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BMW E46 Three Series


The E46 replaced the hugely popular E36 three series in 1998 and had a tough act to follow, initially only the saloon was available. As is now the established pattern the coupe, touring and cabriolet followed a year or two later. The three door Compact model was never sold in north America, sales of the E36 Compact had been disappointing in the USA - mainly due to a the attitude of the dealer network to this cheaper model.


BMW E46 323i

1998 323i SE saloon, one of the first UK cars.

It followed the design of the E36 in most areas. Styling now had an element of Chris Bangle's "flame surfacing" and the headlights were of a more organic design. It was still meant to look muscular and energetic from all angles but the design divided enthusiast's opinion. Many people, myself included, felt that the car didn't look enough like older BMWs and wasn't different enough from many cheaper cars on the market. This is even more the case since many south east asian companies have copied elements of it's design. Many especially disliked the way the bonnet wrapped over the kidney grills like the Z3. Personally I think the coupe looks much better than the saloon. That said the design has aged well.

The interior of the E46 departed considerably from older models. The centre console was flatter and no longer angled towards the driver. There seemed to be more of a minimalist approach to the design, although perhaps it was just a more elegant way of placing the controls. The multi-function steering wheel on later cars was a new development for BMW and worked well. Materials were better than the E36 but the design seemed a little blander to many drivers. Sadly this was to be a trend followed by subsequent models, especially the Z4 which has a horrid interior design.

There was a face lift in 2002. The main changes were the design of the headlights, mirrors, bumpers and more chassis refinements. The convertible and coupe were revised in 2004.


BMW E46 325i touring

My 325i Sport touring with 18" BBS alloys.

Early road tests commented than the new model wasn't as fun to drive as the car it replaced. They said it felt remote from the road and a bit soft, for the first time a Mercedes C class bet BMW in the handling category of some road tests! A very sad state of affairs which could not be allowed to continue. In September 98 and again in September 2001 changes were successfully made to the steering and suspension. My own 2002 Sport is a superb handler but I've driven early E46s which most certainly let the side down.

BMW's engines have always been it's strong point and the E46 was no exception. The range featured some ground breaking and highly innovative designs. The E36 had been available with 4 and 6 cylinder turbo diesel engines (M41 and M51) but for the new car BMW developed two marvelous new units - the M47 and M57. Initially a 2.0 and 3.0 were offered with a company car tax friendly 1.8 being added much later. These superb engines accounted for a very high proportion of UK and european sales but were never available in North America due to the inferior nature of US diesel (high sulphur content, now remedied) and diesel's marketing image there. These new engines combined power with exceptional torque and economy. After market chipping can give even more power and is widely available.


BMW E46 323i cabriolet

Early 323i cabriolet with later alloys.

Early four cylinder cars had the rather underpowered 8 valve M43TU engine. But when the 2001 318ti Compact was released it came with a ground breaking Valvetronic N42, BMW's first Valvetronic car. Valvetronic did away with the conventional throttle butterfly and accelerator cable (although even in 1989 the M30 with traction control had a "fly by wire" throttle). Instead an electric motor and idler shaft were used to adjust valve lift. This gave a much less restrictive intake path which resulted in more power, better throttle response and improved economy. The technology has since spread to all BMW engine sizes but for the E46 it was limited to the four cylinder cars (none of which were sold in the USA, their base model was the 323i and later 325i). Valvetronic was a huge achievement for BMW. In 2003 the N42 was replaced by the N46.

Four wheel drive models were available in europe and north America, but sadly not in the UK.

There was one thing about the E46 I really disliked then and I still hate it now. Glass moonroofs. Before this almost all BMWs had metal sunroofs with glass lids being a very rare exception and mainly on US cars. To me anything except a metal roof just seems wrong on a BMW.

The E46 was a bit of an end of an era for the three series. Afterwards the one series took over as the baby of the range and BMW had an excuse to make the three series bigger than the older fives. The E90 three feels much too big, to me at least. So the E46 may be the last three series I own. I like my E46 but my E36s were more fun to drive as they were smaller and lighter yet had a similar multi-link suspension. With the E46 the three series had grown up a bit too far.


BMW E46 325ti sport

325ti Sport with 18" "MV" alloys.

Model Body Engine Weight
Power / Weight
(bhp / 1000kg)
Final drive
(manual / auto)
f/r mm
316i Saloon / Touring M43 / N42 / N46 1380 saloon 83 (N46) 3.23:1 / 4.44:1 286 / 280
316ti Compact N42 / N46 1375 83 (N46) 3.38:1 286 / 280
318i Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M43 / N42 / N46 1395 saloon 107 (N46) 3.38:1 / 3.45:1 286 / 280
318ti Compact N42 / N46 1375 109 3.38:1 / 3.45:1 286 / 280
320i Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M54 1465 saloon 103 (M52 2.0)
116 (M54 2.2)
3.38:1 / 3.45:1 286 / 280
323i Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M52TU 1475 saloon 115 3.07:1 / 3.46:1 286 / 280
325i / xi Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M54 1485 saloon 129 3.15:1 / 3.23:1 325 / 320
325ti Compact M54 1405 137 3.23:1 300 / 294
328i Saloon / Touring /
M52TU 1450 saloon 133 3.07:1 / 3.46:1 300 / 294
330i / xi Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M54 1505 saloon 154 2.93:1 / 3.38:1 325 / 320
318d Saloon / Touring M47 / M47N 1470 saloon 78 2.47:1 / 3.23:1 286 / 280
320d Saloon / Touring /
M47N 1490 saloon 91 2.47:1 / 3.07:1 286 / 280
320td Compact M47N 1470 91 2.35:1 / 3.07:1 300 / 294
330d / xd Saloon / Touring /
Coupe / Cabrio
M57 / M57N 1525 saloon 120 2.28:1 / 2.81:1 325 / 320
M3 Coupe / Cabrio S54 1570 coupe 219 3.62:1 325 / 328
M3CSL Coupe S54 1385 260 3.62:1 345 / 328


See the engine details page for power figures. Where several body styles exist or the engine was changed during the model's life the figures above are for late model saloons.


BMW E46 325Ci

The 325Ci SE coupe I loved but couldn't get on with.

Driving an E46

My first E46 was a 2001 325Ci in bright red and it looked simply fantastic. I paid 1500 for it and it honestly looked like a new car inside and out, even had a full history. But it was an SE not a sport and that was a problem. I drove it home from York to the Highlands and whilst I enjoyed the power and creature comforts I hated the steering and wasn't impressed with the suspension. I like my cars to be pretty stiff and this just wasn't enough. I could have coped with fitting new suspension but the steering was just terrible. It was far too heavily assisted and felt more like a small Japanese car. I kind of realised I really did need a touring and so I put the car on the market fairly quickly.

It was followed by a 2002 325i Sport touring which couldn't have been more of a contrast. The steering felt like a BMW should and sport suspension was almost what I wanted. The car was an excellent motorway ride and was so close to being stiff enough on B roads that I've lived with it. It's real problem in terms of handling is weight and there's not much to be done about that. It feels heavy under hard cornering you're conscious of the fact that if BMW had only made this a bit smaller and lighter it would have been fantastic. That's the E46s real problem, it grew too much. But you only really notice when you push it, the rest of the time it's a joy.

Why 325i's I hear you ask? Partly because they're a lot cheaper than the 330i but also because in the UK they all had leather and a skin complaint means I can't. There is an upside though because the 325i had an easier final drive ratio so the M54 gets more of a chance to rev and it does that very well. The old M52 had been designed for mid-range torque and while it was a good engine the way the new M54 revs is a revelation. If anyone tells you a 325i is slow they're not using the revs or not trying hard enough.

I helped a friend get a 2002 325i SE saloon with the newer steering rack but the standard suspension. I was surprised to find that even in the saloon the later suspension was more like my sport setup than I'd imagined. It was much nicer than my older coupe.

E46 brakes, ergonomics, build quality and practicality are all excellent. They're a tribute to BMWs ability to make superb cars that even 15 or 20 years later can feel like new. In the winter I find the E36 to be slightly superior to the E46 on exactly the same set of wheels and snow tyres. Perhaps that because my last 328i had a limited slip differential and my E46 has traction control or perhaps it's the extra weight but there is a small difference in the E36s favour when driving on ploughed road that still have compacted snow and ice. The E36 felt more controllable.

I'm 5'6" with 32" inside leg and I find I have to have the seat all the way forwards as far as it'll go to reach the pedals. This means that even at the max of adjustment the steering wheel is a good bit closer than I'd like. I've never found this in any other BMW so if you have short legs check you actually fit before buying.

My next car might be a 325ti Compact Sport because I want something a little smaller than the touring. This was a pretty special model that the engineers sneaked under the radar of the bean counters. Compared to a regular 325ti it has an easier final drive ratio to rev a bit more, nice body kit and even different suspension geometry! Final versions had a six speed gearbox too. But I might get a 130i, an E46 coupe or even another E36 328i instead - time will tell. Not sure I could live with the looks of the 130i inside or out.