Even though it's near the end of its production run based on the outgoing E46 3 Series, the 2006 BMW M3 is still a very desirable performance icon.
It may no longer be the most modern car in its class, but with its 3.2-liter, 333-horsepower engine, its sequential manual gearbox (SMG), and its well-appointed interior, it more than holds its own and has well-earned M-car cachet.
The 2006 BMW M3 does show its age in its somewhat dated cabin electronics: MP3 capability even for CDs is nil, and the navigation system, while useful, has fewer features than most newer systems. Sirius Satellite Radio is available as a dealer-installed option, though, and the car is prewired for Bluetooth compatibility.
While 300 pounds heavier than the coupe, the M3 convertible is still blisteringly quick and capable, delivering plenty of smooth, refined power. An excellent combination of sports handling and comfort contributes to the M3 being a race car of the road with real room for four. The undeniable sunny-day attraction of top-down motoring and the stress-reducing capability of the SMG to operate fully automatically in traffic if desired make the M3 convertible as fine a car for everyday use as it is for high-performance driving.
With an intuitive rollover-protection system and a range of other standard features, the latest M3 convertible is about as safe as soft-top sports cars can hope to be.
But like all BMWs, a 2006 BMW M3 doesn't come cheap: The convertible starts at $56,600. Our test car had the Cold Weather Package ($750); a Harman Kardon sound system ($675); a rudimentary nav system ($1,800); Michelin Pilot Sport tires ($1,750); and an SMG gearbox ($2,400). For power lumbar support in the front seats, add $400, and xenon headlights will set you back another $700. On top of that, factor in the $695 destination charge and a $1,300 gas-guzzler penalty, and the grand total comes to $67,070.
The 2006 BMW M3 is built for high-performance motoring in comfort, a fact immediately apparent as you slip into its firmly padded and wonderfully accommodating seats. The M-branded, leather-wrapped steering wheel provides audio- and cruise-control toggles, giving the driver a fine office from which to go about the M3's business. Instrument-panel design is classic BMW, with a large hooded pod for the main gauges and a center stack angled toward the driver for easier access to the audio and climate controls.
Our convertible was fitted with an optional DVD-based satellite navigation system, controlled via an LCD interface in the center of the dash. Compared with more modern systems, including those in newer BMWs, the nav interface is limited. Destinations may be entered by zip code, from the address book, by direct address entry using the main knob to choose letters and numbers, or by moving the map cursor. But the map-cursor method is cumbersome and best suited to nearby locations, as the map scale can't be changed during the process. There is no voice-recognition ability, and the system is slow to present directions, but once calculated, they are displayed in a useful turn-by-turn list with voice guidance. The screen itself is usually easily visible, although glare in some light can make it difficult.
The navigation screen also multitasks by integrating audio, trip computer, and phone-system controls, as well as by displaying a bunch of useful information on demand, including the miles to empty, outside temperature, and time; speed; and distance calculations. System controls are marked hard buttons to the sides of the screen and a master rotary control to its lower right. We found the interface simpler and more intuitive than BMW's more recent iDrive system.
The navigation screen doubles as an audio controller, a trip computer, and a phone-system interface, and it flips up for access to the CD player.
The 2006 BMW M3's telephone system is compatible with Bluetooth phones and has a number of useful features, including address-book storage and saving the last-dialed and eight most-dialed numbers for quick access.
In a nifty techno touch, the CD player is revealed by pressing the eject button, which causes the nav-system LCD to automatically flip up for access. Audio-system sound quality is good, but choices are limited to AM/FM radio and commercial format CDs. Neither MP3 CDs nor MP3 players--such as iPods--are in the program, although Sirius Satellite Radio is available.
As expected in a high-priced luxury car, the top is fully automatic, with no manual latching necessary. To operate it, you can press and hold one of the iconically marked buttons below the HVAC controls on the center stack. It can be dropped or raised quickly, but the car must be at rest for safety reasons.
With the top up, the 2006 BMW M3's interior sound level is higher than in the coupe, although it's not overly loud. With the top down, wind is at a pleasant level, at least at legal highway speeds. Our test model had the Cold Weather Package, which includes heated front seats and retractable headlight washers.
