The current economic state has created plenty of tough situations, but that doesn't mean there isn't an upside. Great cars are going for great prices. Great for the buyer, that is. Here's one such example. And with a bigger budget, it's possible to make it even more powerful than the current V8-packing M3.
BMW M3 E46
"The best sports car of all time" is how one buff book described the E46 M3 with its six-speed SMG semi-auto transmission option. Although such sweeping statements should be avoided, we might have made a similar case for one with a six-speed manual transmission. Regardless of how far up the totem pole this M3 is, it's obvious we're dealing with one of the peak driving experiences, the kind BMW is expected to deliver. It was built from 2000 to 2006 and came as a two-door coupe or convertible, with the classic front engine/rear drive layout.
What Makes It Great
A new engine debuted with this model, another gorgeous, purring, naturally aspirated straight six BMW does so well, displacing 3.2 liters and developing 333 hp and 261 lb-ft of torque by virtue of double VANOS variable valve timing. It's good for 4.6 seconds to 60 mph; top speed is electronically limited to 155 mph. The sequential manual gearbox (SMG) provides a two-pedal setup with shifting controls on the steering wheel and via the gear lever. It works well, but the simpler snickety-snick manual might be a wiser choice in a used car. Still, couple that hardware with an athletic, well-balanced and communicative chassis that's still comfortable enough to be a daily driver, and the result is one top-notch ride. We'd be more inclined to get the tin-top. It's lighter, stiffer and seems less frivolous.
What To Look For
In spite of panzer-like German engineering, nothing is infallible. One of the most crucial things to inspect is the rear subframe, or at least the subframe mounts. These can shear away from the body pan's sheetmetal. Some engine failures have happened too, in cars built from late '01 to early '03, because of bearings and/or oil pumps. BMW recalled most of these vehicles and extended the warranty to six years/100,000 miles.
High-mileage examples are prone to seeing their rear coil springs snap, while front brake discs take a beating from hard drivers. Check the power steering reservoir cap to make sure it's secure and not leaking. And listen to the diff-no one likes a whiner.
The smart thing would be to get a BMW dealer to perform a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). This should cost about the same as a couple hours' labor, but could be invaluable in terms of stress avoidance. Also, if a seller won't agree to a PPI, that's a bad sign. And naturally, all the usual requirements of service history, clean title and so on, apply.
What We Found
A trawl through Auto Trader found a well-cared-for 2004 coupe with 26,543 miles going for $33,000. Or a 2001 Phoenix Yellow coupe (is it just us who thinks that color is cool?) with 28,354 miles on the clock and $25,900 in the screen; it would have been around $50,000 new. Craigslist unearthed a seller asking $17,500 for a 2003 coupe with SMG and 41,050 miles, while eBay had several models around the $20,000 mark.
Two words: Vortech supercharger. With an engine this smooth, a supercharger makes the perfect partner. Big-name American BMW tuners like Dinan and VF Engineering use this wonderful piece of technology to create meaty-to-mad gains. Various packages range in price from four figures to five, with some including Koni shocks as part of an upgraded and tuned suspension, plus a new LSD. Or even a claimed (and staggering) 650 hp from VFE's top-of-the-line offering.
Then there are other, mere mortal mods such as strut tower braces and exhaust systems that are comparatively inexpensive but make the BMW M3 even more fun.
For the Money
For the sake of argument, let's say the bottom line is $30,000. It's downright depressing how little fun is offered by the new-car market for this not inconsiderable amount, especially anything with a European badge. The MINI JCW is one of the few highlights. So even a stock E46 M3 with low mileage is a winning combo.