A mostly complete guide on purchasing the Ultimate Driving Machine. Don't Panic.
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What is this, and why do I need one?
This, dear readers, is BMW's ode to induction noise, lateral-Gs and tire smoke. It's your high-school sweetheart frozen in time, before they had a chance to gain 35 pounds and pursue that career in door-to-door knife sales. It's a capable daily driver, weekend toy and track harlot rolled into one timeless, (mostly) analog package.
Underneath its bulging hood lay the final form of BMW's race-derived naturally aspirated inline-6 S54 engine, making 333 horsepower, winding out to over 8000 rpm, with a torque curve flatter than a tone-deaf American Idol contestant. It gets from a stop to 60 MPH in less time than it took you to read this sentence. Here's everything you need to know about this astonishing platform.
There are two gearbox options: The manual 6-speed, and the SMG 6-speed. Let's cut to the chase - you want the manual. The SMG trips over its untied shoelaces when in traffic, and although it can be quite fun when approaching the speed limit, its affinity for eating clutches on hard launches and its inability to keep the SMG pump working for a prolonged time make it something to skip completely.
There were also two body options: The coupe and convertible. I'll save you some time here again - you want the coupe. Not only is the convertible less flowing aesthetically, it's heavier and not as rigid as its slim coupe sister.
Pictured: This is like putting a Wonderbra on Kate Upton. She definitely doesn't need it, and the end result is arguably worse than when you started.
The interior isn't spartan, but it's not something that would be considered fully loaded by BMW's standards. The base interior is dyed leatherette material covering a mildly-bolstered sports seat. Above that, there's a Nappa heated leather option with matching door panels and interior accents in colors ranging from "Mom paid for this" black to "More than you can afford, pal" burnt orange.
After 2004, the ZCP Competition Package was introduced, which gave the interior a bit of the european CSL flair, including alcantara steering wheel accents, shift knob, and gave the chassis upgraded steering, braking, and a upgraded 19" wheels all around. In my mind, this was BMW's way of making up for the neutered E36 M3 . I guess it's a start.
BMW went back to basics with the electronics in this car, as they only offered a 1-zone climate control in the E46, when the E36 had a dual-zone climate as standard. The base audio system was a BMW business CD, with options for a navigation (Widescreen DVD available on '02+ models), and a Harman Kardon premium upgraded speaker option available.
The efficient and responsive engine delivers very not-bad fuel economy, with some manual gearbox owners reporting just shy of 30 MPG highway, and just shy of 20 in the city.
How much can I expect to pay for it?
At the time of writing, based on my expert opinion, in no way pulling figures out of my nether stinky bits, I'd say the market has reached its bottom and they're as cheap as they'll ever be, considering mileage, options, and any mechanical issues. With just under 44,000 units sold in the US between 2001 and 2006, there's no shortage of examples to be had in the market.
To understand how much to pay for a specific example of car, I'll rank on a scale between 1 and 4, called the Car's Roadworthiness, Aesthetics and Performance, or C.R.A.P.
1. The Unicorn: A 1-owner car with ridiculously low mileage, garaged exclusively. It has a full dealer service history and the owner is extremely pedantic and sentimental about ownership. The car is flawless inside and out and has had all work performed by qualified professionals. The receipts for the maintenance and repair work completed are in chronological order in a 3-ring binder and possibly laminated, and all original materials are accounted for. This is a car that is devalued when it leaves the garage.
Price range: $20,500 - $30,000+, depending on location and options.
2: The Prize Possession: A car that has been maintainted by its owner at or above the standards set by the manufacturer. The only thing keeping this car from being a 1 are some threadbare details or details that could use some reconditioning, due to wear and tear. Mileage is relatively low, but not so low that you might mistake it for a car left in storage since new. A low number of owners and mostly available service history let you know this car was cared for well by all previous owners. A nearly perfect car.
Price range: $15,500 - $20,500, depending on location and options.
3. The Value Meal: A car that is average condition for the age, with miles being fairly acceptable. This car may or may not have service history, but shows no signs of major mechanical or cosmetic damage. It will need some reconditioning to get anywhere close to a 2 in terms of appearance. The title is clean, but may have a larger number of owners with a questionable history. It'll require some more money after the initial purchase, but it's a solid foundation and warrants an in-depth look, if not an outright purchase after inspection. Most cars will be in this category.
Price range: $10,500 - $15,500, depending on location and options.
4. The Dumpster Fire: A car that is a flat tire away from being totalled. This car will need major mechanical or cosmetic reconditioning to be presentable and driveable. This car may need to be towed, and may have a salvage title or major accidents in its past. Stay away unless you know what you're doing, or you want a parts car.
Price range: $6,500 - $10,500, depending on location and options.
Is it expensive to maintain?
Yes, and no.
Regular maintenance can be a bit more than on a regular pleb person's car, but it's not astronomical. Just as I wrote in my article about used luxury cars , this car requires an oil made specifically for BMW M cars, Castrol 10W60. A full oil change, if you're not doing it yourself, can run you around $150. If you can manage to turn a wrench in the right direction, you can save about a third of that.
Other than general maintenance, prices on parts are reasonable and there are enough aftermarket suppliers and community supporters that anything you need should be relatively easy to come by if you're willing to hold out for a deal. Expect around $700-$900 in regular maintenance each year, with $1500 every 3 years for a major service, such as valve adjustment and clutch.
What problems should I look out for?
The E46 M3 has had quite a checkered past with a few major issues plaguing the otherwise relatively spotless reliability of this oddly simple car.
First and foremost, check the rear subframe for cracks or tears in the metal surrounding the mounts. This is a problem with all BMW E46s and costs many thousands of dollars to fix if left untreated, not to mention it makes the car unsafe to drive. If you're buying a car, make sure to check it yourself. If there is a small amount of damage, a chassis reinforcement kit can be purchased and installed with this guide. If you do find a car with a heavily damage subframe, it's not inconcievable that the repair costs could exceed the costs of the car.
Pictured: This will ruin your weekend.
In addition, there were 2 major recalls that you should look out for:
There was a "service action", or non-compulsory recall done on early '01-'03 cars regarding the connecting rod bearings. They were improperly sized at the factory, leading to premature catastrophic failures of the engines. Check that this recall was completed. If the owner is unsure, any BMW shop should be able to provide that info to the registered owner free of charge. The recall number is SIB 11-04-04. An early M3 with this recall done should be regarded as just as good as the later models. There are no associated risks with an earlier car with this work done, and at this point, it's very, veryrare to find a car without the recall work done at some point.
The second recall was on the VANOS solenoid, as it would seal improperly and fail over time. This wasn't as prevalent and wasn't compulsory. The DME (engine computer) was also reprogrammed in this case. The recall number is SIB 12-11-06.
The rest of the car is pretty flawless, other than some occassionally slow window regulators that require silicone lubricant every now and again.
What are the most desirable options?
If you really want your milkshake to bring all the boys to the yard, you'd need a 6 speed manual coupe, either Carbon Schwartz, Imola Red or Laguna Seca Blue, late model, preferably 2006, with a Nappa leather interior, ZCP package, Park Distance Control and DVD Navigation. Yeah, that would be mighty, mighty tasty. Now go find one.
Would you buy one?
If you had been following me on Twitter, you would've seen that I already have one and I'm trying to scrape her from the slimy bottom of my patented C.R.A.P scale and make her presentable enough to warranty a hefty profit and a cool story for my next Art Of The Flip.
Pictured: You know it's a keeper when the tow hook is attached.
Who else has one?
I just bought one, what do I do now?
Drive it like your hair's on fire.
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