Past Master: BMW M3 (E46)
It’s time to turn back the clock again as we look at a car that won What Car?'s Coupé of the Year Award four years on the trot: the E46 BMW M3...
What is the greatest generation of BMW M3, perhaps the most famous of BMW's high-performance M cars?
Well, you might argue that that the original E30 version should take top honours given that it was a true homologation racing special. Or perhaps the fourth-generation M3, the E92, deserves the top spot for its wonderfully sonorous V8 engine?
In truth, trying to name a definitive winner is a futile task; it's like attempting to decide on the best James Bond, with everyone having their own favourite. But for us the best of the bunch is the third-generation M3, code-named E46.
Where it all started
Even if you don’t have the slightest interest in motor racing, you might know how the M3 story goes, such is the E30’s legendary reputation.
In order to compete in the fiercely competitive world of Eighties touring cars, BMW CEO Eberhard von Kuenheim asked the engineers at his M division to develop a 3 Series-based racer. However, the rules at the time also demanded that 5000 road going versions be built in the space of 12 consecutive months in order to homologate the car.
In 1985, the finished product was revealed at the Frankfurt motor show. Virtually nothing on the standard E30 3 Series was left untouched. A wider stance front and rear demanded wider wheelarches, a higher top speed required a distinctive rear wing and a newly developed 200bhp 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine resulted in a 0-62mph time of just 6.7sec (in 1985!).
Thankfully, it drove as well as it looked and cleaned up on the race track. And the rest, as they say, is history, with the M3 redefining what we expect from fast road cars.
However, aside from kick-starting the M3 lineage, the E30 also inadvertently scuppered the chances of its successor, the E36 M3. Suffering from an acute case of 'difficult second album' syndrome, the E36 M3 didn’t live up to expectations; it was heavier, softer and ultimately less focused than its predecessor.
So, it was a long wait for the E36’s replacement. But as we said back in 2001, “everything comes to he (or she) who waits”.
What Car? Coupé of the Year – four years running
The E46 M3’s brief was to blend the day-to-day usability of the E36 with the focused edge of the legendary E30. From a visual perspective, it certainly delivered. With wide arches, gills inspired by the iconic 1970s CSL, quad exhaust pipes and a distinctive power bulge rippling out of the aluminium bonnet, there was no mistaking it for a lesser 3 Series Coupé.
However, as with the greatest of M-badged cars, aesthetics came a clear second to the E46’s awe-inspiring driving dynamics. The 3.2-litre straight-six engine from the E36 remained, but power increased to 343bhp, the 0-62mph time came dipped below five seconds and a new rear differential improved handling. Naturally, we couldn’t contain our excitement when it was named our 2001 Performance Car of the Year:
“Everything comes to he (or she) who waits. The M3 is back with a vengeance.
"If the heart of any performance car is its engine, the new M3 is bursting with health. Beneath the power bulge of the aluminium bonnet lies a 3.2-litre straight-six motor that develops 343bhp and 269ft lb of pull, more than two-thirds of which is available at tickover. Although the top speed is restricted to 155mph (and this car piles on speed so easily you’ll be grateful for that), the 0-60mph time comes down to under five seconds.
"But, impressive though those numbers are, they cannot hope to convey the thrills of piloting an M3. At full-throttle acceleration in third and forth gears, the scenery takes off in a fly-past of blurred colours as you frantically refocus your eyes on ever-more-distance points. Or, if you prefer, you can pull away from little more than walking pace in sixth gear. And, as the speed picks up, the rumbling beat at low revs gives way to a roaring wail that could form the soundtrack to some apocalyptic Hollywood epic.
"And, if things aren’t happening fast enough, simply press a button on the dash and the throttle response becomes more immediate, though you’ll need to drive with even more finesse to keep things smooth and tidy. The M3’s power is such that when the going gets damp you’d be able to prompt wheelspin at three-figure speeds but for modern electronics. The honed chassis of the M3 does an admirable job of harnessing all the power and torque, but pushing 343bhp through the rear wheels of a comparatively light car is a surefire way for sideways action without a little additional help.
"What you’re buying with the M3 is a 3 Series Coupé in battledress.”
Simply put, no performance coupé could come close to offering the same blend of talents as the E46 M3. And it didn’t end there, because the E46 won again in 2002, 2003 and 2004, despite new contenders being flung at it every year. No small feat.
What’s the BMW E46 M3 like today?
The car we’re driving here is not only the ultimate iteration of the E46 M3 but it’s also one of the finest limited-run M cars ever produced. The CSL (standing for “Coupé Sport Lightweight”, a moniker first given to the race-winning BMW 3.0 CSL) first arrived in 2003 and wowed the automotive world with its uncompromising track-focused specification.
