2002 BMW M3: Spiritual Successor?
November 12, 2008
Our E46 M3 is a runner to be sure, and hopping in for a run through the gears reminds you just how solid and capable a car it is. The straight-6 revs like a weedwacker and makes noises so scintillating you'll cackle out loud and keep the sunroof open so you can howl along with it. The chassis is still rock solid and provides feedback that's direct enough to make you feel like you're chatting with the contact patches. After a week with time in the E46 M3, the latest M5 and new 135i, it begs the question, where's BMW's DNA headed?
Our E46 is definitely showing its age, with its antiquated GPS, slightly sloppy shift action (is there an abuse hotline?), and old-school, colored-cut-outs gauges (Will the variable redline slowly creep down the tachometer as the car ages? "Sorry boys, don't have much more than 5000 rpm in me today. You know, the knees..."). All the M3 goodness is still here (due in part to new brakes and rubber), and the car retains a mechanical directness that is wildly appealing. You feel like a hero when you drive the M3, rev-matching shifts into your own driveway just to hear the mill one more time.
The new M5 feels like tech overkill by comparison. Its steering has lost that beautiful telepathic sense, and the first-gen SMG gearbox is so good at annoying it actually makes you long for an automatic (well OK, maybe not that bad, but it's close...). The dreaded "i" word (no, not iDrive: isolating) has actually entered the vernacular when describing a BMW. Make no mistake, the M5 is an awesome and formidable machine, with a stellar chassis and a truly fantastic powerplant, it just seems like BMW has lost its way a bit in trying to fix things that weren't broken. Understand, of course, that the SMG gearbox was always money when driving the car above 8/10ths, and the M5's steering setup can pay dividends on other fronts (low-speed-steering effort, autobahn-speed stability, etc.).
Enter the 135i, and you suddenly feel like BMW's E46 M3 DNA is thriving completely intact. Though no uber-taut M3, the 135i's directness, chuckability and revvy thrust make you giddy again for the brand. Like the E46 M3, you walk away from the 135i shaking like a junkie: You know you need one of these things like extra GM stock, but you don't care. You want one. This with a regular ole' manual gearbox and steering that never seems confused.
All this begs the question: At $30K used, would you rather a warranty-less E46 M3, or a whip-cracking 1 Series? To get the real fun, you'll need a 135i to tart up a skosh (think $40K), but heck, we've already spent $10k wrenching on our long-term E46 M3. Or, you could snag both for the M5's $85K+ sticker.
With BMW's current lineup - if driving fun is the mission - does what you spend equate to how much joy you get back? Our E46 M3 can certainly make you long for simpler days, but maybe that's because we're driving it like hoons, while someone else picks up the maintenance tab.
Paul Seredynski, Executive Editor, Edmunds.com @ 63,855 miles