You don’t need to be a Nobel Laureate to know that E46 M3’s have a few issues. Let’s see, there’s Vanos, rod bearings, and cracked subframes to name a few. But when these cars work, oh man are they the bestest. I wrote that last sentence like a twelve-year-old, because that’s what an E46 M3 does to me; They make me feel like a kid again. I get all giddy inside and all I want to do is put my hands all over it and go fast. It’s one of the car fountains of youth. I’ll own one someday.
It was yesterday, however, when my friend on the other side of the country set about to take up a mountainous task: Changing an E46 M3’s rod bearings. It’s not his own car, but a friend’s. He used his own as a guinea pig to rather good success, as so he told. And now he’s applying his talents to another specimen. Hope he’s getting somewhat compensated for his journey to Mordor…But, this article isn’t about rod bearings though.
So I’m at work when he sends me the photo above. The caption? “This was in Harper’s oil pan…” Yikes. Doing the rod bearings does require dropping the oil pan. Normally, you should only have oil in there, not metal parts. These look like 9mm bullet casings though. What could they be from? My friend has pointed to the Vanos system for fault. The car in question was bought with the prior owner stating that the Vanos had been replaced. Why was it replaced? Likely because it exploded, made obvious by the loose gaggle of parts. But, they didn’t fish out the parts that grenaded, just put new in. What are those metal pieces exactly? Could be a roller bearing in the oil pump or drive disc.
Either way, the amazing thing is that the car is fine. Who knows how long this debris has been in the pan. A win on BMW’s part for putting a shield in the pan to prevent the oil pump from sucking it up and distributing throughout the engine. That would’ve made things go bang.
I’m not saying everyone should drop their oil pans just to see if they have metal bits in there. Or you could drop your oil pan and find a gold Rolex. But maybe use it as a buying lesson. The prior owner DIY’d the Vanos, so when buying an E46 M3, make sure you really trust them as a mechanic. If the owner says he did “everything himself” but acts like a clown school dropout, maybe it’s best to walk away. The M3 in question though, it’s not giving up that easily!
An M4 Competition, that is, the most powerful and focused real M4 you can buy today. I have had chances to drive multiple M3 and M4s, both competition and standard ‘base’ models (oh the horror, the horror of a base M4…), but never the opportunity of one with a clutch pedal. If you’ve read my stuff before you’ll already know I’m a fan of changing gear myself, rather than pulling a slim metal blade 1 centimeter. I’ve also always had reservations of the new M cars because of their turbocharging and lack of steering feel, but by the grace of his holiness the lord of clutch, it’s just better with a stick. An M3/4 always felt detached to me, but by putting an H-pattern next to you and a third pedal, the missing bonding element of driver and car has been remedied.
To be frank, the involvement is on another level. Now I can’t just rely on that prodigious wave of torque that the S55 twin-turbo provides, because now I have to make sure I’m in the right gear for it to make mayhem of the asphalt below. The satisfaction of riding out second gear and getting a smooth, yet quick 2-3 shift is deeply rewarding as well. And those heel-toe…oh wait, that’s right, you can’t. Well, you can, but what’s the point when it has software that automatically blips the throttle on downshifts. And I honestly have no idea how to turn this bit of programming off. I clicked into MDM mode and it still did it. I then turned off DSC completely and yes, it still did it. It makes normal driving easier and allows quicker downchanges, but I had trouble liking it.
Here’s an example: going down from 4th to 2nd, I put the clutch in and selected 2nd with my right hand, and as I’m used to on my E46, slowly let the clutch out to ensure smooth transition to the lower gear. Problem is, the car already blipped the throttle quite heavily, so instead of feeling the clutch grab and drag as I eased it out, it remained light with zero feel. Not an issue, just something to get used to. The quicker you changed down a gear, the better it works. Perhaps there’s a fuse for it…or a wire to snip.
