E46 BMW M3: Pure Driving Pleasure Done Right

E46 is the internal codename for the M3 that BMW offered between 2000 and 2006, a modern classic that embodies the virtues of its acclaimed predecessors while also pushing the proverbial envelope into a new direction for the high-performance model. The Bavarian automaker previewed the last M3 of the second millennium in September 1999 at the Frankfurt Motor Show, then revealed the series-production coupe half a year later at the Geneva Motor Show in March 2000.
E46 BMW M3 30 photos
Photo: BMW / edited
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Ulf Weidhase, the gentleman who penned the third-generation M3, served as head of design at BMW M and BMW Individual. He's also credited with the six-pot E34 M5 and V8-powered E39 M5. All his M creations follow the same design ethos: power needs to be felt, not shown. In other words, Ulf is the opposite of Marcus Syring, Adrian van Hooydonk, and Domagoj Dukec, who oversaw the design of the snout-grilled G80 M3.

It's not all bad, though. But in comparison to the E46, it's a day-and-night difference in many respects. The G80 spawned the first-ever M3 Touring, a high-performance station wagon that wouldn't have been possible without a feasibility study from the E46 era.

The G81's grandfather is the M3 Touring Concept that BMW M kept a secret for many years. More specifically, 16 years. Publicly unveiled in 2016, the E46-based concept received much positive feedback. That's why the G81 exists today, duking it out with the Audi RS 4 Avant and Mercedes-AMG C 63 T-Modell.

E46 BMW M3 Touring Concept
Photo: BMW

Series production of the third-generation M3 kicked off in September 2000 at the Regensburg assembly plant near Munich, where BMW also made lesser variants of the E46. The coupe was followed by a soft-topped cabriolet in 2001, which bears the same codename. BMW couldn't make a case for a four-door sedan. That decision is best described as a missed opportunity given how many coupes and convertibles were sold globally.

BMW previously offered the E36 M3 as a sedan, a formula that carried over to the V8-powered E90 and the succeeding inline-six F80. The E46 M3 is the final one to feature a naturally-aspirated sixer. Related to both the M54 regular production engine and M50-based S50, the S54 was also used by the Z3 M and Z4 M. Throughout its production life, the S54 came exclusively with a displacement of 3.2 liters, a cast-iron block, and an aluminum-alloy DOHC head.

Measuring 87 millimeters in terms of bore and 91 millimeters in stroke, the M-specific engine is gifted with double VANOS for high-RPM operation, finger-style rocker arms to reduce the reciprocating mass, and a scavenging pump. The latter avoids oil starvation under hard cornering, thus ensuring proper lubrication.

E46 BMW M3 Coupe
Photo: BMW

Capable of operating in normal and sport modes due to electronic throttle control, the S54 is joined by a six-speed manual supplied from Getrag. This generation of the M3 also received the hateful SMG II sequential manual gearbox, which employs a hydraulically actuated clutch rather than a good ol' clutch pedal. A bit jerky at low speeds, the SMG II was exclusive to the CSL. But more on the Coupe Sport Lightweight later.

More powerful and torquier than the E36 M3 Evolution, the E46 M3 belts out 252 kW and 365 Nm. That's 338 horsepower and 269 pound-feet in old money, with power and torque peaking at 7,900 and 4,900 revolutions per minute, respectively. Give it the beans, and the S54 is much obliged to redline at 8,000 rpm.

The sound it makes at full throttle is music to any car enthusiast's ears due to six electronically-controlled throttle bodies. Thanks to a few major upgrades, the CSL-spec engine offers 355 horsepower and 273 pound-feet on full song (make that 265 kW and 370 Nm).

E46 BMW M3 Coupe
Photo: BMW

Both the standard M3 and the more hardcore sibling are fitted with a speed-sensitive LSD out back, dubbed M Differential Lock. Also worthy of note, both use the very same transmission gear ratios: 4.23:1, 2.53:1, 1.67:1, 1:23.1, 1.00:1, 0.83:1, and 3.62:1 for the final drive.

The steel unibody of the E46 is tremendously more rigid than the E36, with BMW promising an improvement of 70 percent. That's all the more impressive due to the longer wheelbase, besting the E36 by 31 millimeters. In terms of suspension technology, we're dealing with MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link rear end.

Stopping power comes courtesy of 325- and 328-millimeter ventilated and cross-drilled rotors, matched with single-piston calipers on all corners. The CSL features larger discs up front. As for wheels, BMW M equipped the E46 with 18- by 8- and 9-inch alloys. The CSL came with 19- by 8.5- and 9.5-inch alloy wheels.

E46 BMW M3 Coupe
Photo: BMW

Although they appear very similar in exterior design, the M3 and CSL are pretty different in many respects. For example, the CSL's roof is made from carbon fiber. This material carries over to the front and rear bumpers. The Coupe Sport Lightweight further sweetens the deal with a reprofiled trunk lid made from glass-fiber reinforced Duroplast and thinner glass for the rear windshield.

Offered in Silver Gray Metallic and Black Sapphire Metallic, the CSL weighs a whopping 185 kilograms (408 pounds) less than the M3. Restricted to 155 miles per hour (250 kilometers per hour) from the factory, the lightweight special edition can easily hit 270 kilometers per hour (168 miles per hour) without a limiter.

Produced over six months between July 2003 and December 2003, the corner-carving CSL originally numbered 1,383 examples, of which 542 units were specified in right-hand drive. The E46-generation M3 ended production in August 2006 with 84,383 copies under its belt. Of those, 29,633 were convertibles.
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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