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The BMW E46 was a marvel when it debuted nearly a quarter century ago. Since then, it has remained relatively lightweight, with a powerful and exotic engine, sublime handling characteristics, and genuine character that laughs at the stereotype that German-made machines lack soul. However, its price point is significantly lower than what it stickered at, and the used market has somewhat leveled the playing field. What else could you get for the $25,000 you can spend on a quality E46 M3 example? Let’s take a look. 


The BMW E46 M3 

What more can be said about BMW’s eternal golden chariot? As a complete package, the E46 M3 is a goldilocks of all the characteristics you may want from an enthusiast vehicle. 

The 3-series was at its potential pinnacle, as was BMW, in 2000, and the M3 was a culmination of all that magic. At its core, the E46 chassis was big enough to serve as a truly functional daily driver but small enough that parallel parking somewhere like Manhattan wasn’t an issue. Its biggest dimension changes over the preceding E36 came from the width, a growth of over 2 inches, which was beneficial in a few ways. The bodyshell was stiffer than ever, too, and that meant the slightly heavier and more luxurious E46 wouldn’t leave any of its predecessor’s playful characteristics behind


BMW then took the well-established suspension and brakes from their E36 M3, revised them for the wider track and longer wheelbase, and slapped them onto the E46. Of all the merits people give to the E46, perhaps its suspension feel and precision earn it its loudest praises. Solid geometry out of the box and an eager aftermarket have made the E46 as competent on the road as on track. Whether airbags or external reservoir coilovers, the M3 is likely going to excel. However, one could argue that the S54 engine, which every example sports, is truly the M3’s party piece. 

BMW M’s last naturally-aspirated straight-six is a modern masterpiece. The free-revving screamer, once its handful of shortfalls is taken care of, is a race track darling and has been the powerplant of choice for an untold number of grassroots racers worldwide. Sure, its 333 hp doesn’t seem like a lot by today's standards, but its powerband and power delivery still make it undeniably special. As turbochargers have taken over, the S54 is a swan song to the raw mechanical power of a high-strung, naturally aspirated engine.


But what else can you get for the money?

Genuine motorsport connection, iconic lines, playful chassis, and characterful engines aren’t everywhere, but you don’t have to look hard to find some. Europe, America, and Japan have all had smashing successes among enthusiasts that have reached values attainable by many adolescents. If the E46 is a little too played out, or you’re looking for some genuine pricepoint competition, here’s what you’re looking for. 


European BMW E46 M3 Competitors

North of Munich lies the homes of Audi, Porsche, and Mercedes. In their respective home cities, each make engineers and produces their version of the ultimate luxury or sports vehicle. Though they may have a different focus or origin, more than a handful of models capable of taking on the E46 M3 have come from right around the corner.


Porsche Cayman S (987.1)

Porsche’s Boxster was an immediate hit upon debut in 1997, but it wasn’t until the Cayman reached buyers for the 987 generation that people began to start taking the entry-level Porsche seriously. The new coupe was full of 911 parts but was smaller, lighter, and had the engine stuck in the middle for far better weight distribution. Adding a roof to the already sublime chassis did nothing but favors as rigidity was greatly improved, allowing the springs and dampers to remain on the softer side of sporty without sacrificing cornering performance. 

FCP Euro 987.1 Porsche Cayman S Sport Design Wheels

Nearly two decades later, the first generation Cayman remains a lot of car for the money. Its hydraulic steering and lack of weight and technology give it an analog feel that sits at the sweet spot of modern performance, and even in stock form, its blend of balance and power makes it a match for the E46 M3. During development, the BMW’s hottest 3-series was a benchmark for the mid-engined Porsche, going so far as to be compared in Porsche’s earliest promotional booklets. 

Chassis-wise, the 987 can rival the E46 without breaking a sweat. Although the M3 actually has better front-to-rear weight distribution—50/50 vs. 45/55—the Cayman has the footing to keep up with the larger coupe in the twisties. The BMW has the edge in a straight line, but only slightly. The 987.1 Cayman S uses the M97.21 engine, a 3.4L flat-6 making 295 hp and 251 lb-ft of torque. That’s 40hp and 15 lb-ft less than the smaller S54 engine. But the Cayman is a smaller car without rear seats, so, naturally, the Porsche is lighter. It weighs in at 2954 lbs, while the E46 is quoted at 3415—that’s a difference of 461 lbs. Performance-wise, that equates to the Porsche reaching 62mph just .3s slower and a nearly identical top speed. 

