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Project BMW E46 M3 - The Beginning

Part 1: The Beginning

Aug 3, 2006 SHARE
0609_ec_01z+2001_BMW_M3+Front_Side_Driving Photo 1/4   |   Project BMW E46 M3 - The Beginning

More than six years ago I was fortunate enough to be one of the first journalists to drive the new generation E46 M3. The previous E36 M3 was perhaps the most balanced and inspiring car in the world; I thought BMW could never better it. I thought wrong.

Although the new E46 chassis was both bigger and heavier than its older sibling, BMW had a plan to counter its extra girth, the newly developed S54 inline six. Sporting 333 bhp and an 8000-rpm redline, I figured this version was the Europe-only model; BMW was going to do the same thing they did with the Euro-spec E36 (we got a torque-laden 240-hp engine while the rest of the world got a 321-hp screamer).Again, I thought wrong.

The S54 powerplant in the E46 M3 was technically an evolution of the iron-block S50 unit used in all European-spec M Coupes built through June of 2000. Although the peak power and torque of the S54 (333 bhp at 7400 rpm and 261 lb-ft of torque at 4900 rpm) is comparable to the S50 B32 (321 hp at 7400 rpm and 262 lb-ft of torque at 3250 rpm), they share few major components and differ in many areas, including:

-Increased cylinder bore to 87mm (from 86.1mm) for a new total displacement of 3,246cc (from 3,201cc)

*Modified camshafts

*High pressure Double VANOS continuously variable valve timing system with faster operation at high rpm

*Increased compression ratio to 11.5:1 (from 11.3:1)

*Advanced BMW/Siemens engine management control

*Finger-type rocker arms for reduced reciprocating mass and friction

*One-piece aluminum head casting for lighter weight

*Scavenging oil pump to maintain pressure during heavy cornering

Basically, the S54 is a German-built hot rod mill, an engine optimized for maximum performance. Domestic engine builders have been doing the same stuff for years (except for the double VANOS part).

Weighing in at 3,415 pounds, the E46 M3 is significantly heavier than the E36. It's also got a longer wheelbase and significantly wider front and rear track. Whereas no one considered the E36 M3 a spartan vehicle, it does look fairly simple compared to its younger brother. The E46 comes off as a much more luxurious car, and for this owner that set off warning bells.

My first thought was the M3 was being bastardized with comfort items like rain-sensing wipers, enhanced audio system and heated seats. The leather is ultra-luxurious, featuring M logos embossed in the headrests, and the three-spoke steering wheel features controls for both the stereo and cruise control. And surprisingly, the rear seats are properly bolstered for real live human adults. You can actually sit back there without spine-snapping contortions.

So yeah, the M3 is luxurious. You got a problem with that? I sure don't. In fact, I can't conceive driving without these features.

I'd been looking for an E46 M3 for nearly two years. Every time we featured a massaged M3 it just hurt all the worse knowing that was one less car for me. This 2001 Laguna Seca Blue job literally fell into my lap. The previous owner didn't like the manual gearbox and wanted something bigger to ferry clients about. The guy is a big fan of European cars but not a snob. It was important the car go to someone who'd appreciate it. Apparently, I won the "why I should own this M3" essay contest. Within 24 hours his secretary had drawn up a sales contract and title transfer.

It was all mine.

That was nearly seven months and 4,200 miles ago. Although I was pressured by ad wanks to modify the car with aftermarket bits, I wanted to understand the car in its pure, unmolested form. Obviously, I've been in no great hurry to change things. For this driver, the E46 M3 is as close to the perfect car as it gets. How the hell do you make it better? Is it possible to make something "more perfect" or "the ultimate ultimate"? We'll see.

Because the E46 is so new, things like bushings, seals and motor mounts are in great shape. Unlike my previous Project Corrado VR6, I don't have to rebuild the chassis from the ground up. I'm actually kinda sad... no I'm not. The only advice I got from our resident BMW expert, Mike Miller, was to change the gearbox oil to a high-quality synthetic.

