These Obscure E46 BMWs Might Be Cooler Than the Mighty M3
The E46 M3 is great but these rare tuner shop-built 3 Series are exceptionally awesome.
We always hear about the E46 M3 being potentially the best BMW M3 of all time, or that the E46 3 Series, in general, was the apex of the 3 Series line. What we don’t usually hear about in BMW conversations is how the weird European aftermarket stuff is actually much cooler than the BMW factory stuff. Meet the Alpina B3 3.3 and the V8-swapped Hartge H50. They both offer a proposition that might beat the M3 in coolness.
The Hartge for sure kicks the M3’s ass on many levels, and the Alpina exudes that Euro-cool aesthetic that is characteristic of those old tuners from across the Atlantic, even if it is a bit more chilled out than the M3. This isn’t even a far-fetched comparison. These cars directly competed in period, and there is even an absurdly old-school video on YouTube that compares them. Note that neither car is called a BMW; both tuners are able to re-VIN the car as their own.
Let’s start with the Alpina. It’s an E46 330i with an engine swap from a 3.2-liter U.S.-spec E36 M3. Yes, the weak S52B32 engine that our M3 got. Don’t let that stop you because Alpina fixed the problem. The famed tuning company didn’t just leave it at the swap, it reworked that engine into a 3.3-liter torque monster with 280 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque. Compare that to the M3’s 333 horsepower and 252 lb-ft from 3.2-liters and it makes a decent proposition for an alternative car, especially when the standard 330i it is based on only makes 225 horsepower and 221 lb-ft of torque.
Alpina says it bored and stroked the engine for that displacement, modified the cylinder head and exhaust manifold, did lightweight pistons and a brand new crankshaft, all used with a new crank damper to match the changed resonant vibrations of the modified inline-six. This is a mighty serious hot-rodding effort from them, and it predates the M3 by two years with a debut in 2000. The character of the B3 is still that of an Alpina; a supple sport sedan that doesn’t compromise comfort for performance. I’d say it’s a small land missile. A major win for the Alpina here: it’s available in wagon form.
Info on the Hartge is more scarce, with this Car and Driver review from 2001 being one of few authoritative accounts of the 3 Series turned high-tech muscle car. The recently defunct and reborn tuner that is the namesake of Herbert Hartge specialized in BMW engine conversions and had a thing for ramming the contemporary M5 engine into the contemporary 3-series chassis. For the E46 they installed the S62 engine from the E39 M5, a 400 hp 5.0-liter V8 with individual throttle bodies, into the decidedly small engine bay of the 3 Series.
I stepped outside and popped the hood on my E46 just to check, and it’s not the world’s largest engine bay. Hartge reportedly routed the steering shaft through the gaps in the exhaust manifolds and routed some oil flow through the engine mount brackets to make it fit. Judging by the words from C/D and the random no-name video on YouTube, the Hartge cannot harness that power, er, effectively.
On the M3 to Mercedes C63 scale of cars, this one took a hard left and drifted the offramp onto AMG avenue. Hartge continued making these through the whole E46 production run, even using M3s as donor shells. I’d imagine those later M3-based H50s are a lot better at handling their power. If I’m honest I loved the H50 from the onset, but an M3 H50 might just be the ultimate E46. V8 power with those looks? It’s an M3 GTR Strassenversion without the bespoke engine and impossible rarity. Also, a central-exit exhaust was optional.
The kicker is that both are extremely rare. There are only a few dozen Hartge H50s max, even less in M3 guise, and the Alpina B3 3.3 is attainable but don’t come up for sale often. Not to mention, the Alpina B3 3.3 wasn’t sold in the United States. If these cars were a little more common and if Hartge offered a cheaper version with the M62 V8 from the E39 540i, we would have viable alternatives to the currently ridiculous E46 M3 market. Unfortunately, these ground-up reworks of one of the most beloved platforms of all time are just out of reach.
Then again, 2025 is only a few short years away. European importers: call me.