Among potential future classics, few shine quite as bright as the E46 M3. As a car that’s (currently) affordable and still fairly new, the E46 M3 offers performance levels few sports cars reach. It’s also one of the last BMWs mere mortals can work on, the last offering of the S54 motor before the M division switched to twin-turbocharged inline-6s and V8s. To some, the E46 was a mass-produced marketing tool; but to me, the E46 M3 corrected many of the perceived faults of the E36 M3. Of course, the motor was a large part, but outside the M3 was now really set off by flares, quad exhausts, bulges, gaping intakes and vents that really made it look as special as it was. Denied the CSL, for U.S. customers the most special of the breed were the late run ZCP “Competition Package” cars like today’s Interlagos Blue example.
The ZCP Competition Package added quite a few special details to an already special car for the end of the run. Cross-drilled front brakes were enlarged and lighter thanks to a two-piece design and hid behind spun-cast BBS RC wheels. Those wheels measured 19″ x 8″ in front and 9.5″ out back and not only managed to look more menacing, but were lighter than the Style 67 18″ standard wheels despite being larger. Turning those wheels was a quicker steering rack spun by an Alcantara wheel and containing a special “M” track-mode with revised software for the stability control. The ZCP package also had the aforementioned Interlagos Blue Metallic (A30) as its signature color and specific code ZCP milled aluminum effect interior trim. Reportedly, Interlagos could not even be ordered through BMW Individual – if you liked the color, you had to get the Competition Package. While the same S54B32 as standard production lay under the hood, the 333 horsepower screamer wasn’t exactly a bad thing. 2,410 ZCPs were sold in the U.S., with 843 of them being Interlagos – making for not only a great driver, but an instant collector:
Update 5/7/19: This beautiful low-option E92 is on to a new owner!
While there’s no doubt that the E9x M3 was instantly recognizable as the replacement for the outgoing E46 model, there was an inconvenient truth that had snuck into the lineup: weight. Part of what had made the E30 such a curb-hopping maniac was that lack of heft even with all the accoutrements. By the time the E92 launched, the M3 had put on nearly 800 lbs of weight.
To motivate it the extra mass, BMW did effectively what it had done with the S14; it took its top-tier motor in the S85 V10 and removed two cylinders. The result was the S65 V8, and 414 horsepower was on tap for your right foot’s pleasure. That was a monumental leap from the E46; when the E46 launched with 93 horsepower more than the prior generation, I thought there was no way BMW could do it again. But they did, tacking on 81 horsepower to the prior generation’s total without forced induction. BMW topped the E46’s specific output per liter, too, besting 103 in the E9x – in a package which was 40 lbs lighter despite two more cylinders. Impressive, indeed.
Granted, if you were plunking down $60,000-odd worth of your hard earned credit, you’d want amenities like power seats, a nice radio, air conditioning – the normals that made it a better road car to live with day-to-day. But if you were clever in the boxes you ticked, you could still get the essence of what made the M3 the greatest car in its segment without a lot of frills. First would be the Competition Package, which gave you more variability on the suspension and more sideways action from the dynamic stability control. You got bigger wheels and stickier, wider tires to make use of that harder suspension.
Tick the 7-speed M-DCT dual-clutch transmission, and that track-readiness was taken to the next level. Then, you’d want to stop right about there. Of course, few people selected such a targeted, bare-bones performance oriented M3 out of the gate, which makes finding one today difficult:
To me, this M3 is a very interesting counterpoint to yesterday’s RS6. Many aspects are the same; pristine original condition, lower mileage, mid-2000s leading edge performance car.
It’s there where the similarities end.
While the RS6 represented the stepping over a threshold of performance into a war of escalation, the E46 M3 was, in many ways, BMW’s equivalent of the Porsche 993. It was the ultimate development of the normally aspirated inline-6, and to many (this author included), it was the best of the breed.
The third generation M3 is simply a marvel. It took the basic layout of its predecessor and improved essentially every aspect. The E36 wasn’t aggressive looking enough? Fixed. The motor wasn’t the technical marvel that was the European version? Fixed that, too. And the build quality and plastic materials in the second generation were a bit lacking? Solved that one, as well.
Are there drawbacks to the E46? Sure, it only came in two-door guise. There are also some known weaknesses in the chassis, like the subframe problems that can be a costly repair. The S54 is also a more expensive motor to repair than the S50/52 had been, and requires more maintenance (and, super costly oil).
But enough gripes, because while there isn’t a collector market for 2000s Audis, the E46 never really went through the dip in value that the E36 did. Prime examples have always demanded strong money and appear to be on the rise, with several notable auctions recently hammering for ever increasing numbers. Today’s example comes from the end of the line for the E46, and is about as desirable as they come to market. One of 2943 A08 Silvergray Metallic coupes imported, it has the desirable N51M Imola leather interior, the even more desirable 6-speed manual transmission and equally sought ZCP Competition package, and it’s only traveled a reported 11,600 miles since new.
Of all the various iterations of the M3, the E46 version is my favorite (and the only one that I’ve actually driven. My dad owned one for a while). I love the S54 engine. The 3.2 liter, straight six powerplant emits an intoxicating, raspy howl when you mash the throttle and puts out just over 330 hp, enough to get the car to 60 in under 5 seconds – numbers that remain respectable today. I love the looks. The standard E46 coupe is attractive, in a sober and responsible way, but the bulging wheel arches, wider track and squat stance dial up the menace and aggression without overdoing it. And finally I love the everyday usability of these cars. The E46 cabin, for example, is a study in perfect ergonomics, offering a comfortable driving position and thoughtfully laid out controls. The chassis is taut and communicative, equally at home on the track or on the street doing the grocery run. Either way, it’ll put a smile on your face every time you drive it, which you can comfortably do, every day. These cars were produced in large enough numbers that finding one isn’t difficult, but you might have to wait a while (and spend a bit more) to get one in your ideal spec. For me, that would be a 6-speed manual coupe in a dark metallic color.
