In 2001, the E46 M3 set the performance bar high, being only one of an elite few cars with over 300 bhp to boast a normally aspirated engine output north of 100 bhp/liter. Usually, this entails an engine capable of at least 8000 rpm—no easy feat in a street car, let alone one with such a long crankshaft.

At ec, we found two nearly identical E46 M3s we wanted to improve. Initially, the owners doubted getting any significant gains on such a high-strung engine, but we found some smile-inducing tricks.

Why two cars, you ask? We also wanted to answer for ourselves this question: Are two seemingly identical M3s really the same? See our sidebar for that answer.

Vehicle Data

Engine: S54 3.2-liter inline-six
Transmission: 6-speed SMG
Mileage: 84,500
Current Modifications: VMR V718 wheels, Continental ExtremeContact DW tires

Dyno Data

Dyno Type: Dynojet 424x
Transmission Test Gear: Third

Performance

Peak Power: 289.7 whp @ 7900 rpm
Peak Torque: 234 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
35-95 MPH Dyno Acceleration: 4.95 sec.
7500-8000 RPM Air/Fuel Ratio: 12.7:1-11.9:1
Temperature: 71° F
Humidity: 12%

Test Notes

Our test facility was European Auto Source, which took out an entire Monday to assist us. As always, we made sure to maintain the same values for coolant, intake air and oil temperatures for consistency. All were monitored using EAS’ Autologic scanner, the equivalent to BMW’s own GT1 scanner.

EAS’ extra-high-powered fans made controlling fluid temps easy. Still, we took our time and, about 45 minutes and 15 dyno pulls later we had a baseline. For a rated “333 bhp” we were off to a very strong start.

General Maintenance

(Fluids, Spark Plugs)

Continental Tires and VMR Wheels

With the addition of only wheels and tires, the M3s were not only transformed visibly, but a significant performance gain was noticed as well.

VMR design its wheels to stay very true to the overall BMW look. The owner of Car 1 chose the split seven-spoke V710 wheel in matte black while Car 2’s owner went with VMR’s V718 split eight-spoke in gunmetal. EAS added the finishing touches with black-out kidney grilles.

Both wheels weigh an identical 25.5 pounds, the same as the factory 19-inch forged wheels they replace. While we stayed with the same as stock sized rear wheels at 9.5x19, we upped the fronts by a half-inch over stock to 8.5x19. For around $250-280 per wheel, VMR provides style and quality at a price that will save you thousands over other brands.

Continental ExtremeContact DW (Dry/Wet) max performance tires wrap the wheels with 235/35 up front and 275/30 in the rear, upping the front and rear by one and two sizes, respectively.

The ExtremeContact DWs feature an asymmetric design. It also features a “DW” indicator on the tread. Over time, as the tire wears, when only the “D” is visible, this tells the driver the remaining tread is safe on dry pavement only.

The German tire giant is no stranger to high-end performance. In fact, when tested independently by Tire Rack against other big-name brands—on a BMW 3 Series, no less— the Conti EC DW topped the list, being named the best in combined wet and dry performance, while also ranking the most comfortable and fuel efficient of the bunch.

Out of curiosity, we tried just two simple rips to 60 mph in a 15 minute window, comparing one of the M3’s original 255/35-19 tire setups against the Contis, and instantly found a tenth of a second gain at speeds starting as low as 10 mph. Additionally, while we didn’t get a chance to test it numerically, the overall braking and handling performance has significantly improved thanks to the larger sizes. Visually, the wider stance is thick icing on the cake.

At the end of the day, we ended up with two cars that are faster, handle better, brake better, have improved fuel efficiency and even look more menacing. Despite our setbacks with Car 1, this was a good day, and the owners are smiling.

Test 1

Performance

Peak Power: 294.2 whp @ 7900 rpm
Peak Torque: 234.9 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Max Power Gain: 6.8 whp @ 7600 rpm
Max Torque Gain: 4.7 lb-ft @ 7600 rpm
35-95 MPH Dyno Acceleration: 4.88 sec.
7500-8000 RPM Air/Fuel Ratio: 12.9:1-12.2:1
Parts: Redline manual transmission fluid, Redline gear oil, Liqui Moly synthetic 10w-60 motor oil and Mahle filter, Liqui Moly Engine Flush, Liqui Moly Motor Protect, magnetic drain plug; NGK Iridium DCPR8EIX spark plugs
Installation Time: 2 hours
MSRP: $225 total

Pros

Compromise-free upgrades available for most cars, prolonged engine life, easy install

Cons

None

Test Notes

I like to start with fresh fluids and plugs. Call this the new baseline if you will. Bavarian Autosport sells Liqui Moly and Redline products at the best prices. Ditto with Sparkplugs.com for almost all spark plugs.

