Possibly The Worst E46 M3 Purchase Ever

Ever since I sold my 2004 BMW M3 I had been searching for a vehicle to fill that void. The day I sold it I picked up a brand spanking new 2015 Subaru WRX Limited but didn't love it so I traded that for an E60 535i which I later traded in for an 2013 328i before stumbling upon my an E92 M3. The E92 M3 held me over for two years before I added an R32 Skyline GT-R to the stable. I hit rough times, sold both and held myself over with an FG Civic Si for a season. It was only a matter of time till I was back in an E46.

Read the Internet enough and you’ll find the E46 M3 had plenty of shortcomings. The rear subframe would tear, Vanos (not Thanos) bolts would fall off and clog the oil pick-up (or worse), and rod bearings could grenade the engine. All mighty good reasons to think twice about an E46 M3.

The truth is, thanks to the aftermarket, all of the E46 M3’s failure points can be resolved. Even though rod bearings may run $2500 for a full replacement and the subframe reinforcement equal amount, Vanos bolts are easily checked and replaced for less than $100.

OK, I know, the cost of an E46 M3 plus five grand to make it reliable isn’t easy to swallow. I get it.

Not to mention we haven’t even touched on the SMG transmission yet. Which, you should know, shares the exact same clutch and transmission with the 6-speed manual models. The only difference is that the SMG uses a hydraulically operated clutch controlled by a dedicated computer.

Having owned two SMG equipped M3s I think the SMG transmission gets a bad rap. Yes, it can be clunky, but the CSL SMG software makes a big improvement. No, shifts are not DCT quick and yes the SMG can act up and cost big money if not properly repaired. But(!), even if SMG fails, or it’s just not your thing, it can be converted to a manual over a weekend for roughly $1,500. Honestly, considering the 6-speed cars fetch far more than an SMG car, the SMG models are a steal.

So, let’s talk about that. A 6-speed manual 2003 M3 with 40k miles recently sold on Bring A Trailer for $27,000. That’s not even the fancy competition package. That’s a standard pre-facelift (2003.5+ model year) model.

*Note, for an enthusiast, the 2003 model year or newer is what you want; they received the updated ABS unit (MK60). All of the other changes were minor and could be updated fairly easy.

At this point it sounds like I’m trying to justify my purchase. Perhaps I am. I searched around the forums, AutoTrader, Cars.com, Craigslist and Facebook marketplaces for a few weeks looking for the right car at the right price. I didn’t want to drive across the country, but I was prepared to spend about $10k for the right clean E46 M3.

Pure Rally 2003 BMW M3
The first time Josh saw his 2003 BMW M3.

I was actually looking at the ZHP models before a listing on Facebook marketplace caught my attention. It was for a black on black 2003 E46 M3 with SMG. The seller was less than an hour away in Maryland and had listed the car at $8,500.

A few back and forths with the seller over the course of a week and I agreed to come up to check out the car. I had cash in hand with every intention of making a deal, and my long time friend Kevin was willing to facilitate this questionable decision by giving me a ride north.

The owner had told me the car had been driven cross country on the Pure Rally, and he was honest in telling me that it had its fair share of drifts, burnouts and hooning. This car was clearly driven hard and put away wet, as they say.

That’s not what I say — they do. Whoever they are. Not me. Moving on.

I met the seller in the back parking lot of a stellar automotive repair establishment (as photoed) and there it was, just as I’d seen in the photos.

Only dirtier.

There was a “Team Magic Style” decal on the hood and the black paint had major swirl marks everywhere. The headlight lenses were yellowed. A fog light was busted. The roof rail trim was beyond faded. Every single wheel was curb rashed and the rear tires were toast. Matter of fact, every tire on the car also had signs of dry rot. Oh, the rear bumper was also barely hanging on and the rear diffuser was cracked.

And that’s just the outside!

A well aged E46 M3 interior

Inside, the steering wheel’s leather was torn and had a tacky decal on the airbag cover. The dash trim, door arms and shifter surround were spray painted a textured black. Think plasti-dip. Barf! The sunroof wouldn’t close properly on its own. The headliner sensor cover had a broken tab and wouldn’t stay mounted. The leather on the front seats was cracked and faded, but luckily not torn.

Modification-wise, the car was on KW V1 coilovers, had DEPO smoked LED tail lights, smoked side markers, black kidney grills and clearly a first generation version of unknown origin angel eyes.

The S54 engine fired up just fine and the gauge cluster illuminated nearly every warning light to let me know all was good.

This was clearly a fine example of the E46 M3. Or not, you know how this ends.

I’m a glutton for punishment. I’ve been there before and knew that I could clean this car up.

The seller and I went back and forth a bit and reached a deal. I signed the bill of sale with a purchase price of $6,500 and drove cautiously drove it back to Virginia and straight to IM Autohaus in Falls Church for Sean to give the car a good inspection.

Stay tuned to find out just how bad that went. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t good.