Welcome to the E46 BMW M3 Car Bible. As you scroll down you’ll learn all about this vehicle’s qualities, features, finer points, and shortcomings. If you’re thinking about buying one of these, want some help maintaining or modifying one, or just want to deepen your knowledge for the next round of car trivia, you’ve come to the right place.
This is a living document that’s updated as we learn (and confirm) new valuable info. Got something to add? Drop a comment or send us an email! Don’t be shy; the more dialogue we have the better this Car Bible will get.
–Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles Editor-In-Chief
(Disclaimers; Disclosures: Some Car Bibles will have links to specific forums, groups, brands, shops, or vendors for parts shopping and such. We have no sponsorship deals or official affiliation with any of them unless explicitly stated. We also have to explicitly state that you should work on your own car and follow our advice at your own risk.)
There’s a lot of info packed into this Bible. If you’re looking for something specific, hit command/control-F, type one of these terms, and your browser should bring you straight in.
- The Short Story
- Fast Facts
- Spotter’s Guide
- Check This Car Out If…
- Important Trim Levels and Options
- Year-To-Year Changes
- General Reliability and Ownership Costs
- Red Flags and Known Issues
- Where To Buy Parts
- Aftermarket Support
- Popular Modifications
- Key Technical Details
- Fluids, Filters, and Capacities
- Factory Service Manuals
- Other References and Resources
- Professional Reviews
- Owner Reviews
- What They’re Worth Now
- Where To Find One For Sale
- What To Ask A Seller
- Competitors To Consider
- Photo Galleries
- Enthusiast Inquiries
- Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
- Comments Disclaimer
The Short Story
The 2000-2005 BMW M3 (E46) is a bona fide legend in car culture. The 8,000-RPM, 333-HP, individual throttle-bodied S54b32 straight-six was the period at the end of a 25-year long sentence for BMW; it never produced a naturally aspirated straight-six M car again. The E46 debuted in the heyday of hydraulic steering, rear-wheel-drive, unobtrusive traction control, stability control, and slightly simpler motoring.
It also marked a shift from the previous E36-generation M3. This car was the first of the comfortable, quiet, and refined grand tourer M3s. Its primary competition being the B6 Audi S4, and the Mercedes C32 AMG, it was still uniquely connected to motorsport and most certainly the highest performer of the three. Paired with the new-to-the-M3 SMG II automated manual gearbox, or the classic six-speed manual, the M3 was sure to gut punch you in the mid-range, and parkour its way to redline.
If you’re looking for more images, scroll on down to the Photo Galleries links toward the end of the Car Bible.
The S54b32 has its roots in the European market S50b32 of the Euro-spec E36 M3. Yes, the b is lowercase.
The E46 M3 features a mostly unique arrangement of suspension arms, specifically made for the M3 out of cast aluminum.
The M3 also featured a unique rear subframe to mount the M-differential.
The SMG-II gearbox was an automated version of the standard manual with a single dry clutch, not an automatic. Meaning that a computer and mechatronics shifted the car for you, slowly and aggressively.
The S54 engine had some of the highest horsepower per liter in its era, just behind the Honda S2000. That figure was 104 HP/L, at 3.2 liters, for the M3.
An M3 is easily distinguished from a normal E46 3-series. For starters, the E46 M3 only comes in a 2-door coupe. The most obvious visual differences are the widened fenders front and back, and the front fenders feature a small grill that bears an ‘M3’ badge. Up front, the car has a unique front bumper, and the hood now plays host to a ‘power bulge’ to signify the extra power of the M3.
Around the back, an M3 specific rear bumper compliments the decklid spoiler. Quad exhausts belch the chainsaw shriek of the S54. Throughout its life cycle, the M3 never received a full “LCI” – BMW speak for facelift. The main exterior difference are LED tail lights added for 2003. The headlights remained the pre-facelift shape for the duration of production. For the more eagle-eyed, the M3 features a finned differential cover that lives underneath the rear of the car that is easily spotted if you’re driving behind one and can’t see anything else.
26,202 M3 coupes made their way over to North America, along with 17,577 convertibles. Plenty to go around either way.
Check This Car Out If…
You’re someone wants performance, comfort, space, and a special engine in one daily-drivable package. A one-car solution if you will.
