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The E36 and E46 M3s are some of the most accessible sports cars available on the second-hand market. BMW got it right around the new millennium, offering sport sedans with qualities that enthusiasts could get behind. Specially designed engines provided impressive power and an otherworldy noise that, when mixed with a large trunk and leather-clad seats, was an unbeatable combo that buyers couldn’t get enough of. Now, over a decade after the last E46 rolled off the assembly line, both generations present themselves as future collector cars and the perfect platform for a track toy.  

Between their debut and now, the internet and BMW enthusiasts have been raging over one question: Which generation is better? The E36 and E46 represent the two most beloved generations of the M3, and their fans are of a devout sort. Battles of CSL versus Lightweight, Coupé versus Sedan, and Estoril versus Laguna Seca have gone on for ages with no clear winner in sight. Does there have to be a winner? I don’t believe so, but where’s the fun in that?

 

A Brief History

Before getting into the characteristics, similarities, and differences between the two generations, let’s dig into the history. It’s common knowledge that the US-spec E36 M3 was a watered-down version of the model. BMW initially had no plans of bringing the M3 back to the US, but a campaign by BMW Car Club of America generated such interest that it forced the Bavarians to reconsider their decision. Two years after the E36 M3 debuted in Europe, the US-spec model landed on our shores as a cheapened package.  

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46_E36_Lineup

Even though there was enough interest to bring a car to the US, BMW wouldn’t federalize the entire package, believing buyers were going to choke at the cost. Their solution was to cut out key components to keep the cost nearly identical to the preceding M3. As a result, North American M3s came with nearly eighty horsepower less than the majority of European E36s, cheaper headlights, a smaller rear differential, and no oil temp gauge. An upsetting decision, sure, but American buyers didn’t mind too much. The E36 was a great success for BMW, with over 30,000 examples sold, a far cry from the under 5,000 E30 M3s sold in the states. 

From the E36’s success came the E46 and BMW’s wise decision to offer one M3 for the global market. Buyers in America had been clamoring for the “real” M3 for several years and showed BMW that they were willing to pay whatever it cost. As promised, BMW delivered nearly the same exact model to American dealers as they did to their own in Munich, save for some different exhaust parts. 

Slotted next to the E39 M5, the E46 M3 was a complete game-changer on this side of the pond, and buyers responded in larger numbers than ever before. Sweetening the deal and justifying the higher price tag was the engine, a straight-six dripping in M-division magic. Inside the newer M3’s cabin was an interior more focused on luxury, comfort, and technology. It was an M3 for the modern era, and it’s since become a modern classic. 

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46

For many, the E46 represents the apex of mechanical rawness and modern electronics. It’s still a high-strung, normally-aspirated straight six that harkens back to the DRM-championship-winning E9 3.0CSL, but with variable valve timing and fuel injection. BMW also happened to be at somewhat of a crossroads, too, which has caused many to consider the E46 era BMW’s golden age. With all that nostalgia and heritage flying around, it’s tough to take off the rose-tinted glasses for a look at how the E36 and E46 stack up, but thankfully, numbers typically do the trick.

 

BMW E46 & E36 Spec Comparison

  2000-2006 E46 M3 1995 E36 M3 1996-1999 E36 M3
Engine Model
 S54B32
 S50B30 
S52B32
Engine Type
Inline 6
Inline 6
 Inline 6
Displacement
3.2L (3246cc)
3.0L (2990cc)
3.2L (3152cc)
Horsepower
333 hp @ 7900 RPM
 240 hp @ 6000 RPM
240 hp @ 6000 RPM
Torque
262 lb/ft @ 4900 RPM
224 lb/ft @ 4250 RPM
235 lb/ft @ 4250 RPM
Compression Ratio
11.5:1
 10.5:1
10.5:1
Max RPM
8000
 6500
6500
Induction
Normally Aspirated, Individual Throttle Bodies
Normally Aspirated, Single Throttle Body
Normally Aspirated, Single Throttle Body
Transmission Type
Getrag 420G, 6-speed
 ZF S5D-320Z, 5-speed
 ZF S5D-320Z, 5-speed Manual 
or
ZF 5HP18, 5-speed Auto
Gear Ratios
4.23/2.53/1.67/1.23/1.00/0.83
4.20/2.49/1.66/1.24/1.00
Manual-4.20/2.49/1.66/1.24/1.00
Auto-3.67/2.00/1.41/1.00/0.74
Final Drive
3.64
3.15
 3.23
Weight
Coupe: 3415lbs / 1550kg
Coupe: 3219lbs / 1460kg
Coupe: 3219lbs / 1460kg
Convertible: 3781lbs / 1686kg
Convertible: 3440lbs / 1560kg
Convertible: 3440lbs / 1560kg
N/A
Sedan: 3219lbs / 1460kg
Sedan: 3219lbs / 1460kg

