My Tuned Saturn Sky Is Simply More Fun Than My BMW E46 M3
Enthusiasts everywhere say the M3 is the greatest ever, but it just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
I don't often present opinions I can't support with relevant data, but enthusiast cars have never worked like that. They're subjective things for people who can appreciate something beyond just forum banter, YouTube comments, or technical specs. I've had the pleasure of owning both a 2002 BMW E46 M3 convertible and a 2008 Saturn Sky Redline for some time now, and I've driven them both on long and short stints back to back. I've gotta say, my Saturn is more fun to drive than the M3, and that's just the way it is.
Both cars have strengths and weaknesses, of course, and I'm going to explain how I've arrived at this conclusion. And before you decide to punch a hole in your computer screen, understand the following: This is my opinion, and if you've driven both of the cars I'm about to describe, your opinion is as relevant as my own.
The M3's Strengths
The E46 M3 has a great reputation for a reason—it's an excellent car. I've put over 60,000 miles on mine in around four years, and I've experienced the highs and the lows. The beating heart of the car, the 3.2-liter S54 is a great engine—one of the all-time greats in an affordable street car. You just can't beat that screaming titanium soundtrack as the car rips all the way to 8,000 rpm. With the top down and a roadside barrier reflecting all of that wonderful noise, it's literally a hair-raising experience to take it to its redline over and over again.
I also like the fact that the car is a convertible, although debating this with your average coupe evangelist is like discussing the merits of doing a barrel roll with air traffic controllers. The fact of the matter is you can enjoy the car better with the top down, and whatever added weight takes away from the car's performance, it makes up for it with the amount of wonderful straight-six noise you get.
The E46 chassis is also extremely predictable and throwable. Any slide can easily be corrected or held to your heart's desire. The M3's is the sportiest version of this chassis, and it's certainly the best of the lot.
Look past those things, however, and the M3 starts to fall apart a bit. But before I say exactly how, let me introduce you to the Saturn Sky, a car which I'm certain a lot of BMW enthusiasts are unaware of.
The Saturn Sky is, looking from the outside in, a Miata competitor that General Motors lost money on before going bankrupt. Cool. The base car, built on the same platform as the Pontiac Solstice, has a 2.4-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine producing 177 horsepower. It could be had with either a five-speed automatic or a five-speed manual, and prices maxed out around $30,000. It all sounds pretty pedestrian and Miata-like, but the base car is not the one I have, nor do I necessarily think it's one you should buy.
This would be the Red Line model, which swaps the naturally aspirated 2.4-liter for a turbocharged 2.0-liter, and produces 260 horsepower and the same amount of torque. It's not as great of an engine as the S54—it doesn't rev as high, it doesn't sound as good, it's subjectively just a poorer powerplant. But if that was the whole story, I wouldn't be writing this. Swap out two MAP sensors on the car's intake and install a tune, and you're instantly in the neighborhood of 280 horses and 340 torques at the wheels for around $320. Put $320 into the engine bay of an E46 M3 and you'll get people on forums throwing rocks at you.
This amount of power and torque in a car that weighs just under 3,000 pounds means it will drag an M3 down the highway, and keep doing it for a long time. Its five-speed manual transmission is the Aisin AR-5, very similar to the R150 series of transmissions used to great effect in a slew of Toyota products, including the Mk. III Supra Turbo. The rear end is an LSD from the Cadillac CTS, which is a common component used in V8 Miata swaps. These parts, along with the forged crank and rods mean the entire combination is tough, and importantly—though subjectively—the shifter is leagues ahead of the one found in the M3. Back to back, it's not even close how much better the Saturn's feels.
The driving position in the Saturn, since it was meant to compete with the Miata, is also much lower to the ground. It feels better. Getting back into the M3 after a rip around in the Sky was off-putting. The M3's seat can never get quite low enough. A set of racing buckets would probably fix this, but I'm just not gonna put those in my convertible daily driver, one that, seeing how M3 prices are headed, I intend to sell sometime in the future.
The Sky's steering is also a lot more responsive and the road-feel is just as good.
The M3 Is An Old Car
The Sky, when you consider things like luggage capacity—Google a picture of the trunk, it's laughable—seating capacity, and induction noise, just isn't as good. You could argue it's a worse car than the M3, but even that would be tough. I can get more than 35 mpg in the Sky on the highway. Getting north 30 mpg in the M3 is a pipe dream. Just the same, the M3, as I'm sure many BMW owners know, is expensive to repair and they suffer from a lot of small issues, which aren't dealbreakers for most people but have definitely worn me down. I've been replacing gaskets on mine since I've had it, but it has never stopped burning or leaking oil for more than a few months. I also got mine with just 59,000 miles on it from an IT guy, so it's not like it was abused before my ownership.
It has broken at least two rear coil springs, I'm constantly in a mental conundrum of not wanting to crack the rear subframe area but also not wanting to pay to get it reinforced, and both my kidney grilles have fallen out. The convertible headliner is ripped—something it manages to do by itself—suspension bushings have been replaced like clockwork, the interior is full of squeaks and rattles I cannot locate or fix—the list just goes on and on. And then there's also the fact that I woke up one day and it was randomly running on five cylinders, or that time the alternator gave up and I had to roll it down a hill to an auto parts store. After a while, this stuff just gets old, especially for a daily driver I have to depend on.
The Sky Is Just Rowdier
To be clear, GM doesn't make the Sky anymore, or any Saturns for that matter. The expensive parts to find are body panels and other related trim, but besides that, a lot of the car is made with bits from other vehicles, vehicles which parts are still made for. The Sky has been plenty reliable for me, easier to work on, and inexpensive to maintain. The bottom line is, I don't worry about it.
It's also just a lot more fun. Forget the fact that it leaves the M3 in the dust, it delivers power in a much more exciting way. Boost comes on strong and the car wants to break loose, or it hooks and you're ripped down the road in a massive "WHOOSH!" There are turbo noises, oodles of torque at your fingertips, and if something breaks I'm not afraid of the repair bill. I also sorted out all of its squeaks and rattles in the first week of ownership, something I wish I could do now with the M3. The shifter rattles because GM used some stupid press-on method to put it on, but if you put a hair-tie around the base of it, it stops. The instrument cluster also had an occasional creak, but I wedged a thin piece of paper in between it and the dash (where I can't see it) and it stopped creaking. I'm not sure how hard it would be to fix the mystery squeaks behind the dashboard in my M3 or the occasionally noisy blower motor, but man, I really do not want to find out.
The Sky also attracts the kind of attention I like, as opposed to the M3's kind of attention, which I don't. The Sky looks like a toy. Kids love it, random people think it's something exotic, but it isn't. It's a $32,000 convertible that I bought for a fraction of that. It's a Saturn; nobody even knows what that means anymore. The M3, on the other hand, attracted the attention of people who not only thought it was a cool car but saw it as a status symbol. Or they wanted to race. Also, it's such a protected creature in the hallowed halls of internet forums that I'll doubtlessly receive flak for suggesting any part of the M3 is worse as compared to the Sky, and that's coming from people who have likely never driven or even sat in one of them. I don't like that.
I like the Saturn because it has absolutely no shoes to fill, no past, no future, no expectations of who the driver is. In the M3 you're either rich or you're pretending to be rich. It's like diet Porsche ownership. Even people like myself who just enjoy it for what it is get labeled like that, and there's no escaping it.
The guy next to me at the light the other day, I didn't want to race his Accord, and even if I did, the worst part is that these days I'm not sure if I would even win in the M3. In the Sky, it would've been hilarious.
Sky enthusiasm is simple. It's fast and it looks cool. M3 enthusiasm is pretty complex. Plenty of people like them for what they are, but a lot of other people are paying almost six figures for them on auction sites like Bring-a-Trailer. I don't know who these people are, I don't want to know who they are, and I definitely am not jealous of the journey they're about the embark on. What I do know is I'll be more than happy to spend a couple of chips fixing up mine in a few years, and making it one of those people's problems.
In this instance, I mirror the sentiments of my colleague Doug Demuro. I thought this car was going to be my forever machine, but I'm just over it. I've driven it, I've loved it, but I've moved on. It's not all bad, but the Sky just brings me more joy.
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