Important Trim Levels and Options
With the E46 M3 didn’t have many options besides interior and exterior color. This car was, after all, the top of the range for the ubiquitous BMW 3 Series in the 2000s. There is a factory navigation unit with minimal integration, that was optional, as well as a sunroof delete option.
Most M3s were produced in Silbergrau metallic (silver grey), so that’s the easiest color to find and generally the cheapest. The blues like Laguna Seca blue, Mystic blue, or Interlagos blue are the most desirable and expensive M3s. Phoenix Yellow is a polarizing color. As such it either commands a premium or condemns the car to sit around for a while depending on timing.
Imola red is also common, but a desirable color. All the colors i’ve mentioned are M only colors; the rest of the more common colors like Alpine White do not command a premium.
Sunroof-delete cars are rare and desirable as well. Interior colors in the U.S. spec models were limited; Black Nappa and Grey Nappa leather are the most common interiors. The most desirable interiors from a collector’s perspective are Cinnamon leather and Imola Red leather; the latter of which is the rarest of the lot.
My personal experience with BMW manual gearboxes: long throws like chopsticks in butter, and long clutch pedal travel. A good short shift kit fixes everything. The long clutch isn’t a problem, and you come to appreciate the smoothness it affords.
The big bummer with these cars is the universally hated SMG-II gearbox. It uses the same Getrag gearbox as the manual, but automated. We always hear about SMG pump this, burnt clutch that, and generally it’s true. The best way to fix the SMG problem, is to re-manualize the gearbox with this useful guide. The 6-speed manual cars are the most desirable bar-none, with SMG knocking literal thousands of dollars off of asking prices across the internet.
The M3 came in two body styles, coupe and convertible. The convertibles are substantially less valuable, and the cheapest way to get into an M3. Functionally they’re similar, but the convertible features extra reinforcements to make up for lost rigidity.
Europe received the SMG-gearboxed M3 CSL, which means Club Sport Lightweight. It features a new airbox, suspension tuning, wheels, and a lot of sound deadening removal to achieve the rawest M3 experience possible in the era.
Put it this way: All other things being equal, the most affordable M3s will probably be be Silbergrau over Grey Nappa and the most expensive will be Laguna Seca blue over Cinnamon.
These changes reflect the U.S. market.
2000 Model Year:
- Car debuts
2001 Model Year:
- SMG paddles changed (size and color of + and -)
- Bi-xenon headlights replaced single-xenon headlights
- Revised second-gen navigation screen (6.5 inch)
- Automatic headlights and wipers made standard
- In-dash CD player made standard
2002 Model Year:
- Navigation and MiniDisc player option (remember MiniDisc?!)
- Brushed aluminum interior trim added
- Bluetooth phone kit added
- Interior buttons changed from printed to embossing
- 19-inch forged wheels introduced as an option
2003 Model Year:
- LED rear tail lights
- Mystic Blue paint added
- SMG logo removed from shifter surround
- Trunk release handle changed
- Revised climate control unit
- Revised connecting rod bearing design
2004 Model Year:
- Business CD Head Unit upgraded to play MP3s
- M3 ZCP (Competition package) introduced
- Suspension tuning revised to change handling
2005 Model Year:
- Phoenix Yellow dropped
- Laguna Seca Blue dropped
- Final model year for U.S. market
General Reliability and Ownership Cost
These cars can be perfectly reliable… after some pretty intense maintenance and modification. People regularly track their E46 M3s hard, and enjoy many thousands of miles in their cars. It’s not at all unheard of to see one cross 200,000 miles. Don’t expect this to be a cheap car to run, however. Parts cost is generally in the hundreds to thousands of dollars – a lot is unique to the M3.
At the time of this writing you can expect to acquire a decent E46 M3 for anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 depending on factors we’ll get into below. If you drive it regularly, expect to spend a few thousand dollars a year in keeping it running tip-top.
The good news is that there are a host of aftermarket companies that make parts the emphatically and permanently address the common issues with this era of M3.
The E46 platform is ultimately a massive evolution of the original E30 concept. The front suspension is highly similar, especially in the non-M cars, where the M3 has had some major work done to change geometries. The rear suspension is more closely related to E36 but still massively changed for the M3.
