This E46 BMW M3 Proves That Purity Tops Perfection

Bring a Trailer/OTSandCo

In 1986, BMW turned the sport sedan space on its head when it homologated the E30 3 Series for German DTM and Group A touring car racing. As was BMW’s ethos, the 3 Series was already a competent, fun-to-drive little machine, but the M3 was a different beast entirely, with a race-derived powertrain and upgraded suspension and brakes. Bodywork included fat fender flares to accommodate wide Pirelli P700-Z tires, a deep front splitter and rear valance, aggressive sill trim, revised C-pillars, and a taller trunk with big rear wing atop it. Only the hood and roof were shared with its “lesser” 3 Series counterparts, and the changes resulted in a car far more slippery and far more stable at speed. 

The car was nothing short of a revelation and easily embarrassed some of the world’s great sports cars. In 1988, the M3 finally arrived in America. Naturally, it became an enthusiast favorite and today commands a hefty premium over other E30-generation BMWs.

Never one to ignore a winner, with each successive generation of 3 Series, BMW stuck with the M3’s formula. The E36 of 1992–99 introduced convertible and four-door variants, along with an extra hundred horsepower over its predecessor, this time from a straight-six. 

When the third-gen E46 M3 hit the streets in 2001, journalists and enthusiasts alike reckoned it was just about perfect. With its sonorous 333-hp 3.2-liter inline-six, available six-speed manual, and sure-footed handling, it did the badge justice, whether in two-door coupe or convertible form.

On condition alone, the Laguna Blue E46 M3 that sold on Bring a Trailer this week was not perfect. Chiefly, it was a 29,000-mile car with an underside showing some of the grit and grime of those miles; it had a resprayed hood; a cracked and dented front fascia; and a front end peppered with tiny rock chips. Its record $117,600 sale price, however, suggests that bidders simply didn’t care. So, how did a car with flaws like these achieve a best-in-the-world result?

Answer: a great blend of rare options. That color, for one. Laguna Seca Blue (LSB) is lovely in photos. It’s even better in person. The BMW Registry tells us that 26,202 E46 coupes were sold in North America. Just 1128 came in LSB, the bulk of them from 2001–03. After the M3’s mid-2003 “lifecycle impulse” (which, for some reason, is BMW-speak for “facelift”) just 154 LSB coupes appeared, and there were none in 2005–06. 

2004 BMW E46 M3 interior
Bring a Trailer/OTSandCo

Also rare was this car’s Cinnamon Nappa leather interior. Nearly 90 percent of all LSB coupes had either gray or black leather interiors; just 1.7 percent of LSB coupes (19 total cars) featured this lovely orangey-brown inside. In a world of power everything, refreshingly, this car had lighter, manually adjustable (but heated!) seats. Similarly, sunroofs were almost de rigueur on these M3s, but this car was spec’d from new without, making it one of two cars in this color combo with a slick roof. One of them featured BMW’s SMG automated manual transmission, the other a row-your-own six-speed. If it was a Ford and this was a Marti Report, here’s where we’d arrive at the pay-off line: This is that car. 

2004 BMW E46 M3 cockpit
Bring a Trailer/OTSandCo

So, rare colors inside and out, a lightweight no-fuss roof, manual seats, and DIY gear changes. That was the recipe here, and bidders were all too happy to overlook the minor foibles that might otherwise knock a car down in value. And, to be fair, the miles, the dings, and the repainted hood (reportedly done before the car’s original/only owner took possession) probably did hold back the final price. But no one is complaining. This car has been driven. It will get driven more.

In January, an 18,000-mile LSB-over-gray E46 M3 with a sunroof sold on Bring a Trailer for $94,500, very near the #1 (concours, best-in-the-world) price, according to the Hagerty Price Guide. The selling dealer of our feature car, OTS and Co., considered that result closely when it consigned this one to BaT, but given the earlier car’s more common features, the seller here was confident of a bigger result.

“I don’t think there’s another E46 M3 that could get close to this,” says Derek Tam-Scott, a principal at OTS and Co. who is also a Hagerty contributor and host of the Carmudgeon podcast. “Except maybe a Laguna Seca Blue slicktop manual with Impulse cloth interior or Laguna Seca Blue interior, if any were made. A slicktop black leather interior car could also get close. Our car was literally the only manual slicktop LSB/Cinnamon car sold in North America. The paint color makes a huge difference, and interior also helps.”

In the comments for our Sale of the Week, Tam-Scott asked and answered the following: “Can you get an E46 M3 that drives very similarly (or even identically) for less money? Absolutely. But we like cars because of how they make us feel. This is why we’re more enthusiastic about decades-old manual naturally aspirated sports cars than we are about almost all new stuff you can buy today, even though old cars are less performant, less safe, less efficient, less feature-rich, and just less objectively good generally.” 

It’s hard to argue with that. And it’s hard to argue when the market speaks. Sure, yes, this is one result (on the back of that $94,500 sale, however . . .), but it is still a statement: Enthusiasts hanker for purity over perfection, and when the right car comes along, they’ll pay up for it. 

Then they’ll go drive it.


Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Read next Up next: Piston Slap: Why Your Chrome Needs the Google “Near Me” Search


    Yep, I’ve followed the lesson of this article many times. I really wanted a Dakar Yellow e36 M3, but on average they seemed to command a $5k price premium. I also really wanted one with any color interior other than black, because black is hard to keep clean and gets hot in the summer. Ultimately I ended up a rare color combo of Alpine White over Sand Beige interior, it absolutely looks the part and was far less than a similar example in Dakar. Also had the heated seats that were a must have for me.

    The cool colors are out there and if you want to pay to play, do it. We need more fun colors on the road.

    Great color combo. The last of the naturally aspirated inline 6’s. I did like the V8 afterward, but an inline 6 seemed to me to be the perfect M3 motor.

    I have an 03 M3 with SMG. Having knee problems allows me to have my cake and eat it with the SMG.
    The SMG does take some getting used to at first but it is in fact a 6 speed manual gearbox.
    The E46 M3 is a joy to drive!

    I talked with my BMW buddies when I was about to buy a brand new 2006 E46 M3 coupe – they all said that the motor is a maintenance night mare and to get the ZHP version (now called the M version) instead and add an Active Autowerks supercharger along with the needed upgrades. And the bonus was I got the microfiber interior standard (I hate leather – hot/cold). I then upgraded the rest of the car from bumper to bumper like having rear wheels and tires in the front (square), cooling, suspension (BIG sway bars), BIG brakes all around, Dinan goodies, tubular headers w/3″ exhaust and so on. When I was doing the final tuning on track during a Sunday morning street car session at Road Atlanta, I discovered that I needed strut bars – front & rear when I came down the hill from the bridge turn 11 as the tops of the shocks moved (yikes!). This is my daily driver with now 18 years and 170K miles . . . .the microfiber seats are so comfortable even in 90+ heat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *