchs 19″ Style 67s or the ZCP BBS wheels with new tires. I spent several hours polishing and cleaning the car when we got home, and there are still a few spots to hit but it’s pretty clean overall. Aside from that, this spring we’ll do a full fluid flush and some preventative maintenance. Oh, and we have to go for some family drives – because that’s what this car is for!



  1. Len
    Len December 12, 2015

    Wow! Beautiful car. Congrats Carter! My all time favorite BMW color along with its vintage equivalent—Ceylon Gold. BMW broke the mold after creating the e46 coupe…
    Enjoy those rides with the family!

  2. DeaconBlues
    DeaconBlues December 12, 2015

    Congratulations! It’s a beautiful Bimmer. Thanks for the informative and enjoyable writeup.

  3. John
    John December 12, 2015

    Timeless beauty in a rare to see color. Great choice – Best of luck!

  4. cdnpaul
    cdnpaul December 12, 2015

    Congrats! I’ve always liked that color.

  5. Chris G
    Chris G December 12, 2015

    Congratulations, it looks like one helluva car! Too bad it isn’t a manual, but if you are willing to concede to the smg, then it seems perfect otherwise!

  6. Justin Credible
    Justin Credible December 12, 2015

    Nice one. Enjoy it!

  7. Early8q
    Early8q December 12, 2015

    Check that box off in bold! Well done.

  8. Maxwell Rich
    Maxwell Rich December 12, 2015

    Congrats! I’ll be looking out for you while puttering around RI

  9. Doug
    Doug December 13, 2015


  10. Joseph
    Joseph December 13, 2015

    I have a 2002 version of the same car with 10,500 miles. You’re going to love it in Sport Mode.

  11. Dean
    Dean December 13, 2015

    Congrats on the e46 M3 purchase, Carter. No doubt that you’ll love the driving dynamics of the car. I’ve always felt that my 2005 Interlagos blue M3 could be the one car I would be happy with for the rest of my life. It’s that good.

    Polite company won’t criticize your choice of the SMG model. Unfortunately, as the glow of the new (used) car purchase fades, there’s always going to be that voice in your head that regrets not buying a 6 speed manual.

  12. Carter
    Carter December 13, 2015

    Thanks everyone for the compliments! Regarding the transmission, no excuses – truth told, I’d have preferred a manual. However, the reality is that low mileage manuals were out of my price range and weren’t likely to become more common down the road. Low mileage examples in Phoenix Yellow are even more hard to come by. And stock, low mileage, 6-speed PY cars are nearly non-existent. I’ve done a fair amount of reading up on the manual swap, though, and long term should something fail that’s likely the plan. I waited a long time to get this car, and like you Dean I don’t want it to go away!

  13. Rene
    Rene December 13, 2015

    Congrats! Isn’t it great to have the perfect car right out of the box.
    I can now see little incentive to work on the CGT automatic. Maybe the CGT should become your son’s car.

  14. MDriver
    MDriver December 13, 2015

    Best of Luck with the new “M”…and welcome to the Dark Side
    You will really enjoy the car….it does everything very well from DD to track duty….stay on top of the maintenance do the pro-active things and it will be a rewarding experience…and save you $$$ in the long run…

  15. Carter
    Carter December 13, 2015

    First off, yes, my first name really is Carter as well. And a little story. Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were walking to brunch. My girlfriend, who is most definitely NOT a car person, commented on the amazing color of this car that was stopped at a red light as we crossed the road. Then she also commented at how PRISTINE this car with the amazing color was. Nicer than new, really. Then I noticed that this amazing deep yellow car was an M car… So then, a couple hours later sifting through my RSS reader of random blog I follow, lo and behold the very same car! That main street we crossed? Located in little Warren RI, and I just happened to spot you and your beautiful new car cruising by. Nice! (Small world isn’t it?) (And to make the Carter connection just that much more odd, I too teach at a local college…) Nice car, and enjoy!

