BMW 3 Series: The Car Bible (E46; 1999-2006)
This BMW was one of the most influential cars of all time.
Welcome to the E46 BMW 3 Series (non-M) Car Bible. Click here if you’re looking for the M3 Bible from this era. Otherwise, if you scroll down you’ll learn all about this vehicle’s qualities, features, finer points, and shortcomings. If you’re thinking about buying one of these, want some help maintaining or modifying one or just want to deepen your knowledge for the next round of car trivia, you’ve come to the right place.
This is a living document that’s updated as we learn (and confirm) new valuable information. Got something to add? Drop a comment or send us an email. Don’t be shy; the more dialogue we have, the better this Car Bible will get.
–Andrew P. Collins, Car Bibles Editor-In-Chief
(Disclaimers, Disclosures: Some Car Bibles will have links to specific forums, groups, brands, shops, or vendors for parts shopping and such. We have no sponsorship deals or official affiliation with any of them unless explicitly stated. We also have to explicitly state that you should work on your own car and follow our advice at your own risk.)
There’s a lot of information packed into this Bible. If you’re looking for something specific, hit command/control-F, type one of these terms, and your browser should bring you straight in.
- The Short Story
- Fast Facts
- Spotter’s Guide
- Check This Car Out If …
- Important Trim Levels and Options
- Year-To-Year Changes
- General Reliability and Ownership Costs
- Red Flags and Known Issues
- Where To Buy Parts
- Aftermarket Support
- Popular Modifications
- Key Technical Details
- Fluids, Filters, and Capacities
- Factory Service Manuals
- Other References and Resources
- Professional Reviews
- Owner Reviews
- What They’re Worth Now
- Where To Find One for Sale
- What To Ask a Seller
- Competitors To Consider
- Photo Galleries
- Enthusiast Inquiries
- Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
- Comments Disclaimer
The Short Story
The 1999-2006 BMW M3 (E46) is a car that is fast becoming a true classic — that is to say it is no longer a modern classic. The last of the lighter, simpler BMW 3 Series, the E46 is now 22 years old in its oldest form and 15 years old at its newest. That makes it far from modern and is now as old as the E30 was when the E46 was new. Because of that, it feels like a classic, especially in the context of what cars (and BMW) have become since this car was a favorite of the auto industry.
This car represents a return to form that was lost on the E36 3 Series. Refinement, luxury, driving dynamics, and fabulous design were poured into the formula for the new 3 Series, and BMW hit a historic home run. The E46 is quoted to this day as a high-water mark for the brand and enjoyed a decently long, highly successful run in production. Even if it isn’t the head honcho M3, the E46 has plenty of surprises and great trim levels for the enthusiast on something of a budget, while having the fundamentals of an excellent driving experience: optional manual gearbox and an inline-six engine on all trim levels for North America.
Here’s a mini non-M E46 gallery to get you going. If you’re looking for more images, scroll down to the Photo Galleries links toward the end of the Car Bible.
The E46 in North America features two families of engines: M52 and M54. The M54 is the predominant engine as a 2.5-liter from 1999 to 2006 and a 3.0-liter from 2001 to 2006. The M52 only exists on the 1999-2000 328i. The M56 is a SULEV version of the M54 with emissions revisions for 50-state regulations, so it doesn’t necessarily count it as a new engine family.
The E46 came in a coupe and sedan variant.
This car enjoyed a single facelift and some technical updates over its lifespan as pre-facelift from 1999 to 2001 and facelift from 2002 to 2006. Facelift cars got some minor technical updates such as a six-speed gearbox for the 330i in 2005, while pre-facelift cars got an engine and steering-rack update in 2001.
The infamous SMG gearbox from the M3 actually was an option on 2003-2006 330i models. It’s rare but not incredibly so, and I’m not sure why you would want it. It features a ZHP shift knob with a silver insert that says SMG.
These cars are actually not difficult to work on and are serviceable by most wrench-inclined enthusiasts. You need a full socket set, some extensions, and an external Torx socket set. Autozone rental tools also substitute well for the specialty tools that everyone talks about, with only minor creativity.
Even these standard non-M E46s suffer from subframe issues, but it is a bit rarer.
Chris Bangle actually worked on the design of this car before he completely took over BMW design for the generation that followed.
