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BMW E46 Three Series - Guide to Interiors

The interior of the E46 departed considerably from older models. The centre console was flatter and no longer angled towards the driver as much. There seemed to be more of a minimalist approach to the design. Materials were better than the E36's interior but the design looked blander to many drivers. Sadly this seems to be a trend followed by subsequent models, especially the Z4 which has a horrid dashboard layout. This time the Compact got the same dashboard as the other models.


BMW E46 interior

Sport leather interior.

Thankfully the excellent layout of the dash instruments wasn't changed much. A welcome addition was easy control of the intermittent wiper speed. The multi-function steering wheel was a first in the three series and it works really well. It also look much better than the ugly and overly bling version on new BMWs today.

Airbags were standard on E46s for both driver and passenger. In addition cars could have airbags in all four doors and A pillar curtain airbags for a total of eight. It should be remembered that until 1994 UK E36s didn't have any airbags as standard. The front seat belts had pre-tensioners.

Almost all E46s have air conditioning with digital controls and it works very effectively. Some low spec cars had rotary heater controls but still had aircon. The heater is excellent and air distribution is good. A microfilter was standard and far far easier to change than on older BMWs (if you have poor airflow you need a new one). Later E36s had dual heater control valves to allow the driver and passenger to set their own temperature preferences but this wasn't a feature of the new model.


BMW E46 interior

318Ci SE leather interior with wood trim.

E46s were almost two inches wider than the older car and you really feel it inside the cabin. The interior feels really wide, I really notice it as I have an E30 which is much narrower. To me it feels too big and I don't like it much, if I wanted a five series I'd have bought one. What I wanted was a smallish and well made sports car like my E30, the E46 grew up.

What's a bit odd for this larger car is the lack of adjustment in the driving position. I'm 5'6" yet in order to reach the pedals I have to have the seat as far forward as it'll go. This means that with the steering wheel as far from me as possible it's still too close.

The construction of the seats was the same as the E36 utilising a plastic base with molded foam and then the seat cover. Electric adjustment tended to be standard on the SE models and optional on other trim levels including Sport. They're very comfortable and supportive even on the longest of drives. In fact that pretty much sums up the E46.


BMW E46 interior

325ti in a tasteful colour combination.

The sports seats had larger side bolsters and an adjustable knee support. Unsurprisingly the bolster on the outer driver's side always gets worn in the usual BMW tradition. They were sold in leather, half leather and alcantara. The sports steering wheel has a thicker rim than the normal model and once you've used it the other one will never feel right again. Sports pack cars also had a black headlining and black dashboard trip in a sort of matt carbon fibre effect. To me the silver trim on other trim levels just doesn't look right. SE's often had a sort of piano black gloss wood effect that looks very classy.


BMW E46 interior

Rear seats on a 320d ES with manual windows.

Rear seat passengers had more legroom in the new car bit it could still be a bit tight if the driver had long legs. It was a little easier to get a third passenger in the back of the coupe as the rear seat now split 60/40 to give them a bit more comfort. On some models the arm rest had a storage compartment with hinged lid and twin cup holders behind a flap in the back of the centre head rest. In a departure from the past all models had rear head rests as standard.

I'm happy to say my E46 is devoid of cup holders but if you feel the need a plug-in for the area next to the handbrake will hold your beverage. This area had a standard leather centre arm rest which was nicely done and less intrusive to manual gear changing than was the case with the E36. The centre console now had a button to activate the central locking. This was useful to unlock the car as the doors automatically locked once the car exceeded 10mph, a feature that could only be deactivated by reprogramming the key.


BMW E46 interior

Digital climate control and the "BMW Business" CD/tape.

The radio binnacle is modular and there were quite a few options. My car had the standard fit which was a tape deck and a six pack CD in the boot, I love this as I can relive the 1980's with my cassette collection. Around 2003 BMW ditched the tape and put in a CD as standard but there was a rare mini-disc option too.

Early cars could have a 2" orange LED screen as the direction display for the navigation system, no maps back then. This was succeeded by a full size colour screen in final cars and it was an expensive option. To accommodate it the heater control were moved down to replace the storage drawer, leaving you with nowhere for your sunglasses. Cars with satnav could be identified by the famous shark fin aerial on the roof just above the centre of the rear window.


BMW E46 interior

Satnav was an option on later cars, note relocated heater controls.

Electric windows were standard all round except in a few very basic ES cars which had manual rears. Coupe rear windows were electric too, this was available on the previous E36 but was very rare. The coupe had the same frameless doors as the older car and they still auto-dropped and raised when the door was open to seal it. The door handles were a totally new design for BMW and brought many unfavourable comments at the time, especially as the rumour persisted that they were only changed for the benefit of woman with stupidly long nails.


BMW E46 interior

320d's surprisingly large boot with tool kit in lid.

The boot was of a similar size to the E36 and was generously large. Tourings had an underfloor compartment for extra storage which is handy for valuable items. As was the case with the previous model the rear seat folded in all models except the saloon. Saloons could have it as an option but it was very rare indeed and I've only seen one Alpina with it. The ski bag was a more common option and lived behind the arm rest.