The best way to differentiate the two is by interior appointments, exterior appearance, and practicality. The BMW is arguably the nicer place to be out of the box. Its standard leather seats and surfaces are nice, but finding a 987 with the full leather option isn’t challenging. Two trunks in the Porsche means that the Cayman actually carries some practicality; it can fit two golf bags in the trunk while having plenty of space left in the frunk. However, the M3 has a fairly sizeable boot and good space in the rear seating area, so it likely falls in the BMW’s favor. Looks wise, well, that’s up to you. 

Both make great three-season daily drivers capable of ridiculous speeds and wonderful sounds. Running costs should be relatively the same, too. Of all the models in this piece, these two are likely the closest to a toss-up.


BMW E46 M3

Porsche 987.1 Cayman S

Engine Type Inline-6 Flat-6
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 3.4L (3387cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 295 @ 6250 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 251 lb-ft @ 4400-6000 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 5.1 seconds (manual)
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 171 mph (manual)
60-0 mph 113 ft 110 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.96g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 14.5 cu. ft. (combined F&R)
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 2,954 lbs. (manual)


Porsche 996.2 Carrera

While the Cayman was aiming for the M3, the M3 set its sights on the 911. Porsche’s first water-cooled 911 was a sales success, but their chronic issues have made them the least desirable of the rear-engined Stuttgart sports cars in today’s market. At that $25,000 price point, the 996.2 is widely available in all body styles and trims, save for the Turbo and GT models. 


Although they’ve been knocked for a less-than-perfect engine, the M3 and 996 have benefitted from aftermarket support that has largely fixed any chronic problems they left the factory with. The M96.03 engine fitted to every 996.2 Carrera doesn’t spin to an 8000 rpm redline with a frenetic crescendo of mechanical precision, but its 320 hp and 273 lb-ft puts the flat-6 on even performance terms with the Bavarian. Sprints to 60mph and top speeds are, again, nearly identical. It should be noted that making more power is an option for both engines, but Porsche owners will have to pay significantly more. 

Chassis and braking performance is likely friendlier in the M3 as standard, but that’s not to say the 996 is any slouch. It’s a typical 911 in that you'll be rewarded as long as you get it right. If you want to get serious about driving, the enormous aftermarket support will allow you to cherrypick every bit of your suspension down to the spring rates and bushings. But stock for stock, the Porsche has a different feel. It’s not a sports sedan but a sports car from the ground up and one with unique properties. A light nose and a heavy rear end are its own experience.


If you’re not specifically a Porsche person, it'll likely be the exterior design choices and interior quality-making that makes or breaks the decision. The M3’s cockpit is beautiful in its simplicity; clean lines and buttons come together for an almost timeless look. On the other hand, the 996 has a far more radical design that is quintessentially early-aughts. Ovular buttons, squeaky plastics, and a general cheapness can make the Carrera feel less than what it is. Interior colors such as Graphite Grey and Sahara Beige haven’t aged perfectly. On the outside, the 996’s fried eggs have seemingly returned to style, possibly for the first time. However, the now-enjoyed looks are somewhat let down by the lack of special colors. Porsche’s early 00’s palette was mostly silvers, greys, and dark metallic colors. The E46’s more vibrant shades are better suited to a sporting vehicle.


BMW E46 M3

Porsche 996.2 Carrera

Engine Type Inline-6 Flat-6
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 3.6L (3,596cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 320 @ 6800 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 273 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 5.0 seconds (manual)
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 177 mph (manual)
60-0 mph 113 ft 117 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.91g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 14.5 cu. ft. (combined F&R)
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 2,959 lbs. (manual)


Audi RS4 (B7)

Audi sold their answer to the E46 M3 alongside the Bavarian for a single year. A brutal sport sedan sporting a manual transmission, stiff suspension, and motorsport-inspired bits, the B7 RS 4 was and still is a more road-oriented choice. Speed and luxury abound in the hot Audi, but the catalyst behind its character also lends to its shortfalls as a true performance platform—and that’s OK!


Comparing the E46 to the B7 regarding race track performance and potential isn’t necessarily fair. The M3 has always been an exercise of homologation for touring and sports car racing purposes, so its chassis was designed with that in mind. The B7 was always performance-focused, but Audi’s need to keep everything AWD meant that its brawny 4.2L V8, shared with the R8, had to be slung out ahead of the front axle. That engineering decision means the RS 4 is characterized by understeer if you aren’t careful. Audi’s quattro division pulled out all the stops to fight the understeer, going so far as to fit a rear-biased center differential, but it wasn’t perfect. No matter, though, because short of a flat-out trip around Lime Rock Park, the RS 4 is a wonderful backroad bruiser.

