The BMW E46 M3 Might Just Be The Perfect Companion For A Coastal Tour
Writing and photography by Kevin McCauley
Daniel Sloan seems to have found the perfect combination: a do-everything sports car that shines in the tight stuff, but is equally adept at handling the long-distance adventures he frequently embarks on. Monterey? Sure!
His 2004 Mystic Blue BMW M3 has accompanied him through a dozen National Parks, nearly all of the states in the American west, and long jaunts through western Canada— just in the past year alone. A drive down the coast of Oregon to California Route 1 and then to Monterey for Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion, which celebrated BMW this year, seemed like a perfect mix of driving, sight-seeing and endurance. What better way to build up anticipation for BMW-centric car week then by spending four days listening to an S54 straight-six?
When you spend so much time driving long distances, you learn a few things and become more prepared and make your drives as satisfying as possible: spare no expense on maintenance. Get the best tires you can, and carry a spare kit, even if the car doesn’t include one from the factory. Map your route beforehand. Enjoy every mile. Take lots of photos. I agree on all counts.
Before we departed from Portland, Daniel handed me a key—my own key!—to use for the duration of the trip, which made it feel somehow official, like we were Professional Roadtrippers, called up at the last moment for One Last Job. Our four-day itinerary led us on the most scenic and twisty route we could plot. Some highlights are below.
A tight uphill mountain road takes you to the top of a peak that gives a stunning, if fog-obscured, view of the Oregon coast. Down at the rocky shore, there are some dramatic water features, including Thor’s Well, which will drench you with freezing cold water if you let it.
A lot of the coast of Oregon in August is cold, grey, and shrouded in fog. There’s beauty in it, but your sightline is obscured and you’re made acutely aware that you didn’t factor on this much wind-chill when you packed for the trip. Humbug Mountain, which rises directly from the Pacific, was a beautiful oasis. When we reached it along the 101 Coastal Highway around dusk, it felt like a cooler, greener Big Sur, with beautiful blue water as far as you could see.
Another beautiful highway-side stop that caught our eye, this time a little farther south. I don’t think there’s a bad way to view a Pacific Ocean sunset, but certainly being somewhere isolated and remote makes the experience a little better. We weren’t isolated for very long, as we found company in two more BMW M-cars, also traveling down the coast to Monterey for Car Week. We chatted with our new pals and took in the views next to an E39 M5 and E46 M3 coupe, and we paused at the differences between the coupe and soft-top E46.
I love the E46 coupe, but next to the convertible and the E39, it’s a bit bubbly and tall. The exaggerated flares seem almost paunched. On the convertible, beltline behind the doors and the rear deck are actually a little lower. The unbroken horizontals make it look, wider longer, and to my eye, it echoes the utterly timeless E39 a little more loudly.
Redwoods National Park
Drive down the 101 in California and you can’t miss the Redwoods. A staggering sight in itself, but made unbelievable by mid-morning light and cool fog. It was pure luck, but we timed it absolutely perfectly. My reaction in this situation is to repeatedly snap the same photos over and over again, compulsively, as if to avoid missing any moment. Mentally, I recorded the moment as one of those things that I would never, ever forget. For two photo geeks, the thrill of seeing rays of light as directional, almost tangible ‘things’ is indescribable. Perhaps no further description is needed beyond the term “God light”. We drove through the densest section back and forth a few times with the top down before emerging from the forest at a cold, grey foggy coastline.
Avenue of the Giants
South of Eureka, CA, you run into more Redwoods, and this is a slower, more isolated road slightly off the beaten path, so it’s a little better for stopping to enjoy it. In mid-afternoon the fog had burned off already but if you stopped here at the right time of day, it would likely be spectacular.
California State Route 1
If you plan to do this drive, you already know to do this stretch of road. The northern end of Route 1 originates near Leggett, and winds toward the coast on a thrilling, tight series of switchbacks that lasts 15 miles, during which the temperature plummeted an improbable 45° F. You really notice it in an open-top car.
Purists can deride the convertible version of the M3 all day. Until you’ve ridden with a good driver in a well-sorted example on a demanding road, those complaints are just philosophical grievances. I’m not denying that a convertible has inherent flaws, but I’m saying that this convertible feels more solid and stiff than any four-seater convertible I’ve ever driven, and I’ve driven quite a few made in the last five years. If there is anything keeping this car from going faster on twisty public roads, it isn’t chassis flex.
he S54 screams, with the help of an intake, catless header and custom exhaust but retaining the stock muffler for a factory look. The exhaust note is augmented by a whooshing rasp that kicks in under hard throttle, as if the big inline-six clear is clearing its throat. It sits slightly lower than stock on Dinan suspension and grips for days with Pilot Super Sports. Interesting, the already stellar steering heightened with a tighter Z4 M Coupe steering rack.
Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca
When we reached Monterey, I switched focus away from the M3 and aimed my lens at other, spectacular machines that were in town for Car Week. But the car that got us there — that had thrilled us on Route 1, put up with a million photo stops, a dozen gravel roads, a thousand surges to redline — had impressed as much as any car on any lawn or paddock in Monterey. The E46 M3 may just be the perfect tool for driving.