Mention BMW’s M3 to anyone with even a modicum of superunleaded running through their veins and the first thing that will come to mind is the iconic, motorsport-inspired E30. It isn’t fast by today’s standards, but its rev-hungry 16-valve S14 engine is one of the very best, and when combined with the gloriously tactile chassis ensures the E30 remains highly desirable 30 years after its debut, with the very best examples attracting six-figure price tags.
For those of us with more modest means the E30 M3 boat has well and truly sailed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an M3 parked on your driveway for a reasonable sum. And while, to the uninitiated, subsequent generations could be deemed more tarted-up repmobiles than motorsport icons, that would be selling the M3 dynasty seriously short.
The joy of an M3, no matter which generation, is its versatility. One minute a rampant and entertaining performance car with 911-rivalling straight-line go, the next a suitable family holdall and an accomplished mini GT car. It’s a rare blend that’s won the M3 a strong following over the years, and while the limited edition and collectable versions – the aforementioned E30, the CSL, the GTS – are heading towards the stratosphere, the three examples we have here can still be bought for less than the price of a new 320d M Sport. In the case of the E46 and E92 generations you could even hedge your bets and have one of each…
The E46 M3 arrived in 2000 and was a return to form for BMW M after the E36 that so disappointed the press. To many the E46 epitomises what an M3 should be about: zesty straight-six, tough looks thanks to blistered arches to cover the widened track, and a chassis that’s driver-focused, involving and playful. And the best news is £10k will buy one today. Yes, you’ll need to spend more to bag a mint manual example, but search hard and there are good ones to be found, especially if you don’t have an allergy to higher mileages.
Slipping behind the wheel of an E46 M3 tells you much of what you need to know, with a nigh-on perfect driving position and a lesson in peak ergonomics, while the 180mph speedo and a rev counter that’s electronically red-lined at 8000rpm hint at the available performance. With 338bhp and 269lb ft of torque it’s quick too, with 0-62mph taking 5.2sec, and that S54 straight-six is an absolute jewel, with a hard-edged metallic note lower down the rev range that morphs into a sonorous howl the higher and harder you rev it.
The engine isn’t the only aspect to write home about, as the wonderfully compliant and adjustable chassis have just the right balance, offering a controlled ride (especially on the 18-inch wheels) yet a level of poise and interaction you might not expect. For those unconvinced by the latest electric power steering set-ups, the E46 M3’s hydraulic system will bring back memories of when steering still had feel and feedback by the bucketful. Combined with a rear end that’s equally happy to stay in line or shred its tyres when you’ve switched off the DSC, it’s a machine that can be driven and adjusted on the throttle with ease.
Two special E46 M3s were offered: the lightweight CSL with more power, more aggressive styling, unique alloys, bigger brakes and a quicker steering rack, and the CS, which used CSL-style wheels plus the CSL’s brakes and quicker steering. Like the E30, the CSL is an expensive second-hand buy, and the CS is on its way to joining it.
There were two transmission choices on the E46: a six-speed manual, or the same ’box with electro-hydraulic changes, called SMG II (the only set-up offered on the CSL). We’d always opt for the former, mostly for the additional layer of interaction the manual brings, but it’s worth pointing out the manual isn’t the last word in short, snicky gearchanges, its throw being overly long and not the most tactile. The SMG does have its fans, but it’s pretty awful in auto mode and some don’t like the baseball-bat-to-the-back-of-the-head thump that full-on upchanges elicit. You can smooth things out with a momentary lift, but the SMG also adds additional complexity that can be costly when it goes wrong.
And it’s not the only thing that could cost you. The oldest E46s are knocking on for their 20th birthday and the chances of them having been owned by a string of unsympathetic owners are high. Regular servicing is expensive, as are quality tyres, so look for an example with a string of receipts showing frequent expenditure on preventative maintenance. Achilles heels are potential conrod bearing damage, VANOS variable valve timing woes, blown head gaskets and cracks in the rear axle carrier panel. And, on a machine of this age, broken springs, shot dampers, rusty wings and saggy interiors can all be added to the list of potential weak points.
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