Painted in colors like Laguna Seca Blue and Imola Red, there’s no doubt about the E46 BMW M3’s aspirations. These famous race-tracks are fitting playgrounds for any car that promises such astonishing levels of power and handling. Whether blasting up “Tamburello” at Imola or diving into the “Corkscrew” at Laguna Seca, not many cars in the world could attack a road course with the tenacity of those proudly wearing the "M" badge, as the car we’re about to review is.
The 1st-generation M3 was mainly a racing car tamed for road use. Offered in the U.S. from 1988 through 1991, it was based on the E30 3 Series and was a winged, spoilered coupe powered by a BMW M 4-cylinder engine of 2.3 liters and 192 hp. That was a full-on BMW M engine, with 4 valves per cylinder at a time when no regular-production BMW had more than 2; honed cylinders; an individual throttle for each cylinder; and other racing-style engineering finery. Hotter versions were offered over time, both road- and race-going. The E30 M3 certainly wasn’t for everyone; but it was a hearty and competent sporting machine, and even today it has a devoted following.
The 2nd-generation M3 is known better. Based on the E36 3 Series and making its debut as a 1995 model, it had a mission beyond the usual BMW M dedication to great performance and handling: it had to bring BMW M and its wonderful driving machines to a wider spectrum of buyers in the U.S.
That was accomplished by powering the M3 not with a traditional, highly elaborate BMW M engine, but with a specially developed version of what was then standard BMW practice: an inline 6-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts, 4 valves per cylinder and a single throttle. Taking this approach, BMW M created an engine of 183 cui (vs. the standard 325i models’ 152 cui) and a solid 240 horsepower. That strategy proved to be perfect: within the range of speeds American drivers experienced, this engine provided thrilling performance, yet cost a lot less to produce. The rest of the car was very much the same that European buyers could have.
In 1996 M3’s engine the engine grew to 195 cui and delivered more torque. In both forms, it was loved by America’s enthusiasts and critics alike. This 2nd-generation E36 M3 was offered until 1999; a convertible and a 4-door sedan joined the original coupe model along the way, extending the M3 range.
The 3rd-generation M3,launched in 2000, was one of the most highly anticipated BMW models ever. Designed on the basis of the E46-3 Series, the new M3 was a significant advance over its famous predecessors, which proved that BMW M can combine stunning performance and road manners with true everyday practicality and utility. At $46,045 including destination charge, the year 2000 M3 coupe has moved upscale from its predecessor, primarily via a brand-new, race-bred engine delivering almost 100 horsepower more than its predecessor.
Yet heightened performance was only one of the M3’s attractions. Drawing upon the best qualities of the previous M3 and the present 3 Series, it achieved a new level of road capability. New exterior design, new developments in seating, and features never before available in an M3 completed a constellation of as never seen before.
The M3 concealed much of its performance capability by avoiding superfluous body add-ons (ass a rear-wing would be), there were nonetheless, many distinctive M touches that were setting it apart from the standard E46 3 Series coupe. In addition to the 18-inch M-style wheels that were poised below larger wheel arches, there were the trademark four polished stainless-steel exhausts, vent gills in the front fenders and a power dome on the aluminum hood. Also M exclusives were the special front bumper covering incorporating a deep spoiler with large air intakes and the rear bumper covering incorporating an integrated air diffuser are. Finally, electrically-folding M exterior mirrors, exclusive rocker panel moldings and clear turn signal and side marker lenses were helping distinguish the M3 from standard 325Ci and 330Ci counterparts.
The distinctive front spoiler ensemble featured three openings: center, with screen, for the engine oil cooler; sides, for the fog lights. These outer openings were in fact air intakes for brake cooling.
The M3’s aluminum hood differed sharply from the 3 Series’ steel hood (and contributed to the excellent weight distribution). It featured a "power dome" and contours that sweept up from the grilles’ flanks to the A-pillars. As on the regular models, Xenon low-beam headlights were optional. Clear turn signal lenses were used in front and at the rear as another distinction from the 3 Series coupe.
The wheel openings were flared out fully 0.8 in more on each side, accenting the 18-in. wheels and tires and keeping them inboard of the sheet metal. Overall, the body was 0.9 in. wider than the 330 Ci’s.