Finding the perfect M3

Savage BMW, the largest BMW dealer in Orange County, has several 2005/2006 M3s on its lot. MSRPs range from $48,000 to $56,000 and dealer invoice from $44,000 to $51,000. Technically, the M3 is a 2005 carryover as BMW ramps up for the new E90 M3. Will prices for the E46 M3 drop? Absolutely, but don't count on finding a cherry example for less than $38,000. M cars have historically held their value longer than standard BMWs, and in some cases actually escalate in price. Just look at the E30 M3.

The fairly steep entry cost of the M3 has kept many younger drivers from ownership and that's a good thing. Chances are you won't have to weed through cars with dubious aftermarket gear and questionable history. Hell, most M3 owners have retained the stock wheels and tire sizes. Who could blame them?

There are a few things to watch for, most notably the 1999-2000 SMG-equipped cars. The sequential manual gearbox was still in its infancy, and for lack of a better word, clunky. If at all possible, go for the manual six-speed. The first several years of production (2001-2003) also included a recall for connecting rod bearing replacement and suggested new rod bolts. It was a fairly involved procedure and required the bottom end of the engine be removed for rod access. My M3 had the procedure completed in an afternoon some three years ago. Other than that, the M3 overall has proven to be a very robust piece of work.

Impressions and plans

The M3 has served as the "analogy poster child" of sorts. "M3-like steering", "M3-like brakes" and "revs like an M3" have been used to describe lesser cars' performance. In other words, the M3 was the car to emulate, it was the mark tuners wanted to hit. That said, I'm hard-pressed to find any shortcomings with this car. As I exit the freeway, I'm actually going faster than people in the far left lane, knowing those big 14-inch brakes are there to stop me. Same thing on entering the freeway; I'm usually hitting 85 mph before reaching the end of the 180-degree ramp. And there's something about the M3's cruising manners that instills great confidence. Driving a straight line is never boring. How many other cars can do that?

There are, however, a few things that make living with the M3 a little less than perfect, like finding a tiny blemish on Angelina Jolie's foot. One such blemish is the M3 tends to be fairly stiff on less-than-perfect surfaces, and while I love to watch my wife's boobs jiggle, she does not. Ultimately, it becomes a little irritating and I found myself searching the road for smooth spots. I have since replaced the M3's dampers with Koni Special D adjustable units, a move that satisfies both our needs.More than 20 years ago I used Koni dampers on my '75 2002. It was a great move and the resulting handling made me fall in love with BMW. Since then, Koni has continued to develop its line of shocks and struts with a special emphasis on all things European.

0609_ec_04z+Project_M3+Koni_Shocks Photo 2/4   |   Koni Adjustable shocks and struts helped smooth the M3's rough edges

"The M3 was one of our important target vehicles," says Lee Grimes, one of Koni's hardcore motorheads. "Everyone here loves the M3 but felt it was a bit harsh for everyday use. The adjustable Koni shocks and struts help smooth the ride without losing the M3's inherent balance."

It was like he was reading my mind. It's exactly how I felt. That Koni spent considerable resources developing these shocks was obvious the moment I left the parking garage. The pavement that caused me to wince was magically gone. Of course it was still there, but it seemed farther away and not as intense. I took the on-ramps and off-ramps at the same maniacal speed and the end result was the same as before--unwavering control and stability. And if there was more chassis lean I neither felt it nor saw it, especially during quick maneuvers where mass shifted from side to side. As I drove home, those slabs of concrete that made the M3 jumpy before were gone as well. Basically, I got to keep the M3's fabulous handling prowess while teaching it more refined ride manners.

What's good (I should say great) about Koni dampers is that they are not a "one size fits all" shock. Each unit Koni makes is engineered specifically for that vehicle. That means Koni engineers have spent hundreds of hours driving your car (and my M3) before they release a shock or strut. Unlike a car's stock shocks, units typically made for economy rather than performance, Koni shocks are built with premium materials and built to last. Ask any race mechanic who has re-valved a Koni, they all say the same thing: damn nice shock.

