The E46 M3 is a banner car for that time in recent history when the past really shook hands with the future

The go-fast version of the E46-generation 3 Series is seen as some sort of a last hurrah since it stands as the final M3 to be powered by a naturally aspirated inline-six engine. With turbocharging being the norm nowadays, an N/A M3 may never return and, as such, we look back fondly to the E46 M3, the first properly fast M3.

Or do we? Many criticized BMW for fitting this M3 with the SMG-II semi-automatic transmission that was lackluster at low revs and oftentimes sluggish when compared to the manual six-speed transmission. Then there was also the crowd that bought M3s that blended in well with the rest of Bimmer owners that give the Munich-based company a bad rep because of the way they behave in traffic. RCR dives in to give its opinion on whether the E46 M3 was a hero or a villain.

The BMW M3 E46 is the first really fast M3

This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925157
Do you remember the BMW E46 M3? A two-door sports car from a time when flappy paddles behind the steering wheel had to be explained to you in minutes-long videos.

It was also a time when the automatic was almost always playing second fiddle to the old faithful manual and a time when the dash was still a dash, not just a frame for touchscreen displays.

The RCR video on the fourth-gen M3 revolves a lot on Mr. Regular’s own idea that people are already beginning to view the noughties with rose-tinted glasses, something he calls ’oughtstalgia’. It really is a brand-new term, proof of it being that Google returns no relevant results when you throw oughtstalgia into its computerized face and text editors underline it automatically with a thick, red line. But oughtstalgia isn’t new per se.

This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925153

As Mr. Regular details, every generation longs for the days of its youth and believes that certain period in time was the best, in spite of whatever was completely and utterly wrong in the world at the moment. It’s the same, he says, with a baby boomer looking back fondly to the ’60s and ’70s. Similarly, millennials enjoy talking at length about the ’simpler times’ of the ’00s before social media was king and when phones still had actual buttons - that is, until the iPhone was launched in 2007. But we digress.

The idea here is that the M3 E46 represents a chunk of that old-timey goodness, a car that's old-fashioned while also being modern.
This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925155

Many pundits have argued before that cars from the late ’90s and early-to-mid-’00s are the greatest cars ever made because they offer the best of both worlds: on the one hand, you have performance aplenty combined with satisfying levels of comfort and reliability and, on the other, you’ve got something that’s still analog enough to feature buttons, knobs, and to not work via voice control. These cars don’t have huge screens hovering over the center console and their GPS systems are dodgy at best and that’s what makes them great. They aren’t the robotized, self-driving wonders of 2020 but they also aren’t the barely functional lumps of trouble from the ’70s or ’80s.

This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925159

The blue E46 M3 that RCR got to experience is a perfect case in point. On the one hand, you’ve got that brilliant 3.2-liter S54 inline-six in front of you developing 338 naturally breathing horsepower and on the other, you’ve got BMW’s then-futuristic SMG II transmission.

This transmission, based on the Getrag 420G six-speed manual also available on the car, differs from the manual in that it features an electrohydraulically-actuated clutch. You select gears either via the paddles behind the wheel or by moving the gear lever back and forth.

This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925154

Semi-automatic transmissions weren’t an all-out novelty in 2001 when the SMG-II transmission was introduced but the technology was still in its early days. Pioneered by Ferrari in the late ’90s, the gearbox that you could shift through without using the shifter has gone a long way since debuting in the 355 F1 and, nowadays, it’s the preferred option over the comparatively slow manual.

But, back in '01, it was the SMG that was sluggish and unresponsive in city traffic at under 3,000 revs and many thought it's not the fastest even when you're hammering it. However, it was pretty good (if not really good) by the standard of the day.
This Video Review of the 2003 BMW E46 M3 Will Take You Back to Simpler and Better Times
- image 925156

Sure, ’oughtstalgia’ has nothing to do with the way people perceive BMW drivers although probably this reputation was also, in part, secured by folks driving E46 M3s in a less-than-chivalrous way. But, hey, this car is a bit of a hooligan and, with almost 270 pound-feet of torque, it can’t help but want to light the rear tires - not to mention that the tail loves to hang out on corner exit. Modern M3s enjoy sliding too but maybe not as easily because of all of the nanny state safety features meant to keep you away from ditches and poles. The E46 is also equipped with some but they’re a lot less clever. Is that a good thing or is it bad? That’s something for you to decide.

Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read More
About the author

Related Articles

2001 - 2003 BMW M3 E46

What do you think?
Show Comments
Car Finder: