BY ANDY ENRIGHT
So far ahead of the chasing back was BMW's E46 3 Series when it was first introduced in 1998 that it seemed as if it would enjoy an extended period of dominance. BMW's rivals, however, had other ideas. The facelifted version of the 3 Series saloon and Touring models aimed to keep the model fresh and sales were indeed revitalised but a fresh crop of tough rivals meant that the 3 Series' slice of the compact executive pie was being steadily eroded. This increased competition kept BMW prices manageable and these savings have, in turn, been realised by used buyers of the post 2001 BMW 3 Series. The 3 Series has garnered a reputation as one of the most bulletproof used buys around so although prices are reasonable, don't expect any ridiculous bargains. You get what you pay for, even in these competitive times.
Models Covered: Facelifted E46 3 Series Saloon, Coupe, Touring, Convertible: (316i, 318i, 320i, 320d diesel, 325i, 330i, 330d diesel, M3, M3 CSL)
This generation 3 Series is very much a car defined by the talents of its rivals. First introduced in 1998, it enjoyed some time in the limelight as undisputed market leader until the all-new Mercedes C-Class arrived in 2000. This was rapidly followed by Audi's new A4 and Jaguar's X-TYPE. BMW's response was to introduce a raft of new engines, the 170bhp 2.2-litre 320i and the 192bhp 325i followed by a summer 2001 revision to the styling, steering and suspension set ups of the saloon and touring models. The 318i got a 2.0-litre 143bhp engine whilst the 320d also benefited from a power boost due to new common rail technology. The coupe and convertible models carried on as before. At the same time, the 1.9-litre 316 was quietly dropped from the range. Spring 2002 saw the reintroduction of the 316i, this time round with a worthwhile 115bhp Valvetronic engine. A wider selection of value added ES and Sport versions were added in early 2003 and a stonking 204bhp version of the 3.0-litre diesel was announced, earmarked for the first time to go under the bonnet of the Coupe. A 320cd coupe preceded this version, powered by a 150bhp oil burner, it represented BMW's first foray into the diesel coupe sector. ES value models designed to appeal to private buyers appeared during 2002. The M3 carried on much as before, with the Convertible added in March 2001 but late 2003 saw the introduction of the frighteningly expensive and very specialist M3 CSL lightweight. Early 2004 saw the arrival of an entry-level diesel, the 318d, and later that same year the 320d was added to the Coupe and Convertible ranges. An all new 3-Series saloon appeared in Spring 2005 superseding this model.
What You Get
Owners of the original 1998-vintage car will notice that the curvy headlamps are slightly curvier still on this model. They may also appreciate the revised front grille and deeper front and rear valances, plus the restyled rear light clusters and the way that this car's side repeaters are tucked into the swage line just behind the front wheel. BMW reckon this adds up to a more muscular look. You may disagree. What isn't up for debate is that the current 3 Series benefits from the sweeter suspension settings and steering rack that you'll find in the Compact version, a model much praised for its pin-sharp handling. And sure enough, after a hard drive in this improved 3 Series Saloon, you may wonder how it manages to be so much better than the apparently peerless version that sired it. The answer comes from the surprising direction of the US. Apparently US customers called for lighter steering and softer seating on the 3-Series, and apart from spy planes and Cuban cigars, what the US wants it invariably gets. Until now. Rebellious engineers at BMW decided that they weren't going to be told what to do by portly Americans. On the contrary, it was decreed that from the latest-shape Compact forward, BMWs were going to have proper sporting suspension setups and nigh-on telepathic steering systems. Burkhard Goschel, BMW's Head of Research and Development is the man to thank when you realise quite how comprehensively your shiny new 3 Series thrashes the opposition. The suspension is some 20% stiffer than before, and the steering rack has been quickened while the amount of power assistance has tapered off, giving a greater level of feel and heft at the helm. Sounds good? Just wait until you drive it.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The latest-shape 3 series is still too new for any major problems to show up so check the usual - clocked odometers, body nicks and scrapes, damaged trim, cellphone mounting holes in the dashboard and a cast-iron full BMW dealer service history. It's worth being fussy (avoid dull non-metallic colours, low ex-rep specifications and gloomy interior trim colours) so that, when resale time comes, you'll get a lot more for your part exchange than you might expect. Inspect M3s for crash damage, non-standard parts and evidence that they've been thrashed as track day specials. With the convertible models you'll need to ensure the hood is free from rips or discolouration and that the electric folding mechanism and seals are in tip top shape. Be suspicious of cars that have had many owners in a short time (this could be a sign of ongoing problems). If you really want piece of mind, buy from a BMW dealer - but be prepared to pay the premium.
(approx based on a 318i) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brake pads are around £40, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £100 and a tyre around £40. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
On the Road
Settle behind the wheel and it will feel good to be at the helm of a Three series. The solid, quality feel of the controls and the silky-smooth performance are just right. One of the advantages of buying a well cared for example is that the engine should be nicely run-in, so you can enjoy all of the performance right from the start. Available on the 325i and 330i is an SSG (sports sequential gearbox), a clutchless five-speed 'box based on the M3 model's SMG unit which offers a choice between automated manual modes and the full-on sequential operation. The engines also come in for some attention over the course of their lifetime. The popular 318i, for example, received a 143bhp 2.0-litre unit far superior to the original-fit 118bhp 1.9-litre powerplant. This British-built engine features BMW's revolutionary Valvetronic system, which does away with a conventional throttle in the name of improved economy. As much as 45mpg in fact, which owners of the original 318i will notice is about 10mpg better. This improvement made room for the entry-level 316i model to substantially better fulfil its claim to be part of the 'ultimate' family of driving machines. A 1.8-litre engine is fitted under the bonnet (don't let the '316' moniker fool you) putting out far lower emissions. Canny buyers will enjoy the added value embodied in the ES and Sport versions. As for power output, well 115bhp will probably be enough for most. Granted, you'll still not mistake the 316i for an M3 when the driver drops the hammer but it's good enough for a sprint to 60mph in 10.9 seconds, whilst the top speed climbs to 128mph. This is another of those Valvetronic engines and, as with all such units, the power delivery at first feels slightly hollow, the admirable flatness of the torque curve perhaps making the engine feel a little less punchy than the figures suggest. Next up is the 320d diesel, a car which also saw some useful improvements, with a common-rail system being grafted onto the existing mechanicals, replacing the original direct injection set up. The net result of this is a benefit of 14bhp, the 320d turning out a solid 150bhp and 243lb/ft of torque by the time this 3-Series was replaced. This means that 49.6mpg has now turned into 51.4mpg. That's the same consumption as a 130bhp Audi A4 diesel. It's almost enough to make you question the need for stumping up the extra for the awesome 204bhp six cylinder 330d. Almost, but not quite. This variant remains probably the most impressive car in the mainstream 3-series range Elsewhere, there's the 170bhp 2.2-litre (320i), the 192bhp 2.5-litre (325i) and the range-topping 231bhp 3.0-litre engine (330i) we're all pretty familiar with by now, the latter powerplant being a unit which makes few hanker for an M3 four-door.
Although it's now faced with a more accomplished set of rivals than ever, the main impediment to 3 Series sales is over familiarity. Its excellence means that there are now so many of them on the UK's roads that some may see the 3 Series as lacking exclusivity. Having outsold the Ford Mondeo for some periods in 2003 it would be hard to contest that point. With a great deal of supply from new, picking up a decent used post-2001 3 Series in exactly the trim, colour and condition you require shouldn't be difficult. There's not a weak link in the entire range and reliability has proven very good. It really is hard to go wrong here.