The adjustable Konis work beautifully with the M3's factory springs. Moreover, they will continue to perform even if I decide to lower the car or change to a different spring rate combination. As per Koni's suggestion, I set the shocks to full soft. I have the option of increasing the dampening forces between 50 and 100 percent should I want more aggressive behavior.

I've seen many guys replace their entire suspension in one afternoon. They go from stock to near race-spec in a few hours. Personally, I think replacing the shocks and struts is a more measured approach, a great first step for more performance. You'd be surprised how much of an improvement it makes. Until Koni finishes development of its FSD system for the M3, these Koni adjustables are the next best thing. But FSD... it's the future of where suspension technology is heading.

0609_ec_07z+Project_M3+Stoptech_Brakes Photo 3/4   |   Though its factory-imbued stopping prowess doesn't suck, Project E46 will receive a big brake upgrade courtesy of StopTech.

Former ec tech editor Dan Barnes recently crossed over and began working for StopTech Brakes. During his tenure we'd done a few tests with StopTech brakes and always come to the same conclusion: These things really work. Although I didn't feel the M3 needed more stopping power, Barnes convinced me that the StopTech system is a significant upgrade over the stock units. What makes StopTech brakes good is a combination of three key elements: ultra-strong caliper construction (via Stoptech's patented bridging technology), larger and more efficient rotors, and balanced piston vs. master cylinder design. Ultimately, you want a brake upgrade to provide shorter stopping distances, better brake modulation, firmer pedal feel and less brake fade. While some big brake kits can provide one or two of the aforementioned issues, Stoptech does them all and does 'em well.

The original plan was to retain the M3's stock 18-inch wheels and 225/45-18 and 255/40-18 Toyo RA1 tires. Although 10mm spacers would be required to clear the multi-spoke BMW alloys, I wanted to retain the tire depth for comfort reasons. I was summarily laughed out of the office. While it is entirely possible to use said running gear, it wouldn't have been "cool." If I didn't go with a 19-inch wheel-and-tire combo, staffers threatened to chant and dance around my office while insulting my apparently aged sensibilities.

Yeah, whatever.

0609_ec_05z+Project_M3+BBS_RSGT_Wheel Photo 4/4   |   These BBS RSGT wheels (right) make grown men swoon. Big, light and classically styled, the RSGT will never go out of style.

It's funny how I found myself revisiting my old standbys, first Koni and now BBS. I've been a huge fan of BBS since my first trip to Le Mans some 20 years ago when I saw their wheels used in a genuine racing environment. I remember asking a Porsche mechanic why they used BBS wheels and he said "Weil sie arbeiten" (translated: "Because they work").

BBS has done a fabulous job of bringing that same race-proven technology to the street. I've been using BBS since that '75 2002 I mentioned before, the one with the Konis. And now I would use BBS again. Why? Because they work.

There are several factors that make BBS a great choice for wheels, the most important of which is the material used and the way in which it is formed. The metal alloys used in BBS wheels are among the purest and strongest in the industry, and BBS' patented semi-forging process ensures maximum strength with minimal mass. And that's the real trick--making a super-strong wheel without it being heavy. An added BBS bonus is that it is one of the few wheel companies which takes into account big brake packages. BBS has the offset to clear to most monstrous calipers.

The M3 will wear BBS RSGT wheels, 8.5x19 front and 9.5x19 in the rear. Weighing a paltry 22.7 pounds each, these two-piece wheels feature a forged inner section and a spun/semi-forged outer section. The RSGT is a classic--it looks great today, it'll look great ten years from now.

I'd say Project E46 M3 is shaping up, except for the fact that is was already in shape. Next issue we'll see how well our new BBS running gear, Toyo tires and StopTech brakes perform.

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