Sunday during a mildly cold California winter. An empty highway and a trip to San Diego. Legal issues had come up, and an attorney was going to come in handy. I arrived at the meeting in my Dodge Durango, only to be greeted by the coolest lawyer I have ever met. He made his entry in a Phoenix Yellow 2006 E46 BMW M3, barely a few months old. Black interior with yellow stitching. Manual transmission, of course. My jaw dropped and the car guy in me came to life. I put in a request for a ride. Client-attorney privilege, right? It rode as amazingly as it looked. My day was made, my legal issues forgotten.

Fast-forward to the present. That lasting impression is now 14 years old, but these amazing cars have aged with grace and are becoming collectible. Early-model-year teething problems were recalled by BMW, and hopefully other issues have been sorted out by their respective car owners.

Improving an icon

BMW introduced the preceding E36 M3 in the U.S. for the 1995 model year, and it soon became a smashing sales success. It was milder than the streetable race car E30 M3 it replaced, but that only helped it court a wider audience. For the U.S., BMW subbed out the S50 inline 6 for the weaker S52, so our E36 M3 made only 240 horsepower — a sore point for the cognoscenti — but its handling was still a revelation.

At this time, I was still a poor college student, traveling between Sweden and the U.S. to complete my film studies. When the E46 M3 launched, I got to see the widely divergent reactions to the car in each culture. In Los Angeles, the land of plenty, Hollywood and Beverly Hills, riches flowing and money everywhere, you could walk into a dealership and the salesmen would flock around you to lease you an M3, that day. Despite its beauty and sexiness, bulged fenders, air intakes and amazing exhaust sound, the M3 would often be competing with exotic cars that were a lot more expensive, even Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Reactions to the M3 were milder here than in the socialistic, laid-back, free-healthcare-for-all, “let’s ride the bus and our bicycles rather than sexy ‘half-million Swedish kronor’ sports cars” Sweden. The E46 M3 stood out like a spaceship compared to the plentiful Volvos, Opels, Renaults and Saabs. Ironically enough, owning an M3 in Sweden was (and still is) the equivalent of owning a Ferrari 360 or a Lamborghini Gallardo in Los Angeles.

When the E46 arrived in the U.S., it made amends to America by offering the same mechanical spec as the European version. Its 3.2-liter inline 6 was still down 5 hp, but with 333 on tap and an 8,000-rpm redline, there was no complaining. As with the standard E46, styling continued to reflect the conservative BMW idiom, but with bulging flares and telltale fender grilles.

Buying an E46

For the teenager of the mid-2000s — now a working adult with enough money to be spent on such dream cars of their youth — a $25,000 budget can get you far. Look for medium to low miles, service records showing that big issues have been fixed, lack of cosmetic wear and tear to satisfy even the worst OCD BMW fans, a pre-purchase inspection to show no big accidents or hidden gremlins, and you’ll be in for an amazing ownership.

What plagues these cars tends to be common BMW maladies, such as a failing VANOS system, rod bearings and cracking subframes. All should be addressed in any prospective purchase.

With mid-production upgrades such as Bi-Xenon headlights, Alcantara, Competition Package, larger wheels, taillight LEDs and a minor facelift, you’re better off looking at the 2004–06 model years.

Odd colors such as Topaz Blue and Phoenix Yellow were rare choices back then, and are now more sought after than regular and plentiful colors. Navigation and audio system upgrades are a must in today’s world, and cars with the outdated factory nav are less desirable.

Shift points

There is a running feud between manual vs. SMG owners. There are those who swear by one system and enough others who condemn same that it’s better to go with your own personal choice than worry about what the rest of the world thinks. You’re the one who will be driving the car. The SMG does come in handy in big-city traffic and your left leg will thank you for it. Yet the manual is amazing on an empty mountain road where you want to be in full control.

Unfortunately, with quite a few cars produced and lower price points these days, watch out for modified cars driven by teenagers. They have likely been beaten on more than maintained.

Why are they collectible? Which M3 isn’t?

The majority of my adulthood has been spent owning and driving the ultimate BMW, the 850CSi, so you’d think an M3 would pale in comparison. But it holds up and stands against its giant sibling really well, and I’d love to have another M3 soon again. It’s a fantastic and fun sports car and a whole lot of car for the money. The future is predictable on these cars. ♦

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