The E46 is iconic and easy to spot with some key design features. To identify any E46 at all, look for the L-shaped taillights that became an icon thanks to its inclusion on the E46 M3 in the game called Need for Speed: Most Wanted. The only other 3 Series to have this taillight shape is the 2013-2019 F30, and it was turned upside down on the 2006-2012 E9x.
This is the last 3 Series to feature the iconic four-headlight front end with twin headlights in each assembly and prominent design details to show this off. Later generations used the four circles within the lights, but changed the shape of the light assembly to be look more conventional.
Telling the pre- and post-facelift cars apart is also fairly simple. The corner lights of the pre-facelift cars turn down at the corners and have a rectangular side marker light low on the front fenders. The taillights are lit with incandescent bulbs and are red for the lower two-thirds of the light and amber for the upper portion. The inner rear lights are half clear and half red with the clear reverse lights on the upper portion.
Facelift cars get small but significant updates all around. The headlights assemblies are slightly reprofiled on the coupe and sedan, with the coupe going to a single-piece assembly and the sedan retaining a two-piece. The corners of their respective corner lights and headlights now turn up at the ends. The sedan taillights were updated with a red assembly bisected with an amber stripe that flows cleanly into an amber section on the inner rear lights. The reverse light is a small clear section in the amber of the inner light, while the rest of the inner light is red. Coupes received the surprisingly modern LED taillight assemblies with clear amber turn signals at the tops of the lights and a spiky sort of look to the light surrounds. The hood and kidney grills were reprofiled on both coupe and sedan as well. Finally, the side marker lights were changed to a sharper profile and mounted high on the fenders, terminating a character line that previously extended to the front corner light. Generally speaking, Touring models (wagons) got the same updates as the sedan. The 330i models got silver trim around the headlights, except for ZHP.
Optional packages came with different front and rear bumpers for the full run of the car, with sport package sedans (ZSP option code) getting the M-Tech I bumpers on the sedan, sport package coupes (ZSP) getting the normal E46 bumpers, and performance package (ZHP) sedans and coupes getting M-Tech II aerodynamics. M-Tech I features a large central intake and two round fog lights flanking the opening. M-Tech II has three intakes with the same fog lights within the outer intakes, which also serve as brake ducts.
Besides the number of doors, there are a few quick visual cues that set the coupe and sedan apart. Outside, sedans have black molding that line the perimeter of the car, while coupes don’t have any molding. Inside, coupes have a gray-faced gauge cluster with a sporty skewed font, while sedans have a black-faced gauge cluster with a normal font. ZHP coupe and sedans have a black-faced cluster with orange needles and a 6,750-rpm redline, 250 more than the 6,500 of non-ZHPs.
Not rare at all. BMW hasn’t published any easily read production numbers, but total global E46 production went well into the millions of cars. In the United States, these are not rare cars.
Check This Car Out If …
You’re someone who wants comfort, some space, and a sweetheart engine in one daily-drivable package. It’s a one-car solution, if you will.
Important Trim Levels and Options
There is a decent sprawl of options, colors, interior colors, wheels, and body styles to choose from for the E46. You could get a coupe, convertible, sedan, or wagon. You could also custom order a car via BMW Individual with non-standard options and colors, making for a unique E46. Most, however, came in a normal array of trims with a premium package (ZPP) adding power seats and other luxury items; a sport package (ZSP) adding wheels, dampers, springs, aero, and a nice steering wheel with sport seats; and the rarer performance package (ZHP) that does the ZSP stuff with engine camshafts, unique colors, a six-speed manual gearbox exclusive until 2004, a guaranteed good ratio steering rack that is otherwise available but spotty on ZSPs, and control arms that were later featured on the Z4M.
Most of these cars were made in Silbergrau, Alpine White III, Japan Red, Titanium Silver, and Black Sapphire Metallic. Some came in rarer hues such as Orient Blue, Topaz Blue, and Oxford Green, while ZHPs got their own unique colors shared with the M3: Imola Red II and Mystic Blue. You could still order a huge palette of colors from BMW Individual, so any color is possible. I once saw a Dakar Yellow 325xi Touring.
Sunroof-delete cars are rare and desirable as well. Interior colors in the U.S.-spec models were varied. Black, gray, and beige leather dominate the spectrum, with rare Natural Brown desirable and extremely rare Imola Red coupe interiors being the rarest. ZHPs came with an exclusive Alcantara/cloth interior standard, with black or gray leather optional.
