The BMW 3 Series is iconic……let’s be honest.
When BMW released the E46 chassis in 1998, the first impression that came to mind was growth. Not only in size, but in overall performance as a vehicle. Like all new models, the E46 did grow in size from it’s previous platform, but the BMW engineers also spent a lot of time refining the car, both inside and out. Arguably one of the sexiest 3 Series’s to date, the E46 chassis was a hit from chassis #1 until the last one came off the line in 2006.
The E46 was offered with a 5 and 6 speed manual transmission (as well as an automatic). The new models ranged from the 323i, 325i, 328i, 330i and the newly redesigned (and much more powerful) M3. This was also the first 3 Series platform where all wheel drive was offered in regular production (the first was the E30, but it was fairly limited). While the 323i and 328i’s were only available for the first few model years, the 330i and M3 really “took the cake” with BMW enthusiasts. With specialty models such as the 330i ZHP (performance pkg) that included hotter cams, performance pkg specific 18″ wheels, different front and rear fascia’s, different final gear ratio and more. The ZHP is now a hot commodity within the BMW enthusiast community with prime examples selling close to $20k! Another specialty model was the BMW M3 ZCP (performance pkg). The ZCP package offered the customer larger 19″ wheels, larger brakes, special colors and more. One of the most sought after specialty models BMW offered as an E46 chassis is the fabled M3 CSL. Like most awesome European cars, it was never offered in the US. The BMW Motorsport engineers took a “standard” E46 M3 and give it their own personal touch…..essentially building a road ready race car. The M3 CSL had features like larger 19″ wheels, summer only race style rubber, a carbon fiber roof, trunk integrated spoiler, lightweight seats, a sequential manual gearbox (SMG) and more. What the CSL didn’t feature was stuff like air conditioning, power seats, navigation or even a radio. At roughly 250lbs lighter than the standard M3, the team at BMW Motorsport wanted to build a lightweight “race car” for the street. While the production of the CSL was slim at only 1,383 units for one single model year (2004), the chances of finding one in the US is even slimmer.
E46 M3 CSL
Many revere the E46 M3 as the greatest BMW of all time. It was offered from 2001 – 2006 with production being the most an M3 has ever seen until that time. Powered by it’s award winning S54B32 6 cylinder engine producing 333hp and 262lb/ft of torque, the E46 M3 was also the most powerful M3 to date.
So what about the flaws of the E46 chassis (M and non-M). Well for starters lets mention the rear chassis/subframe issue. If you’re not familiar with it, just Google it (the subframe twists and cracks the chassis at the rear subframe mounting points). While many BMW tuning companies offer a reinforcement kit, it’s a large undertaking to fix properly. By the way, this happens to ALL E46 models, whether an M3 or not. The other major issue with this chassis though is limited to the M3 model…..it’s engine specifically. While the S54 is regarded as one of the best engines ever produced, you have to remember that it is a high strung (capable of 8k rpm) performance engine. With performance comes wear and tear….and “maintenance”. With the S54, you’ll want to regularly send out your engine oil for analysis. What you’re looking for is an indication that your rod bearings are getting worn. Yes, that means that replacement of the engines rod bearings is considered “regular maintenance” with an E46 M3. Other than those 2 major issues, the E46 is a great chassis. So great that there was a new race class created in 2016 that uses the E46 330 chassis as the spec chassis. The class is known as SpecE46.
If you’re looking for a fun RWD (rear wheel drive) car that is relatively affordable and reasonably easy to maintain, take a look at any of the E46 variants. I’d highly recommend it!