As street-oriented performance sedans go, the RS 4 represents the best of an era where technology had not quite taken over traditional mechanical engineering. The engine is a shouty high-revving N/A V8; it only features a six-speed manual, it’s talkative though the steering wheel, is genuinely practical, and has a road presence that still commands attention today. Audi’s B7 generation was always a beauty, and the RS 4 was the best of them all, sporting a unique front bumper with puffed-out intakes on either side and enormous widened wheel arches meant to fit its special wheels. Inside the super saloon, the interior is relatively utilitarian in appearance but is trimmed in leather and carbon fiber. 

Of course, you won’t think about interior space as you bury the throttle and watch the tach spin up to 7800 rpm, unleashing 420 hp and 317 lb-ft of torque. Despite the portly curb weight of 3900 lbs, the RS 4 sprints to 60 mph in well under 5s and tops out at an electronically limited 155. The RS 4 is a German muscle car, closer to the Holden Commodore or Chevy Camaro in spirit. Yet, it’s still classically German, sporting tight engine packaging, complex electronics, and pricey service charges. Its special engine and iconic looks represent an era shared with the E46 M3; together, they’re two different ways of having the same fun. 


BMW E46 M3

Audi RS 4 (B7)

Engine Type Inline-6 Vee-8
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 4.2L (3,596cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 420 @ 7800 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 317 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 4.6 seconds 
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 155 mph (limited)
60-0 mph 113 ft 117 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.91g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 13.4 cu. ft. (combined F&R)
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 3,980 lbs. (manual)


American BMW E46 M3 Competitors

European and Japanese sports cars are generally the go-to for relatively inexpensive rides you can hustle around a race track with minimal modifications. However, modern American classics have started to find their way into the enthusiast crowds. That’s relatively speaking, of course, as the Americans had always had their niche, but only as of late have the models with respectable handling attributes finally fallen into a more approachable territory.   


Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (C5)

Suppose you were a motorsports fan around the turn of the millennium. In that case, you’d likely have seen pictures and videos of bright yellow Corvette C5.Rs running around Europe and America, crushing everything they faced. The C5 was a fresh start for engineers, and seemingly, there was a genuine interest in getting the ‘Vette to be a better competitor against those pesky Europeans. Two years after the C5 hit showrooms, Chevrolet debuted the Z06, a lightened, stiffened, and juiced-up variant representing the closest thing GM could make to a 911 GT3. 

Starting with the fixed roof coupe, Chevy engineers installed thinner glass, a titanium exhaust, lighter wheels, reduced soundproofing, and a lighter battery to cut about 130 lbs out of the already light sports car. With a curb weight of just 3120 lbs, it was then decided that the standard LS1 wasn’t powerful enough, so they created the LS6 with a larger camshaft, lightened valves, stiffer valve springs, and some other bits to end up with 405 hp and 400 lb-ft from the 5.7L V8. Its performance was undeniable, and journalists quickly praised it. 

Two decades on, the plastic fantastic has broken through its “old man in jean shorts” stereotypes thanks to its depreciation. Now viewed as a reliable, inexpensive, and widely available performance platform, the Z06 is almost a bargain. Examples are everywhere, floating around the $20,000 to $30,000 range with varying mileages and modifications. For that money, you get a true driver’s car capable of hitting 60mph in under 4s, which will certainly hassle an E46 M3 in the twisties or on a dedicated circuit. 

Where the Z06 falls behind the Bimmer is in its quality. It’s not necessarily a special place to be inside; styled without much of an eye and built of mostly hard plastics, you’re not exactly getting the “luxury” accouterments you’d find in the E46 or newer gen ‘Vette. It’s still an American car of its era, and that’s not exactly a compliment. But you shouldn’t grab one to feel supremely special unless it’s collector-grade. You should choose the C5 if you want to go fast regularly. With some simple modifications, the Z06 can dogfight with the best of the Europeans from the era and sound damn good while doing it. 


BMW E46 M3

Chevrolet Corvette Z06 (C5)

Engine Type Inline-6 Vee-8
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 5.7L (5665cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 405 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 400 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 3.9 seconds
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 168 mph 
60-0 mph 113 ft 117 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.91g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 24.8 cu. ft.
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 3100 lbs.


Cadillac CTS-V

 This might be a stretch, but hear me out. I’m not sure the E46 M3 is often considered against a CTS-V, but for $25,000, they both offer fun and lots of performance in an analog package. Looking at them through that lens, the decision comes down to how you want those characteristics delivered. Will it be wailing, knife-edged Euro sophistication, or ham-fisted, rubber-destroying brutishness? 

