The E46 M3 was arguably the last true M car. It's no featherweight, but it sat at the cusp of undeniable performance with functional luxury, seamlessly blended with the raw characteristic every M should exude.
Beyond all the reasons why the E46 M3 is one of the best sports cars ever built, it's also hands down the best performance bargain for a European icon on today's market, with prices ranging from $14000-25000.
Having had a poster of the Europe-only M3 CSL on my wall since the 1400 units were produced in 2004, I always planned to own the M3. After years of casual searching, I finally found a pristine example exactly as I wanted it: Silver Gray Metallic, manual trans, low miles and, best of all, it was meticulously maintained by none other than Turner Motorsport. Granted, it's no CSL, but it ticked every other box.
With just 65000 miles on the clock and the rear subframe already reinforced by TMS, the 2003 M3 was an ideal platform for a project build.
We wanted a daily-driving street brawler, with motorsport-inspired looks and the balls to lap Porsches at weekend track days, while also being capable of drift and auto-X events. Yes, we wanted an M3 that could do it all...
In future issues we'll delve into the details of the parts used, the installations and difficulties (fortunately there were virtually none) as well as the reason for each of our product choices.
Plain and simple, we wanted the best of the best, which meant choosing tried 'n tested parts that could withstand the abuse we'd subject them to. So we compiled a list of modifications and sought the advice of our friends at european auto source (EAS) in Anaheim, CA.
The company is one of the primary go-to BMW tuning shops in Southern California. And they agreed to complete the entire build while walking us through each step.
With three lifts, an in-house DynoJet dynamometer, custom ECU tuning and a plethora of parts in stock, getting work done at EAS was as relaxing as a Hawaiian vacation.
Having a car that handles well is one thing, but maintaining comfort on the freeway while gaining speed in the twisties is a black art, requiring balance and finesse. So we started with KW Clubsport coilovers because they're ideal for the road or track.
This is the fourth car I've used them on and they've been consistently flawless. With a twist of the knobs, you can go from pothole-absorbing to teeth-chattering, and a happy medium is fairly easy to come by.
Paired with Rogue Engineering front control arm and rear trailing arm bushings, plus rear shock mounts, our E46 feels track-ready and road-worthy.
The factory strut bar has a known weakness, so we swapped it for a Strong Strut that's reportedly indestructible, yet can be easily removed for motor maintenance without touching the shock towers.
Our biggest gripe with the M3, above all else, is the steering rack. Non-CSL or ZCP M3s come with a 15.4:1 rack ratio, making for lazy steering that takes full arm movements to do anything beyond a lane change.
Although the CSL rack is 13.6:1, we opted for the sought-after unicorn of BMW racks; the Z4 M Coupe's 12.8:1 unit. Thanks to getbmwparts.com it became one of the best modifications we made, transforming the car, albeit at a steep $1600.
The M3 was blessed with massive fenders, so my goal was to exploit them, extracting maximum grip and a broad-shouldered stance.
We wanted wheels that were strong, light and aggressive, so opted for a set of Volk TE37 wheels wrapped in Falken RT615-k rubber. With 265/35 tires on 18x9.5" up front and 275/35 on 18x10.5" out back, the car is planted and inspires supreme confidence. The deep concave design of the TE37 wheels paired with -4° of front camber created the look we wanted. But to be honest, if Falken made 285 or 295-width rubber in this tread pattern, we'd run it and the car would be even happier at the limit. As it is, the handling is great but our power-adders require more traction. Yet the RT615-k is so predictable, that stepping-out the rear mid-corner on full throttle is peanut butter smooth, and smoky. Just how we like it!
The car is a drift monster... After all, it makes a beefy 464whp and revs to 8400rpm.
ESS Tuning offers the most popular supercharger to the BMW crowd, and it's no surprise. The kit fitted perfectly, the software tuning delivers factory levels of drivability and the power is phenomenal, even on California's poor 91-octane fuel.
We're running the newest ESS VT2-525 supercharger kit, which was engineered to hit the performance ceiling of pump gas. Kissing 9psi at redline with the centrifugal Vortech blower, means the powerband is literally pushed up a notch. It's like the factory power delivery, only multiplied significantly. The car pulls and pulls and pulls.
Given the choice, we opted for the new black powdercoat finish on the supercharger, intercooler, intake manifold and plumbing to keep things stealthy: mission accomplished.
In stock form, our M3 put down a healthy 290whp and 240 lb-ft. Once the ESS blower was fitted we saw gains of 174hp and 76 lb-ft respectively at the wheels.
All this power and road-hugging prowess would be useless without the ability to bring things to a sudden halt, so we went for Performance Friction brakes. Utilizing lightweight four-piston forged monoblock front calipers with 355mm floating, dimpled rotors, the front brakes are ridiculously capable. Out back we have two-piston calipers on 323mm rotors and lap after lap, the brakes won't fade, allowing us to carry tons of speed into any corner. The good looks don't hurt either...
To finish the car we made minor changes inside. The factory speakers were blown, so we partnered with Bavarian Soundwerks to install its Stage 1 loudspeaker upgrade, although listening to the exhaust and blow-off valve is equally entertaining.
To keep our rear-ends in check we chose Recaro Speed seats because fixed-back buckets weren't appropriate for our daily driver. The Speed provides support everywhere and is able to accept a five-point harness.
The stock M3 wheel was also a bit flimsy, and the leather was slippery. So Coby Wheel re-wrapped it in CSL-style grey alcantara with M stitching, thickening the rim and pairing it with matching shift- and e-brake boots.
The M3 has come a long way, but we avoided the temptation of exterior spoilers and splitters. Sometimes subtlety is the best policy, and while it's no sleeper, it manages to slip under the radar well enough.
Part 2: ESS supercharger installation and dyno-test next month
2003 BMW M3
Venice Beach, CA
Engine 3.2-liter straight-six with ESS VT2-525 supercharger kit, Macht Schnell headers, Borla ATAK cat-back exhaust
Drivetrain six-speed manual transmission, Rogue Engineering Octane short-shift kit
Brakes Performance Friction 355mm floating, dimpled rotors, four-piston calipers f, 323mm, two-piston calipers r, carbon-metallic pads, stainless steel braided lines, Motul fluid
Suspension KW Clubsport coilovers, Rogue Engineering front control arm bushings, rear trailing arm bushings, rear shock mounts, Turner Motorsport rear subframe reinforcement, Strong Strut tower brace
Wheels & Tires 18x9.5" f, 18x10.5" r Volk TE37 wheels, Macht Schnell stud conversion, 265/35 R18 f, 275/35 R18 Falken RT615-k tires
Exterior Shadowline kidney and fender grilles, smoked corners
Interior Recaro Speed seats on Macht Schnell floor mounts, Coby Wheel alcantara steering wheel, shift and e-brake boots, Stack gauges, Macht Schnell delrin shift knob