My personal experience with BMW manual gearboxes: long throws like chopsticks in butter and long clutch-pedal travel. A good short-shift kit fixes everything. The long clutch isn’t a problem, and you come to appreciate the smoothness it affords. The manual gearbox is the one to have, with weak automatic transmissions and even weaker SMG gearboxes tanking the value and enjoyment of any E46.
These changes reflect the U.S. market.
1999 model year:
- Car debuts as sedan
- Trim levels: 323i with 2.5-liter M54b25 inline-six, 328i with 2.8-liter M52TUb28 inline-six
2000 model year (Note: Some changes happen midway through 2001.):
- Coupe and convertible called Ci debut
- Wagon called iT debuts
- Key designed revised to “diamond” key design
2001 model year:
- New trim levels: 325i with 2.5-liter M54b25 inline-six, 330i with 3.0-liter M54b30 inline-six
- 323i and 328i dropped
- Mirror memory added to seat memory program
- 2.5-inch single-xenon projector upgraded to 3.0-inch single-Xenon projector
- Steering rack revised: large dealer campaign to replace early steering racks if customer complains of light steering feel for 2001 model year
- New sport steering wheel with circular airbag, similar to M3 wheel
- Twin exit exhaust replaces previous hidden exhaust
- Silver headlight trim for 330i models
- 330i gets slightly larger brakes
- Silver rings on 330i gauges
- Harman/Kardon stereo, power seats, and sport suspension standard on 330i
2002 model year:
- Sedan and wagon facelift: new front fascia, rear bumpers, grill, hood, and taillights
- Revised second-gen navigation screen (6.5 inch)
- Single-xenon projector upgraded to double-xenon
- Sirius pre-wired standard
2003 model year:
- ZHP performance package introduced, six-speed manual only with no premium package in exclusive colors
- BMW Bluetooth pre-wiring standard
- 325i SULEV introduced with M56 engine, meeting stringent 50-state partial-zero emissions standard
- SMG gearbox offered in conjunction with sport package (ZSP)
2004 model year:
- ZHP added for coupe and convertible, made available with premium package (ZPP) and automatic gearbox
- Automatic headlights and rain-sensing wipers standard on all sedan and wagon models
- Coupe and convertible facelift to single-piece headlight and corner-light assemblies, as well as adaptive xenon headlights as standard
2005 model year:
- Lumbar support added to ZPP
- ZHP steering wheel changed from leather or Alcantara to perforated leather
2006 model year:
- Sedan dropped, coupe and convertible only
- Final model year for U.S. market
General Reliability and Ownership Cost
These cars can be perfectly reliable after some maintenance and choice modifications. These are not M3s, so parts are actually shockingly affordable and decent. Although you may buy one and spend a few hundred dollars up front on some minor housekeeping, you won’t lose your wallet on a decent example of E46.
Like any other car, however, a bad example can leave you broke and stranded. These cars are old enough now that you should be buying on condition and inspection; service history is nice but not imperative to the car. Generally, these cars will tell you what’s wrong visually or audibly, with the common leaks and mechanical issues well documented and easy to spot.
Honestly, if you do the right things at the right time, these cars can be relatively inexpensive to run for a German rear-wheel-drive sport sedan, even less than $1,000 a year with proper preventative maintenance.
The E46 platform is ultimately a massive evolution of the original E30 concept. The front suspension is highly similar, especially in the non-M cars, where the M3 has had some work done to change geometries.
These cars have a nifty feature shared with some other BMWs: The center vents feature a dial with color coded dots from three blue dots all the way to three red dots to represent temperature coming out of the center vents. The automatic climate control doesn’t control this, so you can set cold air to come out of the center vents while the car warms your feet. It’s an excellent and classic BMW feature.
If the gauge cluster has been swapped or mileage has been changed, there is a small “tamper dot” that appears in between the total mileage and trip mileage on the gauge cluster. Sometimes the car can trigger the fault by accident, but it’s generally a sign of bad things.
Red Flags and Known Issues
The E46 M3’s common issues are well-known and documented. Luckily, they’re pretty easily identified as well.
Look out for:
Rear subframe issues. Strictly speaking, the subframe isn’t what tears; it’s the actual unibody structure of the car itself. This can usually be felt by some looseness and the alignment (straightness of the wheel) changing over some wavy or cambered road surfaces, as well as some almighty creaking and clunking.