  16. Carter
    Carter December 13, 2015

    @Carter – too funny and thanks to you (and your girlfriend!) for the compliments – it really is a pretty striking color. Very funny that you spotted us but that is so Rhode Island – it was our first family ride in the car and we made a run around Jamestown, Newport, Portsmouth, Bristol and Warren before heading back to Providence. If you see us again flag us down!


  17. pmichaelg
    pmichaelg December 13, 2015

    OK… this is getting confusing… multiple Carters… which one is real?!? 🙂

    To Carter (esteemed blogger and owner of new M3), congrats! It looks beautiful! And good on the SMG. I consider myself a manual person but I also will own a SMG car (or equivalent) if for no other reason than to experiment with that technology. So don’t sweat it – enjoy.

    Where does this put you in terms of automotive ownership? I recall Audi GT and B5 Passat, correct? Does this make a 3rd car in your stable or do one of those need to move?

  18. Early8q
    Early8q December 13, 2015

    I find the ” dark side” reference great fun. As an Audi guy the dark side is one thing, and if you are a BMW guy the dark side is another. And for you Carter, the dark side is really confusing….. May the force be with you! Either way, great job realizing that dream!

  19. Carter
    Carter December 14, 2015

    @pmichaelg – the fleet has grown substantially this year. We now have the two Audi GTs, the Passat and the M3, along with a Subaru Outback. Driveway is most certainly crowded these days.

  20. Poorhouse
    Poorhouse December 14, 2015

    Beautiful find and a great write up!
    I, too just bought an M3 after years of desire.
    The E36 M3/4/5 has stuck with me since they came out.
    Great to finally see it in the garage. Bonus that my 5 year old and my wife love it.

    Here’s a link to the adventure of finding mine.

  21. Vic
    Vic December 14, 2015

    Congratulations on your M3. I am biased because I am running ZCP, but I think that the ZCP BBS wheels suit the E46 better than any other wheel selection. Hope you find a set for a good price – you will not be disappointed. Cheers, Vic

  22. Craig
    Craig December 14, 2015

    Lovely car, congrats. I always thought that of the two, standard “out there” colors (PY and LSB), PY looks the best. My dad owned a carbon black 6-speed convertible for a while, and we both adored it. What’s so wonderful about the E46 is that it’s a fast, wonderfully poised sports car that also doubles as a perfectly capable (and reasonably practical) daily driver.

    I hope to own one of these some day too. I already know the spec I want: 2002 Steel Gray (last year before they switched to silver gray), imola red leather interior with 6 speed manual transmission. Sadly, I fear the prices will go the way of the E30 before I have a chance to own one!

  23. David B.
    David B. December 14, 2015

    Great story, Carter (well, both Carters, to be exact). To Carter the owner, I expect there will be many great miles ahead for you in this M3. They are truly classics.

  24. MDriver
    MDriver December 14, 2015

    @Early & Carter (Writer Carter)
    for an Audi guy going to BMW is a trip to the darkside IMHO
    for a BMW guy that would be going to Merc(AMG)…IMHO…and that is a trip that I will not ever take..LOL
    the knock on SMG unfortunately happened with early build cars, software updates addressed the issues as did the redesign from SMG I to SMG II…..the worst SMG experience I know of was for the early build E60 M5’s that got the dredded red cog of death on the dash…..
    otherwise when used properly SMG is much fun…..

  25. Howard S
    Howard S December 17, 2015

    First off congratulations, the car is a gem!

    As a fellow car guy who works in the wholesale business I get a little jaded from some of the great rides I get to use. In the end they are just hunks of metal I need to find homes for. There is always a certain satisfaction when I add a car that I covet to my personal fleet. The hunt for exactly what you want is fun, but the pride of ownership and the grins you get from driving and working on exactly what you’ve been lusting after is the crown jewel.

    Thanks for this great forum, which I have enjoyed and tried to contribute to for years. You work and dedication to this place is appreciated. It’s a great day to see you acquire such a great car. Use and enjoy it in good health!


Comments are closed.