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Haunted Highways: The Never Out-Of-Date Performance of BMW's E46 M3

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On: Fri, Oct 2, 2015 at 10:05AM | By: Lou Ruggieri

Haunted Highways: The Never Out-Of-Date Performance of BMW's E46 M3

In this day and age, car styles seem to come and go as quickly as iPhone models. As soon as you get the new one, there's a commercial out saying that your new one is now the old one, and the real new one is on its way. Carmakers have been frustrating consumers for years with that same tactic. You spend thousands of dollars on a very carefully thought out decision, and before the down payment check clears, there's already a newer model on its way to make your hard earned car obsolete.

But every now and then, a carmaker creates something that is so special, it stands the test of time. Not surprisingly, BMW accomplished this task, either willingly or not, with the third generation of its venerable M3. The code-named E46 was created from 2001 until 2006 and put the M3 on the map as a world-class performer, and all-around all-star. Not only did the new for 2000 M3 look the part, with a lowered stance, aggressive front fascia, bigger, wider wheels and tires, and trademark M-style quad exhaust, but it also had plenty of bark to back up its bite.

Keeping with BMW's historical preference to make its performance cars all naturally aspirated, the M3 engine was a thing of beauty. The S54 inline six-cylinder engine was nothing short of an mechanical masterpiece. At only 3.2 liters, the potent six sported forged connecting rods, graphite-coated cast aluminum pistons, and a forged crankshaft. The engine used six individual throttle bodies as well as Variable Nockenwellensteuerung, (or VANOS for those of us who never spoke more German than what we learned from Volkswagen commercials), which simply stood for variable valve timing in BMW guise. Drive-by-wire was also used in favor of the traditional cable-style throttle control. In US form, the M3 engine pumped out a whopping 333 horsepower at an almost unfathomable 7900 rpm (keep in mind this is 2001 and few production cars outside of Italy were capable of creating power at such lofty engine speeds. Despite its high rpm nature, the M3 engine also managed to create 262 ft-lb of torque at 4900 rpm, which was plenty to help the M3 get-up-and-go. The S54 engine boasted the highest specific output of any engine to ever get dropped into a BMW model. So amazing was the S54, it won the International Engine of the Year award in 2001.

Backing up that magnificent engine was a choice of transmission: Either a 6-speed Getrag manual or a paddle-shifted SMG II semi-automatic tranny that, although was a bit clunky before it got warmed up, was again, very ahead of its time for the turn of the millennium. Funneling all that power to the rear wheels, and having to push only about 3,400 pounds, the sporty Bimmer was able to post some very impressive acceleration numbers. 0-60 mph came up in a best of 4.8 seconds for the manual coupe, 100 mph in 11.7 seconds, and the quarter mile in 13.3 seconds at 104 mph with a top speed that was limited to 155 mph (which it could very easily hit without much effort). SMG and convertible acceleration numbers were just a few ticks behind those posted by the stick shift hard top. The E46 posted a best of 0.89 g around a skidpad, and could stop from 60 mph in a very impressive 109 feet.

The E46 M3 was more than the sum of its parts, however—it conveyed an almost perfect balance of style, speed, and sophistication for a price tag that rarely exceeded 40 grand. Potential owners can have a relatively good example of one now for a price tag in the mid-twenty thousand range, depending on mileage and year. The only real problem to be wary of is that even though the S54 engine was nothing short of spectacular, it was prone to rod bearing failure due to faulty connecting rod bottom-end bearing shells, which at 8000 rpm could cause catastrophic engine damage. Most M3 model repairs were covered under warranty, and the problem was rectified by the factory on models made after June of 2003.

If you are lucky enough to get (or have had) your hands on one of these mechanical marvels, the E46 M3 has been, and will continue to be one of the most beautiful enduring designs we have seen in many years. And even though technology will continue to change and progress, the E46 M3 stands frozen in time as a testament to the idea that, sometimes, a car can come along that captures our hearts and imaginations and keeps them, no matter how much things around it change.

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