 

BMW E36 v.s. E46 M3 Engines

The heart and soul of every BMW M car is its drivetrain, especially the engine. Every M car was designed and built with motorsports engineering throughout every single component, and the engines were no exception. That engineering has developed several of the best engines to ever leave Munich, though the US-spec E36 M3 was never able to take advantage of them. 

 

S50 & S52

Arriving in the US for the 1995 model year, the first-year M3s were the only models to use the S50B30US. Because federalizing the European engine was going to raise the M3’s price beyond a reasonable level, BMW came up with a solution deemed good enough. What they did was take the existing M50 inline-six and beef it up with a longer stroke and larger pistons to end up with a 3.0-liter displacement. Other small changes were made to the new engine, but the US-spec S50 was really just a slightly bigger version of the engine found in the 525i and 325i of the day. The total power output of 240 horsepower and 224 lb-ft of torque wasn’t so tough to swallow, considering the Euro engine made 286 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque, but that was all about to change in 1996. 

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46_S52_Engine

Following the E36 M3’s first year in the US, BMW increased the displacement to 3.2L with an all-new engine. Debuting in the American and Canadian examples was the S52B32, an engine unique to the North American models. The new mill was based on the M52, a heavily updated and revised variant of the M50. With a larger bore and stroke over the S50, the new engine was primed to be a better, more powerful engine for the US M3. It wasn’t, though, and saw only a twelve lb-ft of torque bump over the smaller S50. The bulk of the changes came from the introduction of the OBDII emissions system, hampering the M3 with more computers, sensors, valves, and solenoids, all in the name of carbon emissions. It would be this engine that would last the rest of the E36 M3’s production, providing adequate power but never quite living up to the prowess of European examples.  

However, BMW did make up for it with the E46 M3 and its S54B32. The new M3 was a fairly significant departure from the E36, and a good portion of that stems from the engine bay. No longer did we Americans have to live with an inferior powerplant; the new engine was the real deal. 

 

S54

The S54 retained the same basic bones as the European S50, as it was essentially an evolution. The engine block was cast from iron and capped with a cast aluminum cylinder head that featured dual overhead camshafts. The rotating assembly used a forged and nitrided crankshaft fitted with larger main bearings than the non-M engines for better reliability near its 8000rpm red line. Induction was provided by six individual throttle bodies instead of the single unit used on the S50US and S52. Even the oiling system was light years ahead of the S52; the E46’s oil pump featured the main pump that drew oil from the deepest part of the sump and a scavenge pump that pulled oil from the shallowest part of the pan to ensure consistent oil pressure on the racetrack. 

BMW_E46_M3_Engine_Bay_Kodak_Ektachrome

The E36’s US engines aren’t remotely in the same league as the S54 in terms of engineering and technology. For all intents and purposes, they were standard 3-series engine bored and stroked for some extra displacement. They used the same VANOS systems, shared a cylinder head casting, and the same engine block (minus bore size). On the other hand, the S54 isn’t remotely similar to the M54. The two engines share almost no parts and are connected only by the fact that they’re both normally-aspirated inline-six engines that can be found in an E46 chassis. 

