I'll keep this brief. The esteem in which I hold the products of BMW's Motorsport division is well recorded; they occupy a slot in the motoring universe somewhere between mainstream and exotic yet are somehow extremely easy to relate to. I love them all, but some more than others.
However, It's dangerous to keep an opinion formed based on fading memories. I state the E39 M5 as being my favourite from the stable, even though it's five years since I drove one. I had a refresher course in the Z4M quite recently, pronouncing it every bit the deity I always regarded it. And today, an E46 M3 has just turned up, in Imola Red; The Right Colour. Time to update the memory banks.
Here's a new approach; see how things feel from the passenger seat. From over here on the left I'm better placed to concentrate on sight and sound, and the right driver should be able to feed his findings to me. If they tally with my memory bank, all's right with the world.
A colleague of mine is as much of an M person as I am. He owned a 320d Sport coupé from new, an E46, of course, in the sparkling graphite grey that was latterly available as an option. His, the Sport, came on 18” wheels and with an M3 for everyman styling kit. It looked terrific. Also, he's never driven an M3 before so all his feedback would be new and uncoloured.
Start up and the variable red-line glows to remind you to play fair until the oil is warm enough to do its job; a nice reminder of the specialist nature of an “M car”. The illuminated 6-speed gearknob is present and correct; no sequential SMG nonsense here. There's 45 miles of fuel remaining; that should do us just fine, no excess baggage to blunt our experience.
It was clear that my colleague was on a maximum attack mission. “Bloody hell” I thought as we blitzed our first corner, rev needle swinging maniacally around the dial, “I hope he's a good driver”.
Fortunately, he wasn't at all shabby. Mildly gung-ho, perhaps; a little cavalier, maybe, but progressive in his inputs and not prone to sudden changes of line and panic-braking like some other “enthusiastic drivers” might. He understood that the M3 always did respond well to scruff-of-the-neck treatment. It wants the upper hand, but if you spar with it properly it makes for a very obliging partner.
“Why isn't it washing out like mine did?” “How come it doesn't tramline? Or, at least, doesn't feel like it does?” These were valid questions from my learned colleague. Another pertinent question was “how come this car is running wheels an inch larger, with lower profile tyres, yet rides no more firmly than mine?” His own car was fitted with the M-sport suspension, lowered and uprated over the standard fit, but this, it seems, was still a world apart from whatever the M is fitted with. In the same way as a Ford Escort Cosworth bears very little mechanical similarity with the basic shopping hatchback it resembles, the M3 is fundamentally a more advanced package than the cooking models of the 3-series range.
Those flared wheelarches, which fall just about the right side of flamboyant, conceal a track that's slightly wider than the regular three-series, and you immediately notice the difference. The car feels immediately more poised, more ready to commit to a corner; and both the steering and suspension response work together in total harmony to translate this enthusiasm to the driver. Cornering is telepathic, with no delay or hesitation, no dullness or heaviness disguised as feedback, just an honest, accurate performance that feels just as you'd want it to.
Mentioning the M3 engine is almost redundant, I have already heaped much praise on it when I drove the Z4M and it's globally recognised as one of the finest engines ever made. Certainly, it belongs to an exclusive club of normally aspirated engines that produce over one hundred horsepower per one litre of capacity, with 343 stallions exploding from 3.2 litres. This is aided by being able to rev right up to eight thousand or so, with fierce power on tap right up until the deepest reaches of the tachometer.
So strong is that torrent of grunt, and so well judged is the gearing of the car, that you're constantly surprised at the road speed you've achieved considering the thousands of revs you have in reserve. This car deploys its power so effectively, and with such good measure that it feels no slower than newer cars with considerably more output on tap.
Of course, part of the reason for that feeling of speed is that you feel genuinely involved in what' going on, and part of the reason for that is a very carefully engineered-in sensation of rawness. Firstly, there's the throttle response which is immediate and definite. If you commit to full-bore acceleration you better follow through with your order, because this car doesn't bear fools gladly and will send you pogo-ing down the road like Skippy on a sugar rush.
And hooray for the fact that this car has the manual gearbox, for which again the same comments apply here as with the Z4M. It has one of the most satisfying change actions you're ever likely to find; fast, precise and direct but not flattering like the gearbox in a fast Japanese machine; here, get lazy or show bad clutch management and the change will baulk or you'll miss a gear altogether. You have to be definite with your inputs, a determined shove is needed, which dovetails beautifully with the whole ethos of the car.
It's the same as with the Z4M, the more you put into driving this car the more you'll get out; Garbage In, Garbage Out. Unlike a GT-R which turns novices and hooligans into artisans. And all time you're being egged on by that incomparable soundtrack, that slightly industrial straight-six battle cry which raises goosepimples at high revs. Saying that; it actually sings my favourite song at mid-range, under load, in second or third gear. All the better for overtaking in long tunnels.
There's no doubt at all that the E46 M3 lives among the true greats, and is one of the very finest among the rich canon of M-cars. But is it the best, considering it's relative age and the fact that it's long been replaced by the V8 E92? Well, hand on heart; probably. Personally, for reasons best understood by me I'd rather own the Z4M, despite the fact that the M3 is demonstrably the better, more usable car.
But, then again, as has been demonstrated before, I rarely choose a car on the basis of how good it is, I go on how much I love it, and the E39 M5 is a car that I love on a cellular level and with every fibre of my being. It's an old car, now, but it delivered shock and awe that the US military could only dream of.