The S54b32 is an evolution of the euro-only S50b32. The S50’s heads are rumored (but not quite confirmed) to have been the basis for the cylinder heads of the McLaren F1. Thereby, your S54 might be half of a McLaren F1 S70/2 V12.
Red Flags and Known Issues
The E46 M3’s common issues are well-known and documented. Luckily, they’re pretty easily identified as well. Look out for:
Rear subframe issues. Strictly speaking, the subframe isn’t what tears, it’s the actual unibody structure of the car itself. This can usually be felt by some looseness and the alignment (straightness of the wheel) changing over some wavy or cambered road surfaces.
Rod bearing problems. Early E46 M3s (2000-2002) are infamous for rod bearing problems. This mostly stems from the heavyweight motorsport oil that BMW specifies for this engine in cold starts. The best way to find out if you have this issue to collect a sample of oil from the car you own, or want to buy, and send it to a company like Blackstone labs to analyze the oil before it’s too late. The oil analysis will tell you if it’s happening a lot earlier than you think.
VANOS problems. Beware of these! They can cost the engine pretty quickly. VANOS is a variable valve-timing system meant to improve drivability and economy; stands for VAriable NOckenwellen Steuerung (German, obviously). Early M3s had faulty bolts that held the camshaft sprocket to the camshaft itself, that got loose and fell off, causing catastrophic damage. There is also the issue of the mechanical VANOS itself failing. This issue will present itself as an engine rattle at around 4,000 RPM. The longer you let this go, the more likely it is that the internals of the VANOS unit on the camshaft will break the tabs that hold it together, fall into the VANOS pump that pumps oil to the VANOS, and cause it to completely fail. Oh, also, the electrical solenoids can fail and cause reduced power, but luckily the engine won’t blow for that one.
Electrical Issues. Look out for electrical problems. These cars have a full array of sensors to keep the engine happy and they fail with some regularity. BMWs also tend to eat coil packs every 60,000 miles.
Oil Leaks. BMW oil seals are generally pretty garbage. Look out for leaks with the oil pan gasket, valve cover gasket, and the oil filter housing gasket.
The E46 M3 has 7 recalls documented on the NHTSA website, most relate to the Takata airbag inflators the car is equipped with, and one relating to an inconsistency with the amber side markers. We encourage you to get the airbag recall done ASAP.
Key Technical Details
Engine: S54b32, 24 rocker actuated valves with sodium filled exhaust valves, inline-six with dual-VANOS variable valve timing and individual throttle bodies, longitudinally mounted. 11.5:1 compression. Run by BMW/Siemens MSS 54 engine management. Iron block with aluminum heads, coil-on-plug direct ignition.
Transmission: Getrag 420G based SMG-II six-speed automated manual or Getrag 420G six-speed manual transmission. (Yes, they’re the same unit.)
Drivetrain: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, with M-variable lock limited slip differential, hydraulically actuated clutch type.
Suspension: Front MacPherson strut suspension with fully unique geometry, forged aluminum control arms, and sway bar (26mm) to the M3.
Rear semi-trailing arm suspension with unique arms, end links, and sway bar (21mm) to the M3.
Wheelbase: 107 in; 2720 mm
Overall length: 177 in; 4490 mm
Curb weight: 3,420 pounds (coupe); 3,781 pounds (convertible)
OEM tire size:
Front: 225/45/18 ; 255/40/18 (Style 67 Ronal made 18-inch base wheels)
Front: 225/40/19 ; 255/35/19 (Style 67 Fuchs made 19-inch optional wheels)
Yes, both are Style 67s, strangely.
Fluids, Filters, And Capacities
Fuel: 91 AKI (premium) minimum octane
Engine Oil: The factory recommends 10W-60 BMW Twinpower oil, part number 83-21-2-365-944, made by Shell for BMW. Any high performance 10W-60 will work, some owners swap to 10W-50 in colder climates. According to BMW’s book, the change interval is 5,000 miles.
Battery Size: H6
Oil Filter: The OEM oil filter part number is 11-42-7-833-769. Change every 5,000 miles with engine oil.
Air Filter: OEM part number: 13-72-1-730-449, change every 30,000 as recommended by BMW.
