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The BMW M3 Wagon Is Nearly Here, but We Almost Got One More Than Two Decades Ago
The 2023 model year will mark the debut of the first series-production M3 to feature a wagon body style. However, BMW toyed with the idea of releasing one back in 2000 when a secret E46 prototype was built and tested.

The BMW M3 Wagon Is Nearly Here, but We Almost Got One More Than Two Decades Ago

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Since its debut in 1986 as a compact homologation special, the M3 has become a high-performance icon. The first generation was only available as a two-door, four-seat coupe, or convertible, but for the second iteration codenamed E36, a four-door sedan was introduced.

In the autumn of 2000, it was time for an all-new M3 based on the upgraded E46 chassis. While the sedan version was dropped, BMW M researched the feasibility of a rabid wagon that would be better suited to compete against the Audi RS4.

Like its successor, the epic 1994-1995 RS2 co-developed with Porsche, the new high-performance RS4 was only available as a five-door wagon. Such a vehicle makes little sense to some, yet a surprising number of European enthusiasts quickly fell in love with the combination between sports car-like performance and practicality. The M division experimented with this formula during the lifespan of the E34 M5, but never considered it for the smaller M3.

In the early months of 2000, as the E46 M3 was preparing to enter production, engineers took a wagon (officially dubbed Touring) chassis and proceeded to convert it into a full-blown, M-badged monster.

Fitting the S54 inline-six and Getrag 420G 6-speed manual gearbox was a breeze. However, the rest of the hardware and body modifications weren’t as easy to adapt as one might think.

The chassis had to be strengthened in key areas to attain the rigidity of the standard M3. The structure was also equipped with stiffer springs and shocks as well as an M-developed braking system.

The biggest challenge that the development team encountered was fitting the rear axle conceived for the coupe and convertible to the wagon body without compromising cargo space, which wasn’t that abundant, to begin with. Even in standard guise, the E46 Touring was rear-wheel-driven, so it had a bulky differential that took up a little room.

Fortunately, the M3’s limited-slip differential was transplanted without major chassis modifications and the trunk configuration was unaltered. Nevertheless, the widened axle and 18-inch Style 67 wheels required a complete revamp of the rear wheel arches. Recreating the shape of those from the M3 coupe and convertible was considered, but that would have involved a complete redesign of the rear doors, a move that would only increase production costs. In the end, M designers managed to create new quarters with bulged arches that were compatible with the standard rear doors. They were complemented by a new rear bumper with dual exhausts that looked like the one on the M3 coupe but also had to be specifically developed to fit the Touring chassis.

The need for redesigned components didn’t end there. The hood, front bumper, side skirts, side mirrors, and wider front fenders with their unique side vents were built from scratch for the wagon as those from the coupe or convertible didn’t fit.

Inside, the M3 gauges and steering wheel were carried over with ease. Recaro had to slightly modify the front seats which were unique to the M3 and folded in the standard body styles. The buckets, as well as the rear bench, were upholstered in a mix of Alcantara and a novel material with a metallic look that the manufacturer called F1.

Finished in a special Chrome Shadow metallic paint, the M3 Touring was completed after several months of grueling work and was subsequently put to the test in various conditions. Unfortunately, BMW management decided that a high-performance wagon was not what the brand’s enthusiasts were looking for, so the car went into storage. A chosen few knew about its existence, and it was only revealed to the public in 2016. By that time, the e46 had become one of the most successful M cars ever, in terms of sales, despite being succeeded by two new versions. Many fans of the model praised the outrageousness of the wagon and blasted the Bavarians for deciding against a production run.

Thankfully, BMW came to its senses with the current G80 model, which is set to be the first M3 that can be had as a wagon (G81). Despite its controversial front end, the car looks absolutely amazing (even with a camouflage wrap) and European fans (myself included) can’t wait to see it in dealerships. Sadly, it won’t be available in North America, but that could change thanks to wagon fanatics who have started an online petition to get the Germans to change their mind.

 
 
 
 
 

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