BMW E46 M3
Magic comes in many forms, but for six years the engineers at BMW held it in their hands, and they sold it with a warranty.
There's a button that catches the eye as you swoop down into the driver's seat of this BMW M3 from 2004. A shuffle of your rear gets you comfy followed by the usual feel around to familirise with the controls. It has been a long time since I was last perched behind the blue and white badge of an E46, yet still, that button holds my gaze. This generation 3-series always feels like a welcome home, not least for having owned one over a decade ago, but because the driver dynamics remind you of a benchmark. You sit exactly as every car should be made to make you position yourself and the steering wheel, a round and uncluttered affair, is thick with the weight of a proper hydraulic connection to the tyres. The thick steering wheel annoys some, but the E46 M3 suits the chunkiness, and for those with larger hands it allows you to grip without wrapping your fingers around on your own hand meaning you can take a tighter hold when really pushing whilst also giving the driver the ability to soften their grasp slightly when the car powers out of any trouble you may have got yourself in. Having been with shorter drivers that say the same it is clear that the E46 just is the right size car, with the right about of adjustment in positioning to allow a large range of body shapes and sizes behind the wheel. This may be of little interest to some, but it reminds you every time you get in that this is from the era that BMW really did make the Ultimate Driving Machines. Some in Munich may still hold that phrase dear, but tougher to discover when stepping in newer variants adorned with screens, size and weight gains, and gigantic power beyond what can be exploited on the road.
If you've already started to think about buying an M3 check out our BMW E46 buyers guide
A twist of the key gives the five incremental lights on the rev counter, the later six, seven, and eight remain off, a warning not to try and reach the apex of power on offer until everything is suitably warmed up; my eye finally leaves the button on the dash and stares at the road ahead.
The further the revs rise the more you appreciate the mechanicals at work
On offer, once the car is ready, will be 343bhp but far away from the headline figure the E46 generation reminds you that as a driver there are bags of fun to be had nowhere near the top of the rev range. My route begins with a dash out of a village up to 60mph, the road is still to be repaired from the recent frosts and so I cruise along and take to twisty sections with vigilance, making sure to avoid any particularly nasty potholes. Moments pass sweeping in and out of curves, dipping the speed just slightly knowing we are well within the car's limits and briskly accelerating in the first half of each gear. The experience isn't terrifying, and it doesn't make me want to make a silly facial expression for a youtube thumbnail. Instead, I get the feeling that great cars give you. It's located just beneath the skin. This is where a road tester earns their paycheque by conveying a message to a reader that is between the lines, an irrefutable feeling of passion that the English language has bypassed in its creation when attempting to dissect it and implant in others that aren't there with you. My best attempt is the poor analogy that it is like waking up and finding yourself elated at being alive, not because you don't expect to be, but because you remember that one day you won't be around to see the world, smell the flowers, and be present to our giant globe. In that, we forget about all that irks us like a clean fresh spring breeze blustering through a dark stuffy room. The debates about whatever nonsense people have lost themselves in vanish, and we are reminded that our time is limited.
After this philosophical detour all the lights above the rev counter have illuminated, and just in time for a favourite strip of tarmac that I know has faired the winter weather without a new divot or scar. Still, the M button that had caught my eye looks back at me, the tiny green light remaining off.
Opening up a straight-six through a manual gearbox rivals any of the best for driving pleasure. BMW engineer a slightly rubbery feel to their gearchange which is a world away from the mechanical slick feeling of a Mazda MX-5, but the Getrag unit beats any SMG variant by a wide margin. The further the revs rise the more you appreciate the mechanicals at work. There is some computer wizardry happening, but it feels distant as if it is sat in the corner of a room reading a book and would only step in to avoid absolute disaster and not a moment sooner. The aural reward for sticking with a gear makes the shift onward sweeter, you don't necessarily want to go faster, but you want to be rewarded again, and again, and again.
At a stop with a choice of a tight narrow lane to my left or open straighter roads to my right, there would be little choice in this car's successors. The E46 is trim enough to be pointed at the narrower lane knowing that it won't dart you straight to illegal speeds and then leave you questioning your choices as you reach the first tight bend and realise that however good the artificial steering is, it still leaves you lacking crucial information, not to mention that wider track and heavier body that can only be computer-controlled with the physics by it was created. It is here most drivers find their skills distinctly lacking and a slice of humble pie just a whisker from their teeth. No such worry in the E46, and finally I push the button.
Those used to modern machines that morph like a Power Ranger upon a couple of taps of a touchscreen to amp up the modes will be underwhelmed. The throttle sharpens and the car feels completely awake, but you don't get an extra fifty horsepower, or a boost setting. It is subtle by today's standards, and also exactly what you want. The back end slips nearly immediately on the corner exit as modulating the throttle needs to be recalibrated by your right shoe. The slide that follows is small, almost a non-event, but that isn't to say it is easily controlled. You, the driver, need to be a participant, the car won't throw you a monopoly card to get you out of jail, it will work with you but not for you. The sharp feedback means that you can be a helpful member of the team too. Ther is none of the sawing at the wheel that some people deem car control as the electronic aids come to rescue them because they planted their foot on a less than ideal road surface and forget that once mass is moving it is a skill to control it.
Further on the M3 sings. A well-sighted stretch comes up ahead and allows for full throttle, then a touch of brakes, just enough to shift a little weight to the front tyres, the car communicates when you have enough weight placed onto the nose for sufficient grip, and you can then reengage the throttle, push a little harder if you want some slip, or hold it steady to make blistering pace.
The whole experience is over rather quickly, and on the cruise back a newer F80 series M4 decides that he should show some road dominance with a pop of exhaust as he passes. I wonder if he has ever taken himself along a skinny lane on a sunny day just for the hell of it. The experience would doubtlessly be more nervous with the increased speed and weight over the rather lithe E46. Perhaps we have all wandered away from driving pleasure today, in search of a new thrill, a new buzz, forgetting that numbers are only exciting on a specification sheet. In the real world, they tell you little more than how quickly your fun will end as you are catapulted forward to well over the speed limit. A spritely feeling would be enough, but manufacturers became convinced by the marketing power of the horsepower wars several decades ago. Not so bad when you are fighting over who can reach three hundred horsepower first, a little different when conversations are punctuated by double that. You can have fun at 40mph, as I'm sure many of you will know. Tomorrow will bring a whole new host of cars, and with it, hopefully, a new line of enthusiasts, I hope they get to enjoy something like this, the BMW E46 M3, it was a cracker out the box, but what it has done is prove that enjoyment isn't a numbers game.
A note from Miles.
The E46 M3 is one of those cars that I have written down on my shortlist. The list of cars that should I ever have the spare space and bank balance I would buy and never want to sell. Take nothing away from the older or more recent M3's, they are all great in their own way, but the bloodline seems a little disturbed recently. If the M3 were an athlete, it started as the skinny energetic teenager E30, then packed on some size and muscle in the E36 and moved into its prime for the E46. The E92 added more bulk as the latter of the prime years marched on until the F80 arrived and felt like an established player turning up to an event as a winner with nothing more to prove. The latest generation G80 made many promises. Were we to see a Michael Jordan returning after retirement to come back and silence anyone that has stopped believing. You'll have to make up your own mind there. I just hope our best motoring days are still ahead of us, it's always easier to view the past with a nostalgic glow, but if we did before, we can do it again.