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A CAR reader blogs on buying his E46 BMW M3

By Andy Downes

Stuff We've Done

31 October 2012 11:20

CAR reader Andy Downes has long lusted after owning a BMW M division car. He recently found an immaculate E46 BMW M3 and took the plunge. Here he blogs on his experience.

Four years of saving, years of dreaming, months of scouring the classifieds, days spent travelling to see used ones for sale and finally, to my own amazement, I now have a BMW M3 of my very own.

I'm still a little bit overwhelmed. Still a little scared something is going to go horribly wrong or break, but the first time I got to hear that engine up near the 7900rpm limit, savour the performance that accompanied the noise and got myself properly comfortable, I knew I had made the right decision.

Where it all began

My desire for the E46 M3 can be traced all the way back to an excited ride in the back of a BMW M535i when I was a car mad small boy. A friend of my father came to stay and took us out for a quick blast in his then brand-new car and that experience in about 1980 has stayed with me forever. Ever since each new product from the M Division has left me hungry for more. I am blocking my mind of the recent abominations that have mistakenly sullied the brand in the form of monstrous 4x4s.

A close friend recently bought an immaculate E39 M5 and that was the catalyst to stop me thinking about doing it and actually get on with it.

Finding an M3 in the spec I wanted proved to to be the hardest part of the task. I don’t know the ratio of cars fitted with 18-inch wheels rather than the 19s but it felt like 98% opted for the bigger rims at times. All the reports from the time said the 18s were the way to go but it appears hardly anyone was listening. The same wasn’t quite as bad for the SMG gearbox but having driven a mate’s E46 M3 with SMG and a later V10 M5 there was no way I was going near one of those horrible things.

Then there was the interior. It could only have been black leather (I may have even gone for cloth to be honest although I never came across one with cloth fitted) so the bright reds and blues were a definite no go zone for me. I have no need for televison in a car (of which these vintage don’t work anymore thanks to the shutdown of the analogue signal) nor a near decade old satnav so a non-Harman Kardon entertainment system was just the job for me. I also needed a full (preferably BMW) history and lowish miles.

Secondhand hunting - and false starts

There were a few false starts. One car I looked at ticked about just every box in the ‘How to Spot a Clocked Car’ manual. Suspiciously low miles, shotblasted front end, knackered interior, only one key, three different makes of tyre and history the private seller assured me was ‘somewhere in my office’. I almost ran to my car to get away.

Others were too high in the miles, the wrong colour or showed the lack of love a car like this should have enjoyed during its life.

Eventually one car appeared online and it looked perfect. A 2003 model, 46,000 miles, full history, two owners (one from new in 2003 through to 2010), black leather, manual ‘box, electrically adjustable seats, sunroof and silver with the 18 inch wheels which had just been refurbed. It was a two hour drive away but one Saturday while my wife was working I piled my children in my Skoda Fabia vRS and headed off to see and test drive it at the dealership in Surrey.

A test ride later, some negotiation over a trade in on the Skoda and the deal was done. I arranged to pick it up a week later while a couple of bits were sorted. It was getting an Inspection II service as part of the purchase price, two tiny bits of corrosion on the door sill were being removed and sprayed and it needed taxing and MOT’ing too.

Skoda Fabia vRS vs BMW M3

I was sorry to see the Skoda go. It had been almost faultless over the previous 20 months and 20,000 miles and I knew I was going to miss the combination of the performance and economy from that noisy, punchy little diesel motor. The Skoda was my occasionally sensible side kicking in as it replaced a 1996 Mercedes CL500 Coupe that can only be described as fun but stupid. The Fabia had only lost £1000 in all that time and there was a moment when I questioned just what the hell I was doing chopping it in for something I was going to be lucky to get 25mpg out of!

Still, here we are and a month into the ownership of a car I simply love and all is well so far. Apart from that CL500, this is the first rear-wheel drive I have owned since a 1986 Volvo 360 GLT I had when I was young and totally skint! I know it sounds rubbish but it was bloody fast compared to my first car which was a powder blue Austin Metro Mayfair 1.3. The Volvo also proved to be almost unkillable and even took a direct hit from a passing Peugeot 306 which crashed into the back of it while it was parked outside my student house in Leicester with apparently no damage! The almost new 306 was a write-off.

The power difference between the Volvo and the M3 is obviously extraordinary and this is why the traction control has, so far, been kept (mostly) on. I’ve had a bit of a play but I really don’t want to be explaining to my wife exactly why I need picking up from where I have pitched my new car into a field having decided I know better than an expensive and complicated electronic traction control system.

I am managing to explore the performance a little more at a time. I ride motorcycles as part of my job for CAR magazine’s sister publication Motor Cycle News so the actual acceleration is tame when compared to most bikes and nothing when compared to the BMW S1000RR superbike I am running at the moment, but it still remains startling for something with four wheels. Thanks to the 18-inch wheels the ride is firm yet keeps on the compliant side of the osteopath and the manual ‘box means it can actually be driven in a relaxing and fairly lazy manner when I’m not in the mood for going harder. It’s even got Isofix anchor points for my children’s car seats so it qualifies as a sensible family motor in that regard.

Kumho tyres on an M3

The only thing I am going to have to sort at some point are the Kumho Ecsta tyres which are on the M3 currently. They aren’t terrible but neither are they that good. They allow understeer and spin up in the wet and neither of those attributes are that lovely. They have masses of tread on them so until they get much lower I will just keep them before replacing them with something else. They may be more expensive but in my experience they are worth the extra money over budget tyres.

So here we go! I am hoping and praying this dream of mine remains just that and doesn’t turn into one of those sweaty, middle of the night moments when you wake up thinking you are falling.