VANOS problems. Beware of these. VANOS is a variable valve-timing system meant to improve drivability and economy. It stands for Variable Nockenwellen Steuerung. On these more basic 3 Series models, VANOS seals can fail causing engine oil to leak past the VANOS sprockets, which will cause it to malfunction. The mechanicals of the system can fail, too, causing a rattle under load at around 3,000 rpm, which will progressively get worse.
DISA valve failure. This one can be innocuous or cause an engine failure. The DISA is BMW’s version of a variable-length intake manifold, actuated by a flap in the intake manifold. It bolts on to the right-hand side of the intake with two bolts and looks like a box. The flap mechanism inside can fail without warning, and a metal pin can fall into the intake of the engine, bending valves and eating a motor. DISA failure is often associated with a loss of low-end torque and a rattle in the engine bay.
CCV system failure. The M54 has a complicated air-oil separator and PCV system, combined into one system called the Crank Case Ventilation system (CCV). Excessive oil consumption is a giveaway, though these cars naturally consume a healthy amount of oil. The CCV also fails from age and vacuum leaks, causing other problems.
Suspension and driveline bushing wear. These cars have a variety of rubber bushings that fail fairly regularly. Look out for wandering steering associated with a failed steering coupler, extreme tramlining caused by failed rear trailing-arm bushings, and loose steering caused by failed front control-arm bushings. Transmission mounts, driveshaft center support bearing and guibo, and the main rear differential bushing wear regularly and cause a “thump” when shifting into gears.
Soft MAF sensor failure. This is another cause of lean codes, and the MAF will read low in the OBD2 data. A good MAF will read about 3.8-4.0 grams per second. Pro tip: Use only the VDO/Siemens MAF. I tried the Delphi on my car and it ran insanely rich, even at its $300 price point. Spend the extra dough and get a VDO, that is the only MAF the car will accept and work correctly with.
Vacuum leaks. The E46 is heavily prone to various vacuum leaks. The intake boots and piping get brittle and crack easily, as well as the vacuum connector on the upper intake boot. The DISA valve gasket can go bad as well, and the CCV system can cause leaks too. It’s best to get a smoke tester to find all of these issues before spending big bucks on the wrong parts. This is usually associated with a P0171 and P0174 code.
Electrical Issues. Look out for electrical problems. These cars have a full array of sensors to keep the engine happy, and they fail with some regularity. BMWs also tend to eat coil packs every 60,000 miles.
Xenon headlight burnt reflector. On E46s equipped with Xenon headlights from ZKW, they have a tendency to burn the reflector in the projector, causing light output to dwindle and eventually disappear altogether. Keep an eye out for the ZKW headlights by looking at the projector: ZKWs have a clear glass one, and Bosch AL have a line through the middle.
Oil Leaks. BMW oil seals are generally garbage. Look out for leaks with the oil-pan gasket, valve-cover gasket, the oil-filter-housing gasket, and oil dipstick tube.
The E46 3 Series has six recalls documented on the NHTSA website. Most relate to the Takata airbags the car is equipped with, and one relating to an inconsistency with the amber side markers. We encourage you to get the airbag recall fix immediately.
Key Technical Details
328i: M52TUb28, 24 direct-actuated valves, inline-six with intake single-VANOS variable valve timing, longitudinally mounted. 10.2:1 compression. Run by BMW/Siemens MS 42 engine management. Aluminum block with aluminum heads, coil-on-plug direct ignition.
323i/325i: M54b25, 24 direct-actuated valves, inline-six with dual-VANOS variable valve timing, longitudinally mounted. Variable intake manifold. 10.5:1 compression. Run by BMW/Siemens MS 45 engine management. Aluminum block with aluminum heads, coil-on-plug direct ignition.
330i: M54b30, 24 direct-actuated valves, inline-six with dual-VANOS variable valve timing, longitudinally mounted. Variable intake manifold. 10.2:1 compression. Run by BMW/Siemens MS 43 engine management. Aluminum block with aluminum heads, coil-on-plug direct ignition.
