In a world where BMW M has become synonymous with 4000 lb.-plus curb weights, twin-turbocharging, and artificial exhaust notes, it’s important to take a moment to remember and admire the M division’s purist roots. The original M cars, such as the E30 M3 and E28 M5, received praise for their peppy, high-revving characters, sublime manual gearboxes, and tossable, telepathic handling. As opposed to modern Ms that are forced to prioritize power and luxury over dynamics, the M division of the past forged its own path, providing the driver with a heavy dose of fun-loving character without completely compromising practicality. However, all is not lost with the M division of the 21st century–the E46 M3 is a flash from the past of BMW M, a rare combination of all of the finest elements of M cars in a modern, beautiful package. Here’s why.
1) Naturally-Aspirated Character
What is more BMW than a naturally-aspirated straight-six? The E46 M3’s S54 3.2-liter I-6 is the quintessential expression of BMW’s performance focus. Emitting a beautiful, throaty wail through its quad-exhaust all the way to its nearly 8000 RPM redline, the S54 simply begs to be wound out, engaging the driver in ways that few modern engines can. Sure, the F80 M3’s S55 twin-turbo straight-six eclipses the S54’s 333 horsepower and 262 lb.-ft. of torque, but the twin-turbo engine simply can’t captivate the driver like the S54 can. The S55 may reign supreme on paper, but for the intangibles, the E46 M3’s engine can’t be beat.
Though seemingly irrelevant, the size of BMW M cars has grown from Miata-like to truly limousine-esque during the past decade, and the E46 M3 is a friendly reminder that short-wheelbase, narrow-track models provide for the ultimate in driver connection. With a 107.5-inch wheelbase and a track of just 70.1 inches, the E46 M3 is dwarfed by the F80 M3’s 110.7-inch wheelbase and 73.9-inch track. Like the early E30 M3 and even the E39 M5, the E46 M3 simply has less volume to transport, making for tight, responsive, and well-executed dynamics on the street and on the track. The E46 M3 hugs and envelops its driver, allowing for a level of driver awareness that is so characteristic of the M division.
3) Competition Package
Though BMW has issued special-edition variants of nearly every variant of their M cars, the E46 M3’s Competition Package is perfection–as opposed to taking the AMG approach and cramming more power under the hood, the M division prioritized dynamics with the Competition Package. Buyers who checked off the option were treated not only to special 19-inch rims and an Alcantara-lined interior, but also to specially-tuned spring rates and a DSC system, steering rack, and cross-drilled rotors from the M3 CSL, a high-performance variant of the M3 only available in the European market. BMW didn’t simply throw on a turbo or crank up the boost for the Competition Package; they took the subtle, more difficult approach, keeping in mind the emphasis on dynamics that’s associated with some of history’s best M cars.
It’s disappointing to see the pass of normal aspiration and compact dimensions within the M lineup, but given increased global concern with environmental responsibility, the shift is simply a product of the times. Nonetheless, if you want a taste of the sublime M perfection that captivated so many gear heads worldwide, snap up an E46 M3. You won’t be disappointed.
Please enjoy this TFLcar.com video review of the 2015 BMW M3 and M4.
Frank caught automotive fever early in life. Hailing from a long line of car fanatics, he was able to recite the year and model of every car that passed him by age five. His passion and love for the automobile have only grown since then. When not thinking about cars, he is reading, writing, learning, or dreaming about them. His area of expertise is in the realm of German and Italian cars, of which Porsche is a favorite. Frank currently resides in the heart of NASCAR country in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his family. He enjoys driving exotic cars in the beautiful Carolina weather.