Other specific side elements were the side "grills" that recalled the E9 (2.5CS – 3.0 CSi) coupes of the 1960-70s. The rear bumper/apron was also all-new. A lateral ridge stretched all the way across, and openings for the four exhaust outlets lined up with the trunk lid sides. A discreet spoiler toped the lid’s top edge, but could be deleted at no extra cost if customers desire.
One thing that came on early M3s is missing: a rear wing. There’s just a teensy little spoiler on the rear deck
The body colors available were: Alpinweiss II, Alpinweiss III, Imolarot II, Laguna Seca, Schwarz II, Carbonschwarz Metallic, Interlagosblau Metallic, Mysticblau Metallic, Phoenixgelb Metallic, Silbergrau Metallic and Titansilber Metallic
The suspension was also mainly based on that of the 3-Series coupes, but serious modifications were performed on it. In oder to form an ultra-rigid basis for the suspension system, the BMW M engineers created a new thrust plate, a reinforcement to handle the immense lateral thrust generated by the M3’s tires in cornering. It was made of aluminum 3 mm thick, and was attached in the area between the left and right lower suspension arms.
An additional distinction is that the new M3 struts separated the top mountings of spring and shock absorber. The strut’s top anchor point moved rearward, increasing caster, while the coil spring’s mounting staid where it was; the separate mounting improved isolation from road harshness, compensating to some degree for the firmer bushing arrangement.
The advanced multi-link system used in the previous and current 3 Series was also employed in the E46 M3, with upper lateral links of cast aluminum. Here the track has also increased relative to the previous M3 , and both pairs of lateral links (lower and upper) had steel ball joints instead of rubber bushings at their outer ends. There were many other points of distinction from the standard rear suspension as well.
Front suspension: Struts, Coil Springs, Tube Shocks, Anti-Roll Bar
Rear suspension: Multi-Link, Coil Springs, Tube Shocks, Anti-Roll Bar
Powerful brakes were always a BMW strength, and the demand for them on a seriously fast vehicle is obvious. In this good tradition M3 equipped 12.9-in. rear discs, and the thicker rotors all around: 1.2 in at the front and 0.8 in at the rear. A tandem booster sized 10in. / 9 in., provides extra vacuum assist over the 330s’ single 10-in. booster. As always on M Cars all four discs were ventilated for high fade resistance; electronically proportioned for optimum distribution of braking power; and backed up by Dynamic Brake Control, which reinforces the driver’s pedal effort in emergency braking. The M3 could be brought to a halt from 62 mph in half the time it took for it to accelerate to that speed.
The E46 M3 employed essentially the same steering mechanism as the E46 3-Series: rack-and-pinion, with engine-speed-sensitive variable power assist. Its overall ratio was 15.4:1, lightly "quicker" than the 15.5:1 of regular 3 Series models. The power assist was calibrated for extra-firm road feel, and steering return action was enhanced by the increased caster.
Tires & wheels
M3 wheel and tire equipment was were close to that time top-of-line M5. In a new interpretation of the M Double Spoke design concept, the wheels were sized 18 x 8.0 front and 18 x 9.0 rear and had the same Satin Chrome finish as the M5’s wheels.
In order to Connect these massive, deep-dish alloy wheels to the road suitably wide, low-profile, high-speed-rated tires were developed specifically for theM3. They were sized 225/45 ZR-18 for the front and 255/40 ZR-18 for the rear.
The M3’s exhaust system did not let enough space for a spare tire. Instead of that it was offered the M Mobility System, that consisted of a container of rapid sealant, a compressor and a hose to connect the compressor to the damaged tire. All of that was carried in a container in a recess under the trunk floor. The system could seal punctures up to approximately 1/4 inch across.
The E46 M3 engine, designated the S54 , shared the familiar layout of other BMW inline 6-cylinder engines. Virtually all of its engineering details, however, were unique and oriented to the very highest level of performance.
While regular BMW "sixes" had an aluminum block with cast-iron cylinder liners, it may be surprising that the M3 engine (like its predecessor) has a cast-iron block. That was due to the need for compactness and strength. An aluminum block’s cylinder liners take up space and it would have not been possible to achieve the engine’s displacement without lengthening the block. Also given that this engine develops fully 333 hp from 195 cui its internal stresses are immense (current Formula 1 engines attain piston speeds around 25 meters per second; with 24 m/sec. at its rpm limit of 8000 rpm, the S54 was very close).
