The 2000-2006 BMW M3 isn’t as great as it seems

Many have hailed the E46 M3 as an exceptional car, some even going far enough to call it the greatest of all time. Well, we have to say, that’s just not true. Sure it looks pretty sexy for a car that almost 20 years old, but at the end of the day, it’s just an old sports car that’s had its day.

2003 BMW M3 E46 Coupe (1)

Although it pains us to beat down such a cool car, someone has to step up and separate the truth from the lies. The E46 M3 is good, but it’s not as good as people are saying it is and we’d like to discuss why. So before you throw away your savings on a car that you’ve been told is an icon that simply cannot be beaten in its class, just consider that this old BMW M3 may not be the best car in the world.

Easy to mistake for a standard E46 3 Series

BMW M3 CSL front (2)

Unlike the models that came after the E46 such as the E92 and F80, the E46 doesn’t really have much going for it in terms of styling. Sure, it’s got those sexy looks that we mentioned, but the problem is that it doesn’t look much different from a standard E46 3 Series.

It doesn’t have a big spoiler like the older M3s have and it doesn’t have special aero wing mirrors like the more modern M3s have either. Even the rear and front bumpers are similar to the standard 3 Series, which is quite unacceptable considering the car now costs around 7 times the price of a much slower, almost identical 3 Series. Sure, those that buy M3s are interested in the superior engine, suspension and performance in general, but you also want it to actually look like an M3. Why drive an M3 when it can be mistaken for a puny 316i?

BMW M3 CSL front (3)

Saying that, the E46 M3 does have some little things that make it clear that you’re driving a performance BMW rather than a cheap one that you found online for a fraction of the price of an M3. It says ‘M3’ on the door sills, the bonnet is bulkier and more aggressive, the wheel arches stick out more giving more of a ‘stance’ look and there are four exhaust tips at the back rather than two. It’s all still pretty subtle when compared to the more modern M3s that BMW have produced since the E46, and that’s one of the weak points of the car.

Although the car is incredibly fast, especially when you consider how old it is, it doesn’t look special. E46 BMWs are quite common. You see them all over the place, which is great because they are still gorgeous pieces of eye candy. However, the M3 will blend right in with the rest of them, unfortunately. The only tell-tale sign that it’s an M3 will be that the driver is driving even worse than the usual Bimmer driver (as the stereotype has us believe) and that you’ll hear that awful exhaust note coming from the rear.

Speaking of…

It sounds like a two-stroke

BMW E46 M3 (4)

For some reason, the E46 M3 sounds kind of awful. Sorry, but it has to be said.

Much like the sound you’d expect from a two-stroke motorbike, the BMW E46 M3 sounds tinny, high-pitched and rattle-y. There’s no deep bass to the sound that comes from the exhaust, unlike what you will find when revving any other M3, but rather a shrill and raspy.

At low revs, the car sounds just as good as any other performance car, however once revved up to higher numbers the exhaust goes from a deep, aggressive sound to a noise that can only be compared to a boy-racer trumpet exhaust paired with a crackle remap.

BMW E46 M3 (5)

That’s why you’ll find that most owners have modified the exhaust systems or completely replaced them because they couldn’t put up with the high-pitched rattling scream anymore. You may as well forget the M3 and just get an E46 330Ci instead, which looks no less gorgeous and costs a hell of a lot less.

For £15,000-£20,000, why not just buy something better?

BMW E46 M3 FRONT (6)

Nowadays, semi-decent examples with moderate mileage will cost you around £15-20k. You can find these M3s closer to £10,000 but they’ll be high mileage and may have a few things wrong with them. On the other end of the scale, you can find near-perfect examples for as high as £35,000 that will have barely any miles on them at all.

Typically speaking, the E46 M3 is a rip-off. Why spend over £15,000 on an M3 from 2003 when you can spend the same money and get an E90/92/93 M3 from 2010? It will be a lot quicker, have more power, more technology and as an added bonus, people will actually look at your car and know it’s an M3!

BMW E46 M3 (7)

Yes, we understand how classics work. Cars that were once great eventually go up in value thanks to the steady flow of demand and the decrease in supply of good examples. If you absolutely must have an E46 because it’s been the car of your dreams since you was 16, then go for it, by all means. BUT, if you’re just looking for a cool performance car that costs less than £25,000 then there are plenty of other options to consider that will offer you more band for your buck. Why not consider a Porsche Cayman S, a modern Honda Civic Type R, a used Mustang, Audi S3, TTS or Subaru WRX STI?

Porsche Cayman S (8)

So do you still think the BMW E46 deserves all the praise it gets and is worth the hefty price tag? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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2 Responses

  1. Driver Buddy

    This is a fascinating read. I’ve always been crazy about the E46 M3 even though I was too young to be able to afford one when they came out.

    Now, nearly 20 years on I still turn my head when I see one. Even when I’m driving past in my RS3 saloon I can’t help but wonder which I’d rather be driving…

    Great read. Thanks

    • James Harvey

      I own a e46 csl and would much rather be in your rs3 saloon. I think the overall comfort and ride of the csl is overrated.

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