 

S54 vs. S52

Comparing the S54 to the S52 returns a similar result, though not as drastic. Both engines are 3.2-liter normally-aspirated inline-sixes with cast iron engine blocks, aluminum cylinder heads, and mostly forged rotating assemblies. Dedicated intake and exhaust camshafts driven by a timing chain and utilizing variable cam timing are also present in both engines. And that’s about it.

Their differences are enormous, with so much variance that it’s easy to see why the S52 is viewed as such an inferior design to the S54. Starting with the easy stuff, both engines technically measure in at 3.2L even though their displacements measure completely different in cubic centimeters. The S52 uses an 86.4mm cylinder bore and an 89.6mm stroke to land at 3152cc, whereas the S54 uses an 87mm bore and a 91mm stroke to measure in at 3246cc, nearly a tenth of a liter difference between the two. 

Digging deeper, the differences become apparent. At the top of each M3 engine is its cylinder head, and in this case, the biggest differentiator. The S54 cylinder head was a one-piece design instead of the old two-piece from the S50, saving weight from the engine’s highest point. Inside the head, the shimmed buckets under the European S50’s camshafts were simple but required regular adjustments for maximum performance, so M ditched them for finger followers and shims, which again reduced complexity and weight in the valvetrain. The camshafts grew, too, sporting 12mm of lift on the intake and exhaust side. Their operation was driven by the dual VANOS system. First seen on the Euro S50B32, it provided both camshafts with infinite adjustment within the mechanical capabilities of the internal gearing. 

The S52/S50US uses a much more traditional and less high-tech valvetrain consisting of hydraulic lifter buckets instead of finger followers. They’re simple and reliable, lasting well over 100,000 miles before significant wear, but are significantly heavier than the finger followers. The bucket’s extra mass robs power as the engine requires more force to move them at all engine speeds. High-rpm performance will suffer the most as the hydraulic adjuster struggles to compensate for the inertia of the heavy buckets and the rapid valve actuation. According to BMW, the finger followers of the S54 reduce mass over the buckets by 30%.  

However, the cylinder head differences didn’t end there. The S54 spins significantly higher (8000rpm vs 6500) than the S52/S50US and makes its peak horsepower just 100rpm shy of its rev limit, thanks to its superior airflow capabilities. For starters, the S54’s camshafts are massive compared to those in the S52/S50US. The roughly 10.2mm of maximum intake and exhaust lift provided by the E36’s engine is dwarfed by the 12mm provided by the S54’s bump sticks. Then there's the matter of valve size; 30.5mm exhaust valves are present in both generations, but the S54’s intake comes in at 35mm, 2mm larger than the S52’s. More airflow means more oxygen in the cylinders. More oxygen means more fuel and a larger fuel/air mixture means more power. Compression ratio plays a role there, too, and wouldn’t you know it, the more powerful S54 has static compression of 11.5:1, whereas the S52 comes in at 10.5:1.

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46_Engine_Bay

Airflow is also dictated by throttle size, and that brings us to the most notable difference between the engines. The S50US/S52 used essentially the same intake manifold and single-throttle body as the lesser M5X engines. Being of motorsport design, the S54 was fitted with an individual throttle body for each cylinder. Benefits to ITBs are vastly improved throttle response and airflow into each cylinder, but negatives like increased cost and complexity often limit their use in production cars. The M3s are one of the few models to be regularly fitted with ITBs, as they were utilized on the E30, E90, and European E36s. Newer F80 and G20 use BMW’s Valvetronic system, which eliminates the throttle bodies altogether.

As mentioned above, the S54 utilizes a specialized oil system unique to itself on American shores. Its twin oil pumps were designed specifically to keep the engine happy in motorsport and spirited driving applications at all times. Contrary to that is the E36’s oiling system; taken directly from the M52, it uses a single pickup at the rear of the sump for oil supply. S52 oil starvation isn’t uncommon on the track, putting it at a disadvantage in those situations. Thankfully the S54’s pump can be installed with a few modifications for a quick fix. 