Also, another slight grievance, the car in question had only 800 miles on it, but the gearshift was a bit clunky, with what felt like a diff thud on several upshifts, but I’m sure it’ll smooth out over time. The difference in shift quality between a M235i and 5,000 mile one assure me this. Never have I enjoyed driving a new M car as much. It even gave the engine more character, as the manual exposes turbo lag. It now becomes your responsibility to keep the engine in the sweet spot when you ask for it. And it’s by no means a chore. Changing gear is supposed to be fun, after all. You also feel the boost build more intensely. In second at 3k you can floor it and you think, “nothing, nothing, oh wait, I think it’s there, yes it’s-HOLY BLOODY MOTHER OF 21-YEAR-OLD SCOTCH!” I’ll say it again, in this case, lag is cool. It’s character.
What I really didn’t like though? I love the wheels of the competition package, and the marginal power boost, but damn is the ride stiff. Even in comfort on admittedly rough surface streets, the ride was medieval. Smooth roads are mostly fine, but with some surface breaks and chewed up tarmac, it’s tiring. Tradeoffs though are supreme steering reflexes and zero roll in the chassis. Everyday though, I don’t know if I could do it. Yet, those wheels though. But that ride…BUT THOSE WHEELS. It’s tough, I know. #1stWorldProblems.
I feel I may have got sidetracked with the purpose of this story. So again, back to the topic, I drove an M4 with a manual transmission and it was awesome. Adding back that lost ingredient fixes my largest gripe with the M4, and that was a lack of intimacy and connection. It’s the prescription for both symptoms. DCT is great; it’s fast, efficient, and easy, but I personally find it boring. And you can brag to people you drive a stick also. First thing I do when I see a cool car on the street? Walk up to the window and peer in to see if a gear lever resides inside. What can I say, I’m a romantic. Buy a manual and you’re ride will also probably be more valuable in the future as well. Just speculating. Save the manuals!
How often are there several fast BMWs lined up for your pleasure on a racetrack? Not often I must say, so how could I say no? There are far worse problems in the world.
Last month I was sent to the smoldering La Quinta, a small resort city near Palm Springs, in the midst of July. For those that are unfamiliar with the region, I can sum it up in two words: it’s hot. And I mean hot; Everyday was upwards of 110 degrees Fahrenheit. This was all part of a training program to be a BMW Genius. A Genius is a new(ish) role in the BMW retail world with goals to bring the cars and BMW experience closer to the customer. While most of the week was spent in a ice-cold conference room of a hotel (who thought I would have been cold this week?), one afternoon we were shepherded to the Thermal Club. For those unfamiliar, the Thermal Club is a private racetrack nearby that also plays home to the BMW Performance Center. Here, BMW enthusiasts and owners sample cars in a fast, controlled environment, whilst perfecting their driving skills. We would be given the chance to see just how well modern BMWs excel on the track and to provide us with some fun.
The victims? M235i’s, M6, M4, X5M, and a 340i.
My first rendezvous was with a soaked, concrete skidpad and an M235i. And it was downright marvelous. I had never driven on a skidpad, let alone one with sprinklers, but the natural balance of the small Bimmer turned it into an arcade. In the halfway-traction control setting ‘sport +,’ the M235i couldn’t stop spinning the rear tires even up to 3rd gear at 30 MPH (8 speed ZF auto), such was the slickness of the surface. But use the throttle to steer and it became just epic fun, holding long slides circle after circle. Sure, it required lots of steering input, not in terms of angle, but constantly changing from turn-in and countersteering. The 320 horses made by the Gillette-smooth 6 were more than plenty, and anything more would’ve surely resulted in some serious spins. The strangled steering feel also didn’t make for any issues here. Great seats too help prevent you from flailing around the cabin when sideways as well.
Next was a permanent autocross circuit, not even a half mile in length to sample a few of the M’s (and half-M’s). The M6 Compeition was first and starting off slowly to get a feel for the car and circuit, I can’t go on enough about how nice of the car the big 6 is. The cabin is such a lovely place to be, though the buttons and controls that are shared with lesser BMWs slightly cheapen the feel, the overall aroma of it all put the thought into the back of your mind. The demonic sounding V8 also is a nice touch. But soon it becomes clear that, even with the competition package, the M6 is not at home here. The power is incredible and the brakes do a remarkable job hauling the yacht back down, but the weight shows itself in corner transitions through the quick couple esses for us to play with. I’m sure on the large, real Thermal Club it would be sublime, being able to use the wider tarmac of an actual race track, but the thin confines of the autocross don’t encourage the all-out attack that the next car begs for.
