BMW introduced the E46 3-series in 1999 as a replacement for the ageing E36 3 series sedans, coupes and convertibles (which had been in existence for nearly the whole of the 1990s).
First launched as sedans with either 1.8 liter, 2.3 liter or a 2.8 liter engine, the E46 heralded of what automotive experts hailed as a benchmark for what compact luxury/performance cars should be like at the dawn of the 21st century.
The design for both the exterior and the interior of the E46 along with on-board technology was inspired by its older brother, the E39 5 series which was already receiving positive reviews when it launched in 1997 and soon after the launch of the sedan, the coupe and convertibles were released in 2000 while the range topping M3 made its debut in 2001 as a coupe and convertible.
The BMW E46 even now is regarded as one of the best handling and toughest 'Bimmers' in its class to even this date. What makes this series special is that it showcased one of the most compact and sporty setups and designs since probably the days of the BMW E30 3-series (1983-1990), it was the last 3-series to be built entirely at their plant in Regensburg in Germany (The E90 and current F30 Sedans are produced manufactured in South Africa) and their coupes were the last of any BMWs to offer the traditional 5 seat capacity while offering a very sporty and compact 2-door driving experience for its occupants (Successive 3 series coupes, the E92 and the current F32 are bigger but only offer 4 seats).
The production run for the E46 lasted from 1999 through to 2006 (with some rare M3's being produced in 2007 as well), which makes even the youngest cars of this series nearly 7-8 years old. Still, in terms of sheer looks and driver experience, the E46 coupes and cabriolets can still turn heads and they're bound to go down in automotive history as a classic everybody would desire.
The looks of the E46 coupes and cabriolets were in fact so popular, that after popular demand the Bavarian car marker decided to launch a coupe and cabriolet version of the 1 Series (including a limited edition 1M, inspired by and even built using the rear axle from the E46 M3 and sporting a traditional 6 cylinder, 3 liter setup instead of the V8 the E92 M3 was using).
As a late model E46 coupe owner myself, I thought I'd write a little more about this series and also explain what one needs to be mindful of if they plan on owning and maintaining these works of art and technology.
BMW E46 M3 review on Fifth Gear
Models and Packages
Introduced in 1999, the BMW E46 was initially sold as a sedan as a 318i (4 cylinders), a 323i (2.3 liter 6 cyclinders) and a 328i (2.8 liter 6 cylinders) before the coupe made its debut in the year 2000.
There were a couple of diesel models sold too (including a 3 liter turbo diesel) and after a bit of a production overhaul in 2001-2002, the 2.3 liter engines were replaced with a 2.5 liter engine while the 2.8 liter engine was replaced with a 3.0 liter petrol engine, developing 240 hp of power. By the end of its production run in 2006-2007, the following petrol models had been manufactured:
323i/323Ci/325i/325Ci (Sedan/Coupe/Convertible - the 2.3 liter engine was replaced by the 2.5 liter setup in 2001-2002)
328i/328Ci/330i/330Ci (Sedan/Coupe/Convertible - The 2.8 liter engine had been replaced by the 3 liter straight 6 by 2002)
M3 (3.2 liter Straight-6) (Coupe/Convertible) - The last E46 M3's were manufactured in 2007.
*A limited run 'hatch' version was also manufactured between 1999 and 2003 sporting a 1.8 liter 4 cylinder setup (labeled as the 318Ti) - the model was however discontinued due to lack of demand.
Technologically, the E46 boosted a significant step up from the outgoing E36 and it was the first series in its class to offer automatic headlamps, DVD Navigation, a massive overhaul of materials used within the engine compartment (where a lot of steel was replaced with more lightweight Aluminium and plastics) and a 6 CD/DVD changer (which at the time was quite a new thing) - The E46 also used LED lighting heavily as against any other car of its class which made expensive bulb replacements a thing of the past, while boasting more sensors for practically every little function (including lights and tyre pressure warnings) as against the Mercedes C Class or the Audi S4, putting the driver in complete control of how the car behaved and to address any issues which might crop up.
