Good things th­ese 3s

For many of us, the E46 re­mains the clas­sic 3 Se­ries

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Used Car - GRA­HAM SMITH gra­ham.smith@cars­


BMW’s 3-Se­ries was a pres­tige model tan­ta­lis­ingly within reach of peo­ple who wanted to move up from lo­cal mod­els but couldn’t af­ford the huge step up to a big­ger Beemer or Benz.

The low­est model on the 3-Se­ries totem pole might have only had a mod­est four-cylin­der engine but it had a blue and white spin­ner badge and that was enough for many buy­ers. The E46 se­ries was a marked step up in size and shape from the ear­lier E36, its pro­por­tions were more gen­er­ous.

But it de­liv­ered the same solid drive ex­pe­ri­ence. It felt planted on the road, the steer­ing was re­as­sur­ing, the ride firm with­out be­ing un­com­fort­able, and the en­gines were smooth and gen­er­ally re­spon­sive. The range be­gan with the four-cylin­der 318i, which was

gen­er­ally panned by re­view­ers for be­ing bor­ing. Rel­a­tive to the six­cylin­der mod­els, that crit­i­cism might have had some merit, but viewed alone the four stacks up solidly against its ri­vals with de­cent per­for­mance around town and on the high­way and quite ac­cept­able fuel econ­omy.

The rest of the range was pow­ered by the mar­vel­lous BMW six-cylin­der engine in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties and out­puts, from the 2.2-litre at the lower end to the siz­zling M3 atop the pole. A choice of man­ual five and later sixspeed and five-speed auto was of­fered. A se­quen­tial man­ual was the pop­u­lar choice for the M3.

The lev­els of equip­ment var­ied enor­mously from the 318i to the M3. The base 318i was rea­son­ably well equipped though it didn’t have cruise con­trol. To get that you had to step up to the 318i Ex­ec­u­tive.


Gen­er­ally well built, the 3 Se­ries has stood up over time. The body re­mains solid and rarely de­vel­ops squeaks and rattles, the han­dling re­mains true and re­spon­sive and the en­gines con­tinue to de­liver the same fluid, smooth per­for­mance even when they’ve reached high kays.

For that rea­son they can be a lit­tle de­ceiv­ing. They might drive and per­form im­pres­sively but they can de­velop is­sues as the clicks climb that can be ex­pen­sive to re­pair.

BMW en­gines gen­er­ally don’t burn oil and they give lit­tle trou­ble but they are known to leak oil. The leaks are usu­ally picked up at ser­vice time.

The plas­tics BMW uses in and around the engine, par­tic­u­larly in the cool­ing sys­tem and engine ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem, be­come brit­tle with age and even­tu­ally crum­ble. Most me­chan­ics re­port that once one goes it’s a good idea to re­place all the fit­tings be­cause they’ll all go. Re­plac­ing them in one fell swoop avoids the ex­pense of re­peated trips back to the work­shop.

Ra­di­a­tors are an­other weak­ness and can be ex­pen­sive to re­place. In­stru­ment clus­ters and air­con con­trol panels are known to burn out, re­quir­ing re­place­ment.

Brakes are also an is­sue, the 3 Se­ries tends to go through pads and discs ev­ery 50,000km or so. Cheaper af­ter­mar­ket parts are avail­able to help keep the cost down.

If you’re con­tem­plat­ing buy­ing an E46 with more than 100,000km on the clock, think about hav­ing a BMW spe­cial­ist me­chanic check it for you, it could save a lot of heartache later on. It’s also well worth get­ting to know a BMW spe­cial­ist me­chanic to keep your car run­ning smoothly with­out cost­ing you a for­tune.

On the plus side even older, high mileage 3 Se­ries are com­fort­able and drive smoothly.


Gen­er­ally sound but can be ex­pen­sive as the kays climb. Shop with care.

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