Every time I’ve purchased a used car I’ve flushed out the entire system with these products and netted positive—and usually even greater—results on the dyno. But both cars already had this maintenance from the dealer within the last year.

Still, our choices proved better, and are some of the best bangs for your horsepower buck today. Additionally, with less drag to the wheels one could argue there’s improved fuel economy as well.

Evolve Tuning ECU Upgrade

Test 2

Performance

Peak Power: 305.5 whp @ 8000 rpm
Peak Torque: 238.2 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Max Power Gain: 13.9 whp @ 7600 rpm
Max Torque Gain: 9.1 lb-ft @ 8000 rpm
35-95 MPH Dyno Acceleration: 4.83 sec.
7500-8000 RPM Air/Fuel Ratio: 13.2:1-12.5:1
Parts: Evolve Tuning OBD2 port loader, memory card
Installation Time: 1 hour
MSRP: $800

Pros

Compromise-free, easy to install, no need to send ECU

Cons

None

Test Notes

Evolve Tuning spent countless hours massaging ignition timing, fuel maps and Vanos system for an optimal street tune. Various tuners typically overinflate their software upgrade claims, but our result was on par with Evolve’s flywheel horsepower claim of “around 15 hp.”

The installation process is simple. Using Evolve’s supplied tool, the customer takes a read, emails the file and Evolve emails a tweaked file back to upload in seconds.

Evolve also offers advanced files for cars with additional modifications. We tested the basic tune, which also included a 100 rpm rev increase, top speed governor removed and “Sport” default (clicking the Sport Mode button now turns it off instead).

In conjunction with our fluids test in Test 1, our peak gains were now 18 whp and 11.5 lb-ft at 8000 rpm.

GruppeM Intake

Are two identical M3s really the same?

To answer this, we found two nearly identical M3s to test against each other. Prior to testing, I drove them both. I’ll admit—one car felt just a wee bit stronger than the other. I even gave mention to the owner (of the faster one, of course), but I still wasn’t positive.

Several factors can make two cars feel different, including the amount and quality of fuel, type of fluids in the drivetrain, tires, etc. To limit these variables, we gave both cars fresh parts and fluids. The two M3s ended up with identical:

1) Transmission (six-speed SMG)
2) Liqui Moly motor oil (10w-60) with LM Engine Flush and LM Motor Protect
3) Amount and type of fuel from the same fuel station (Chevron 91)
4) Differential fluid (Redline 75w-90)
5) Transmission fluid (Redline MTL)
6) Spark plugs (NGK DCPR8EIX)
7) Stock Mahle air filters for baseline testing
8) Wheels (one got VMR V710, the other V718, both have identical weights)
9) Tires (Continental ExtremeContact DW)
10) We even chose the same color

The only difference between the two cars is that one is an ’03 with 24K miles and no sunroof, making it roughly 40 pounds lighter (we’ll call this “Car 1”), while the other is an ’04 with 80K miles (let’s call it “Car 2”). Car 2 is the one we used for the dyno tests. However, with less weight and fewer miles, most would hypothesize Car 1 has the upper hand.

Unfortunately, this test did not go smoothly. According to EAS, these cars require being put into a “dyno mode” to test properly, otherwise the motor starts to cut out at 6000 rpm. Dyno mode can only be activated by a scanner tool like the Autologic unit EAS uses.

Car 1 did not like dyno mode. Even worse, we couldn’t tell because it was still ripping up to 8000 rpm. Our only telltale sign was low power and an unusually rich fuel mixture after 5000 rpm (mid 11’s air/fuel ratio while Car 2 was between 12.8 and 13.1). We checked Car 1 for vacuum leaks and found nothing.

On the dyno, Car 1 started with 257.4 whp and 211.9 lb-ft of torque, which then jumped to 264.5 whp and 215.5 lb-ft with the new plugs and fluids—similar, even slightly better gains than what we saw with Car 2. Still, Car 1 was down over 30 whp overall to Car 2!

With the Evolve Tuning software in, the power improved to 271.5 whp and 214.2 lb-ft of torque. Not quite as much as Car 2 gained.

Then, out of nowhere, run 40 registered 292 whp and 231 lb-ft, but surprisingly the air/fuel ratio still dove after 5000 rpm. No one could explain why, and we never hit 290 whp the rest of the day, even after 60 runs.

Immediately off the dyno Car 1 felt fine on the street. In fact, a quick VBox test showed both cars netting similar, back-to-back 0-60 times when tested just around the corner. A few days later, EAS’ Steve Lee put it back on the dyno and ran it without selecting dyno mode. Expecting the car to cut fuel prematurely, it ripped 292 whp repeatedly. “We test a lot of these E46 M3s and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Steve said. Conclusion? Car 1 is fine, it’s just weird and hates the dyno.