Five-speed manual: ZF GS5-39BZ
Six-speed manual: ZF GS6-37BZ (THEG)
Automatic: GM 5L-40E five-speed automatic or ZF 5HP19 five-speed automatic
Drivetrain: Front engine, rear-wheel drive, with open rear differential
Suspension: Front MacPherson strut suspension, forged-aluminum control arms
Rear semi-trailing arm suspension with forged-aluminum upper control arm
Wheelbase: 107 in; 2720 mm
176.0 in (4,470 mm) sedan
176.4 in (4,480 mm) wagon
176.8 in (4,490 mm) coupe/convertible
2,833–3,649 lb (1,285–1,655 kg) sedan
3,009–3,935 lb (1,365–1,785 kg) wagon
2,833–3,428 lb (1,285–1,555 kg) coupe
3,230–3,605 lb (1,465–1,635 kg) convertible
OEM tire size:
323i/325i: 205/55R-16 square
328i standard: 205/55R-16 square
328i sport: 225/45R-17 square
330i standard: 205/50R-17 front, 225/45R-17 rear
330i ZSP: 225/45R-17 front, 245/40R-17 rear
330i ZHP: 225/40R-18 front, 255/35R-18 rear
Fluids, Filters, And Capacities
Fuel: 91 AKI minimum octane (premium)
Engine oil: The factory recommends 5W-30 or 5W-40 for warmer climates. 10,000 mile interval.
Battery size: H6
Oil filter: Genuine oil filters don’t seem to be available anymore. A good alternative is the Mahle 11427512300 Change every 10,000 miles with engine oil.
Air filter: OEM part number: BMW-13721744869. Change every 30,000, as recommended by BMW.
Cabin air filter: OEM part number: 64-31-9-257-504. Change every 30,000 or after any extreme air-quality events like wildfires, as recommended by BMW.
Transmission Oil: BMW MTF-LT-4, 75W-90, or Red Line D4 ATF is the popular enthusiast alternative. Any GL-4 75W-90 fluid will work for SMG and manual, but look at the sticker on the passenger side of the transmission to be sure. 30,000-mile interval.
Transmission filter: Not applicable.
Differential oil: 75W-90 gear oil. 30,000-mile interval.
Coolant: BMW G-11 blue coolant. Zerex G-48 also works, but genuine BMW coolant is best to maintain pH and phosphate levels. Two-year interval or as needed.
Power-steering fluid: BMW OEM Pentosin fluid, part number 83-29-0-429-576. ATF Dexron III or VI for some models. Non-service item.
Brake fluid: DOT4 brake fluid, Motul RBF600/RBF660 is a great fluid for a sturdy pedal. BMW interval is every two years or as needed.
Clutch fluid: DOT4 brake fluid, Motul RBF600/RBF660 can be used. Usually not serviced.
Spark plugs: Original spark plug is an NGK BKR6EQUP. Interval every 60,000 miles.
Where To Buy Parts
We recommend FCP Euro for E46 parts shopping. They have specialists on the other end of the phone, access to every BMW-specific part, and the added bonus of easy DIY kits for most minor and major M3 service.
ECS Tuning is very useful as a parts catalog to pull part numbers and cross reference, but we don’t recommend them because of shipping and quality woes.
Don’t be afraid to call your local BMW dealer parts counter for some help with part numbers too. Of course, OEM parts from the desk are rarely inexpensive.
The E46 has a colossal aftermarket. Twenty years of road racers, auto-crossers, factory racing support, and legendary status in the car community has driven development of every part imaginable.
There are off-the-shelf drift angle and road-race suspension kits for this car, and every coilover manufacturer has a model for the E46. Engine mods are a little bit tougher, however, requiring forced induction like a supercharger or turbocharger to make real power. There are minimal gains to be had by modifying the M54 or M52.
Even better, the E46 aftermarket bubble drove the development of parts to fix every one of the E46s shortcomings. Upgraded VANOS kits, easy DIY subframe reinforcement kits, and upgraded suspension bushings, and borrowing parts from the Z4M and M3, everything is possible with the E46.
Most folks upgrade the crusty old bushings and mounts on their cars with polyurethane for easy install and long service life. I have my own feelings about that, and I recommend going OEM or strategically choosing suspension components to harden.
On my 2004 ZHP, I bought Moog K200786 sealed spherical joints from a Camry to replace my old and tired rear trailing-arm bushings. My car rode better on spherical joints, tracks straighter, and handles better. I also installed BMW Z4M bushings on the front lower control arms to replace the worn out poly, and it rode better and handled better thanks to the offset Z4M bushing giving the suspension more caster.
The best way to modify the E46 is to respect how the car came from the factory and do small improvements to personalize the car. These cars are getting old, and parts are cheap. It doesn’t cost much money to replace the old rubber driveline parts to get a fresh, tight feeling car.
