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A CAR reader blogs on buying his E46 BMW M3

By Andy Downes

Stuff We've Done

25 August 2014 07:20

Two years in: has the E46 BMW M3 lived up to its reputation?

Two years ago CAR reader Andy Downes bought an immaculate BMW E46 M3 after months of searching and years of saving for the right example. So what has he learnt in the past 24 months?

Two years into the ownership of a car I had dreamed of owning for years and I can report, still with fingers crossed, touching wood and some occasional prayers, it's been marvellous.

Right up to the moment in June 2012 when I handed my credit card to the dealer to seal the deal there was still nagging doubts I was about to enter a world of pain and suffering that would only shred my bank balance, infuriate my wife and lead to me selling it in disgrace.

To be honest, I am still on edge if there is a strange noise, but none of the above has happened and the costs (ignoring fuel which I will get to later) the only expenses outside of wear and tear in the first year was £40 for a new front light automatic levelling sensor, which I fitted myself and £150 for and oil and filter service.

The car was still another 7500 miles from an indicated oil service according to the dash computer but I thought a change of oil and filter after a year and outside of the schedule determined by the car would be playing it safe. I had the oil change done by Richards German Car Specialists in Finedon, Northants  (www.richardsautos.co.uk) as they looked after my old 1996 Mercedes CL500 and have been very good in the past.

The headlight levelling sensor is a common failure on E46s fitted with the xenon front lights and comes about when the clamp attaching the sensor arm to the front suspension wishbone rusts through. I bought a new one from a BMW dealer for £37 and once the front wheel was removed (not as easy as it sounds as there is no jack with the M3 and the car is so low as to make getting a trolley jack under the sill-located lifting points quite a challenge), it took 15 minutes of fiddling to attach. This is one area where the car shows it is over a decade old as the mechanism is very crude. It’s simply a rod with two ball joints which then attach to a little plastic arm that picks up the load on the front suspension and adjusts the level of the headlights to match. I am member of the ever-helpful www.m3cutters.co.uk owner site which not only helped me identify the problem in about five minutes but even provided a ‘How to’ pictorial description of fitting the new sensor.

Fortunately Andy's M3 hasn't spent too much time on the ramp

I did spend some slightly bigger sums in late 2013 to replace the aluminium engine sump guard which had picked up some damage from what must have been a fairly hefty rock. I don't recall hitting anything big so it was perhaps done before I owned the car but was in a place where it was almost impossible to see without a ramp. Some slight crimping to the underbody fuel lines in the same impact meant they were replaced too but at around £350 for the whole job it wasn't too bad.

In June 2014 I had to breathe deeply and book the car in for an Inspection II service. BMW dealers charge around £900 for this as it's a biggie. All fluids and filters are replaced and even valve clearances are checked; it's a two-day job. Richards German Car Specialists charged £460 so I went with them. All was good and the car felt great when I got it back.

The car has now passed 11 years of age but has so far been very reliable, hasn't used a drop of oil and with 8000 miles covered by me in two years it remains as addictive as it was when I first bought it. I've even used it as an excuse to go and buy another car so I can stop using the M3 as much as I want to keep the mileage down. It's amazing what you can buy with £1100 and now a 1999 Honda HR-V (in fetching, or perhaps more accurately, retching green) does the trundling around, dropping off children and ferrying a muddy mountainbike around while the M3 is just used for fun. I'm actually strangely fond of the old Honda crate although my wife hates it.

Fuel economy was always going to be a bit of an issue. I knew that from the start and so the 22mpg average on Shell V-Power was no surprise. I have diligently logged every fill-up on the excellent Road Trip app on my iPhone so I know exactly what this has cost...£2535 in total. Or 28 pence per mile. I do hope my wife doesn't read that last bit.

So what’s worn out then?

I knew the M3 was a little low on brake pad material when I bought it from the independent dealer and factored this into the purchase price, but in May 2013  had to buy a new set along with a pair of new brake pad wear sensors.

I opted for some pads from Performance Friction, a US company that gets hugely favourable reviews from other M3 owners, even if they aren’t that well known over in the UK. The price was £180 for a set of four (plus £12 for the new sensors) which is a little higher than the standard ones but they do offer better braking performance, reduced dust and better resistance to fading which is one of the only areas of the E46 M3 performance that isn’t up to scratch as standard. In all honesty, the standard brakes really aren't up to matching the performance of the car so you have to be a little measured; even on the road to avoid serious brake fade. Performance Friction do some beautiful looking discs as well but right now they are well out of my price range so will have to wait.

The new pads are a little noisier than standard with a slightly boomy sound from the fronts when they get hot but I have had the discs checked and apart from a small lip on the inside edge of the braking area which the new pads are wearing down, they are fine. The noise is definitely reducing with time so as the lip wears away it should diminish further.

New Continental tyres to replace the Kumhos

Another wear and tear replacement has been a set of four new tyres to replace the mid-range Kumho Ecsta LE Sports that were on the car when I bought it. I don’t know how many miles the Kumhos had managed but the back set were getting near to the lower limits and they were letting go in the wet under even moderate acceleration so I started looking about for something else.

The Kumhos have been far from bad but they were just nothing special and seemed to lack that initial bite I would expect. Cutting corners on tyres has never been my favoured way of reducing motoring costs. Which tyres are fitted are one of the key ways I have always decided between used car buying decisions over the years. If the owner is prepared to put three different brands of low budget tyres on a performance car then what else has been scrimped on? Not worth the risk.

Andy's M3. A tidy example, we'd say

The slightly odd size at the back when the M3 has the standard 18inch rims is a 255/40/18 rather than the optional 19s means choices are not as wide ranging but a set of ContinentalSportContact3 all round were one of the two original equipment tyres (the other was from Michelin with the Pilot Sport) and I headed to my local Kwik Fit for the job to be done. Total cost was just under £800 which is not a small amount of cash but they should last for a while and getting some grip back will be welcome.

I had picked up nail in the off-side rear just a few days before they were changed so it really couldn’t have been better timed. The fronts still had about 4mm of tread left but I flung these on eBay as I didn’t want to be tripping over them in the garage and couldn’t imagine a time when they would be going back on the car. Getting £28 for the pair was better than nothing.

Grip levels are certainly higher with fresh rubber but a surprising extra benefit has been the improved ride quality which seems to come for a slightly softer construction in the sidewalks of the Continentals. It might be the extra tread depth is acting as a bit of a damper too. I am still getting a feel for them and just after they were fitted the long spell of hot weather came to an end and it has been fairly wet since.

The M3 didn't do anywhere near the same winter miles in 2013, which after some hairy drives home in the snow earlier in 2013 was a welcome relief. The cheap and cheerful (and 4WD Honda HR-V) on a set of winter tyres did the hacking through the colder months which although nowhere near as snowy as the previous winter were far better in an old Honda 4x4 than a 338bhp, rear drive coupe.

If I can report the same positives about the car in another year I will be very happy.

Sorting the tracking out: important on high-performance precision instruments, like the M3


The first instalment: Andy Downes decides to buy an E46 M3

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.

Andy Downes and his eventual E46 BMW M3

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.