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BMW E46 Three Series - Models


The E46 was around for fewer years than the models which came before but perhaps saw more change. Early cars had, by BMW standards, poor handling and steering. They came with the asthmatic M43 8 valve four cylinder engine or the artificially restrained M52 sixes. The years saw the handling come up to par and big changes under the hood. The M43 was replaced by the first Valvetronic engine and the M52 gave way to the simply superb M54 six.

Evolution made the E46 into a great car. But perhaps the biggest change was that from petrol to diesel power. The E36 had some class leading oil burners but the E46 took diesel main stream and gave the market the first real performance diesels. Things would never be the same again.

Basic E46s had more standard equipment than was the case with the E36 so there's a bit less of a difference from a basic car to a loaded version. No E46 seemed like a poverty version even if it had steel wheels. Gone were the manual windows and fog lamp blanking plates of the past.



There were suspension and steering changes at various times on the early cars. Some were minor such as the change from 60 to 66mm control arm bushings, other were more major and included the move to a steering rack that actually felt connected to the road. If you're buying a pre-2002 car my advice is to drive it first and see what you think of it.

There was a face lift in 2002. The main changes were the design of the headlights, bumpers and chassis refinements. The headlight change also incorporated a new wing as the indicators went from slowing down to sloping up. The convertible and coupe were given similar revisions in 2004. A third style of headlight can be seen on the final year cars.

Other than seat fabrics there were no major interior changes although the colour combinations were different over time. Early cars had different steering wheels and lower specification cars didn't have multi-function steering wheels. So far as I know all post-2002 car were multi-function and had cruise control and aircon as standard. Some early cars had rotary heating controls if they weren't fitted with air conditioning.


BMW E46 330d

2003 330d with facelift headlights and Sport bumper.

ES, SE and Sport Models

ES level cars from 2003 were the base level made to sound a bit posher. Depending on engine choice they lacked cruise control, DSC, an alarm and could even have plastic steering wheels and steel wheels. They ticked some of the cheaper options but that was about it. Some even had manual rear windows.

Special Equipment models tend to have standard seats but with electric operation. They all had cruise, aircon and the normal steering wheel with two separate spokes on the bottom. They have chrome window surrounds, cream headlinings and often have 16" seven spoke alloys.

Sports have stiffer suspension, black window surrounds and headlining, different bumpers front and back and 18" alloys with 225 front and 255 rear tyres.

The sport seats have an adjustable knee support and deeper bolsters. Most have manual adjustment but electric was available. They have three spoke steering wheels with a thicker rim that feels much nicer than the SE version (which feels horrid after you've tried the sport).

You want the Sport, trust me on this.


BMW E46 316i

2003 316i with 16" alloys.

316i / 316Ci

The 318i was available in all body styles except cabriolet. Early cars used a 1.9 litre M43TU 8 valve engine which was less than inspiring in the E36 and did the heavier E46 no favours. For the 316i this was detuned to 105 bhp, 13 less than normal. That said the M43 was a fairly smooth unit thanks to the use of balancer shafts.

In 2001 316i drivers were presented with the all new N42 16 valve 1.8 with it's innovative Valvetronic throttle system. This made 113bhp and 5% more torque than the older engine both of which were very welcome but more of an evolution than a revolution.

Equipment wise the 316i could be had with steel wheels, a bumper than didn't have a space for fog lamps and no aircon, cruise control or other features of it's larger brothers. It could be specced up with options but unless you were on a really tight company car budget or had to have a car with a lower insurance group the 318i was a far better idea.


BMW E46 318i

Early 318i saloon, always liked those alloys and that colour .

318i / 318Ci

Like the 316i the 318i went from the M43TU to the N42 engine. It had the derestricted 1.9 M43TU with 118bhp and from 2001 the 2.0 N42 with a respectable 140bhp and 10% more torque. Unlike the 316i the 318 was available as a soft top. The newer engine made a notable difference to performance but can suffer from reliability problems as it ages. Today if your budget permits it a six cylinder car is a safer choice but failing that a 318i is still a much better idea than a 316i.

The 318i was better equipped as standard and also tended to be sold with more extras specified by dealers. Most compare reasonably well to the larger engined cars in this regard.

Ultimately today's problem with the 318Ci is that's it little cheaper than a six cylinder model and whilst the N42 has adequate performance and suspect reliability the M52TU and M54 are peaches of engines.


