It sounded simple enough. All I wanted was a fast, fun, reliable, practical, easy-to-drive, almost-four-seater that wouldn't cost the earth to buy or run. Age didn't matter, as long as it wasn't threatening to fall apart: this would be an everyday car that would sit outside in the rain, and would have to be as accomplished at a trip to a supermarket as a hot lap of Silverstone.

No problem: the classifieds were teeming with options. Yet when I thought seriously about those criteria, likely candidates were as hard to find as a Kimi Raikkonen payslip.

AMG Mercs were high on the list: a W203 C55AMG, say, or a W210 E55AMG. Broad-shouldered performance was assured, and they reminded me there was something else I needed - a soul-stirring soundtrack, no matter whether the throttle pedal was caressed or crushed. But those big V8s drank super unleaded like it was going out of style, and that was too much of a price to pay.

Vauxhall's oddball but interesting VXR8, Jaguar's rapid S-type R and Audi's all-wheel drive RS quattros dropped off the shortlist for the same reason, as did BMW's rapid M5 - the only E60 5-series that I ever felt looked the part. An Audi S8 was tempting, but just too big for the country lanes I spend half my life negotiating.


Proof of concept: M3 CSL at the SMMT Test Day Newspress

A Porsche 911? Fast and fun, yes, and I could probably live with two seats that were usable and two that really weren't. I chased a gorgeous 993 through Gloucestershire to the A40 a year or two ago, and the thought appealed. But like Mark Twain said, I never spot an opportunity until it has ceased to be one: the market got there before me, and 993s were going for more than I wanted to spend. It was the same story for the recently replaced 997, which meant it would have to be the relatively unsung, unloved 996. Yet that didn't seem such a bad idea, especially in Carrera 4S form with a bit more poke, unassailable traction and reworked nose and tail styling. A Tiptronic transmission was available, which ticked the easy-to-drive box - manual gearboxes are so 20th century. Yes, the 4S was a definite maybe.

Yet there was a nagging doubt. Would I constantly be wishing it was that 993? Would I wince every time I pulled a Porsche part from its expensive box only to find it had a VW logo moulded into the side?

Jeremy Clarkson provided perfect balance by praising the CSL's SMG transmission and in the same column panning the exact same 'box in the regular M3

While I was wondering these things I started thinking again about BMWs. I've had a couple before - a granite-hewn E34 540i Touring, and before that a gloriously wayward E12 M535i - and the best BMWs have always had a certain something. But which one?

Alpina seemed to have the answer. A B3S - based on the E46 3-series BMW but with Alpina's stroked 3.3-litre straight six - looked just the job. Fantastically expensive when new, every one was loaded with kit and beautifully trimmed. They were rare, but I rather liked that air of exclusivity - and the fact that most people would see nothing more than just another BMW.

But break something important on an Alpina and you're unlikely to source a secondhand part from a scrapyard. The only place you'll get spares is from Alpina which - reasonably enough - charges Alpina prices. A crankshaft for one of those lovely stroker engines is £5000 - which is a bit mad when the whole car is worth only a little more...

The obvious Alpina rival from the mainstream BMW range was the M3. But now I'd decided that I was buying an auto, and M cars were never offered with an automatic option. Except that, now I thought of it, they were - sort of.

From the late 1990s BMW offered M3s, M5s, M6s and Z4Ms with an unconventional self-shifting gearbox called SMG. The Sequential M Gearbox was a manual transmission with an add-on electro-hydraulic system to operate the clutch and select gears. I never drove one when they were new, but those who had said they were brilliant. Or awful. Both camps were adamant that they were right. Jeremy Clarkson provided perfect balance by praising the M3 CSL's SMG transmission and in the same column panning the exact same 'box in the regular M3. Clearly, I needed to find out for myself.

The opportunity came, by chance, at the SMMT Test Day in May 2013. It's an annual event where hundreds of motoring journos converge on the Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire, and car makers bring along their latest metal to be put to the test. Sometimes 'heritage' cars get an airing, too, and BMW had promised an appearance by an original 3.0 CSL. But the venerable E9 couldn't make it, so in its place they sent 161BMW, their E46 M3 CSL. I just had to have a go.

No more than 90 seconds after I wedged my behind into the CSL's right-hand Recaro, twisted the key and slotted the chromed SMG selector into gear, I was sold. The CSL was simply glorious: it had the performance, the noise, and the road manners I was looking for. The SMG transmission was, yes, a bit clunky, but in the context of the car it somehow felt just right. Yet the CSL wasn't the car I wanted. Unparalleled for a track blast it may have been, but it was nothing like civilised or practical enough for me as an everyday car. What I needed was 90% of the CSL's grip and go, 90% of its symphony of six-cylinder sounds, with a dash of extra ride quality and rear seats that weren't rendered unusable by a pair of carbon buckets up front - plus a more encouraging price tag. What I needed, I realised, and desperately, was a nicely standard E46 M3...


Sideways fun at Guild of Motoring Writers track day GOMW/Jeff Bloxham

Hundreds of hours of classifieds crunching later, I found it. Even allowing for it being a dealer car, I probably paid too much for RJ54GHV given the stone chips, the tired brakes and the dreadful no-name tyres. But it had the right spec, the right colour combination - silver grey with Imola red leather - and a comfortingly comprehensive history. The SMG gearbox worked perfectly (they don't always) and there was no sign of the M3's achilles heel, cracking of the rear bodyshell understructure.

The M3's first public appearance in my hands was at the Guild of Motoring Writers 'Big Day Out' track day at Rockingham, where I had lots of sideways fun (below) thanks to slippery track conditions and those Teflon tyres. That lack of grip isn't so much fun on greasy backroads: a second set of wheels with winter tyres are next on the agenda.


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