Though I’ve quite happily entered into M3 ownership and don’t regret my choice, I still keep my eye on where similar examples trade for. Just last week an Interlagos Blue ZCP came to the attention of both Dan and I and sold for just below $20,000 – not bad, but the car had quite a few miles and no major services completed and some unoriginal changes, such as darkened wheels. There was another that I was following at the same time – this earlier 2001 example. While not a ZCP, this 2001 had the later look with updated wheels and taillights, plus a CSL trunk. The condition also looks generally a bit better and it has lower miles, but is also missing most of the major maintenance these cars can require. Still, there’s the big draw – that amazing Laguna Seca Blue exterior, this one hiding a rare Gray interior. It was my second color combination choice, and worth a look:
When I pull the cover off my M3, it still seems like a bit of a dream. I can’t believe that I finally was able to get the car that I really wanted for such a long time. Yet, I still wonder a bit – did I pick the right one? With only around 500 Phoenix Yellow Metallic coupes imported to the U.S. there aren’t a lot to choose from any day of the week, so it is always a bit surprising to see one which outwardly looks exactly like my car. Well, almost exactly…
Hardly out of production, journalists and enthusiasts alike are already calling the last of the naturally aspirated M3s a classic in the making. Some have even gone so far as to call the E9x M3 the best M product BMW has produced. Certainly it was a screamer, with butch good looks to back up the impressive power chops on tap from the S65 V8. As always, I’m drawn to the more unusual colors offered through BMW’s Individual program and today’s example is a pretty interesting one. Apparently, dissatisfied with the yellow-toned options from BMW’s own color catalogue, the buyer of this particular M3 asked BMW to head to the Black Forest and it came back with Speed Yellow from Zuffenhausen. A vibrant tone more piercing than Dakar but not as orange as Atacama, does this E92 light up your sky?
Hard to believe because it seems like yesterday and I still have to pinch myself when I see it sitting in the garage, but I’m entering my 5th month of BMW M3 ownership. As I covered in the introduction back in December 2015, the new-to-me pride and joy is a 2003.5 M3 in Phoneix Yellow Metallic. There was only one change I wanted to make – the addition of the ZCP Competition Package 19″ BBS wheels, and the solution ended up coming to me unexpectedly quickly.
In my search for a M3, I kept my eye out for Individual shades on the E46 just to keep things interesting. Velvet Blue, for example, was one that caught my eye. I can’t imagine having the fortitude to plunk down the extra 10% premium to order a car that I couldn’t see in the flesh, then to sit for months on end waiting for it to arrive – hoping they painted it the right shade! But thankfully some buyers have the vision and means to provide us with very interesting color choices on these cars. Though they rarely come up for sale in comparison to the sea of black and silver that consumes 90% of the M3’s production, it certainly is awesome to see one in a unique shade such as this E92 specified through Individual in Brewster Green:
This past weekend, I went out to Coventry Motorcar to sample some of the cars. My wife and I took out a nearly new RS5; it was impressive for sure. Then we took out the twin-turbo V12 CL65 AMG that was chipped; with well over 700 horsepower and enough torque to bump-start a Saturn V rocket, the throttle pedal simple corresponded to a large amount of giggling every time I dipped into it. But the car that we drove that stood out was the less powerful, older BMW M3. It was an E46; getting on a decade older than the RS5 – and obviously the technology has increased in leaps and bounds, as the Audi has near infinite adjustments for every aspect of the car. But driving dynamics? The M3 showed why it was, and still is, the benchmark that all other cars are compared to. It was thoroughly composed down the road, and slipping inside you felt instantly at home. A throaty shout announced each touch of the throttle, growing in vigor to a scream as the motor worked its way up the tach. On the go, it felt more composed than the Audi; amazing as it sounds, the Audi felt like it was trying to convince you it was fast. The BMW felt relaxed and at ease; it was like Usain Bolt showing up at a power walker’s evening workout. It just felt natural. When I got back to the shop, the manager said “if you liked that, wait until you drive the 2011”.
Move up to the E92 chassis, and the lack of technology that the E46 employed was remedied. Check out the option list on this particular example, and you’ll find everything conceivable and probably more than you need. The Premium Package gives you the power to move your seat, open your garage, fold your mirrors in tight spaces, navigate to those spaces thanks to the compass in the mirror, and connect your phone to the car. Premium 2 gives you an even better sound system than standard and Sputnik sending soundwaves to it. Then there’s the Convenience Package, which means you don’t need the keys to start the car, you don’t need to know exactly where the trunk is when you’re backing up, Magellan in your dash so you don’t need to remember how to get anywhere, voice command so you don’t need to use your hands, and traffic warning updates so that you can seek alternate routes. When you start to explore those detours, you’ll find the S65 V8 to be even more useful than normal thanks to the addition of the dual clutch transmission and Competition Package, which upgrades the wheels, suspension, and brakes. It transforms from simply a means of transport to a happiness generator, making you smile with each sweep through a corner and stomp on both the throttle and brakes. And on your mountain excursion to avoid the traffic jam the car alerted you to, it’s got the Cold Weather package as well to make sure you tush stays warm. The only thing this car doesn’t do is wipe your bottom after you go to the bathroom, but head to a race track and it’ll still embarrass supercars with its driving dynamics and otherworldly abilities. It is, quite simply, the best sports coupe you could buy: