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May 12, 2011

Living with an M3

by JHW

It started on a school bus in late 1994, as I played my usual car-spotting game, I caught a glimpse of a bright yellow object closing in fast… it got bigger, bigger, and then flew by with a high pitched (yet somehow deep) exotic wail.  I had seen my first E36 M3… it looked so muscular and special.  I think that’s the word that comes to mind when I think of M3’s to this day… they are special.

There is something about a proper M car, something that feels right.  Sure, there are faster (C63), more sure-footed (RS4) and certainly cheaper options… but the M3 is the benchmark for the segment, and the one that puts it all together best.  Current variants don’t give me the organic “part of the machine” experience that a Porsche does, however, it delivers the goods and with little to no compromise.  Shortly after launch, the S65 motored M cars were available in nearly every configuration.  Coupe, convertible, sedan… 3-pedal manual or DCT flappy paddle – how do want yours?  I considered one, and visited my local dealer to check out an E92 (Coupe) in Space Grey with a black interior and 6 speed manual.  As I pulled away from the lot, I was surprised to feel removed from the road, how electric the steering felt, how much bulk I was carrying with me.  But that motor… oh man, that motor makes up for all of it!  It sounds mechanically angry as it revs to the ceiling, torquier and happier as the needle swings clockwise… I found myself downshifting just to hear the exhaust pop, and when the revs matched, burying the throttle and riding a thick wave of torque… reaching down for another gear, click, boom!  They got me again, almost.  I chose to stick with my 911, as it just does it for me in a way that the M did not.   However, I can see why there are those who have made the switch, as the M truly lives up to it’s promise as a sports car you can enjoy everyday.  The one’s I couldn’t pass on however, explain why I even considered a beefed up 3 series to replace my beloved Porsche to begin with.

From the moment I first spotted that Dakar Yellow E36, I knew I had to try one, and four long years later, a 1995 Boston Green M3 was mine!  I had come out of  American Muscle, and couldn’t believe the differences in the chassis tightness and throttle response from my outgoing 4.6 liter Mustang Cobra.  I quickly joined the BMWCCA and started to attend trackdays… a college student at the time (Go Sun Devils!) I had a bit of free time, year round summer, and access to local tracks – PIR and Firebird.  Both proved to be perfect entry to the sport, as there are no major elevation changes on either.  The E36 was a terrific tool for feeling things out, as it felt nimble and predictable, but tail happy enough to let me know the learning curve was indeed steep.  I spent roughly three years with this car, replacing OEM bits with nearly every part from the DINAN catalog, but never loved the car more than I did as it left the dealership.  I did however succeed in building a car that was too raw for the street, and too loud for the track.  I gave the car up in 2001, and stayed away until the competition package was introduced for E46 generation cars in 2005.

The E46 M3 was a different proposition than it’s predecessor, and in typical M car fashion – the latest M3 is always bashed for it’s unnecessary weight and gadgetry until ultimately, everyone falls in love with it and begs BMW not to stray in it’s next iteration.  I was an early doubter of the package, ranting on about how BMW had again abandon enthusiasts and lacked an understanding of why we bought their products.  And then I drove one.  When the ZCP package was announced with it’s CSL-like wheels, quicker steering ratio and alcantara rimmed steering wheel – I had to have one!  Mine was Silver over black, manual (of course!) and equipped with Harman Kardon audio and requisite navigation.  Early on, I found the E46 M to be a car that did a lot of things very well, but nothing exceptionally.  It was quick, but not fast… handled well, but lacked the precision of my former E36, and sounded like it was wounded whenever driven hard.  The rasp of the S54 motor is a defining characteristic – love it or hate it, yet it seems to fit the muscular, aggressively wide-arched nature of the car.  Because I have trouble leaving well enough alone, I took to the aftermarket to address what I felt were the weakest points.  In came a DINAN ECU, short shifter & exhaust as well as a Brembo GT kit for all four corners (6 piston monobloc, 380mm front / 4 piston, 355 mm rears), and 15mm front / 10mm rear H&R spacers to maintain my OEM wheels.  Now the car was ready!  Sadly, I never got to the track, but I conquered most dream sequence roads in Southern California, took several road trips, and drove it everyday, rain or shine… the M3 handled everything I threw at it, and felt great in the process.

You have likely read the performance figures and driving dynamics of the E46 M3 countless times, I will fill in the gaps – what’s it like to own one.  I would be remiss to start without addressing the negative I encountered.  My car dropped it’s differential before reaching 10,000 miles.  That’s it!  Not to say such a thing should happen, but one of the joys of purchasing a BMW is the ease of service.  I hit the SOS button near the sunroof, told the operator I was in need of a flatbed – and within an hour, I was towed to the dealership where a 3 series loaner was waiting.  Otherwise, I enjoyed 27,000 flawless miles of motoring.  Of course there are those who have had lesser experiences, mine was a cake walk.

The E46 M3 was as useable as a sports coupe can be… the huge trunk swallowed golf bags, the rear seats split 60/40 and folded down for transportation of larger objects.  The interior wore well, and looked as new when the new owner picked it up. I constantly got compliments on how handsome a car it was, and I will admit to doing the over the shoulder glance most times when walking away from it.  The brakes (though far from stock) were amazing, and I feel this was money well spent… a car of this caliber should not use ancient technology on such a crucial element of safety and performance (sliding calipers, really BMW?).  The DINAN exhaust sounded great, really fit the character of the car by deepening the tone and slightly raising the volume – if I had it to do over again, I would skip the ECU “upgrade”.  The short shifter (rumored to be a modified stock shift mechanism) was superb, and well worth the spend – even if the rumors of it’s origin proved true.

The day it’s new owner flew in to claim the car, I took it for a final detail.  A hot rod with two older men pulled alongside me at a light, looked over and shouted “gorgeous!”… they were right, and at that moment, I wondered if I was doing the right thing.  The good thing about M cars, there will always be another – and it will likely be even better than the last.

1995 E36 M3

THE GOOD:  Bulletproof (3.0 liter), fantastic current day performance bargain, rev happy motor, nimble, M cars age well in the eyes of history

THE BAD:  check the VANOS before buying one, interior ages poorly, paint quality abhorrent

2005 E46 M3 (ZCP)

THE GOOD:  Those fenders, ITB’s, a true everyday sports coupe, throttle response is phenomenal, a modern classic?

 THE BAD:  Expensive to buy in, horrendous resale value, they are seemingly everywhere, shifter could use work, Harman Kardon system is not worth the upcharge, raspy exhaust note is love / hate

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