Back to our comparison. According to EAS, 292 whp is normal for a lightly modified M3. Still, it’s 15 whp shy of Car 2. To confirm, we lined them up. In in an effort to take out driver error, we did a Third gear, side-by-side pull from 40 to 100 mph. Not surprising, Car 2 pulled over a solid car length each time.

Note: Therefore, with a 20-whp total gain over stock, one could argue Car 2 is at least a car length faster than it was bone stock.

So what can we conclude? While the test didn’t go as planned, the answer is these two seemingly identical cars don’t perform the same. In fact, with a 4.96-second pull from 35 to 95 mph during that one 292-whp dyno pull, Car 1’s acceleration—with new fluids and Evolve software—was spot-on when compared to Car 2’s 289-whp baseline run, which was about 15 whp shy of where it ended up with the ECU upgrade later.

It all adds up. Car 2—with 60K more miles and even top-heavier by 40 pounds—is significantly faster, which confirms my initial test-drive impressions.

EAS also reported Car 2 proved stronger than most other M3s tested on its dyno. Maybe it was broken in differently, or maybe the owner simply got lucky. Maybe he got a handpicked “lightweight” motor from BMW (an inside joke for you E36 guys).

Test 3

Performance

Peak Power: 307.0 whp @ 8000 rpm
Peak Torque: 239.6 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm
Max Power Gain: 5.0 whp @ 6750 rpm
Max Torque Gain: 4.0 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm
35-95 MPH Dyno Acceleration: 4.80 sec.
7500-8000 RPM Air/Fuel Ratio: 13.3:1-12.9:1
Parts: GruppeM two-piece carbon-fiber intake, GruppeM-spec K&N conical filter, installation hardware and MAF housing
Installation time: 2 hours
MSRP: $2,100

Pros

Great engine dress-up, quality carbon construction

Cons

Expensive, some cutting involved

Test Notes

As expected from a GruppeM product, the quality is superb. Installation requires cutting the upper-back plastic portion of the back of the kidney grilles to fit the ram-air duct. It also opens up the intake tract for a theoretically improved ram-air effect at speed.

On the dyno, while the peak versus peak comparison yields only 1.5 whp, the curve does show a consistent torque gain of 3 lb-ft from 3300-7000 rpm, netting a peak 5 whp in the upper midrange.

Conclusion

With better fluids, plugs, an ECU upgrade and an intake, we’re up by a peak 20.2 whp and 13.3 lb-ft of torque at 7900 rpm. Not a bad afternoon. Track guys will like the fact this car now makes over 220 lb-ft from 2500 to 7000 rpm! Impressive for a 3.2-liter, especially since we haven’t messed with the exhaust.

What does that calculate out as in real-world acceleration? We took a before-and-after Third gear pull from 50-100 mph, using our PerformanceBox from VBox USA. Untouched, it clocked 9.1 seconds. Using the same stretch of road and starting point, with the exact same ambient, intake and coolant temperatures, it improved to 8.1 seconds. At this point we began to believe that the GruppeM’s “ram air” designation really does help at higher speed because, going by previous experience, we expected only a half-second improvement given the total gains shown on the dyno.

While we didn’t baseline the quarter-mile, we did try one after all other testing was done. On this one and only attempt, we clocked 13.2 @ 107.8 mph (at 1,400 feet of altitude that converts to 13.0 @ 109.5 mph at sea level). With a few more practice runs we firmly believe a 12-second pass is possible.

M3 Comparison

Car 1 Car 2
WheelsVMR710, Matte BlackVMR718, Gunmetal
TiresContinental EC DW Continental EC DW
Upgradessoftware, intake software, intake
Horsepower292 whp 307 whp
Torque232 lb-ft 240 lb-ft
Acceleration*
0-60 mph
4.9 sec4.7 sec
0-100 mph12.1 sec11.3 sec
1/4 mile13.2 @ 107.7 mph 13.0 @ 109.5 mph
*corrected to sea level, launch mode used

SOURCE
VMR Wheels
714-442-7916
866-364-8073
http://www.vmrwheels.com
Evolove Automotive (Tuning)
8 Urban Hive
http://www.evoloveautomotive.com
Bavarian Autosport
275 Constitution Ave.
Portsmouth
NH  03801
800-535-2002
www.bavauto.com
GruppeM USA
8120 Monticello Ave
Skokie
IL  60076
888-360-5590
www.gruppemusa.com
Continental Tires
http://www.continentaltire.com
Sparkplugs.com (Monarch Products)
30500 Garbani Rd.
Menifee
CA  92584
951-672-8501
www.sparkplugs.com
European Auto Source
4015 E. Leaverton Court
Anaheim
CA  92807
866-669-0705
www.europeanautosource.com
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