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E46 M3 (2001-2006) Engine: S54 - Max Hp: 333 hp at 7,900 rpm / 262 lb/ft at 4,900 rpm
Total Produced: 45,000+ - Years Produced: 2001 to 2006.

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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 02:29:03 AM   #1
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Default Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!


So I'd like to make a guide with the goal of helping the community better understand the aspects that contribute to the steering feel of our cars. Since modifying suspension and swapping racks is talked about so much I'd like to share some knowledge. Alot of this will generally apply to almost any car, but I'm going to be addressing E46's directly, with the ending intent of getting "better" or "sportier" steering. This will probably get long, but I hope this is a fairly comprehensive guide which will give people who want to better understand their cars a wider viewpoint on this one thing. If you care about the difference between effect and affect, or passive voice, I apologize now.

Lets get conceptual....

Steering feel is probably one of the most important forms of feedback you get when navigating a vehicle, second only to chassis feel. As examined from a physics standpoint, the tires are the only things that touch the ground, so they are the only things that control the car. Since the steering wheel affects how the tire turns the car, you can think of the tires feedback as being the output that you use to control your input to steering the tire. The chassis feel would tell you about most everything else the tire is doing, accelerating the car.. forwards/backwards... side/side... and over bumps, up/down.

Different cars have different setups for their intended use, be it chassis feel or steering feel. A racecar may have alot of steering feedback so the driver can best feel how the tire is turning, and a very aggressive (tight fitting) bucket seat so they can feel the chassis/the rest of what the tire is doing.... all to help the driver "use the most of the tire." Alternatively, an old Cadillac isn't setup to annoy the driver with all that feedback. Its meant to only give the driver enough feedback to casually keep the boat between the lines on the interstate at 55. By modifying your car you can pick if you want a racecar setup or a cadillac setup, or somewhere in between.

Some cars have great feel from the factory. Some cars don't. Think Ferrari vs. Kia. The two cars are intended for different purposes, and are at two different price points. More money went into developing the perfect tuning and components for the steering of the Ferrari than did the Kia. BMW's had pretty legendary mechanical steering from the factory for a while there, but other makes can still do it better. Porsche comes to mind. Better components and better tuning effort resulting in "better"... "sportier" steering, but that's not to say BMW didn't hit their marks when making their cars. I actually think they hit them very well. But since our personal preferences have drifted from BMW's marks to be more in line with the marks of other cars, we compare our cars to others and want better from ours. And when modifying, the farther our wants get from the original intent of the manufacture, the tougher it gets to get what we want.

BMW had certain intentions when designing these cars and over time some of these cars have transitioned to a demographic who would be happier with different characteristics from their cars than an average original owner may have been most happy with. Luckily these cars are easy to modify and thanks to some cost-saving component sharing between quite a few chassis of a certain era, we have quite a few ways to get what we want from these cars.

K time to get a little more factual now...

Many of us have modified our cars, and I'd like to list certain relevant modifications and cover how they relate to steering feel. Assuming you're not 13 and you've actually been driving for at least a little while I'm sure you would agree that cars work as a big system, and as such there's alot that goes into the end result of "how cars work."

TIRES: Like before, let's start with the tires. They're the only thing touching the ground, so they're pretty important. Almost of the modifications we'll be talking about affect how the tire will be used. And, since they're pretty much the only thing affecting steering, everything about them is important for steering. At this point most of us have a whole bunch of different tires on our cars, so making direct comparisons between cars is blurred a little bit. If you track alot you'll be familiar with many of the variables with tires: Construction (radial for street tire, bias ply for old style / race tire), sidewall characteristics, wheel size, tire size, tire compound, tire pressure, tire temperature, tread depth, age, ect all can affect steering feel. When I talk about better using a tire, I usually mean optimizing the tire for the condition, be it maximum total grip, maximum control / feedback, or best wear characteristics.

