Vintage Review: 2004 BMW M3 – Is It Iconic?

Back in the days, when me and my friends started to work while living at our parents’ houses, we drove nice cars. One of them was a E46 M3. Here is the quick review I wrote in 2009:

The M3. Is there a car more iconic for a gearhead? Reading this statement everywhere leads to a kind of banality. However, the moment you turn on the ignition immediately lights the passion. I had the chance to test drive a 2004 M3.

Pictures (except the one on the bottom) are not the actual car, but close to.

First look. This car is so eye-catching. Low, wide, aggressive bodylines. There is a huge difference between the metal of a regular 3 Series Coupe and the M3. The widened fenders, drilled with air intakes, the specific bumpers, the bulge on the hood. All those gimmicks create a highly bulky and hot look (even today in 2020).

The power is also underlined by the quad exhaust pipes, the lowered suspension and the huge-for-the-time 19 inches alloy wheels. Speaking of the wheels, I never was a fan of their polished look. The CSL M3 wheel design always had my preference.

On this 2004 model, the LED rear lights are a welcome high-tech refresh of an already 10-year-old design (the Coupe was released in 1999, I wrote the review in 2009).

Th@t a$$…Note the LED taillight.

Inside, this car is very much loaded : power sunroof, DVD satellite navigation with 16/9 screen, car telephone, Harman/Kardon hifi system, power folding mirrors, xenon headlights, power rear sunshade, integrated garage door opener… Speaking of this last feature, one will notice that it deleted the M3-specific rounded rear-view mirror for the standard, squared one found on the regular 3 Series.

M3 mirror

Standard with garage door opener

Everything is black inside, from the carpeting to the headliner, and of course the Nappa leather on the seats. Carbon inserts are a sporty and classy finish.

The Nappa leather is smooth and soft and way better than the grainy Montana leather you can find of other BMWs. I feel good on this cabin, ready to enjoy all the features. You might ask: what about the engine?

Let me have a word on the gearbox. The car is equipped with the 6-speed SMG-II gearbox. SMG: Sequential Manual Gearbox, or an electrohydraulic manual transmission, or again a manual transmission with an automated clutch. You can shift gears with the lever or with paddle shifters mounted on the wheel. Fun fact: the brake pedal is not widened like you would expect from a 2-pedal car. You can choose between 6 modes for the gear shifting, from the softer P1 to the manly P6 mode.

SMG lever with gear shifting mode button

I took the wheel with the engine still running after our ride. The exhaust note was wild. Seat adjustment. SMG gearbox on Drive. I release the brake pedal and… nothing. Because there is no torque converter, you have to press the throttle pedal to make the car move. I stay in automatic mode for the beginning of the test drive. The shifting is rather slow, but with no hiccups. The steering feels heavy: blame the wide 19-inches tires. I quickly feel comfortable and drive in the city smoothly, using the huge torque of the S54 3.2 inline-6. The SMG also avoids any risk of stalling. Engine and exhaust notes are way louder than the ones from a 330Ci, for example. Overall comfort is good anyway.

Road is clearing. Downshift to 3rd gear. The gearbox shifts to manual mode. The metallic note of the engine fills the cabin. Press the pedal. The thrust is huge…Holy Jesus. The 8000 rpm redline is close. 4th gear without releasing the throttle pedal. I am already way off the speed limits. And there are 2 remaining gears… The power feeling is incredible: screaming exhaust and engine, violent gear shifting (I was in P5 mode), automatic downshift revving. My heart is beating and a grin appears on my face.

When it comes to brake, the power is strong but the brakes are very noisy. During this quick drive, I have not had the possibility to test their endurance, often an issue according to the owners.

Everyday usability and comfort of a luxury sedan, power of a race car, fun of the SMG gearbox: the E46 M3 makes the perfect blend.

I now also think it is iconic.

The actual car I drove. Sorry for the bad picture: 2009 cellphone quality…

2020 update:

Everything I wrote still reflects my opinion and I always have a thrill when I see one on the street. People seems to follow my feeling. My friend bought the car in 2009: 5-year old, pristine look, fully loaded, 40000 miles, for 29000 USD. Here in Europe, you have to spend pretty much the same amount of money if not more for a similar car, 10 years later. Iconic, you said?