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E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3 - Track Driven

Photography by: Graham MacNeil

A few years ago, I was still a student and I had a class called Internal Combustion Engines. It was easily one of my favourite classes, as you can image. Studying engines, calculating hp, torque, efficiency, and exhaust flow for grades? Sign me up! It wasn't just the content, though, as magnificent as it was. The class itself was taught by the coolest prof there is. You may think you've had a cool prof, teacher, coach, or instructor, but I've got the standard by which all educators must be measured.

For one, he or she has to teach something that is cool.. does it get cooler than Internal Combustion Engines? (No, in case you're wondering). This one is also a true gear head, so much so that he sticks around after class and argues about cars, performance, lap times, and racing. And occasionally does so in the middle of class.. For one class project, I proposed comparing the engines and specifications of the C6 Corvette ZR1 and the Ferrari 599, in an attempt to "reverse engineer" various thermal and physical parameters of the engines based on published specs. He agreed. He also shows you how to start high performance driving by bringing you to your first HPDE school.. If all of that isn't enough, a few years later, he lets you drive his baby - an E46 Dinan S1 BMW M3. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what a cool prof should be like. And his car.. THAT is what a cool BMW should be like.


For years, I've held this belief: an E46 M3 is the best M3, thereby making it my favourite 3-series, and thereby making it my favourite BMW. It's quite an important role, but one that unfortunately did not have first hand experience to back it up. I've been in every generation M3 on track, starting from an E30 all the way to the F80. I've read a lot about all of them, talked to people who track them, heard them at full chat, seen what they're capable of, etc. All of this resulted in me favouring the E46 M3 above all others. I found it to be the perfect sweet spot, the best example of the breed. But I had no experience behind the wheel of one. Until now. And before driving it, I was worried this might be a case of "never meet your heroes". It wasn't. Not even close.

I wrote about my track drive of a Cayman GT4 not too long ago (link here: Cayman GT4. Driven. On Track.). I actually drove both cars on the same day. The M3 does not stand a chance against the Cayman GT4 (sorry, Julio..). But that's only if you take out your stop watch and start timing. If timing isn't a priority, this M3 makes one heck of a case for itself, and  we're comparing an excellent, relatively new, mid-engine Cayman here to an old M3 costing a fraction of the price. If the GT4 has great steering and communication through the chassis, the M3 is a stereotypical Italian in comparison; it won't shut up, or stop talking, yelling, and waving its hands. It seems like you can feel everything that is going on, and not in a cheap car or stripped-down race car kind of way with no insulation, rubber, or sound deadening. There is just an abundance of information making it through the chassis compared to new cars. The Cayman GT4 feels like it would never put a wheel wrong because it is hugely trustworthy. The M3, though, is different.. It makes YOU feels like you will never put a wheel wrong because you feel everything that is going on. That is this car's true party piece.



It's not the performance, not anymore. It was an impressive 4 seater track car in its day, but today, the performance of an E46 M3 is merely average as far as performance cars go. Don't get me wrong, it's still a very capable car. But you can get a V6 Camaro (1LE) today that can go head to head with a stock E46 M3 on track. Of course, the Camaro would be quite a bit more expensive, but the point is that the performance of one of the gold standards of sports cars - an M3 - is now attainable on a V6 Camaro. Progress has caught up to the E46 M3 capabilities. This is perfectly normal given the E46's vintage. In fact, it is what makes this car special. It is so much fun to drive and so refreshing compared to modern "sporty" cars, that you want to drive it even if you could drive something else that's more capable for the same amount of money.

I can't speak a whole lot for the balance of a stock one, because this one isn't. It's a Dinan S1 and it's lowered and cambered (-2 degrees, I'm told), with square 265/35/18 tires front and back (stock are 225/45/18 fronts and 255/40/18 rears), so stock balance is likely very different from this. This one is very neutral and could be provoked into rotating with a gentle but deliberate prod of the throttle. It is certainly not loose, which is good, but feels as close to neutral as you want a street/track car to be. It was set up by one of the best the best local performance and tuning shop; ISI Automotive, so it's no surprise (I wrote about one of my first few visits to the shop here when I got my camber plates alignment). It's also very composed and did much better than I expected over our track's roughest sections, remaining stable and controllable. I really wish I had driven a stock one to see what it's like, but even if you assume a little less neutral at the limit, it'd still be fantastic.


