The 3 series BMW is legendary, it has set the standard for entry-level luxury and performance vehicles for decades. The E46 3 Series was an incredibly popular model, and to this day is well regarded among enthusiasts. It’s hard not to see at least one on any given day, and due to their popularity there are plenty available for sale.
I am a little biased when it comes to the BMW E46. I used to own a 2002 330i and I loved the car. It had more horsepower than my E36 328i and I have to admit that the 330i was far more comfortable than my E36. But, even though I can dump praise on the E46 all day, it is not a perfect car. In this article I will discuss the positives and the negatives of the E46, and give you some tips so you can end up with a good example.
The E46 model was produced from 1998 – 2006. Eventually being replaced by the E90 Generation. The E46 was a welcome update from the E36. It was an increase in size and shape, but without sacrificing the handling that the 3 Series has become well known for. The chassis received more lightweight parts in this model as well.
The E46 was an extremely popular BMW, in fact it was the highest selling BMW of all time and it remains extremely popular among car enthusiasts. It came available in a mix of inline four and six cylinder engines, and it also featured a diesel motor. The six cylinder engine started at a 2.2 litre and ran up to the all-mighty M3. The E46 reintroduced an all-wheel drive option, which had been discontinued after the E30. It was featured in the 325xi, 330xi, and the 330xd.
This was the first 3 Series with a valvetronic engine. It also introduced satellite navigation, rain sensing wipers, and electronic brake-force distribution. All in all this car is an update from the E36, but with a few caveats.
The E46 continued the legacy of what many previous 3 Series models did. It set the standard for performance and handling, neither the Audi A4 nor the Mercedes C Class could touch this model. Part of this is because of the E46s weight distribution, which was near perfect, and top of the line suspension.
3 Series BMW’s typically hold up well compared to other BMW Series and this is accurate for the E46 as well.
The interior is handsome, and the interior electronics have made a big jump since the E36. It came with an upgraded t.v display, control buttons on the steering wheel, and an option for heated seats.
However the interior does have a few failings that prevent it from being great. The grey interior is not very attractive, but luckily there are quite a few interior color options on the E46. The most annoying thing about the E46 interior is that BMW used POS glue for the fabric on the interior pillars. It is guaranteed to come apart eventually and it will look terrible until you replace it.
Fuel mileage is pretty good on these vehicles, besides having to pay for 93 gas of course. The smaller inline six motors get better gas mileage, but the E46 is a heavier vehicle than the previous E36 series so fuel consumption is sacrificed to some degree.
If you buy a sports model the three spoke sports steering wheel is way nicer than the standard, and the sport model seats are a handsome upgrade. The sports model also comes with upgraded brakes which increase the stopping power and a firmer suspension.
For A DIY owner this series is relatively accessible, especially when compared to more recent 3 Series models. Repairs can be more difficult than the E36, considering the additional complexity under the hood compared to older models, but these vehicles are for the most part still at-home repairable.
Some of the same issues that plagued the E36 are also found in the E46 Series. The cooling system is more problematic than the E36 Series. This is chiefly because of the switch to plastic fittings on hoses from the older clamp style fasteners. These plastic fittings are nice to have during removal and installation, but they also leak more than the older style clamps. The E46 Coolant system is full of plastic parts, plastic reservoir, plastic fittings, and clamps that can cause a serious headache. Preventive maintenance is the name of the game here if you don’t want to wind up one day on the side of the highway with an overheating engine.
The E46 all-wheel drive x models are admittedly a cool feature. However, the front CV Axles are notorious for failing like clockwork every 80,000 miles. The front CV boots fail, and this causes the joint to get contaminated and fail. If you’re lucky, you can catch it before the joint fails and just replace the boots.
The window motor problem is a carryover from the E36. The E36s were infamous for door handle and window motor problems. BMW seems to not have improved their window motors in the E46 Generation, because they continue to frequently break down after 60-80k miles.
The diesel option commonly has issues with the turbo and fuel injectors, and these can be extremely costly repairs.
Another common problem is with the automatic transmissions on the early model E46’s. The ZF Auto’s seem to be more problematic than the GM’s, regardless best practice is to change your transmission fluid from time to time.
Other common issues that are not unique to the E46 by any means include: (1) oil leaks; and (2) cost of parts.
Oil leaks are just a common issue on higher mileage BMWs. Don’t get worried though, I have never seen a severe oil leak on a BMW that required immediate repair. The only time I have seen an oil leak cause a serious problem on a BMW was because the valve cover gasket was leaking oil onto the exhaust manifold, which is a fire hazard.
The cost of parts is another universal BMW issue. Just expect to pay more (and in some cases significantly more) for parts on an E46 if you are switching from a domestic.
E46 How to Get One
Used E46s have been consistently dropping in price for years, to the point that they are accessible to most people. Although, buyers should take caution when looking at cars with more than 100,000 on them, don’t let that scare you. These cars can last an extremely long time if properly cared for, and they lose little in terms of handling and performance over the years.
I highly recommend having a mechanic’s shop performing a pre-sale inspection of a potential vehicle you are considering. Like any other used vehicle, even an extremely reliable vehicle can be turned into a lemon if it is not properly taken care of.
I also recommend that unless you live in the mountains or an area that get’s significant adverse weather frequently, stick with the rear wheel drive models. The four wheel drive x models are nice to have, but they are also more expensive to maintain. Those front cv axles are known for going bad, and having a front differential makes certain repair work more expensive.
I have found E46s recently ranging anywhere from $2,500 – 6 or $7,000. This does not include M3 models, as M3 E46s in good shape can be $10,000 +. Luckily, these vehicles are quite common and there are plenty of opportunities to find good deals. I typically scan Craigslist when I’m in the market for a new car, and an E46 is no different.
Important Questions to Ask
Ask about what parts have been replaced and ask for receipts, hopefully the seller has them. More specifically, you want to ask about coolant system replacement and suspension parts replacement. You want to get a feel for whether this is going to be a car you are going to have to drop $1000 right out of the gate or not.
Ask the seller about what type of gas he puts in the car. Odd question? Not really, I have seen people put 87 in their BMW for years to save a few bucks. Well, the engine hates it and its a great sign of how well the seller treats the car overall.
Ask whose car was it. If the seller mentions anything about their kids first car I suggest you stay away like that car was the plague. Just think about how you would have driven a BMW at sixteen years old.
Overall, an E46 would make an excellent car for a wide variety of people. For anyone that is interested in purchasing their first BMW, I would recommend the E46 as the best option. Why? Because it is one of BMWs most reliable models with excellent handling, and great looking. Additionally, this is the best time to get one, as the price for these vehicles is typically affordable, and they have not yet gotten to old. In years past I would have recommended an E36 as a starter BMW, but unfortunately they are simply too old at this point for me to give a blanket recommendation on.
The E46 is typically very reliable, however like any BMW if it is not maintained adequately you can expect expensive, premature repairs. If you can find one for the right price and in the right condition, I say get one, you won’t be disappointed!
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