The engine also was equipped with step-less Double VANOS, which varied valve timing on the intake and exhaust camshafts without the step of the 2-stage older system. As used in the M3 engine, it varied timing over a wider range and contributed in a major way to the engine’s power output.
The E46 M3 returned to a BMW M tradition: an individual throttle for each cylinder. Positioned much nearer the cylinders than a single throttle can be, these bring atmospheric pressure practically right to the cylinder. All six throttles were operated from a single shaft, each in its own throttle body right at the intake ports.
The engine’s rev limit was 8000 rpm and its maximum power occured just below this limit at 7900 rpm. Enjoying this engine to the limit involves operating it frequently in these upper reaches of rotational speed.
In another departure from the previous M3, the E46 one came standard with the familiar, robust and precise Getrag Type D, 6-speed manual transmission. As in the M5, it was crisply controlled by a shift knob with illuminated shift pattern and M logo.
A dual-mass, hydraulically damped flywheel between the engine and clutch was specially tuned to the S54 engine’s power pulses and drive train configuration. Its primary plate was made of forged steel for high strength. For the first time in a 6-cylinder M Car, the clutch was self-adjusting; this maintained consistent clutch-pedal forces over the life of the clutch, which helped the engineers achieve high torque capacity with moderate pedal effort. The hydraulic actuation circuit included a limiter orifice that smoothes momentary loading peaks (shocks) without in any way cutting into the clutch’s performance; this helped avoid excess weight in the drive train.
Significant modification in the rear-suspension area, has allowed equipping the M3 with the same heavy-duty differential dimensions as the even more powerful (394-hp) M5. A relatively "short" final drive ratio, 3.62:1, fully utilizes the engine’s generous torque and rpm range; the 6th gear keeps it humming moderately at cruising speeds. Here too, targeted airflow under the vehicle helped keep the oil cool, along with a ribbed differential case.
Together with the German division of GKNViscodrive, BMW M engineers developed a special mechanical limited-slip differential for the E46 M3. The principal difference between a traditional limited-slip "diff" and the Variable M Differential Lock was that where the former sensed torque, the new sensed wheel speed (rpm). The Variable M Differential Lock specifically addresses low- and split-traction situations in a way that reinforces sporty handling, imparting to the M3 a slippery-road ability no high-performance, rear-wheel-drive sports car has ever had.
Inside, the E46 M3 was pretty much standard-issue 3 Series with minor trim differences. There is a special "sport" control switch that changes the engine’s drive-by-wire throttle calibration. Another M3 addition were the instrument gauges, which were lifted from the M5, complete with orange- and red-glowing indicators that admonish the driver against revving a cold engine.
The M sport steering wheel is very good looking with perfectly placed hand detents, thick leather-wrapped rim and all the necessary satellite controls right at your fingertips. It also features optional eight-way power seats augmented with four-way power lumbar adjustment and adjustable side bolsters.
The M3 Coupe was considered to be a five-seater, but don’t count on it, in the rear only two persons can sit comfortably due to the elevated transmission tunnel.
The coupe also offered a nice trunk, which was pre-wired for a garage door opener, CD player, security system and cell phone, all of which are BMW features installed by your dealer. What’s more, one-third of the rear seat folds forward to gain trunk access, enabling the carrying of long things such as skis.
The dash indicators were simple white-on-black with a 180-mph speedometer and 9000-rpm tachometer. Water temperature and fuel gauges are present, but surprisingly no oil pressure gauge was used.
The slim console didn’t held much, but there were pockets in the doors, and two cup-holders between the front seats, although the console compartment had to be raised to use the rear cup-holder.
The gas pedal was considered to be to close to the gearbox tunnel and the gearshift knob to have an impractical shape, sort of like the head of a golfer’s wood, which precluded a good solid grip. These two aspects flawed the ergonomics of downshifting.