Trail braking does not rotate it as nicely as the Cayman GT4, but it is so much easier to get the back end to rotate under power - like a proper front engine, RWD sports car. With that said, you'll have to turn assists off. Traction control is terrible. It'll keep you out of the woods, but it's very frustrating. It's aggressive with its interruption, not subtle. Worse yet, the limits are low and it's not quick to back off so if you find its limits - which is easy to do - you'll feel a delay before it decides you can be trusted with power again. If you're still learning the car and/or track, I can see that being very frustrating if you want to keep the safety nets, which you should. This significantly under-performs modern traction control systems - even including my Boss 302, which is built on a relatively old platform (S197 first debuting on the 2005 Mustang). Thankfully, the engine is far better than the saddle straddling it that is the traction control..

The engine is an absolute masterpiece. Seriously, BMW, what the heck happened? How did you go from the S54 to, well, anything else in a 3-series today, let alone an M3/M4? For a naturally aspirated, high rpm screamer, there's power everywhere and that power is massively linear all the way from idle to redline. Combined with great gearing, you wind it out, shift, and repeat.. again, and again. What a joy to drive. And the noise.. Straight six, relatively uncorked, individual throttle bodies, and 7,900 rpm redline. I mean, what else could you possibly want out of a sports car engine? It's powerful, with no weak spots, linear, flexible, responsive, and loves to rev. Sure, it could use more hp, but there isn't a single great sports car out there that couldn't use more power. Julio has been tracking this M3 for a few years now (although not heavily). I don't know how reliable these engines are when regularly pushed, but if they aren't problematic, there's nothing to fault under the hood.


And I hope you haven't heard enough complaining about modern BMW steering.. because you're about to hear some more. There's a good reason for it. I actually drove a BMW M4 on track on the same day. Boy, what a difference. I'll be writing a separate review about the M4 in another article, but what you need to know now is that the M4 is not even on the same planet of fun-to-drive cars as this M3. The M4 would be so much better if it could learn a thing or two from this car. It's amazing how much newer the M4 is, yet this E46 M3 feels like it is far better sports car. There's real organic feel in the steering and real information about the tires make it through to your hands. Combined with great steering response and balance (and camber of course), the car feels so light and tossable, imparting the sensation it is hundreds of pounds lighter than the M4 despite being less capable in outright grip and "only" 150-200 lb lighter.

The story continues for brakes. Braking feel and modulation are fantastic. There was no fade that I could tell, although I didn't go 10/10th. And the brakes are floating calipers, not the sort of gigantic fixed calipers with a thousand pistons you find on everything these days. It's amazing - and very disappointing - how the industry and the market for sports car have made everything "better", yet the vast majority seem to have forgot the essence of what makes a sports car great. And it's not like it couldn't hold its own. When tested by Car and Driver, a 2003 M3 stopped from 70-0 mph in 161 ft, "just" 10 ft longer than a current M4 with massive carbon-ceramic brakes, much bigger tires, and newer and more grippy tire compounds. Honestly, when you start thinking about it, you wonder how the M4 did so poorly with all that braking hardware compared to the lowly, decade-plus-old E46 M3.


Put it all together, and you get a car that really feels special. It's very difficult to put a finger on one thing. In fact, you can be sure that it's not one thing - it's the entire package. Some reviewers call it the X-factor; when a car is so good, but you can't quite credit one aspect or another. I bet you if James May drove this car, it would give him "the fizz" in spades. This made writing about the car very difficult. It doesn't quite excel at any metric, but it just makes you happy to drive and push around the track. I can tell you the steering, the engine, or the chassis is good. I can tell you it sounds great. I can tell you a lot of good things about it. But what I can't tell you is how good it all comes together. The only way to truly know is to go out and drive one on a nice back road or, even better, on track.


Comments

  1. Wow! What a brilliant write-up! I agree with every word, including the comments on the coolest prof there is! E46 is by far the best M machine there is, and J is by far the coolest and best prof there is, and I'm thrilled to know them both! Happy driving J!
    Salute!
    VIU

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for the kind words!

      Delete

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