Cabin Air Filter: OEM part number: 64-31-9-257-504, change every 30,000 as recommended by BMW, or after any extreme air quality events like wildfires.
Transmission Oil: BMW MTF-LT-4, 75W-90, or Redline D4 ATF is the popular enthusiast alternative. Any GL-4 75W-90 fluid will work for both SMG and manual, they share the same gearbox. 30,000 mile interval.
Transmission Filter: Not applicable.
Differential Oil: Castrol SAF-XJ 75W-140 gear oil, with Friction Modifier (FM). Redline 75w-140 is also a popular alternative. 30,000 mile interval.
Coolant: BMW G-11 blue coolant. Zerex G-48 also works, but genuine BMW coolant is best to maintain pH and phosphate levels. 2 year interval, or as needed.
Power Steering Fluid: BMW OEM Pentosin fluid, part number 83-29-0-429-576. Non-service item.
Brake Fluid: DOT4 brake fluid, Motul RBF600/RBF660 is a great fluid for a sturdy pedal. BMW interval is every 2 years/as needed.
Clutch Fluid: DOT4 brake fluid, Motul RBF600/RBF660 can be used. Usually not serviced.
Spark Plugs: Genuine spark plug is an NGK DCPR8EKP; same as BMW genuine. Interval every 60,000 miles.
Where to Buy Parts
We highly recommend FCP Euro for E46 parts shopping. They have specialists on the other end of the phone, access to every BMW-specific part, and the added bonus of easy DIY kits for most minor and major M3 service.
ECS Tuning is very useful as a parts catalog, to pull part numbers and cross-reference, but we don’t really recommend them because of shipping and quality woes.
Don’t be afraid to call your local BMW dealer parts counter for some help with part numbers too! But, of course, OEM parts from the desk are rarely inexpensive.
The E46 M3 has a colossal aftermarket. 20 years of road racers, autocrossers, factory racing support, and legendary status in the car community has driven development of every part imaginable.
There are off-the-shelf drift angle and road race suspension kits for this car, every coilover manufacturer has a model for the E46 M3, and many engine mods to breathe a little bit more into the naturally aspirated S54.
Even better, this aftermarket bubble that the M3 has, drove the development of parts to fix every one of the M3s shortcomings. Upgraded VANOS kits, easy DIY subframe reinforcement kits, and upgraded rod bearings to increase the service life of the engine. Everything is possible with the M3 platform.
You’ll find a ton of M3s with CSL airbox mods for extra power and sound. A really good mod to have is a subframe reinforcement kit, it strengthens the trunk floor to prevent the infamous tearing issue. It is basically a must-do mod, along with an updated VANOS unit from somewhere like Dr. Vanos, who makes tweaks to the problematic system.
Also, doing the update 2003+ rod bearings is a good mod too!
Factory Service Manuals
The Bentley Service Manual is considered the gold standard in E46 reference texts. As of February 8 2021, you could access it here.
If that link’s dead you could keep Googling or buy a hardcopy. We mentioned FCP Euro earlier and that site sells it for about $112. The book’s model number is B305 if you want to look around used book sites and such too.
An unofficial reference text that gets linked to a lot on BMW forums is the Mike Miller Maintenance Schedule which has a comprehensive rundown of, you guessed it, what to change out and when.
Other References and Resources
The BMW M Registry has a good repository of E46 M3 history and information.
The Build Journal has an adjustable production data table that’s pretty neat.
The official BMW M website still has a page dedicated to the E46.
“2001 BMW M3: The more-powerful Euro version finally arrives here. Bring more cash, too.” (Car & Driver – December 1, 2000)
Larry Webster at C&D seemed to have loved the M3’s savage drivetrain, but didn’t enjoy the mild understeer and stiff ride.
“The engine is an absolute gem. This ferocious, screaming motor hurtles the M3 down the road with an urgency that now rivals the world’s best sports cars from Porsche and Chevrolet.” “…but it has picked up a couple of bad habits. The first is a ride that’s more punishing than the last model’s…” “Yep, it understeers — badly.”
“Road Test: 2001 BMW M3. The world’s best sport sedan… again.” (MotorTrend – December 8, 2003)
John Kiewicz of MT thought otherwise on the M3’s handling, praising it with the electronic assists off.