FCP Euro E46 vs. the World Cadillac-CTSV

The advent of the modern Chevrolet small-block and the LS series bestowed GM with a simple and powerful engine with a relatively small footprint. At the same time, Euro performance sedans like the E55 and M5 were taking customers away from the luxury Cadillac brand. GM Performance combined the Cadillac CTS with the C5 Z06’s LS6 and Tremec six-speed manual transmission to stem bleeding sales. Slapping on re-tuned sport suspension, large brakes, and a wide set of wheels (6-lug!) and tires completed the package and, as GM engineers were aiming to do, brought the CTS-V within direct firing range of the Germans.

Throughout production, GM made a few changes to their "sport" sedan, including a displacement bump in 2006 to 6.0L from the then-new LS2. Performance figures remained the same at 400 hp and 395 lb-ft, but peak torque arrived a bit sooner. That put the small Caddy in between the M3 and M5 of the era on paper, but the complete package managed to lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife quicker than the E39 and E46 Ms. 

Did it do so while looking as good as the BMWs? Maybe not. The CTS-V benefitted from the quirky angular styling of Cadillac products of that era with a neat design that has many good angles. But even with the wider arches, chrome mesh grille, and puffed-up front bumper, I can't help but think about hard candies, beige, and bingo night. I'll chalk that up to the fact I've never driven one, meaning the visceral shove of an LS—the heart and soul of American performance—has yet to be imprinted on me. 


In the end, the M3 is for you if you prefer precision and sports car-like handling. Its manic theatre is distinctly European, as are its build quality and interior ergonomics. On the other hand, the under-stressed LS6 in the Cadillac means torque is available anywhere at any time, and extra performance is just a cam kit away. Interior design and build quality are not remotely close to feeling as special as the Bimmer, but it offers more space and less costly maintenance. Either way, you'll be smiling, but how do you want to get there?


BMW E46 M3

Cadillac CTS-V (6.0L)

Engine Type Inline-6 Vee-8
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 5.7L (5665cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 405 @ 6000 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 400 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 4.5 seconds
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 168 mph
60-0 mph 113 ft 123 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.90g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 12.5 cu. ft.
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 3793 lbs.


Japanese BMW E46 M3 Competitors

If there were ever a country to challenge the might of the Germans, it'd be the Japanese. Their dedication to building the most precise machines around never disrupts their ability to put out products unlike anything seen before it. Not to mention their relative affordability and championed reliability, here are a few models with the M3 in sight. 

Honda S2000

Japan has a reputation for punching above its weight. Always doing things just a bit differently from everyone else and always trying new things has meant they’ve had many hits of all different varieties. Within the time that the E46 M3 has been around, the Honda S2000 might just be the best thing the Japanese have made. 


With roadster popularity reignited in the nineties, the S2000 hopped on the bandwagon and immediately became the one to beat. Honda debuted an all-new bespoke chassis for their first roadster since the S600 of the sixties to celebrate their 50th anniversary and immediately had a hot seller. It was a lightweight, two-seater that could out-corner cars with twice the price tag and bury them all in terms of reliability. It was a Honda, after all, but nothing received more praise than its engine.

While nearly all manufacturers based on the island of Honshu were messing with turbocharging in the early ‘00s, Honda stayed away. Instead, they focused on eeking out every last bit of naturally aspirated performance, and they did so with unrivaled success. The S2000’s 2.0L F20C engine makes 240hp, enough to earn it the title for most hp per liter of any engine until the 458 Italia’s F136 V8. The 9000rpm redline was exotic, as was the noise and performance, but the engine retained the classic qualities of every well-engineered Honda powerplant. Eventually, displacement was bumped to 2.2L, and the redline lowered, but power remained the same. 

That engine sits in the S2000’s engine bay almost entirely behind the front axle, making it a front-mid engine design. Its positioning keeps weight towards the middle, aiding the already vaunted chassis dynamics. The S2000 has rightfully become a grassroots motorsports legend as its chassis is ideally suited to hard laps around a race track. Its X-bone unibody structure keeps the body rigid but relatively light, and the bespoke design allowed engineers to fit double wishbones at all four corners. The remaining S2000 examples fall into four categories almost perfectly mirrored by the E46 M3: track ready/beaten, ratty survivors, good drivers, and collector grade.

