Good things these 3s
For many of us, the E46 remains the classic 3 Series
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.