July 25, 2009
We don't make a habit of purchasing used cars for the long-term fleet. But our success with a 1984 Ferrari 308 GTSi encouraged us to try again. This time it wasn't about owning an exotic. Instead it was about owning the car of our dreams, a car that we've held on our must-own list for the past seven years. A car that we consider the best M3 ever made. So we bought a 2002 BMW M3 E46.
Secret M3 love affairs quickly sprouted up within our ranks. We tried suppressing them with little success. One editor went so far as to say, "I sincerely hope that within the next 11 months, one of our M3's pistons goes rocketing through the hood. Or we receive a service bill for a mysterious $2,000 'valve adjustment.' Short of such calamities, it's likely that I'll continue to believe that I should buy this car when its year is up."
Why We Got It
As explained in the BMW's introduction, our reason for buying an E46 version of the M3 had everything to do with pure desire. We've always wanted one. Our friends have always wanted one. Editor in Chief Scott Oldham added, "It's sure to go down in history as one of the most desirable cars of all time. It was designed before iDrive, Chris Bangle and BMW's decision to make the M3 compete with a Porsche 911. It's timeless. And it's suddenly affordable to working stiffs like us."
We found a well-nurtured M3 with 49,000 ticks on the odometer for sale within 100 miles of our Santa Monica office. Maintenance records all checked out. It seemed to us like this was a sign. So we negotiated the price to $30,000 and, rather than buy a loaded Honda Accord at the dealership across the street, drove away in the E46 M3. Before the BMW even made it home, a wish list of aftermarket add-ons had passed among cubicles. We expected a fun year.
"Oh, the M3," said one editor after a night in the car. "Unlock the door, buckle up and boom: instant jackass. I can't help it." And so our M3 driving experiences began to flood the long-term blog pages.
We took our first opportunity to compare the M3 E46 to the current-generation BMW 335i and 135i coupes. Following the comparison test, Senior Editor Erin Riches commented, "The 3.2-liter six has an explosive midrange and a free-revving character that the comparatively mild-mannered twin-turbo 3.0-liter [of the 135i and 335i] could never match in stock form. The sound and feel of the engine when you drop a gear or two going into a corner is something I'll never forget. Between the high levels of power, grip and feedback, I got so locked into what I was doing that I may have forgotten to breathe a couple times...I even heard myself gasp."
Inside Line Editor in Chief Scott Oldham was equally complimentary of the E46. He wrote, "The M3's brilliance really shows when you back it down a notch. Around town at half speed and in the mire of stop-and-go traffic, it displays its impressive range of talents. Its clutch, for instance, fluffs drag strip launches like a twin-disc carbon unit but its pedal effort is light. Its seats are wide enough for the freeway and somehow bolstered perfectly for the corners. And its engine, man oh man, what an engine. The 3.2-liter inline-6 is as smooth as molasses, has the bottom-end torque of a V8, midrange of a V12 and the upper-rpm rush of a superbike."
Anybody who knows cars knows that maintenance costs increase exponentially with age. We expected as much from our 49,000-mile M3. Take into account our affinity for open track days and this test was certain to get expensive. We ordered a new checkbook and flipped open the cover.
Certain expenses were unavoidable. M3s have a thirst for 10W-60. In addition to scheduled oil changes, we must have poured another full case of the stuff into the block during its 25,000-mile test. Just 3,000 miles into the test we felt the fiscal shock of E46 ownership beyond the warranty period. An audible thumping led us to the dealer for a wheel alignment and new bushing for the rear trailing arm. Another 4,000 miles exposed a leaking power-steering hose and faulty door lock actuator. Not quite 6,000 miles later we replaced the alternator and final stage unit. All told we spent more than $4,500 for these repairs. Then we forked over a grand for the car's 60,000-mile scheduled service.