Although that about wraps up the major differences between the E46’s and E36’s powerplants, there are still plenty of small changes due to more advanced electronics and emissions controls. By now, it should be clear that the S54 is the more advanced engine by leaps and bounds, but that doesn’t mean the S52 is bad. Sure, it isn’t the European engine, but the S52 is receptive to modifications and, with the right parts (i.e. boost), can make an enormous amount of reliable horsepower. 

 

Transmissions

Both the E36 and E46 were offered with two transmission options. The two options dictated pedal count; one with three and the other with two, though the latter weren’t remotely close to each other. Each of the choices sold well in America, with the manual transmissions taking the edge in production volume by a decent margin. 

The E36 was given two five-speed transmissions designed and built by ZF. The most common was the manual transmission. BMW used the S5D-320Z variant of the S5-31 transmission line and was rated at a maximum of 320Nm of torque. A hydraulically-assisted single plate clutch was used to disengage the engine from the transmission that featured a 1:1 top gear. The other option for E36 buyers was the 5HP18 automatic. There really isn’t anything special about it; it’s just another slush-box automatic transmission. 

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46_Getrag_420G_6mt

The E46's gearboxes both featured an extra forward gear over the E36's and were built by Getrag instead of ZF. In another win for the American M3, buyers were finally given the transmission fitted to the 3.2-liter European E36 and E46s. Classified as the 420G, the Getrag box was offered in two variants: traditional manual and semi-automatic sequential manual. 

The traditional manual was nothing fancy, using a hydraulically-assisted single plate clutch to disengage from the transmission and a standard H-pattern gate. What it brought to the M3 was an overdrive gear for sixth gear. The overdrive allowed a significant reduction in engine RPMs at highway speeds for better economy and engine health. BMW’s other transmission choice, the SMG “Sequential Manual Gearbox,” shared the same Getrag 420G housing and gear set as the manual. Its difference came from its clutch and shifting operation. 

FCPEuro_BMW_E46_M3_SMG_Gearbox_Revisit

BMW and Getrag made the clutch and gear changes controlled by a series of hydraulic pumps and actuators that responded at the tug of a paddle or flick of the gear lever. BMW even allowed drivers to adjust how aggressively they wanted the system to shift with the press of a button. A far cry from the traditional automatic transmission equipped with the US E36 M3, though both are typically avoided by current buyers.

 

Suspension & Chassis

In contrast to the significant differences between the E36 and E46 M3 drivetrains, the suspension and chassis differences aren’t as stark. The overall suspension architecture laid out in the E36 was modified but carried over to the E46 as BMW deemed it more than enough for their new chassis. However, BMW also failed to fix some critical and known flaws in both chassis leading to some significant repair bills for owners.  

The front suspension on both chassis use a MacPherson strut and a “bat-wing” lower control arm to control damping and articulation. The rear suspension arms are comprised of three per side. The trailing arm acts as the primary suspension arm, carrying the wheel hub and all of the outer suspension mounting points. The other two arms are the upper and lower control arm. The upper arm is a large cast aluminum piece that acts as the lower spring perch—the upper perch is a part of the chassis.

The largest differences appear when it comes to the specifics of those parts. The E46 M3 chassis is significantly wider than the E36’s, so the length of the arms and the suspension’s geometry isn’t the same. Because of that, the various bushings, dampers, springs, and arms aren’t generally interchangeable between the two chassis. A common swap for E36 drift cars is a set of the E46 M3’s front control arms. It gives them a significant increase in negative camber, a much wider track, and more steering angle, but it isn’t without necessary modification to ensure proper fitment.

While parts interchangeability isn’t as extensive as some would believe, the two cars share a design, and that comes with some shared flaws—most famously, the rear trailing arm bushing. 

 

Trailing Arm Bushing Failure & Chassis Cracking

The trailing arm’s forward bushing is the largest in the rear suspension and is under a considerable amount of force at almost all times. It’s that stress that regularly caused the original rubber bushings to fail in a shockingly small amount of time. Bushings of that nature will typically last around 70,000 miles on a car with a similar suspension design, but the forces generated by the sporty suspension would kill the bushings in as little as 30,000 miles. The rapid bushing degradation was an issue on the E36 that BMW allowed to be carried over to the E46 as they did little to update the design. 

