Three Series BMWs have been the mainstay of their brand since the 1980s. Not only has the company built these cars in the tens of millions, they have also served for more than three decades as a major platform for BMW’s motor-sporting success.
The downside of this success and the low prices generated by quite recent cars is serious dilution of BMW’s status and prestige. When young punters in mildly affluent regions of suburbia can spend less than $10K to slap a P Plate on the back end of a 330Ci soft-top you know your brand is trashed – or at best trashy.
The E46 began life in 1997, with the first 328 model cars reaching Australia in 1999. A year later the 330i sedan, 330Ci coupe and convertible were introduced with prices starting at $90,000 and climbing to a quite reasonable $105,000 for the soft-top.
So competitive was the luxury car market of the day that by 2007 when the massively equipped SMG Highline convertible was replaced by a 335 model, its basic price had risen to just $113,000.
The E46 was marginally larger than the E36 range it replaced, sitting on a wheelbase 25mm longer and adding 47mm in body width. Changes to materials used and construction techniques delivered a more rigid body-shell – especially in convertible form – with greater occupant protection in the event of a serious crash.
Coupes are effective as classy, low-cost transport for singles or couples. However the back seat also offers sufficient head and leg-room to accommodate a couple of children in decent comfort. Any with a sunroof steal some head-room but the boot is decent sized for a sporty car.
The M54 straight-six is a nice rather than brutish engine with smooth delivery of its 170kW and strong mid-range acceleration. The downside of this and other BMW engines of similar age is the VANOS variable valve timing system which suffers durability problems as its components age.
Acceleration using the automatic’s Sport mode is brisk – 80-110km/h in 4.5 seconds – and while the manual transmission is undoubtedly more fun when whistling down a mountain pass, 330 owners will spend more time staring at the brake lights of the car ahead than ridiculing advisory speed signs.
BMWs of this age and in this price bracket are still very viable as regular transport, so the more convenience and safety items the better. By the end of its model run in 2006 the Sport Special Edition coupe cost $103,000 and was loaded with items including a television screen and 10-stack Harmon Kardon Premium sound system.
Choosing a 2006 model convertible and spending $14,000 as opposed to $8000 on a similar car built in 2001 will deliver goodies like Xenon headlights, a revamped dash with bigger and more functional display screen, bigger wheels and lower-profile tyres.
In other respects the newer car should be displaying less wear and fewer kilometres. Some older, low kilometre cars are cheap and might appear to be bargains until a specialist starts listing all of the components that have deteriorated so badly due to age that they need replacement.
BODY & CHASSIS Look at bonnet, door and boot-lid alignment and the chassis rails for indications of crash repairs. The front air-dam is vulnerable to kerb damage and cracking so look from low down and feel for any movement that will indicate broken mounts. Rust isn’t usually a problem but early E46s are headed for their 20th birthdays and it’s wise to inspect window apertures, check for bubbling around the sunroof, the wheelarch lips, lower doors and floors. Convertible tops should operate almost silently so creaks or groans as various components change position are indicators that maintenance has been skipped. Look for splits to the fabric or any staining. Worn rear sub-frame mounts can be a source of noise and vibration.
ENGINE & TRANSMISSION Sophisticated engines need proper maintenance. Even a cheap E46 needs to come with service history, otherwise the repair bills could quickly become expensive. If the VANOS system hasn’t been recently replaced (within 40,000km) keep $3000 aside. Overheating and head gasket failure have killed many BMWs and replacing a warped or cracked head and cooling system components can generate bills beyond $8000. Check the engine oil and under the filler cap for coolant contamination and listen for hissing or gurgling from the cooling system after driving. In a manual car back off sharply in second gear to hear any drive-line thumps and floor the throttle at 30-40km/h in top to reveal clutch slip. The five-speed automatic should upshift without jerkng.
NUMBER BUILT: N/A
BODY: all-steel integrated body/chassis two-door coupe or convertible
ENGINE: 2979cc in-line six-cylinder with overhead camshafts and fuel injection
POWER & TORQUE: 170kW @ 5900rpm, 300Nm @ 3500rpm
PERFORMANCE: 0-100km/h 6.9 seconds, 0-400 metres seconds
TRANSMISSION: six-speed manual, five-speed automatic
SUSPENSION: Independent with struts, coil springs, wishbones and anti-roll bar (f) Independent with struts, coil springs, semi-trailing arms and anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: disc (f) disc (r) power assisted with ABS
TYRES: 205/50R17 radial
SUSPENSION & BRAKES A BMW that body rolls, bounces and sends shock waves through the steering wheel is due for some chassis work and that work can be expensive. Replacing suspension struts and rear shock absorbers with quality components will cost $1000+. At the same time it’s advisable to replace aged suspension bushings. Check the power steering unit and hoses for weeping or deterioration. Squealing brakes are a sign that rotors and pads need replacement. If so, spend a bit more initially on components that are going to last (with moderate use) more than the accepted 50,000km.
INTERIOR & ELECTRICS There’s plenty inside an E46 to repair or replace so avoid cars that show noticeable trim wear or faded plastics. Make sure that electric seat adjusters have not frozen from lack of use and that the air-conditioner delivers cold air. Some A/C parts can only be sourced from BMW and are expensive. One feature of these cars was the special and quite complex sound system fitted to later models. Take some time to have the vendor explain how (and if) the various features work. Do the same with the multifunction dash display screen. Replacement headlights are expensive; check for frosted reflectors or cracks.