The 3 Series is an iconic BMW and the e46 is one of the most popular 3 Series generations ever made. The e46 is a beautiful car with superior handling and style, but that’s not the whole story.
If you are interested in purchasing a BMW e46 you are probably wondering what their reputation is as to reliability. This is certainly a reasonable thing to consider, BMW e46s are approaching twenty years old and you will be hard-pressed to find one with significantly less than 100,000 miles. Unreliable cars often become a money pit after 100,000 miles so it’s important that you’re aware of the e46s reputation for reliability. So are BMW e46s reliable?
BMW e46s are one of the most reliable 3 Series cars that BMW has ever made. The drivetrain is relatively bulletproof and the e46 tends to have fewer problems than many other luxury vehicles. That being said, e46s suffer from coolant related issues, and as they age they become more expensive to maintain.
I have owned several E46s over the years and they have all been relatively reliable even as they approach higher mileage. In this article, I will discuss what makes the e46 more reliable compared to many of its peers, problems that the e46 is known for, and my advice on buying an e46.
What makes the BMW e46 reliable?
Compared to more recent 3 Series BMWs such as the e90 and f30, the e46 is a tank. The e46 is arguably the last 3 Series before BMW switched its focus from the driver to luxury. You can clearly see this in more recent 3 Series BMWs, BMW is now all-in on its investments in bells and whistles.
While luxury electronics, sensors, and comforts are nice to have while they work, they also become extremely expensive fail points when they inevitably break. That is why the e46 could reasonably be construed to be one of the last “ultimate driving machines” in BMW’s lineup.
The e46 rarely gives drivers issues with drivetrain components. Yes, the coolant system is a weak spot and if it goes, a head gasket can quickly follow. But with proper preventive maintenance, BMW engines are incredibly reliable and this is true for the e46 as well.
BMW e46s are also reliable because they rarely will have a sudden and serious enough problem to leave a driver stranded. These vehicles do have problems, but most of them will not prevent you from getting from Point A to Point B.
At this point, BMW E46s are old enough for many owners to have driven them for well over 200,000 miles. The consensus is that if they are properly maintained and preventive maintenance is done, they will last well over 200,000 miles. My 2003 BMW 330i lasted 230,000 miles and it would have lasted longer if my brother had not totaled the vehicle.
Known problems with e46s
Yes, BMW e46s are generally reliable but there are a few caveats. At this point, I have owned a number of e36s and e46s, and I can tell you that they can be a nightmare if you fail to maintain them. E46s are reliable as far as luxury cars go but make no mistake, these vehicles are not Toyotas or Hondas. One of my best friends owned a Honda and we beat the absolute s@@t out of it. We drove it sideways, never changed the oil, never changed anything really, and somehow it just kept moving until one day we finally blew up the engine, but even after that it still got us home.
You can’t treat any BMW like that, with the possible exception of an e30. These vehicles can take some punishment, but the more you dish out the more parts will break. Even if you are not a psychotic driver like me, you still need to swap out the coolant system once every 80,000 miles or so.
Automatic Transmission Issues
Beware of the dreaded “no reverse” problem that plagues BMW E46 automatic transmissions. Early model e46s suffer from a number of automatic transmission problems. Depending on the transmission issue, you could be looking at a $300 repair or an entire transmission replacement. Depending on the year and model of your E46, you could have a car with a ZF or a GM transmission.
The automatic ZF transmission features a significantly more problematic no reverse issue than the GM. The most common cause is due to failure of the Reverse Drum (D-G Clutch Drum) and this will often result in replacement of the entire transmission.
The automatic GM transmission features a significantly more mild no reverse problem and the issue can be repaired by most DIY mechanics within several hours. The typical cause of the issue is a faulty Reverse Solenoid.
E46s are generally known for problems with window motors and regulators. In fact, window problems are a bane to most 3 Series BMWs. If you have ever watched my videos on BMW window motor replacement you can feel my frustration with these cars. Window problems are certainly more common than they should be and they are more difficult to repair than you would expect, but on the plus side, I rarely see power window problems until a BMW hits 100,000 miles.
Rear Sub-Frame Tearing
The infamous rear sub-frame cracking problem is unfortunately an issue that is common on ALL BMW E46s, no matter the engine size or model. This is an issue caused by a faulty design of the engineers at BMW. BMW failed to reinforce the section of the chassis where the rear sub-frame mounts to and this eventually causes fatigue failure. The rear sub-frame tearing was such a common problem on the E46s that BMW ended up having to settle a class-action lawsuit.
At this point, most E46 rear sub-frame problems have likely been rectified as these vehicles have been on the road for a long time. However, it is still important to ask questions from any seller and have the rear frame inspected to confirm that the necessary repairs/reinforcements have been applied.
Oil leaks are another common issue with e46s. Valve cover gaskets are a problem with every 3 Series BMW I have ever owned, whether it was an e36, e46, or an e90. Luckily, most of the oil leak issues you are likely to come across are easily repaired or avoidable.
Should you get an e46?
E46s are clearly more reliable than many of the other 3 Series cars that BMW has come out with over the years. They are also fun to drive, and attractive. On the other hand, I must admit that these vehicles are getting older and as cars get older you have to consider a whole new set of variables. Older e46s are like any other older car in that you have to be more familiar with how well the vehicle has been taken care of.
If an e46 was poorly maintained by the previous owner it’s likely that it will end up costing you more than it’s worth. In addition, higher mileage BMWs require more maintenance and repair across the board, and you may want to rethink buying an e46 if you are not mechanically inclined.
If you are thinking of purchasing a high mileage e46 check out this article.
If you do decide to buy an e46 be aware that there is still a huge market for these vehicles and you should not have to pay more than $5,000 for the vast majority of examples.
If you are searching for a reliable vehicle that can get you from Point A to Point B and that’s a lot of fun to drive around than the e46 is an excellent option. These vehicles are reliable compared to other luxury German vehicles but don’t mistake it for being as low maintenance as a Honda or a Toyota because it’s not.
You can check out a general review on BMW e46s here.