There’s a good argument the third-generation M3, widely known by its E46 internal code, is perhaps peak M. Maybe even peak BMW. A bold claim, perhaps, but if there’s a better intersection of classic style and modern performance we’ve yet to encounter it.
Unveiled at the 1999 Frankfurt show, the M3 E46 took the inspiration of the previous generation E36 model but increased power, performance and technology by significant margins. The all-new 3.2-litre S54 engine was – is still – a masterpiece of high-revving, naturally-aspirated engineering with individual throttle bodies and extensive upgrades to keep up with its sky-high redline. The peak 343PS (252kW) came at 7,900rpm but as much as 80 per cent of the peak 365Nm was there from 2,000rpm, meaning a broad and deliciously exploitable power band. Inclined at 30 degrees, the motor drove the rear wheels through an innovative Variable M Differential and the choice of a six-speed manual or second-generation SMG automated manual.
With a subtle 20mm flare to the wheel arches, a discreet power bulge in the aluminium bonnet and four stubby exhausts under the rear bumper the E46 retains a relatively understated appearance, while having just enough visual muscle to stand out as something special. And this combination is just as appealing now as it was over two decades ago when it launched.