The E46 (2000-2006) is in many people’s eyes, the most ‘three series’ three series. The E46 M3 continues to hold it’s ground against wave upon wave of cars that should be better. The convertible adds weight, but also injects more of everything the M3 is about.
From the inside, it’s all regular three series. There’s a few M badges around, but it’s all familiar.
It does what you want, when you want it. Since it never had much to say, it hasn’t aged like a recently excevated tweet. It’s uncontroversial, and not trying very hard. That all makes sense, because you aren’t going to be looking at it very much.
The steering wheel has some controls you would have loved fifteen years ago, but most of them are still relevant. I’m still not sure what any of the buttons next to the volume rocker do.
The gauge cluster is conventional three series, tracing it’s lineage back to the E21, the first generation. Although the basic layout is now more than forty years old, it still holds up. The real-time fuel economy gauge in a regular E46 is replaced with one that reads the oil temperature. The gauge’s faces are also now grey, instead of the usual black.
Then, if it’s your first time sitting in an M3, you’ll see it.
The S54 is angry. It breathes through six individual throttle bodies, with lightning responsiveness. It’s induction rasp is like a piece of screaming titanium. It pulls all the way to its 8000 RPM redline, peak horsepower getting the last word at 7900 RPM. Peak torque is reached at 5000 RPM, much higher than the turbocharged M3 motors of today.
Although the engine does need to be kept up high to maintain its potency, it never gives any indication it doesn’t want to be there. Sometimes you’ll look down at the tachometer, and the eight looks back. It’s tempting you to do bad things.
The chassis is balanced, and not precariously either. Any loss of traction, whether intentional or unintentional, is handled with ease. The steering speaks to you, with nothing lost in translation.
The ride makes you wish for smoother roads. When the road isn’t smooth, it isn’t comfortable. When it is, the ride is ideal. Body roll is minimal, and any that you do sense is there to tell you something.
This car is a convertible. At the cost of a few hundred pounds, you get a different M3 in return. Although slower, and less suited to hard-core driving than it’s coupe counterpart, the convertible gives you more sound from the S54, more visibility, and better awareness of whats around you. You pay for this in performance, but the trade isn’t for nothing.
If any vehicle ever gave the sensation of having some sort of ‘secret sauce’ this car is it. Newer M3s have more power, less bushings, they’re more sophisticated, but they aren’t better.
The ‘secret sauce’ of the M3 isn’t really a secret at all. When you put your foot down, everything around you disappears. The interior is subdued because it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t look like anything special, because it doesn’t matter. All that’s left is you and your German friend.
The only thing you’re looking at is the road in front of you. All of your other senses are busy, too. You are consumed by the driving experience. You ask for more and it gives it to you. You take it too far? It won’t give you a fish, but it will certainly teach you how.
The secret of the M3 experience is that it’s really not about the car.
It’s about you.