ALIGNMENT: The alignment, camber, castor, and toe, determines how the tire will be used against the ground. The understanding of tires (and specifically how to use them) is incredibly important and race teams higher engineers specifically to analyze tires... pay ten's of thousands of dollars for tire data... and spend even more testing different setups. So the items in TIRES above and the alignment work together to move the car. Obviously, not all tires work the same, so from car to car... from tire to tire... alot changes, and once again direct comparisons become tough. That said, some big conclusions can be drawn and used for most situations for us. We know radial tires like negative camber, so we induce that on our track prepped M3's to get max grip. We know we want castor so that our wheel returns to center when going straight and so that as we turn more, we induce more negative camber when and where we need it. We use toe to control the side/side characteristics of the tire, both on the front and rear of the car... sometimes toe in and sometimes toe out, depending on the intention of the vehicle. Since the alignment is so important for how the tire is used, its also very important for steering feel. Conservative factory alignments (with conservative camber and castor and toe) optimize for straight line stability (acceleration, highway), stability at the limit (track and out of control situations), and tire wear. A track alignment with more aggressive alignment can induce higher steering forces (camber, castor), change the stability of the car (closely related to "turn-in", front or rear, toe), and even improve feel, especially at the limit compared to stock alignments, because the tire is being used better / more naturally. In summary, the alignment changes the characteristics of how the tire is being used, allowing the tire to be optimized for a specific use.

SUSPENSION DESIGN: Continuing from the above two items, suspension design is obviously the design of the stuff between the tires and the chassis. Think solid axle vs. independent suspension. This can get pretty involved too but I'll keep it simple. The suspension is intended to control the movement of the body and the tire. Things like camber and toe curves (changes in the alignment as the suspension moves). Alot of how our suspension is designed isn't easy to modify, so almost none of use do. But, as we do change ride height, we change how our suspension is being used. Lowering too much can have detrimental effects on steering feel, steering performance, and vehicle performance in general. Bringing this back to steering feel, the spindle/upright/hub thing/knuckle that holds the wheel to the car is what the steering rack connects to. The dimensions of the hub determine alot on our cars, specifically for steering feel: The angles and locations that everything is held together at (scrub radius (steering axis inclination)) and how the steering rack connects to the wheel (rack leverage, tie rod height (bumpsteer), ackerman). Steering Angle Inclination aka Kingpin Angle is not adjustable on our cars, but if you change the width of your tires, the offset of your wheels, or your camber, you've probably changed the Scrub Radius. The scrub radius is the theoretical distance between the axis that your front wheels rotate about as you turn AND the center of the width of your tire's contact patch. Most factory cars are set up with zero scrub radius, so equal amounts of tread (grip) on the sides of the axis that your tire rotates about. If you add a positive or negative scrub radius, you're changing the balance of grip from the parts of a tire. Its usually not a big deal, because you change it on each side of the car the same amount, but if you have alot of scrub radius it can be detrimental to steady state steering feel, and also result in wonky steering around corners, or chunky steering over uneven surfaces. Almost all M3's with wide front wheels and tires, low offset wheels, and lots of camber have scrub radius, and its not optimal for feel. I wish I could change it for my uses, but that would mean custom uprights as its not directly adjustable. However, with the right combination of tire width, offset, and camber, you can actually get back to zero. If you lower too much you can induce bumpsteer, which is a condition where the geometry of the suspension is such that as you go over a bump your steering wheel will violently be pulled to the side. This is a bad thing. On M3's most everyone agrees a ride height of 13-13.5" is about as low as your want to go before this becomes a problem. Also the control arm and roll centers are affected badly as you go lower, but that's not relevant. Ackerman is another theoretical geometric suspension measurement, which effectively determines how much the wheels turn compared to each other, at a given steering wheel angle. You may notice that your front wheels aren't parallel at large steering wheel angles. Ackerman determines this because as the car goes around a corner because the front wheels are actually at different radius's, it's actually possible to optimize the tires for a specific corner radius. Why is this important? Because Ackerman means different cars, with different hubs and probably different ackerman will actually handle pretty differently. If you think about it, ackerman is optimizing the toe setting for whatever steering angle. And, think how sensitive tires are to changes in toe because on the highway a small change in steering wheel angle results in alot happening. Ackerman is not adjustable on our cars, it varies alot from car to car, and its very dynamic so its not very easy to determine. The last thing I'd like to discuss is the leverage the steering rack has on the hub, which once again varies with different uprights, isn't adjustable, and determines how fast the front wheels move compared to the steering wheel and also the amount of force transmitted between the two. The amount of leverage the rack has on the hub directly affects those "14.7:1" type steering ratio specifications. It is because this leverage varies from hub to hub that its impossible to compare those steering ratio specifications directly between chassis, and also makes steering force comparisons difficult.