Which brings us to the M4. And no, it’s not even the new-for-2016 Competition, just a standard M4. Immediately it’s such a more focused car here. Blasting down the short straightaway it doesn’t even feel any slower than the M6, which was barely clearing it’s breath by 70 MPH. Everything else, the braking, the turn-in with ferocious front bite, and the rotation the Active M diff provides is sublime. I’m not terribly fond of the M4 as a road car, but here in a closed and controlled environment, it really makes its case known. I found it best to turn in with a trailing throttle to help keep the back end rotating slightly to help hit each apex and propel down to the next braking zone. The standard steel brakes seize forward momentum rapidly, with no fade encountered either. The S55 up front never needed full revs, being more than happy to live right in the midrange at 4-5k. The DCT also gave snappy changes up and down on command. Track driving is what the M4 yearns for. If you have one and are yet to unleash it on a track, please do so before the years out.
And then came the oddball of the group: the X5M. Now, I’m still not quite sure why this ‘thing’ exists. But when talking about defying physics, it’s the first-prize at the science fair. Quite how it’s able to go around corners so quickly is beyond me. Braking points are much earlier too than the M4, with the car leaning on its outside tires as the 4WD system figures out how to help you around the bend. Sure, it’s somewhat satisfying charging down sports cars in a 2.5 ton SUV, but the experience is rather muted, more interesting than fun. If you can afford the price of one, why not buy a diesel X5 and an M4 for this sort of work? Though if you want one to do it all, then it’s perfect for that niche. It is blazingly fast, and impressive, but it’s no sports car.
The last on this section was an M235i again, but now in a totally new environment. Here, compared to the others, it shows it’s lack of real M-credentials. Not to say it wasn’t fun, in fact it was the most playful of the bunch from its lack of focus. Power is mundane after the M’s, but it’s still plenty for this tight track. Under braking and cornering there is much less composure and more body roll, going into understeer when pushed too hard, but still maintains great control and adjustability to play with the chassis. While not as fast in any direction, it becomes more involving as it requires more work, and I rather like that. Conclusions from this section came to be that while the M4 was the best on the autocross, the M235i was a close second for its irreverent brand of fun.
And lastly we moved again to another autocross, being longer and more technical, and with the least dynamically capable car here: the 340i. The new 340i replaces the 335i with a host of small suspension tweaks and a new power plant compared the now defunct 335i. It also makes 20 more BHP. The overall feel of the car is very akin to the M235i but with a chassis that’s prone to even more roll and a differential that can’t quite put all the power down through corners. Having driven the 340i on the road it’s a fantastic piece of kit for daily driving, but it’s less at home here. However, like the M235i, the waywardness of the chassis made for a highly involving experience. Though it showed understeer in the tight hairpin of the circuit, fighting that force and driving the car out using the power made for a satisfying time. In the two higher speed sweepers it was oversteer that had to be fought, and again it was fun despite the lack of balance. If the car were perfect, it wouldn’t be a challenge.
As the engines, tires, and brakes cooled, I reflected on an incredible experience at the BMW Performance Center. Driving a BMW on the road is one thing, but having the time on a track in one is leagues better than one could hope for. It wasn’t my first track day in my life, or my first at Thermal, but the adrenaline never gets old. The three instructors on hand for the day, Dave McMillan, Emile Bouret, and Adam Seaman, were astounding as well, giving great guidance and keeping us in check safety wise. After we were done, they took us out for drift laps in M3s, showing us how capable the cars are in the right hands. Mission accomplished guys. If you’re considering one of the programs at Thermal I highly encourage giving it a go, for the great facilities and instructors, let alone the cars. Now to browse parts catalogs to see about making my old ZHP ready for an autocross…