FCP_EURO_BMW_M3_E36_VS_E46_Chassis_Cracking

Then there was the issue of chassis cracking. In a rather un-BMW-like nature, both the E46 and E36 will have their suspensions break through the steel body or tear themselves out of the body through natural road use. It’s the rear trailing arm’s forward mounting point, the area surrounding the quickly-wearing bushing, that succumbs to those suspension forces and could be ripped from the car if left to crack for too long. The rear subframe mounts of both cars were an issue as well; the degradation of the subframe bushings put the suspension’s forces directly into the mounting points to the point that they would crack.

Both areas are real problems for the M3s, and any chassis that has yet to have reinforcements welded in should be inspected by a professional; if not, have the reinforcements installed as soon as possible. It’s an unfortunate matter of if, not when.

 

Exterior

While many of the mechanical parts and ideas were carried over from the E36, BMW completely redesigned the exterior of the E46, creating two camps of die-hard fans in the process.    

The E36 is a product of the early nineties. It wears a strikingly boxy shape that is both angular and soft in appearance. BMW’s four distinct headlights returned but, for the first time, were packaged in a single headlight housing in a break from tradition. Other familiar lines like the Hofmeister kink and the black molding across the bumpers and waistline were there just to remind owners what they were driving. BMW did make the M3 a bit less flashy, though. 

The DTM conquering E30 M3 was given an altered rear window line and a set of gnarly box flares that truly separated the M3 from its lesser 3-series siblings. Its replacement, the E36, got hardly any modifications and used essentially an identical shell to whichever body style was being made. Defining characteristics came from the bumpers, skirts, and wheels fitted only to an M car, but even those could be fitted to the right E36 non-M chassis with the correct supporting pieces. Look quickly, and it’ll be tough to differentiate an E36 M3 from its non-M siblings, and that distinction only gets harder when an owner adds M bits to their non-M chassis. 

In stark contrast to the E36, the succeeding E46 M3 was radically different. The angular lines had all been sanded down (figuratively) and softened for a more streamlined shape. BMW’s new könig of the 3-series lineup was instantly recognizable as it featured a distinct exterior treatment. 

Returning to the M were a set of fender and quarter flares larger than any other E46. New headlights with attached corner lights remained in a single housing but were more stylized. The lower edges eliminated the boxy E36 headlight design for one that harkened back to the traditional four separate lamps. Then there were the unique bumpers, skirts, mirrors, fenders, and aluminum hood with its “power bulge” to let you know of the S54 lurking beneath. It was a bespoke chassis for the M3, and BMW ensured everyone knew it. Bits like the headlights and taillights could be interchangeable with other E46 coupes, but that’s dependent on the model year.  

Since the E46, the M3 has always been discernable over a standard 3-series thanks to its wider body and distinctive bumpers and body panels. The E36 remains somewhat of an anomaly in the lineup, but it's easy to understand why, given BMW’s uncertainty surrounding the model’s future at the time. 

 

Interior

As with the exterior, the interior is another point of drastic change between the two generations and a further departure from the original M3. The E36 M3 might’ve debuted in the mid-nineties in the US, but its interior was designed half a decade earlier. As a result, the design language and touch points were dated by the turn of the millennium, and they remain a busy reminder about how far we’ve come. 

The E46’s interior, too, is a reminder of how far we’ve come but in a different sense. The mostly new model saw some of its biggest updates in the interior as the excess knobs and buttons of the ‘90s got the boot for climate and radio controls with screens and displays. They weren’t what we know and see now, but they were a big deal in the day and presented themselves as a very upmarket offering. 

Comparing the two, there’s no doubt that the E46 was given the better cabin space. The E36 has an almost utilitarian layout that feels far more dated than the E46’s, which holds up better today. The much-rounder M3 has an interior to match with flowing lines and reduced button count, even by today’s standards. A large trim strip runs across the E46’s dashboard to break it up and matches the trim given to the door handles, door pulls, and the shifter surround. The E36 does get matching trim bits like that but without the large strip across the dash; instead, a small piece is placed almost arbitrarily between the vents in front of the passenger’s seat.