The good drivers, like the M3, will sit in the same $25,000 price range regardless of options, so it presents a competitive alternative to the E46. Both models have high-revving, naturally aspirated inline engines that have won awards for their engineering. Both are beloved in amateur motorsports for good reasons and exude the motorsports heritage that both companies contain. Talk about a coin flip. 


BMW E46 M3

Honda S2000 (AP2)

Engine Type Inline-6 Inline-4
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 2.2L (2157)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 237 @ 7800 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 162 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 4.5 seconds 
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 151 mph 
60-0 mph 113 ft 116 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.92g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 5 cu.ft.
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 2840 lbs. 


Nissan 370Z

The 370Z might not be anyone’s first choice against an E46 M3, but hear me out. This platform has been around for over a decade, so Nissan and the aftermarket have had time to dial it in. If good power, reliability, solid dynamics, and strong aftermarket support are what you’re looking for from a car you can drive to and from your track events, auto-crosses, and canyon/mountain pass blasts, the Nissan 370Z provides a perfect basis.  

FCP Euro Nissan-370Z Heritage Edition

Nissan’s Zs have a long history with motorsports and taking on those pesky Germans in the sports car market. The 370Z, now a year removed from sales in the US, is the old model, but prices are far from outrageous. Models just a few years old equipped with the Sport Package are readily available with warranty-like mileage on them for under $30,000, while early models are far cheaper. But how does it compare to the E46? 

Well, engine performance is very similar. The Nissan also uses a six-cylinder engine but has them arranged in a vee and an extra 0.6L of displacement. Despite the small difference, the two models have peak power figures within single digits of each other; the 370Z topping at 332hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. 0-60 times are just behind the Bimmer at 5s flat, and the roughly 160mph top speed certainly is close enough. With that said, the VQ37VHR engine isn’t the most exotic and has a sound that few enjoy. Contrary to the M3, it lacks the soul and character that many other performance platforms have. But if that doesn’t bother you, there’s still plenty more to like. 


The suspension is set up for performance, utilizing double wishbones up front and a multi-link in the rear. Buyers of the later models can look for Sport and Sport Tech package models, which utilize slightly stiffer suspension and fixed-piston Brembo brakes. Aftermarket control arms, springs, dampers, and brake parts are all readily available to tighten up the chassis and prep it for regular aggressive driving. Otherwise, the stock suspension is perfect for daily driving, remaining soft enough for undulating roads, but taught enough for spirited drives through the twisties. 

Looks-wise, the 370Z has been around for over a decade, and little has changed. The lights are the biggest giveaway that the styling is almost two decades old, but the overall shape remains appealing. Inside, the hatchback isn’t the best for storage, and certainly not compared to the E46. However, technology and infotainment are far more modern, especially in the post-2018 models. Both the exterior and interior upholstery were offered in bright colors, helping Nissan retain its sporty image. 


BMW E46 M3

Nissan 370Z

Engine Type Inline-6 Vee-6
Displacement 3.2L (3246cc) 3.7L (3696cc)
Horsepower 333 @ 7900 rpm 332 @ 7000 rpm
Torque 262 lb-ft @ 4900 rpm 270 lb-ft @ 5200 rpm
0-60 mph 4.8 seconds 4.9 seconds 
Top Speed 155 (Limited) 155 (Limited)
60-0 mph 113 ft 113 ft
Skidpad 0.87g 0.89g
Cargo Volume 9.5 cu. ft. 7 cu.ft.
Curb Weight 3415 lbs 3327 lbs. 


How Does The E46 M3 Stack Up vs Competition

Separately, each of the above models is a fine choice for just about anyone looking for some fun from their car. But matched up to the E46 M3, it all begins to look a little different. They all have a few key traits—generally, some combo of track day poise, everyday useability, emotional theatre, and good DIY-ability—but it's only the M3 that can say it has every one of them. It's also for that reason that the specs aren't the most important, as cars are far more than just figures on paper. Instead, looking at them through a more complete lens that takes many other factors into account should paint a better picture. A picture that sort of looks like this:

The Cayman is short on space and theatre, the RS4 isn't as sure-footed around a circuit, the Americans lack the quality and grace, the S2000 is also short on space, and the 370Z lacks the character. Even many modern cars have successfully become beloved track-capable daily machines, only to have their nearly perfect engineering suck out the idiosyncrasies that make the cars we love.

It's mighty difficult to beat the old Bimmer as an all-purpose on-road machine. Hate it or love it, the E46 carries its reputation for a reason.

author image
Written by :
Christian Schaefer

Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. Constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a turbo Subaru Forester and a ratty Porsche 914, neither of which are running.

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