SUSPENSION MOUNTINGS: This one is pretty easy and we're all pretty familiar with replacing bushings to refreshed factory ones or more aggressive aftermarket ones to better meet our goals for both control of the suspension components and also noise, vibration and harshness. For steering, I'll just address the relevant ball joints, FCAB and steering flex shaft coupling. If you have bad ball joints with play in them on your tie rod or control arm, or even your upper shock mounts, they need to be replaced. The front control arm bushing is pretty important if they're worn out. Choosing factory, poly, or solid is another big discussion entirely: for my 80% track car I choose solid and the main thing I noticed was a little more vibration from the road coming through the steering wheel compared to poly. The Steering Flex Shaft coupling is a rubber coupling (think big rubber hockey puck) in the steering linkage between the steering wheel and the steering rack. People have been swapping to solid aluminum ones on E30's forever, and I was unaware they are available for our cars now until recently. I haven't personally experienced a solid one, but I have replaced my factory ones in the past just to be sure. I'm not very familiar with them yet... some people on the internet claim they are a safety device in the event of a crash to protect your wrists. Others say they help with steering feel.

SPRINGS AND DAMPERS AND ANTI ROLL BARS: ....connect the suspension bits which are supposed to move to the chassis bits which aren't supposed to move. How these are tuned (spring rates, damping) actually has a huge affect on "steering feel" and especially "turn in" as the chassis is a big heavy thing which the tires are tying to control through the suspension--springs and dampers. This is all pretty self explanatory. Suspension tuning could make or break a car, and you may run into trouble controlling the car because of setup, or you may find improvement in the performance of your steering. (hint: damping) One honorable mention I'd like to leave here is that I love linear springs on cars which I plan to drive hard because the car moves more predictably, is more controlled, and is easier for me to drive... but using them can go badly for the ride, especially if your shocks aren't meant for them.

STEERING WHEELS: While we're on the topic of control and performance at the limit, I'd like to mention that aftermarket steering wheels, which are available in different sizes and depths, can help you optimize your connection to the car. As always, with safety being a top priority, dont forget to consider that you'll be removing the driver's airbag and you should evaluate the rest of your in car safety system accordingly. Additionally, youll be removing radio and cruise control buttons and your horn button will need work to get hooked up again. There is a guide somewhere showing how to use a z4 stalk style cruise control thing to our cars. Very small wheels can also block your view of the top of the dash, so your speed, rpm, and turn signal indicators are hidden. Physically, wheels can be closer to the dash, or farther from the dash, helping different sized people fit into cars with different seats, shifters, ect. better. I found moving the wheel closer to the dash helped me to not hit my elbows on the side bolsters of my seat in tight corners on the track. Most people switch to an aftermarket wheel so they can get a smaller wheel. With the smaller wheel your hands have to move less to turn the wheel the same amount. I found I could catch slides faster, and generally react faster. However, on the highway it makes small steering inputs more dramatic.... paired with a fast rack it's very dramatic. For me a smaller steering wheel was very worth it, and I should have considered the switch a long time ago.

STEERING RACKS!!!! Okay, now we finally get to talk about steering racks! To my knowledge racks from almost all E30, E36, E36/7, and E46 are basically easily interchangeable, but I'm not going to claim to be an expert on specific random components and if they're swapable. Racks from that era varied widely from fast and linear to so bad that BMW actually recalled some racks from early 330's because they were "over-boosted" and the steering feel was awful. When choosing a rack to swap these are the things to consider which I think should pretty well sum up the differences between all of the racks:

Linear vs Non-Linear: To me this is the reason I swapped racks. I mentioned linear springs earlier, and my love for linear racks is based on the same principle of the linear springs: The amount of turn at the wheels (output) is LINEAR to the amount of turn at the steering wheel (input). Alot of the E36 and E46 racks are progressive, which means that the steering ratio of input to output changes based on where the steering wheel is. This relationship is tuned so that these cars can be stable autobahn cruisers (small steering wheel inputs) and also nimble small-sports-cars on tight tracks and cities and parking lots (large steering wheel inputs). If you think back to the first time you drove an E46, the steering may have been a little odd, but you probably got used to it. I remember that, and actually both my dad and I curbed a wheels on slow speed right hand stop light corners early on because the steering was "different". BMW actually has a special name for this which I cant remember, and also mentions engine-speed-variable power assist -- whatever that means. The switch to a linear rack was a massive difference for me. After 4 years with the factory rack, I almost couldn't drive the car normally until I got used to it, it was that big of a difference. My inputs felt much more direct, and the result was the car responded much more accurately to how I was moving my hands... something that was impossible to happen with the progressive ratio rack because the inputs and outputs were never the same. The most amazing thing was the accuracy of the feedback I received from the tires at the limit. Given my car is basically all solid everything and very tight already, the feedback was SO much better with the linear. I had more control and I was more comfortable at the limit. Hard to describe, but think Guinness vs. Bud Light. Admittedly, I switched to the very fast Z3 rack, so my steering was really turned up to 11 in every way possible. I highly recommend driving a car with a linear rack. On the topic of progressive racks, I think different racks were designed with different amounts of progressiveness. Its my theory that the unquestionably progressive 330 rack is "more linear" than the E46 M3 "quite progressive" rack.