Speaking of vents, the E36's are a puzzling combination of square and dash-conforming shapes for occupants, while almost ovular window defrosting vents are present on either side. BMW designers brought simplification to the vents in the newer car, as the E46 features only four in a nearly uniform shape. They even integrated the window defrosters into the outer vents to further clean up the dashboard. 

The smooth and simplistic design of the E46 dashboard continued throughout the rest of the interior, including the seats. Only one style of seat was offered, but it was available with or without electric adjustment. Big bolsters are present on the seat backs and the seat bottoms to keep the driver and passenger locked into the seats at all times. The E36’s seats feature similar bolsters, but the seats themselves are a completely different look—and there were two of them!

Most commonly, you’ll hear about the M-specific E36 seats, the “Vaders,” which get their name from their characteristic-looking headrest/shoulder bolster combo. They’re the sportier of the two and more desirable of the two. The other seat was the non-M sport seat that could be found in a regular 3-series. Those seats were offered as part of the Luxury Package and in the M3 sedans, but many upgrade to the Vaders thanks to their iconic look, fantastic support, and long-distance comfort. 

 

E36 v.s. E46 M3 Driving Impressions

The E36 and E46 were both beloved by BMW fans, but neither are without detractors. While the average fan might like one over the other, chassis-specific fans line up to argue with each other over curb weights and engine specs. Then there’s the press and their educated opinions. Sure, everyone’s opinions are different, but their time spent driving, comparing, and recording every new car, performance or not, gives them a unique perspective on what good and bad qualities are.  

Here are some impressions of both chassis, professional and non: 

 

E36

“You swing into the first bend, and the nose swivels like the turret on an M1. The wheel could be on a precision lathe; nothing is lost to compliance. The corner tightens, you dial in more lock, and the nose responds in direct proportion. Now you're going too fast, so you ease off the throttle. The car loses speed and kind of hunkers down, but there's no change in heading unless the front end was already pushing, in which case the line tighten . If you are going way too fast, the car will rotate as the back eases out.” Barry Winfield - July 1994 - Car and Driver 

 

“Since the sedan keeps the same wheelbase and near perfect weight distribution as the coupe, our handling exercise was equally enjoyable, also. The M3 attacks the slalom like a downhill skier—always picking a perfect arc, and responding to the driver’s inputs like it has nerve endings of its own. High-speed maneuvers give no pause either. Lateral transitions are precise, with minimal body roll, and excellent steering feedback. You won’t find a more nimble sedan at any price.” 1997 - Motorweek



E46

“The E46-based M3 looks and feels like a fusion of epochs. It is still raw enough to share a bloodline with the very first M3—which in turn owes a lot to the 2002tii—yet it offers modern conveniences that might encourage you to use this tail-happy super-sled as a prescription-free antidepressant. Navigation? Check. Xenon headlights? Check. Sequential manual transmission? No, thank you. When they released the clutchless SMG transmission in 1997, M engineers were extremely proud of the racy feature that promised so much and delivered so little. Operated by flicking a shift lever forward or pulling it back, the electrohydraulic gearbox combined the worst of all worlds. In their quest for higher technology and easier driving, nearly half of E46 buyers fell for it, only to experience jerky downshifts, tardy upshifts, and lower resale values. There's no doubt about it: the E46 gearbox of choice—fitted to our test car, naturally—is the one masterminded by your right arm and your left foot. It is mated to a high-revving, normally aspirated straight six that develops 333 hp at a melodious and deep-voiced 7900 rpm.” Georg Kacher - March 27, 2014 - Motortrend

 

“Unlike other BMWs, the M3 is never the silky, whirring machine. It's raw in its engine noises, interior booms, gear whines, tire songs, and pipe-organ resonances. Raw and quite loud. Always the jock. And sometimes rude. We noticed an odd "death rattle" from the engine room each time the ignition was switched off. And the bi-xenon headlights sound a bad-mannered grunt as they rotate through their alignment ritual on startup… The clutch is a workout. Some of us complained mildly about the driving position; for example, the left-foot rest seems too close to the driver relative to the pedals.