After an upgrade in production runs, buyers were able to install packages like the ZHP/ZCP (on the 330 models only) and the Hi-Line and M-Sport packages (all coupes and convertibles) which included an upgrade of the stereo system to a 8 speaker Harman/Kardon, TV/Bluetooth functionality (The odd bit about the bluetooth console being you had to get rid of the cup-holders in the centre console between the front seats), Battery in the boot, M-sport steering wheels, customized wooden trim on the dashboard and leather interiors.
The 330 petrol models also came equipped with Xenon headlamps and besides the M3, was the only model to do so apart from coming equipped with a stiff M-sport suspension as standard rather than being available only if one purchased the M-Sport body kit.
BMW M3 (E46)
The BMW M3-E46 was launched in 2001 (with the convertible version following a year later until 2007) and was met with universal acclaim from auto experts - thanks to its hard, angry and compact look, which made it fierce on the track and equally practical as a daily drive in urban and highway settings.
Sporting a 3.2. liter engine with 6 cylinders and developing 340 hp of power, the M3-E46 was considered the best compact luxury sports saloon when it practically began dominating most touring car championships for much of the 00's. What also made the BMW M3 E46 unique is that it was available in probably best color combinations available on any car of its class, including the iconic and still head-turning 'Laguna Seca Blue' and 'Phoenix Yellow'.
The taut M3-E92 differed from the 330Ci E46 in that it offered 19 inch flared wheels, buffed up leather interiors, a 6-speed manual stick or an SMG/Paddle shift gearbox apart from the usual technological refinements including bluetooth, TV, sunroof as standard (which was replaced by a carbon-fiber roof on the M3 CSL), M Sport-Body kit, DVD Navigation and 6 CD Changer.
Despite the newest M3-E46 being over 7 years old, this car still looks as deadly as it did when it was new and can out run its successor (The E92 M3) in terms of styling and looks alone.
BMW M3 CSL (E46) review on Top Gear UK
Maintenance Costs, Pros and Cons
Like any German premium car brand, maintaining any BMW does come at a price but if you do look after your car and take the time to undertake some preventive maintenance, you'll save yourself both time and money to replace parts when and if they do fail.
Like any other car, the parts in a BMW do eventually show signs of wear and tear and the E46 is no different in that regard.
The E46 3 series was the last BMW in its class which required 3 stages of servicing (before the introduction of conditional servicing on the E90/E92/E93 and onward).
Typically, one needs to alternate an oil change and 'Inspection-1' every 10,000 kms while the major service known as the 'Inspection-2' (which essentially includes replacing the spark-plugs, air cleaner element and differential oil change on top of the Inspection-1) needs to be performed preferably once every 50,000 kms - The Inspection-2 can be significanly more expensive as compared to an Inspection-1 and Oil Change due to significantly more labor required to perform the Inspection-2. An Inspection-2 can also cost in excess of $700.00 (in America) while Australian dealers charge roughly $1,500.00 AUD for the same. Other parts which do need scheduled replacing are the brake pads which thanks to the E46's aggressive driving posture, do need to be changed say every 30,000-40,000 kms. When replacing the brakes, its important to not let the pads thin out to the point that the actual disc or the drum begins making contact with the wheel as is this could mean an expensive replacement for the entire disc/drum and pad (usually not covered under warranty).
Hence, if possible, it is best to service your E46 at an independent but certified Euro-specialist who are usually factory trained and can do the job in half the price.