“Clearly, the DSC was designed to keep average schmoes from powering themselves right off a twisty mountain road, but we feel it chokes the M3 way too much for aggressive driving.” “Click off the DSC, and any hint of understeer can be counteracted with your right foot, allowing the capable pilot to balance the car as he wishes.”
Here we’ll share observations and opinions from people who have actually owned these cars. You get a special treat in this particular Bible; Zack Klapman (of The Smoking Tire, Hagerty, and other cool car programs) was kind enough to give us a comprehensive rundown of his E46 M3 experience to date!
Zack Klapman (Feb 17, 2021)
2002 BMW M3 manual; stock; owned four years plus:
“If you’re thinking about buying an E46 the first thing to know is that you are correct and the whole world is about to be your subordinate. They are great. I love this car. It does so many things well. You will understand why the M3 has the reputation of a do-it-all and why it is such a special badge.
It’s fast enough to feel relevant. It looks modern without being over-styled. The stance (stock on 18s) is great. I think the ergonomics are excellent for long drives (as long as you have the center armrest, which you want) and it will give you 29 mpg on the highway at a decent pace. Few sports cars are so frugal with gas and yet can deliver fun when you stamp your right foot.
Fold the seats and you can transport a five-foot table top. Give it a detail and it can still turn heads. Maintain it and you can drive them hard for 200k miles, on road or track.
It’s small enough to parallel park yet doesn’t feel cramped. Should you feel inclined to go drifting you will find it has a surprising amount of steering angle.
It’s a great car as long as you’re prepared to maintain it.
Because you will maintain it. Oh yes, you will. If you’re buying a car today, almost regardless of mileage, you need to make sure the cooling system has been replaced and subframe has been reinforced. Ignoring those things is like giving a child a “childproof” lighter; inevitably something will go wrong.
There may be door rattles, or glues that wear out. Remember, this was a $50,000 car when it was new. Expensive cars tend to be complicated cars and complicated things break. Even when they were brand new they weren’t without issue. Go search the forums in 2004 and you’ll find plenty of questions and complaints. And now you, the brilliant but optimistic enthusiast that you are, are trying to buy a $72,000 car (accounting for inflation) for a third of the price. This is a bold bargain.
Some stuff I only learned after owning it:
The common problems aren’t the only problems. When you research these cars, everyone will tell you to make sure that the VANOS, subframe, and cooling system have been addressed. Those are the big problems so of course they rise to the top of the Google search results. They don’t tell you that it sometimes idles weird, or that suspension clunks develop every year as regularly as flowers bloom. Who knew you could pay for a PPI at a dealership only to buy the car, and on the drive home, find that the cruise control doesn’t work? Why are the windows jiggling after a few months? Because pillarless doors. You’ll be taking off the door card twice a year so you can tighten the bolts that hold said windows, fearful that you will crack the very windows you are trying to protect. Oh, and the coating they put on various interior bits will start to flake off so it will look like you Plasti-Sipped your center console, which you didn’t.
One lesson I learned that’s true of all cars: A previous owner (or mechanic) can make the car much worse than stock. What began as a strange rolling idle became a car running on 3 cylinders. A code reader told me that my O2 sensors were bad. After dismantling that whole system I found out that the REASON those sensors were bad is that someone had put them in the wrong place. The sensor for cylinder 1-3 was in the port meant for cylinders 4-6, and vice versa. You can imagine the hellish spiral of bad information this would present to the ECU.
As for what I wish I’d known before I got it:
I felt like I went into my purchase pretty informed. I spent months looking for a car and overall I’m happy with the one I got. I wish I had done 2 things differently:
1. Tested the cruise control. I could have negotiated on that because it’s an expensive pain to fix.
2. I wish I had brought a code reader that day. Maybe I would have caught the O2 issues and saved myself that three-week headache. I have no idea how long the car was running like that. Hopefully no long-term damage was done.
I plan to keep it for a few more years at least. I haven’t found a newer car that does so many things as well, especially for the price. The M2 would be the modern answer (and I love them) but they’re very expensive and their systems are even more complicated.”
Own or owned one of these and want to share your thoughts? Hit up in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org!
What They’re Worth Now
The prime example: You’re looking at about $35,000-$40,000. This is for a primo color combo, low miles, one-owner, full service history, and no issues whatsoever.