As with any E46, deleting the clutch delay valve is a no-cost mod that fixes the weird clutch feel that can happen with these cars. There’s no downside, and it only helps increase clutch feel. The stock delay valve is dumb and feels dumb.
Factory Service Manuals
The Bentley Service Manual is considered the gold standard in E46 reference texts. As of Feb. 8, 2021, you could access it here.
If that link’s dead, try Google or buy a hard copy. We mentioned FCP Euro earlier. That site sells it for about $112. The book’s model number is B305 if you want to look around used-book sites too.
An unofficial reference text that gets linked to a lot on BMW forums is the Mike Miller Maintenance Schedule. It has a comprehensive rundown of, you guessed it, what to change out and when.
Other References and Resources
“2000 BMW 330Ci and 330xi” (Car and Driver, August 2000)
Frank Markus at C/D welcomed the more powerful 330i after a lukewarm reception to the 325i’s gutless powerplant.
“That’s the long story. The short story is that the new 3.0-liter gives back to the E46 3 Series the snarl and visceral thrill that we loved in its E36 forebear. A less-restrictive exhaust system allows more of its urgent, mellifluous music to reach the driver’s ear during whole-hog acceleration. And indeed the 330Ci accelerates harder: BMW claims it will reach 60 mph in 6.4 seconds with a stick, which is 0.2 second quicker than in a similar 328Ci. Our keisters, perhaps in cahoots with our delighted ears, registered a bigger boost as the 330Ci surged toward heroic autobahn speeds. A bonus: Preliminary tests suggest that 330Ci fuel economy will be as good as or better than the 328Ci’s.”
“2004 BMW 330i with Performance Package” (Car and Driver)
Tony Swan at C/D was favorable towards what is now known as the ZHP but not as excited as we are today.
“On the subjective front, firmer suspension tuning, lower-profile tires, and reduced (by 0.6 inch) ride height add up to responses that are quicker than the base 330i’s. The distinction isn’t vast — a little less body roll, a little more enthusiasm in brisk direction changes — but it’s noticeable. And the tuners have managed to achieve this without any real sacrifice in comfort. None of your hard-edged M3 ride here. Of course, there’s none of your hard-edged M3 go power, either.”
Here we’ll share observations and opinions from people who have actually owned these cars. You get a special treat in this particular Bible. Zack Klapman (of The Smoking Tire, Hagerty, and other cool car programs) was kind enough to give us a comprehensive rundown of his E46 M3 experience to date.
Chris Rosales, Car Bibles Staff (Aug. 25, 2021)
2004 BMW 330i ZHP manual; lightly modded; owned for one month and 2003 BMW 330i ZHP manual, lightly modded, owned for one year
“Experiencing the same car twice on two different sides of how popular that car is, as well as two different sides of how you’ve evolved as a person, is one of the biggest mind games you can do to yourself.
The first night I brought my second ZHP home, in my dream color of Mystic Blue, I almost felt like I was reckoning with myself and my memory. Somehow, this car didn’t drive in the transcendent way that my old white ZHP did. Was it the car not being as good as I remember, or was it me?
To be frank, I was much younger and more afraid to do major work on my cars when I had the white ZHP. It had many flaws but somehow did a lot of things right. I’ve had my Mystic Blue for about a month now, and I’m learning that the car is as good as I remember, but my tastes have changed.
Parts are cheap, so I fixed a variety of issues with the suspension and vacuum leaks with much pleasure. These cars are fun and easy to work on, with room to do most of the minor stuff that the car will need during its lifetime. The parts are some of the cheapest of any European car I’ve seen, thanks to mass aftermarket support from decent companies charging less than half what the BMW badged stuff does.
Sorting this car has been a joy, and while I was lukewarm initially because I thought I outgrew the experience of the car, I’ve come to appreciate how special these BMWs are. They’re from a time when BMW cared about making a car drive well no matter the trim level, before they dropped the inline-six for lower models, before they made a front-wheel-drive sedan, and before they stopped being a driving instrument. These cars are one for the ages.”
Own or owned one of these and want to share your thoughts? Hit up in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
What They’re Worth Now
The prime example: You’re looking at about $20,000. This is for a primo color combo ZHP, low miles, one-owner, full service history, and no issues whatsoever. While this is overpriced, the market seems to peak out around here.