The cloth bucket seat, with numerous mechanical adjusters including one for height, seemed rather stingy at the $50K mark, but it's very effective at holding the driver in place when the scenery starts to blur. On the skidpad, grip topped all the others at 0.87 g. This car is reliable for its understeer, and it's not at all twitchy as you probe for its limits. It always feels trusty, but hardly spirited.” Patrick Bedard - May 2003 - Car and Driver

 

“The M-ified 3 Series gets a restyled nose that incorporates a special front air dam, ellipsoid foglamps, big air-intake scoops, and revised grilles. A new "power dome" hood not only looks aggressive but is constructed of aluminum, making it 40 percent lighter than a steel piece. Modest wheel flares and a micro-size rear decklid spoiler further crank up the attitude quotient. Front fender-mounted side vents are not only functional but recall those of the early-'70s BMW 3.0 CSL. Overall, the look is substantial and effective at communicating the M3's performance message (translation: It looks awesome!). An M3 convertible is slated for '02, but an M3 sedan is not expected, at least for now.

Inside, the M treatment turns up the driver-oriented sportiness factor by at least a notch without sacrificing any of the 3 Series' solid ergonomics or overall comfort. Well-bolstered M sport seats give outstanding support thanks to their adjustable internal air bladders, and new, gray-hued gauge faces are easier to read during spirited driving. Enough engineering mumbo-jumbo: What's the new M3 like to drive? A tach-pegging, tire-abusing, power-sliding, apex-hitting, ear-pleasing, ultra-precise high-speed thrill would be one way to describe it. And we had a genuine F1 racecourse at our disposal-the Circuito De Jerez, home of the Spanish Grand Prix-on which to experience it.” John Kiewicz - Dec 8, 2003 - Motortrend

 

E36 v.s. E46 M3 Pricing

Although constantly fluctuating, the E36 and E46 are some common models you’ll find on the enthusiast market. Pricing is going to vary by some pretty wide margins given condition, options, and history, but the two generations have a good bit of overlap. 

The E36 is always going to be the less expensive chassis, thanks to its US-spec shortfalls. The abundance of four-figure M3s has certainly dried up in the last decade, but a good runner needing some cosmetic TLC and a control arm bushing or two can still be had for under $10,000. On the other hand, the E46 starts at that same figure, and for that, you won’t be getting a prime example. Convertibles and SMG transmissions carry the biggest hits to value, and together, they represent the bottom of the range. 

Going after a pristine E36 isn’t too tough of a challenge considering so many were cherished and treated accordingly. Iconic colors, such as Dakar Yellow and Techno Violet, among others, are the most sought after and carry price tags to match, though they need to be well-kept and optioned examples. Vader seats, a manual transmission, and no sunroof go a long way. BaT pricing puts the top of their market just under the $40,000 mark, and that’s likely the right area for a well-sorted example. There isn’t much that feels and sounds like an E36 M3, so even in its watered-down state, it’s still special. That is until you look at its successor.

The qualities of a pristine E46 are about the same as those of its predecessor. Big money means lower mileage and tip-top mechanical and cosmetic shape. Spec may mean a little less here because of how revered its drivetrain is, but the fun colors and interiors do tend to bring more. Collector quality examples can reach up to the $60,000 figure but tend to hang around in the mid-forties. 

 

For all intents and purposes, that about wraps up this dive into the difference between the E36 and E46. They’ve been some of the most popular Euro tuner cars of the last decade and have quickly become modern classics for many. Who knows what the future holds for these specific models, but for now, FCP Euro is proud to continue supporting them with the best quality parts and an unbeatable Lifetime Replacement Guarantee. Stay tuned to our DIY Blog and YouTube channel for more great content. Thanks for reading! 


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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