A very clean driver: Budget about $25,000-$30,000. These cars have decent miles, but are serviced well, cosmetically 9/10, and well cared for with some road grime. This is what I call the “goldilocks zone” where the car has been driven and sorted, but well loved. This is also well within the budget for a great color combo
An honest car: Budget $18,000-$23,000. These cars will have driver miles, 100,000+. Service history will be mostly there, and ideally it’ll be a two-owner car. It will still be well loved and driven, and you’ll have some nice colors available, but mostly grey M3s will be in the rotation.
The budget option: $13,000-$17,000 will get you a reasonable E46 M3. There will be multiple owners, and many miles (over 130,000) but you can find a great option in this price range. Color combos are extremely limited, generally you’re gonna be looking at greys and the odd Pheonix yellow that’s been rotting on a lot. Some repairs will be required.
A roach: Anywhere from $7,000-$10,000 will get you a pretty rough M3, that will require most of the major repairs. These cars are high-performance and often crashed, so beware an accident history and bodywork. Miles will be in excess of 150,000, and honestly, you’ll mostly be looking at a lot of convertibles.
Where to Find One for Sale
These cars are old enough that Craigslist is a great option for the more mid-range quality of an M3. Plenty of options will be on CL.
If you’re looking for pristine examples, Bring-A-Trailer and Cars & Bids will be your best options; they cater to an enthusiast demographic. But since their reach is big, you can expect a good crop of competition on the buy. E46 M3s are popular enthusiast cars, so once one pops up on a big auction site it’s unlikely to fly under the radar and sell real cheap.
Generally, you won’t find any reasonably priced ones on the larger search engines like KBB, AutoTrader, or AutoTempest. Dealer lots seem to ask exorbitant amounts for these cars, and they do not have the best examples. Steer clear.
What to Ask a Seller
Go-to questions should include:
“When was the last rod bearing service? Do you know if it was ever done?”
“Are there any strange suspension noises?” this is to eek out a subframe problem, without directly alerting an owner to what you’re asking, and trying to hide it.
“Does the car have a check engine light?” You should generally ask this, but most check engine lights on an M3 are bad news.
“How much oil does the car consume?” It’s rare that you’ll get an honest answer here, but sometimes you will. M3s are known to consume some oil naturally.
“Has the VANOS been repaired?” Best to ask this one directly, usually an enthusiast will know, and a flipper won’t.
Competitors to Consider
Direct competitors include the B6 and B7 Audi S4, and Mercedes’ C43 AMG. But for the price range, you could also consider a 2008-2012 BMW 135i, or even a 2007-2013 BMW M3, which are coming down in price. Newer Audis are coming down too, and a B8 S4 is well within range, as well as early 2008-2010 Mercedes C63 AMGs.
But the true M3 image treasure trove, and an endless source of entertainment for any BMW fan, is at the official BMW Grouparchiv online archive. You’ll have to activate a translator if you don’t speak German, but a cursory search for “E46 M3” on that site returned… 2,078 images. Yeah, that should keep you busy for a while.
Pop Culture References
The E46 M3 is in every video game you can imagine, and even has a cameo in Grand Theft Auto IV as the Ubermacht Sentinel XS.
Strangely, no starring roles for the E46. Even its lesser sibling the 330i ZHP has a role in a Netflix special.
Revered R&B artist Frank Ocean owns a Silbergrau E46 M3 coupe with a CSL front bumper, and can be seen rarely in Los Angeles. He also has an S54-swapped E30.
Every car has a collection of common questions that pop up in forums and Facebook groups whenever new blood joins in. We hope a lot of those have been answered above, but if we start to see specific questions pop up regularly we’ll revisit them here.
Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
If you’re old school and like to keep reference notes on paper, or you’re just a completionist and want a free accessory for your E46 M3, download and this paperback Car Bible! Well, you have to also print it to put it on paper. But you knew what we meant.
Think of it like an owner’s manual supplement. Keep it in your car and your days of waiting for slow internet on your phone at the auto parts store are over!
You’ve reached the end of the E46 BMW M3 Car Bible and are about to scroll into the comment section. If any questions were left unanswered in the text above, try posing it in the space below! Unsolicited M3 tips are also welcome.