Safety equipment featured
Dual-airbag Supplementary Restraint System
with 2-stage Smart Airbags
Height-adjustable front safety belts with automatic tensioners & force limiters
Automatic-locking retractors (ALR) on all passenger belts
(for installation of child restraint seats)
Interlocking door anchoring system for side impacts
Front-seat Head Protection System (HPS)
Rollover Protection System
Front-seat side-impact airbags
Rear-seat side-impact airbags
Integrated deployment logic for safety-belt tensioners,
airbags & post-impact safety measures
Battery Safety Terminal
Central locking system with double-lock anti-theft feature,
An E46 M3 GTR was brought to life on February 2001. It was powered by a 244 cui V8 producing over 450 bhp. Unlike the R6 powered M3 versions, which were out paced by the Porsche 996 GT3 rivals, the racing version of the E46 M3 GTR V8 was very successful in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). Competition (such as Porsche) complained as a V8 engine was not available in the road-going BMWs and that this car was more of a prototype, which is in violation of the spirit of Gran Turismo. ALMS regulations stated from 2001 that cars must be for sale on two continents within twelve months of the rules being issued. In order to comply BMW put on sale 10 GTRs for $218,000 each, obviously only available for select customers.
But finally, the rules were rewritten to state that 100 cars and 1000 engines had to be built for the car to qualify. Although BMW could have raced the V8 M3 with the new weight and power penalties under these new regulations, they chose to pull it out of the ALMS, effectively ending the M3 GTR’s career.
Two Schnitzer Motorsport raced E46 M3 GTRs had a comeback in 2003 at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, winning 1-2 in 2004 and 2005.
The BMW M3 CSL was designed in order to combines supreme agility with the ultimate driving experience. In order to achieve this reduction of weight by using the most appropriate materials at the right point was a priority. Carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, used in the car reduced its overall weight with to 243 lbs over the standard M3. The M3 CSL had an overall weight of just 3,054 lb and allowed even higher speeds in bends particularly through the use of this lightweight material at the extreme ends of the car.
In developing the M3 CSL, however, BMW M did not focus only on the radical reduction of weight. Right from the front the M3 CSL was redesigned and muscular front air dam made of carbon-fibre -reinforced plastic (CFP) with an additional engine air intake on the driver’s side demonstrated clearly that it was built for supreme performance.
At the other end of the car the rear lid made also of (SMC), together with the integrated spoiler, also served in conjunction with the rear diffuser to significantly reduce lift forces.
The lightweight technology so typical of the M3 CSL was demonstrated very clearly by the roof also made of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic easily. This large component through its exposed position, lowered the car’ s centre of gravity.
Starting form November 2004 a new “special” took M3’s performance to the next level. Every aspect of the M3’s handling has been tweaked to match that of the M3 CSL.
M3 Competition Package featured 19-inch forged-alloy wheels with high-performance tires which connect to a suspension that has been tuned specifically for the Competition Package. Turn-in was quicker with a more direct steering ratio that went from 15.4:1 to 14.5:1.
M Track mode and the braking system taken from the BMW M3 CSL. Also the Dynamic Stability Control system for this model included a less intrusive M track mode, as on the M3 CSL, ensuring the security of DSC and spirited driving too. M3 CSL brakes were also adopted from, including compound and cross-drilled rotors. The front rotors have also been enlarged from 12.8 to 13.6 inches.
The Competition Package unlike the CSL was also available in combination with the six-speed manual over the optional Sequential Manual Gearbox.
The interior enhancements of the package were subtle but purposeful and included Alcantara steering wheel and handbrake grip. The Competition Package was available with all M3 Coupe interior and exterior color combinations but two trim items were exclusive: Special Competition Package aluminum trim included on the interior and a new exterior color, Interlagos Blue.
The Competition Package was available for 2005 M3 Coupes starting with December 2004 production and it made its debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The price for the package was $4,000.
The 3rd installment of the legendary M-badged BMW 3-Series was unquestionably a world-wide hit with production figures that exceed by far Mercedes’s AMGs and Audi’s RSs. It made popular and accessible to a wider audience the high-performance characteristics of it’s ancestors. While getting more comfortable and easy to use in every-day driving it proved to still be highly successful on the race-track. At the end of it’s career the E46 M3 is about to get reincarnated in the model we all can hardly wait for, the E90.