Ratio - self explanatory... amount of steering rack linear output compared to rotational input. Often numerically notated as mm of linear output per rotation of the wheel (mm/rotation). That notation give you a single number which doesn't convey "how progressive" a progressive rack might be, so I think it's a little blurry to directly compare racks with that number, but still probably the most relevant metric between racks for feel. A higher ratio will result in faster steering, more steering force... more steering feel...

Note: These are Rack Ratios... usually something like 30-50 mm/rev, not "Steering ratios" which were discussed above, and require information about the chassis of the car (the kingpin specifically) to really compare properly. Usually "Steering Ratios" are like 12.7:1 to 19:1. I'm not even really sure what they mean numerically.

Turns lock to lock - self explanatory, but important to consider if your swapping because some racks have different turns lock to lock and ratios, equating in different amounts of turn at the front wheels.... increasing turn at the wheels too much and you could rub, decreasing alot and you'll notice worse turning circle.

Power Steering Valving - each rack has valving for power steering in it. This is an area which I don't know much about and I dont know if theres much information out there about it. The valving could be entirely in the rack, or there could be some more that's relevant in the power steering pump, and I assume it changes the amount of power steering assist. I've suggested changing to a "power pulley" power steering pulley to run the pump slower to increase steering effort, but considering I assume the pump has to have some sort of pressure regulation to boost somewhat equally from idle to redline I'm not sure if this is worth the trouble. More information about the valving would be nice.

Used vs "remanufactured" vs New rack considerations - Once again, not an expert, but here's what I heard when making my rack purchase. Racks don't really wear out much, and the parts that do wear out are probably either easy to replace or impossible to replace. Miles or damage could wear out the gears, but they're not replaceable. The same could wear out the seals, boots, or inner tie rods. The seals probably aren't easy to replace, but the boots and tie rods probably are. New racks are going to be extremely expensive and probably never worth the money. Reman will cost somewhere between new and used, depending on the specific rack, and will often be as refreshed as possible, including new paint and all the seals, depending on where you get it from. Also reman often has core charge. Some places don't accept a different rack as a core so you have to eat the core charge. Used will obviously be the cheapest but buying off the internet will be risky: being able to inspect the rack for condition is nice, and these probably won't have a warranty like the other two options might, if you care. Price and availability vary with which rack you're looking for, and how much you want it.. and how lucky you get.

Some of my thoughts and facts I think are true (correct me if I'm wrong) about specific racks: All E46 racks are progressive, and some are better than others. The 330 rack is a great E46 to E46 swap candidate, but there were some 330 rack variations. Only the best of a few of the racks put on 330 were put on ZHP's, but they were not put on ZHP's exclusively. You want a 712 rack. (source) CSL and ZCP racks are the same, however non-ZCP (normal M3) racks are different. (source) The Z3 rack is known to be linear and extremely fast. You have to specifically get the rack from a 1996-1997 Z3 with the 1.9L engine. Alot of the E30 and E36 racks were awful so unless there's a unicorn generally stay away, not worth on E46 M3.

TL;DR What do I do to make my steering feel better?
Maintenance: If something's worn out it'll never feel right, especially with bad fcab's or shocks
Decide: What are your goals for modifying the car? What end result do you want? Budget? How much effort are you really going to put into this?
Learn: What are the different things that could be changed? What's it going to do to the rest of the car? Do you care about linear vs non-linear?

