I've been testing cars for car magazines for 15 years. Literally thousands of cars, from Hyundais to Bentleys, have passed through these hands, and all of them can be called adequate transportation. In other words, I fail to remember one catching fire in the McDonald's drive-through.
But it's an exclusive club of cars that has really excited me over the years. Cars I would spend my own money on. Cars I would like to own and drive for years and years. These cars have stayed with me. I find myself checking their prices almost monthly in Hemmings Motor News and the local Auto Trader: 1987 Buick GNX, 1990 Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1, 1992 Mercedes-Benz E500, 1994 Porsche 911 3.6 Turbo, 1994 BMW 850 CSi, 1996 Porsche Carrera 2S, 1998 Mercedes-Benz E55, 2000 BMW 740iL with the sport package, 2000 Ford Mustang Cobra R, 2001 Subaru WRX and the 2001 Ford Mustang Bullitt.
These cars, in my opinion, have more than just strong performance. More than just good looks. These cars turn me on. They talk to me on some deeper level.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I've just spent a month driving the latest addition to my exclusive list, the 2001 BMW M3 convertible.
Our long-term test car, which has just turned past the 12,000-mile mark, talks to me. When I'm in it, I feel good. When I look at it, I smile. When I drive it, life is right.
It's one of those rare cars that can be driven in a relaxed state or complete anger. Many cars with the awesome performance of the M3 are too high strung. They need to be driven really, really fast. At normal speeds, they're a chore, with high-effort controls, darty steering and buckboard rides. Other cars are engineered only for the daily grind. These cars are at home in the stop and go but protest like a PETA member at a fur factory at anything over 80 mph.
The M3, however, is Happy Gilmore in either environment. It's fine with the daily grind. Thanks to a tall sixth gear, acceptable ride and light clutch, it's a great commuter. Even in the worst traffic, this car is comfortable but never too isolating. But the M3 is also always ready to dance. This car is fast, really fast, but it's also stable. You don't need to be Juan Pablo to get it going. Unlike the E36 M3, which could be a bit twitchy at the limit, the E46 M3 feels better the harder you drive it. It works with you. It makes you a better driver.
Bottom line: This is not only one of the world's great performance cars, it is one of the world's great cars.
Some staffers have had trouble warming up to our test car. These staffers are morons. More than once I've heard them say they wish it were a coupe, citing the ragtop's occasional cowl shake as a major flaw. I disagree. No, I don't like cowl shake, but the M3's backbone is far from limp, and I feel the lost structure is worth the wind, the moon and the sun. Plus, I think the convertible, with its slightly shaved-down hindquarters, is much better looking than the coupe.
I also happen to think this is the best looking car on the market right now. Just look at it. I wouldn't change a thing. Not one line. Its proportions are perfection. From the front it's a masterpiece. All cars should look so low and wide. And from the back you know those four pipes and those big meats mean business. The wheels are also right on. It's a mystery to me why deeply dished wheels, which are common on BMWs, aren't used more by other car companies.
It's amazing to me how aggressive the car looks, without looking cartoony or forced like many other cars. Because of this understatement, this lack of jewelry, you never feel like you're overcompensating when you're driving it. Not everyone notices you, but the ones who do are dressed better. This is not the car you buy if you're having a midlife crisis. When in crisis, buy a Vette; this is the car you buy when you're having a mid-life party.