Pros and Cons
The E46 has widely been considered as one of the most reliable Bimmers ever manufactured with some owners of early models reporting absolutely no problems or significant drops in performance even if the car had travelled in excess of 100,000 miles - the engine, serpentine belt (as against the timing belt), electronics, Xenon headlamps and LED lights have been proven as being virtually bullet-proof. However, the E46 had been plagued with some perennial problems as reported by its owners worldwide. Being a E46 325Ci owner and enthusiast myself, the following main issues are what one must be wary of when owning this car - As a general advice, it is always best to take out extended warranty if the car's manufacturer's warranty has run out.
Problems can include failure of the windshield washer pump to the rear-subframe cracking (a problem almost endemic to the 323i/Ci and 328i/Ci models) but I've made a list of the top 5 most common issues almost every E46 owner faces at some point of time or the other -
The cooling system within the E46 3 series (and also the E39 5 series) was considered to be this car's Achilles Heel. thanks to the heavy use of plastic and rubber in these cars to save weight. While that helps with driving dynamics, someone in BMW obviously didn't realize that when you mate those plastics to a fiery high-revving engine, they eventually will heat up to the point they would crack.
The issue primarily targets one of the radiator hoses which begins leaking coolant - over time if the hose is not fixed, it WILL eventually disintegrate, draining all the coolant within seconds, giving the driver very little time to pull over and stop before the engine overheats and risks getting a blown gasket and warped cylinder heads - the expense to repair the latter usually being nothing less than a fortune. It is usually best to replace the water pump and hoses to ensure your cooling system runs worry-free and parts are usually covered under warranty (factory or extended).
A very common problem which always (and still does) plague many E46 BMWs (and even the 1 Series) is that over time, the window regulator which helps power the windows up or down begin acting up - the telltale signs of these being that one would hear a very distinct clicking or 'crunching' sound every time the window's lowered or raised. Window regulators can be expensive due to the labor time involved but warranties usually cover these - the moment you hear signs that a regulator's acting up, get them repaired and replaced.
Another common problem for aged E46 BMWs was the wear and tear of the engine's idler pulley, which essentially is a vital component around which the serpentine belt of the engine spins at rapid rates of revolution given the 6 cylinder setups can rev up to almost 7,000 RPM under aggressive driving conditions. Once the Idler Pulley begins to lose its fluidic surface, it begins to 'squeal' and give out a persistent and annoying 'whistle'. Under any conditions, do not ever ignore this tell tale sign. A whistling idler pulley will eventually go free, resulting in your belt to snap and the car seizing up on the road almost instantly, giving rise to expensive repairs to replace both the belt, the idler and both tension-er pulleys. As a pulley and belt is considered a 'wear and tear' item, they're usually not covered under any extended warranty so replacing these due to the labor involved can be very expensive.
The interior panel-trim cloth was famous for eventually peeling off the pillars in E46 BMW's over time, especially if the car was driven or parked in hot and humid climates or was driven a lot with the windows lowered down. Some DIY enthusiasts choose to replace or glue the panels on their own as its not a tough job however BMW recommends replacing the trim instead (which again is not very expensive but can still cost in excess of $500.00 USD to do all A, B and C Pillars).
Transmission Oil Leaks/ Engine Pan Gasket:
Last but definitely not the least, the E46 3 Series overtime have been known to begin leaking engine oil and transmission fluid due to the slow disintegration of the wiring seal and a faulty pan gasket - Luckily, despite the excess labor needed to fix it, many warranties usually cover this so if during a regular service you're told that your car's leaking oil and transmission fluid, get it fixed straight away. Leaking transmission fluid for example over time will eventually seize up the transmission of the car which will cost in excess of $5,000.00 to replace and almost certainly won't be covered under any insurance/warranty policy.
BMW E46 Problems
So here it is, my snapshot of praise and acknowledgement of issues which one can face when owning a E46 BMW.
Overall, I still rate this series highly thanks to its sporty and compact stature and maneuverability and the fact that by owning a E46 3 series (especially if its an M3 or in general a coupe or a convertible), you'll be buying not just a car but what one can claim is still the benchmark in compact performance and luxury motoring backed by sound German engineering.