I'll make two recommendations, one for street only cars, one for track oriented cars.. stuff listed in order of importance. This is all assuming your suspension is set up well and how you like it. Blown or incorrectly adjusted shocks can't be fixed by an alignment... well it shouldn't be

Street: daily driver, road trips, tire wear important, stock driveability
Maintenance is important. fresh shocks, fcabs, and steering linkage flex shaft coupling. This includes checking tire pressures and making sure they're where you want them to be.
Rack: This will be preference, but the swap helps alot. For alot of people the 330 rack is a nice "sporty" upgrade and easy and affordable, but its still progressive. The Z3 rack is a big change from the E46 M3 rack, but if you want a quick linear rack its gold.
Get Good Alignment: More castor, stock toe and camber, get to zero scrub radius if possible. Should increase steering effort without hurting tire wear. Also can increase negative camber if you drive more aggressively but can lead to more tire camber wear. Note make sure toe stays in spec when making alignment.
Moderate ride height: no lower than 13" otherwise things go bad, 13.5 ideally

Track: "I want my car to feel like a Ferrari" -you can't make it feel like a ferrari, sorry, but that doesn't mean you can't drive it like one!
Z3 Rack - fastest and most accurate, if you gotta have linear springs you gotta have this, better feedback, faster response, tighter turning
Alignment - Lots of negative camber (3 or more, depending), lots of castor, toe to whatever you want - I run zero. Try to get to zero scrub radius. (too much scrub radius, castor, and going too low can result in a very choppy wheel especially with a small aftermarket one.)
Aftermarket wheel - smaller wheel is pretty much always better for track
Tire Pressure
Corner weights - might as well mention this. If they're too far off your gonna have a bad time.
All solid everything - fcab, camber plates
Moderate ride height - if you go below 13" everything starts to go wrong.
Enough front slow speed compression damping for front end feel, rebound for body control
Decent chassis reinforcement
Less weight - always!

In a perfect world we would all have zero scrub radius, but unfortunately with our cars with negative camber, wide wheels and tires, and nice looking offsets, the math just doesnt work out in our favor.

I mentioned the solid steering linkage flex shaft couplings which are available, as apposed to the factory rubber ones. I don't know enough about them to draw a conclusion. Some people argue the factory rubber ones have a purpose as a safety device so replacing with aluminum will take some consideration. I want to try it though to see what it feels like.

So I doubt anyone will read this whole thing, but I hope it can serve as a resource, and we can discuss improving steering feel. I'll update this with important information as I remember it.

Last edited by Andy2108; Sat, Feb-13-2016 at 02:38:52 AM.
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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 05:00:06 AM   #2
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Amazing thread!

I wish I could drive a car with a Z3 and 330 yellow tag rack. I don't even know what a linear rack feels like.

I may just go with the zhp rack since a lot of members have been happy with theirs.

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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 05:17:11 AM   #3
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Love reading these kind of post. Wish every topic on this car has a post with this level of insight.

Thank you OP!
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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 09:30:16 AM   #4
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Great thread. Thank you Andy.
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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 04:45:33 PM   #5
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Read the whole thing, was an enjoyable read. Excellent resource here, something I'll have to come back to when the time comes to consider modifying the steering. Thanks for posting!
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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 05:18:05 PM   #6
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Excellent thread! I went with the 712 rack and it is a nice change over stock but not mind blowing IMO. If I had to do it again I'd probably swap in a Z3 rack...may still if I find one for a good deal

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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 08:18:35 PM   #7
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Thanks for the post. Looks like it's only a $10 difference from a ZHP and 96-7 Z3 on RD. I think I'll try the Z3. Would like to see members who've done the Z3 swap weigh in. Will be sticking with my 19's primarily for now, contemplating 18's. Totally part time street now, who knows in future?

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Old Sat, Feb-13-2016, 11:16:08 PM   #8
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Is the Z3 rack a direct swap with no additional parts needed like the ZHP 712 rack? If so, I may just pick one up from rackdoctor.

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Old Sun, Feb-14-2016, 12:33:59 AM   #9
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

I thought the Z3 rack screws with the traction control?
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Old Sun, Feb-14-2016, 12:57:47 AM   #10
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Default Re: Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps!

Originally Posted by M3_POWER View Post
Is the Z3 rack a direct swap with no additional parts needed like the ZHP 712 rack? If so, I may just pick one up from rackdoctor.
I have the same question myself. I thought I recalled there being an issue with the tie rods but I may be wrong.
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Discussing Everything you need to know about steering feel and rack swaps! in the E46 M3 (2001-2006) Forum - Engine: S54 - Max Hp: 333 hp at 7,900 rpm / 262 lb/ft at 4,900 rpm
Total Produced: 45,000+ - Years Produced: 2001 to 2006. at BMW M3 (E30 M3 | E36 M3 | E46 M3 | E92 M3 | F80/X)