Other expenses were voluntary in the name of performance. We upgraded to a Stoptech brake kit and went to a local shop to have it installed. We also ordered a set of Yokohama Advan Neova summer tires. They improved grip considerably and survived 13,000 miles of powerslides and autocross courses. Once we'd punished them to the cords, we opted for Sumitomo HTR ZIIIs. They were half the price of the Advans, and by prioritizing comfort over stick these Sumitomos felt really good on the streets. When it came to basic performance and street driving on a budget, these HTR ZIIIs were the way to go.
Total Body Repair Costs: $250 minor damage to rear bumper
Total Routine Maintenance Costs (over 20 months): $870
Additional Maintenance Costs: Castrol TWS 10W-60 by the case; two sets of tires
Warranty Repairs: None
Non-Warranty Repairs: Replace cracked rear trailing arm bushings, alternator, final stage unit, door lock actuator and leaking power-steering hose
Scheduled Dealer Visits: 1
Unscheduled Dealer Visits: 3
Days Out of Service: 6 divided between body repairs and waiting for parts
Breakdowns Stranding Driver: None
As is routine, we tested once for baseline figures. The M3 reached 60 mph in 5.3 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 13.9 seconds at 102.1 mph. A stop from 60 mph required 111 feet. Around the skid pad it generated 0.87g of lateral force. We consider this to be excellent performance from an aging car with midlife Continental ContiSportContact tires. Chief Road Test Editor Chris Walton remarked afterwards, "Astounding steering response and feel of the road. Confident, crisp turn-in with immediate yaw response. Despite my previous experiences with an M3 of this era that always threaten to spin, this one keeps its tail planted. I love this car more this time around than when it was new."
We mounted the Yokohama Advans and retested. New skins didn't affect the 60-mph milestone but shortened the quarter-mile by 0.3 second to 13.6 seconds at 103.6 mph. Tire stick shortened stopping distance to 109 feet. Lateral grip increased to 0.91g. Our Stoptech brake upgrade didn't significantly improve the 60-0-mph stats, but the new stoppers showed zero fade over repeated runs. And admittedly, our standardized tests did not allow the track-ready brakes to heat to their optimal performance level.
We recycled the Advans for a set of Sumitomos and tested again. Acceleration times matched those posted by the Yokohamas. Deceleration from 60 mph remained impressive at 115 feet. Lateral balance was stable with 0.85g performance, but the car's subjective handling response seemed slightly dulled relative to the performance offered by the Advan rubber. These Sumitomos generally felt more sensitive to heat and marginally less responsive than their Yokohama predecessors.
Best Fuel Economy: 23.5 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 12.3 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 17.5 mpg
We paid $30,000 for a 2002 BMW M3 with 49,000 miles. As far as we are concerned, it was among the best long-term car investments we've ever made. Of course we measured the experience in fun. Our accountant saw the $17,000 sale price at under 74,000 miles and was less excited.
True Market Value at service end: $18,400
What it sold for: $17,000
Depreciation: $13,000 or 43% of original paid price
Final Odometer Reading: 73,900
"When you grow old and your kids ask you about the cars you used to own, don't you want to be able to tell them about the years you owned an M3? Maybe a Corvette or a Ferrari? Your kids aren't going to want to hear, 'Well, we had to sell one of the Corollas after we had your sister, so we bought a Camry. What color was that, dear?' No. Even the most Communist of children wants to be regaled with stories of sport seats, powerslides and exhaust pulses ricocheting off the walls of tunnels." And with this, Photo Editor Kurt Niebuhr echoed our collective sentiment.
We bought a 2002 BMW M3 E46. Maintenance costs tapped into our wallet for under $0.25 per mile, an amount we chalked up to normal wear and tear. Equipment upgrades accounted for the majority of our expenses, each of which paid for itself in the form of involuntary, mischief-laden giggles.
Is the E46 the greatest M3 ever built? We still think so. Simply put, owning this 2002 BMW M3 was a blast. It was unlike any other long-term test experience before it. There was a tear in our collective eye the day we sold it. But we wiped it away, wished the buyer luck and watched him drive away.
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.