Finding the perfect M3

Savage BMW, the largest BMW dealer in Orange County, has several 2005/2006 M3s on its lot. MSRPs range from $48,000 to $56,000 and dealer invoice from $44,000 to $51,000. Technically, the M3 is a 2005 carryover as BMW ramps up for the new E90 M3. Will prices for the E46 M3 drop? Absolutely, but don't count on finding a cherry example for less than $38,000. M cars have historically held their value longer than standard BMWs, and in some cases actually escalate in price. Just look at the E30 M3.

The fairly steep entry cost of the M3 has kept many younger drivers from ownership and that's a good thing. Chances are you won't have to weed through cars with dubious aftermarket gear and questionable history. Hell, most M3 owners have retained the stock wheels and tire sizes. Who could blame them?

There are a few things to watch for, most notably the 1999-2000 SMG-equipped cars. The sequential manual gearbox was still in its infancy, and for lack of a better word, clunky. If at all possible, go for the manual six-speed. The first several years of production (2001-2003) also included a recall for connecting rod bearing replacement and suggested new rod bolts. It was a fairly involved procedure and required the bottom end of the engine be removed for rod access. My M3 had the procedure completed in an afternoon some three years ago. Other than that, the M3 overall has proven to be a very robust piece of work.

Impressions and plans

The M3 has served as the "analogy poster child" of sorts. "M3-like steering", "M3-like brakes" and "revs like an M3" have been used to describe lesser cars' performance. In other words, the M3 was the car to emulate, it was the mark tuners wanted to hit. That said, I'm hard-pressed to find any shortcomings with this car. As I exit the freeway, I'm actually going faster than people in the far left lane, knowing those big 14-inch brakes are there to stop me. Same thing on entering the freeway; I'm usually hitting 85 mph before reaching the end of the 180-degree ramp. And there's something about the M3's cruising manners that instills great confidence. Driving a straight line is never boring. How many other cars can do that?

There are, however, a few things that make living with the M3 a little less than perfect, like finding a tiny blemish on Angelina Jolie's foot. One such blemish is the M3 tends to be fairly stiff on less-than-perfect surfaces, and while I love to watch my wife's boobs jiggle, she does not. Ultimately, it becomes a little irritating and I found myself searching the road for smooth spots. I have since replaced the M3's dampers with Koni Special D adjustable units, a move that satisfies both our needs.More than 20 years ago I used Koni dampers on my '75 2002. It was a great move and the resulting handling made me fall in love with BMW. Since then, Koni has continued to develop its line of shocks and struts with a special emphasis on all things European.

"The M3 was one of our important target vehicles," says Lee Grimes, one of Koni's hardcore motorheads. "Everyone here loves the M3 but felt it was a bit harsh for everyday use. The adjustable Koni shocks and struts help smooth the ride without losing the M3's inherent balance."

It was like he was reading my mind. It's exactly how I felt. That Koni spent considerable resources developing these shocks was obvious the moment I left the parking garage. The pavement that caused me to wince was magically gone. Of course it was still there, but it seemed farther away and not as intense. I took the on-ramps and off-ramps at the same maniacal speed and the end result was the same as before--unwavering control and stability. And if there was more chassis lean I neither felt it nor saw it, especially during quick maneuvers where mass shifted from side to side. As I drove home, those slabs of concrete that made the M3 jumpy before were gone as well. Basically, I got to keep the M3's fabulous handling prowess while teaching it more refined ride manners.

What's good (I should say great) about Koni dampers is that they are not a "one size fits all" shock. Each unit Koni makes is engineered specifically for that vehicle. That means Koni engineers have spent hundreds of hours driving your car (and my M3) before they release a shock or strut. Unlike a car's stock shocks, units typically made for economy rather than performance, Koni shocks are built with premium materials and built to last. Ask any race mechanic who has re-valved a Koni, they all say the same thing: damn nice shock.

The adjustable Konis work beautifully with the M3's factory springs. Moreover, they will continue to perform even if I decide to lower the car or change to a different spring rate combination. As per Koni's suggestion, I set the shocks to full soft. I have the option of increasing the dampening forces between 50 and 100 percent should I want more aggressive behavior.

I've seen many guys replace their entire suspension in one afternoon. They go from stock to near race-spec in a few hours. Personally, I think replacing the shocks and struts is a more measured approach, a great first step for more performance. You'd be surprised how much of an improvement it makes. Until Koni finishes development of its FSD system for the M3, these Koni adjustables are the next best thing. But FSD... it's the future of where suspension technology is heading.

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