Using a mixture of carbonfibre-reinforced plastic, sheet-moulding compound and thinner glass for its rear window, the CSL weighed just 1385kg – 110kg less than the standard M3. But M’s detail-obsessed engineers didn’t stop there.
The suspension received stiffer springs and shocks, track-focused Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tyres were designed specifically for BMW and the engine was comprehensively retuned (changes included modified camshafts, exhaust valves and a lightweight exhaust system), resulting in 355bhp at a heady 7,900rpm. It’s an approach to tuning that we’re rather used to today, but back in 2003 this kind of lightweight ‘special’ was the sole preserve of supercar manufacturers.
However, don’t go thinking that the CSL feels run of the mill in today’s track-focused world. Far from it. As you slip into the upright bucket seats, close the carbonfibre-lined door and place your hands on the Alcantara-covered steering wheel, the CSL feels every bit the thoroughbred race car – a feeling that becomes heightened once you turn the key.
Equipped exclusively with an automated manual SMG gearbox, the car chunters a bit off the line when cold; like a learner trying to find the biting point. A modern-day dual-clutch gearbox would put it to shame on road and track, but if you select manual mode and learn how to work your way around its shortcomings (lifting off the accelerator when you upshift, for example, makes the upshifts smoother), it’s possible to make decent progress.
Once the road opens up, however, the gearbox’s woes are easily forgiven. In a world of turbocharged performance cars, the M3’s naturally aspirated engine is a breath of fresh air. Throttle response is virtually instantaneous and, thanks to a vast carbonfibre air box beneath the bonnet, the engine sounds utterly glorious on its way to an 8200rpm redline.
And the best bit is that none of it is synthesised. No augmentation, no speakers playing fake exhaust notes – just a beautiful intake howl, accompanied by a serrated metallic rasp from the lightweight exhaust. Perhaps BMW’s current engineers need to have a listen to their back catalogue.
A lack of interference also pervades through to the CSL’s handling. The steering feels quick and delicate with the rim positively bristling with information, giving you the confidence to push on in the kind of low-grip conditions we’re experiencing this winter. And despite the CSL feeling more comfortable on smoother bitumen, the hardcore springs and dampers do a surprisingly good job of dealing with undulating B-roads.
In short, the CSL provides the kind of raw and engaging driving experience that is simply missing from today’s best M cars. And to think it only cost £58,000 in 2003. It makes the flawed £120,770 M4 GTS look a little silly, no?
How much do they cost now?
The good news is that the standard E46 M3 has hit the bottom of its depreciation curve. Early examples can be had for less than £8000, although we would recommend staying well clear of SMG-equipped variants. The bad news is that servicing costs can be more than 30% higher than for any other 3 Series, so it pays to find a clean example.
The later and highly sought after M3 CS (a halfway house between the hardcore CSL and standard M3) starts at just below £18,000, rising to £40,000 for particularly low-mileage examples.
Unsurprisingly, with just 422 right-hand-drive CSLs brought into the UK (of which 316 were silver-grey and 106 black), prices have remained firm. For a mint-condition model in the ‘correct spec’, expect to pay more than £60,000, with some higher-mileage cars hovering around the £40,000 mark. These are now considered to be true collector cars and therefore you pay for the privilege.
For all the latest reviews, advice and new car deals, sign up to the What Car? newsletter here
Prefer something modern?
The most recent M3 was recently discontinued, but there are plenty of exciting alternatives if you're shopping for a new performance car. Here we count down our top 10 – and reveal the models to avoid.
10. Porsche Panamera Sport Turismo
If you're after effortless performance, an estate-style body and the ultimate badge appeal, then look no further than Porsche's Panamera Sport Turismo. Just don't expect it to shift a wardrobe, because its boot has a 425-litre capacity, compared with the RS6's 565 litres.
9. Mercedes-AMG C43
This is a softer, less focused (and cheaper) alternative to the riotous C63 models, but it's still far from a slouch, thanks to a 385bhp turbocharged V6. It sounds fantastic when you rev is hard, too, but is unsurprisingly pretty thirsty.
8. Porsche Panamera
We actually prefer the regular Panamera to the Sport Turismo, because it costs less, is slightly better to drive and it's very nearly as practical. Both cars ride surprisingly well by performance car standards.
Best performance cars 2021
First and foremost, great performance cars are entertaining to drive, but they also have to be suitable for everyday use. So which are the best and worst?
Citroën C4 long-term test review
The Citroën C4 family hatchback was recently reinvented to become a coupé SUV. We've already lived with the electric car version, but now we're seeing how the petrol compares