March 12, 2006 By Carl S. Cunanan

BMW E46 M3

 

I read once that the BMW E46 M3 was a car built around an engine. This comment was positive and negative at the time. The previous M3, the E36, had been a spectacular car and one that was particularly well balanced in that everything matched with everything else. “Balance” was in fact, the keyword that made the car so confidence-inspiring and therefore relatively easy to get comfortable with. You could appreciate the handling that BMW had built into the car, which in turn built the M3 into the icon of sport sedan performance that it still is. The product of a holistic approach to a small sedan.

ENGINE. The E46 M3, by contrast, says the engine with all caps. The chassis may be stellar, the handling exemplary, but it is the powerplant under that hood that demands and gets most of your attention. Getting comfortable with the car as a whole meant first coming to terms with the comfort wrecking level of power that awaited your wake up call. You could play however you wanted, but be very aware of the danger zone.

Many enthusiasts also began saying that BMW was entering Japanese levels of performance, once again a double edge statement. What was meant really was that the BMW powerplants were now able to rev closer to the stratospheric levels of the Japanese motors that were out horse powering them so easily, which in turn meant that the holy grail of serious specific output was within their reach. 3246cc of Bavarian inline 6 ran now at 7900 rpm, something that didn’t come easy to the torsion vibration prone long crankshafts of these engine designs. The M3 engine was now able to produce 333 bhp at that 7900 rpm from a 3.2-liter engine, which meant a much more efficient specific output level of 103 bhp per liter. The production yardsticks at the time were Honda’s Civic Si at 100 bhp per liter, and the Integra Type R at 109, so the M3 suddenly became able to play with the leaders while still keeping the larger, longer straight-six engines that BMW engineers do so well.

All those revs and all that power now came to you more instantaneously than ever. Throttle actuation came via BMW’s drive by wire system, which meant your pedal position and movement was interpreted by the computer as a desire for X amount of target power and torque. The Engine Management computer then directed the various parameters within its control to deliver X in whichever manner it deemed appropriate, whether by merely pushing more petrol through the injectors or adjusting engine timing or fuel mixture or such. All these things could now be monitored and controlled more specifically than before, so you weren’t just opening the throttle, you were sometimes changing the engine performance graphs completely. It is important to note that this was still all done without the benefit of a multi-stage valve control system, which could have resulted in more power but at the expense of smooth delivery. BMW’s double VANOS system merely varied the timing of the intake and exhaust cams.

 

The ever increasing computing power in these cars helped both to produce and to temper when needed the astonishing levels of horsepower. You could choose what personality you or your M3 felt like that day. Stay in normal mode and the car could feel relatively mild and relaxed; with engine mapping holding back all the horses you didn’t feel as though a sneeze with your foot on the gas would send you into the car in front of you. The ride could still be considered harsher than you would expect of course, but as soon as you switched into sport mode that stiff ride became a welcoming tether to the tarmac. It became an in the known trick to get to about half throttle in normal mode then have the passenger switch it into sport mode and give one of you a heart attack. The M3 has been mythic in many minds, but it has only been around since 1986 when the first car to bear the now legendary letter-number combination hit the public roads. Completely road-going and road legal, it was really meant to challenge the Mercedes Benz 190s in Germany Touring Car races, and 500 units were quickly produced to reach the homologation numbers needed to be recognized. 18,00 units of the M3 E30 four-cylinder 16 valve sports sedan were eventually produced, including some limited edition Evolution models and even a four-seat convertible. The next M3, the E36 was introduced at 1992 Paris Auto Show with an inline-six that produced 286 bhp from its three liters. Once again, special editions emphasizing higher performance or lighter weight were made available to a consuming enthusiast public looking for more. They git it in 2001 with the release of this third version of the world’s most recognized and revered sport sedan.

BMW has stressed that for any of their M cars, the suspension must always be faster than the engine. That may still be the case with this M3, but they have made it much harder for most buyers to really find out for themselves.

 

 

Specifications

Engine

Engine inline 6, 3246cc, dohc 4valves per cylinder 6 speed Manual LSD
Max Power (bhp @ rpm) 333 bhp @ 7900 rpm
Max Torque (lb/ft @ rpm) 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm

Performance

Top Speed 249 km/h (155 mph)
0-100 km/h | 0-62 mph 4.8 sec

Ratings

C! Editors Rating 10/10
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