To the rear, the M3 convertible's backlight is glass, with a heater element, for long-term, all-weather visibility. With the top up, we found that the wide C-pillars between the rear screen and the rear quarter windows impaired visibility. The outside mirrors help a bit, but care is necessary in parking lots.
Unlike many convertible sports cars, the M3 has ample room for rear-seat passengers.
Rear-seat space in the 2006 BMW M3 convertible is very reasonable: We deposited our editor there on the way to the photo shoot and didn't hear any complaints. Access is what you'd expect for a two-door car designed more for horsepower than haulage.
While the 2006 BMW M3 convertible is slightly slower than the coupe to 60mph from a standstill (at 5.4 seconds), it is still one of the quickest cars in production today.
BMW's M cars are distinguished by their engine and chassis specifications, and it is in those departments that the M3 outshines its rivals, with plenty of input from BMW's long involvement in competition.
One direct influence from the racetrack is the 2006 BMW M3's use of a separate throttle body for each engine cylinder. These are electronically controlled, with regular and high-performance modes. In high-performance mode, throttle pedal sensitivity is increased, and less movement is needed for throttle response. A low-restriction exhaust system with catalytic converters further enhances power.
Despite the high specific output, the engine is quite flexible. There is a reasonable amount of torque at low revs, but for best performance, the engine needs to be kept above 3,000rpm.
The optional SMG gearbox (with which our test car was equipped) was developed from systems used to control the gearboxes in BMW-powered Formula One cars in the late 1990s. The SMG is a manual transmission with a clutch that is automatically engaged. This type of transmission shifts faster than a conventional manual, although it doesn't allow for free selection of gears. Sequential means it can go only up or down to the next gear from the one that it's in. The SMG also has an automatic mode in which the car shifts for the driver, moving to the right gear based on engine and car speed. While pricey (at $2,400), it can improve engine and transmission life, as well as performance, by avoiding missed shifts and preventing downshifts that overrev the engine.
Shift control on the 2006 BMW M3 is done by two plastic paddles behind the steering wheel--downshift on the left, up on the right--and a short lever in the center console. The paddles perform optimally when the steering wheel is turned less than 60 degrees, with the lever best for tighter corners.
The M3's optional sequential manual gearbox improves transmission and can be set to operate automatically for city driving.
There are some drawbacks to the 2006 BMW M3's high-performance specification. Both the engine and the SMG transmission need to be fully warmed up for optimum performance, and this takes a few minutes. During that time, yellow lights around the outside of the tachometer alert the driver to keep revs down, to 5,000rpm when cold, progressively increasing to 7,500rpm. The ignition cutout comes in at 8,000rpm.
Also, the 2006 BMW M3's brawny performance relies on fuel and air in large quantities to produce horsepower. Don't look to this car for fuel economy or ultralow emissions. The EPA economy figures are 16mpg in the city and 22mpg on the highway, and we got barely 16mpg mixed with not overly enthusiastic driving. Wick it up higher, and the mileage looks even worse. The convertible is subject to a $1,300 gas-guzzler tax.
Even with the optional 19-inch wheels and tires--225/40 in the front and 255/35 at the rear--our M3 convertible test car was not at all uncomfortable. The ride is firm but far from jarring. Cornering is flat, and the harder an M3 is pushed, the happier it is. We would suggest that anyone with the resources to buy an M3 make one further investment in BMW's excellent M School Performance Driving School.
With its quick acceleration, excellent handling, strong braking abilities, and dynamic stability control, the 2006 BMW M3 has a high level of potential active safety. The actual level is up to the driver and the driver's ability.
The 2006 M3 is one of the last to be built around BMW's E-46 3 Series model.
Passive safety is ensured by standard dual-stage front air bags and door-mounted front side air bags. Rear-seat side-impact air bags are optional. The convertible features the rollover-protection system, which automatically deploys structural bars behind the rear seats if impending rollover is detected by sensors. The 2006 BMW M3 has not been rated for crash or rollover performance by the U.S. government.
Like all current BMWs, a new M3 is covered by a 4-year/50,000-mile limited warranty, with full scheduled maintenance and roadside assistance for the same period. Corrosion coverage is for 12 years and unlimited miles.