I revisit one of BMW’s most famous M cars and ask how good it is after more than a decade since its release. Here’s my review…

  • 3.2-litre naturally aspirated inline-six
  • 343 bhp and 269 lb-ft of torque
  • 0-62 mph in 5.1 seconds and a top speed of 155 mph
  • Six-speed manual or six-speed SMG gearbox
  • Rear-wheel drive drivetrain

Performance and gearbox

The E46 comes with a 343 bhp 3.2-litre naturally aspirated inline-six engine capable of 0-62 mph in 5.1 seconds and a limited top speed of 155 mph. Now I know that it probably doesn’t sound like all that much these days, however when the car launched there was literally nothing like it. For comparison, a 2013 335i is a 3.0-litre turbo inline-six and that only gets 306 bhp, so for BMW to get even more power out of an engine without a turbo, just about sums up how damn impressive the E46 M3 is. I did actually put a 335i against an E46 M3 which yielded some surprising results, you can check the video out here.

BMW launched the M3 with a choice of either a six-speed manual or six-speed SMG gearbox. Naturally the manual is brilliant because BMW produce fantastic manual gearboxes, but the SMG is quite a contentious issue among the community. A lot of people hate them and I can see why; they’re unpredictable, they change gears at inappropriate times, and they’re just generally not enjoyable to use. However when you move the gearbox to manual mode opposed to auto, it’s absolutely brilliant. When you’re in control of the gear changes and let the gearbox just do them for you, it becomes a joy to use.

Oh and one last point on the engine… that exhaust. I will never tire of hearing that note. It is absolutely priceless and one of those sounds that is synonymous with this car and this car only. There is nothing to date that sounds like it, and I love that.

Star rating: ★★★★★

BMW M3 2003 E46 - Rear

Handling and drive

A lot of people point to the M3’s engine as the main reason for its success, but an engine really is only as good as the car’s ability to point it in any given direction – and that’s where the M3 excels. The chassis is a perfect mixture of rigidity and fluidity. It gives you confidence when you need to push it hard but also gives a small amount of freedom through it’s limited-slip differential that makes it a fantastic car to drive.

Better yet, when you pop the car into Sport it simply kicks that all up a notch. The improved throttle response combined with the stiffer suspension allows you do things with the car that you really shouldn’t be able to do. You have got to be careful not to get carried away because the rear-end really could go at any moment, but even now the E46 M3 stacks up really well against most modern sports cars on the road.

Star rating: ★★★★★

BMW M3 2003 E46 - Side

Styling

I love these look of these cars. That’s it. Done.

Seriously though, the E46 M3 is a thing of sheer beauty. The wide arches, the four exhausts, the aggressive front bumper – everything oozes character. The way this car drives is great, but the way it looks is even better. It just has so much attraction that even now over 10 years later, it’s still a head turner. That says it all for me.

Star rating: ★★★★★

BMW M3 2003 E46 - Front

Interior and spec

I appreciate that the interior in this car probably looks a bit outdated now, but even still it’s a really nice interior. At the time it launched I remember thinking just how modern it looked, and now it’s still somewhat reminiscent of that. The steering wheel is great to use and offers a lot of feedback, the dashboard is typical BMW in the sense that it’s driver focused, and the leather seats are still lovely to both look at and sit in.

Star rating: ★★★★★

BMW M3 2003 E46 - Interior

Conclusion

For as long as I can remember, the M3 has always been the defining car of BMW’s M division. Okay they’ve put out some incredible cars over the years, like the E39 M5 or E26 M1 for example, but since BMW launched the E30 M3, the car has been an icon. Now if you was to go and ask somebody which M3 is the epitome of that model, the majority of people would say the E46.

I think that’s the biggest compliment I can give this car. BMW M have produced some brilliant cars for over 40 years and even now this is regarded as one of, if not the best car they ever built. Don’t get me wrong, every generation they improve and the new one is no doubt better in every statistical way, but it’s not all about numbers. This is the most loved M3 ever, and if you’re considering buying one, get it now – you won’t regret it.

Star rating: ★★★★★

Calvin Fehr

I'm a car fanatic that buys cars, sells cars, reviews cars and does pretty much anything else to do with cars. I drive different cars daily from Fords to Ferraris, and video myself on my journeys to and from work.

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