A very clean driver: Budget about $12,000-$15,000 for a ZHP. These cars have decent miles, but are serviced well, cosmetically 9/10, and well cared for with some road grime. This is what I call the Goldilocks Zone, where the car has been driven and sorted but well loved. This is also well within the budget for a great color combo
An honest car: Budget $7,000-$8,000. These cars will have driver miles, 100,000 plus. Service history will be mostly there, and ideally it’ll be a two-owner car. This pricing is mostly for ZHPs, but you can get the world’s cleanest 330i ZSP for this money, closer to a prime example.
The budget option: $4,000-$6,000 will get you a beat-up ZHP or a reasonable 330i ZSP. There will be multiple owners and many miles (more than 150,000) but you can find a great option in this price range.
A roach: Anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 will get you a pretty rough E46 330i, 328i, 325i, or 323i that will require most of the major repairs. These cars are high performance and often crashed, so beware an accident history and bodywork. Miles will be in excess of 200,000, andyou’ll mostly be looking at a lot of convertibles and basket cases.
Where to Find One for Sale
These cars are old enough that Craigslist is a great option for the more midrange quality of an E46. Plenty of options will be on CL.
If you’re looking for pristine examples, Bring-A-Trailer and Cars & Bids will be your best options; they cater to an enthusiast demographic. But since their reach is big, you can expect a good crop of competition on the buy. E46s are popular enthusiast cars, so once one pops up on a big auction site it’s unlikely to fly under the radar and sell for cheap.
Generally, you won’t find any reasonably priced ones on the larger search engines such as KBB, AutoTrader, or AutoTempest. Dealer lots seem to ask exorbitant amounts for these cars, and they do not have the best examples. Steer clear.
What to Ask a Seller
Go-to questions should include:
• Are there any strange suspension noises? (This is to discover a subframe problem without directly alerting an owner to what you’re asking and causing them to try to hide it.)
• Does the car show a check engine light? (You should generally ask this, but most shining check-engine lights on an M3 are bad news.)
• How much oil does the car consume? (It’s rare that you’ll get an honest answer here, but sometimes you will. M3s are known to consume some oil naturally.)
• Has the VANOS been repaired? (Best to ask this one directly. Usually an enthusiast will know, and a flipper won’t.)
Generally speaking, you should drive the car and rate it based on condition rather than service history. Be keen about how the car tramlines on the test drive, see if it tracks straight, has vague, light steering, and if it idles roughly. All point to the most common E46 problems.
Competitors To Consider
Direct competitors include the Acura RSX Type S, 2006-2011 Honda Civic Si, Mk 5 and Mk 6 Volkswagen GTi, and Lexus IS 300. This car does exist in a wide price bracket, so it basically competes with everything used and still competes with the Audi A4 and Mercedes C Class for lower-end E46s.
But the true M3 image treasure trove, and an endless source of entertainment for any BMW fan, is at the official BMW Grouparchive online archive. You’ll have to activate a translator if you don’t speak German, but a cursory search for E46 on that site returned 478 images. That should keep you busy for a while.
The E46 is in every video game you can imagine and even has a cameo in Grand Theft Auto IV as the Ubermacht Sentinel XS.
The 330i ZHP has a role in a Netflix special called “Wheelman.”
Revered R&B artist Frank Ocean owns a Silbergrau E46 M3 coupe with a CSL front bumper and can be seen rarely in Los Angeles. He also has an S54-swapped E30.
Musician Tyler, The Creator also loves the BMW E46 M3 and shouts the car out specifically in his song “Tamale” with the line “Tryna get a Bimmer, E46. Have you heard 48? Motherf***a, I’m great.” He also has an entire song called “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” that specifically references his former BMWs.
Every car has a collection of common questions that pop up in forums and Facebook groups whenever new blood joins in. We hope a lot of those have been answered above, but if we see specific questions pop up regularly, we’ll revisit them here.
Downloadable Paperback Car Bible
If you’re old school and like to keep reference notes on paper, or you’re just a completionist and want a free accessory for your E46, we’ll have a printable paperback bible version soon.
Think of it like an owner’s manual supplement. Keep it in your car, and your days of waiting for slow internet on your phone at the auto parts store are over.
You’ve reached the end of the E46 BMW 3 Series Car Bible and are about to scroll into the comment section. If any questions were left unanswered in the text above, try posing it in the space below. Helpful tips are also welcome.