BMW E46 318ti

318ti with distinctive tail lights.

316ti / 318ti Compact

The Compact is covered on it's own page. They debuted in 2001 and always had the N42 Valvetronic engines.


BMW E46 318d

2004 318d SE saloon.

318d / 318td

318d's were available as saloons, tourings or the 318td Compact. They used the N47 diesel engine from the start of production in 1998 until the end of the E46. Power came from a detuned two litre engine making 114bhp, 22 less than in a 320d. Torque was an excellent 195lb/ft compared to 129 for a 316i so this the budget model to have. In 2001 the M47TU (technical update) saw torque rise by 5%.

The car sold well because it was a better drive than a 316i and had class leading emissions which meant cheaper tax for those with a company car. BMW hit a sweet spot in the market.

To appeal to company buyers the base price was kept low by providing a fairly basic car but one that still looked good compared to an E36 318tds. In that regard the new car was more luxurious and a better performer despite the fact that the older model was superb in its day. You'll not find many extras on these though, those with the extra money went for the 320d which was a far bigger seller.

The 318td Compact is covered on it's own page. They debuted in 2001 and always had the N47 diesel engine.


BMW E46 320i touring

320i SE touring with optional 18" alloys.

320i / 320Ci

E30 and E36 320i's had been amongst the best sellers in the UK and europe but were never sold in America. For the E46 the 320d stole much of the petrol models thunder and offered better performance and economy into the bargain. In no way was the 320i a bad car but when new it was less tempting than the diesel to many buyers. 320i's have always been seen as a refined car with a silky smooth straight six and the E46 was no different.

Pre 2001 cars had the two litre M52TU from the E36 with very minor changes and unchanged power output of 150bhp, torque 140lb/ft. This wasn't that much more than the facelifted 318Ci which had a lighter N42 engine so in order to keep up the revised 320i got a 2.2 litre M54. The new engine boasted an electronic throttle body, deresticted intake manifold, 170bhp and 155lb/ft. It was almost a match for the early 323i and fulfilled the 320i's mission of smoothness with pace. There will always be buyers in the UK for whom the 320i is "the right car", style without undue ostentation perhaps?

Specifications were good and I'm fairly certain there was no basic ES model. 320i's were usually SE level with very few Sports, those preferring the latter also wanted more power. There was no Compact 320i.


BMW E46 320d ES

E46 320d ES from 2003.

320d / 320td / 320Cd

The 320d sold to company car buyers who were a bit less worried about tax and a lot of private buyers. It was a more aspirational model than the 318d and could be had in all body styles. Power rose from the 318d's 114 bhp to 136 and torque rose to a heady 207lb/ft, the same as a 328i. After the 2001 introduction of the M47TU, which was 50cc larger, this jumped to 148bhp and a whopping 243lb/ft and made the 320d a genuinely quick car. It could be safely chipped to have more torque than an M3!

Equipment levels vary more on this model than any other. It was never as basic as the budget cars but many considered a 330d to be overkill and spent the money on the extras instead. A good 320d Sport in particular is worth seeking out over and above the steel wheeled rep mobiles.

The 320td Compact is covered on it's own page. They debuted in 2001 and always had the more powerful N47TU engine.


BMW E46 323Ci

323Ci SE coupe from 2000.

323i / 323Ci

The 323i was the base model in the USA and used the 2.5 litre M52TU from the E36 which made 170bhp and was optimised for mid range torque rather than power. It was a robust engine and worked well in the E46 providing a suitably brisk rather than genuinely fast driving experience. In europe it sat between the 320i and 328i and sold well. Its use predated the Compact but it was available in all other body types. It was replaced at the facelift by the 325i M54.

Today a 323i in good condition is a cheap car and can be an excellent buy. They're all over 15 years old by now so rust would be the main worry. Mechanically they're pretty bullet proof.

323i's in Thailand used a special 2.4 version and were only sold as saloons. If anyone knows why (tax?) perhaps they could enlighten me.


BMW E46 325i Sport

325i Sport with 18" MV alloys.

325i / 325Ci / 325ti

I've have two of these myself, coupe and touring, and love them to bits. The 192bhp M54 engine revs beautifully and has an easier final drive ratio than the 330i to let it sing it's tune more easily. You'll hear some folk say this car is underpowered, I suspect they drive automatics. For me they're the sweet spot of every day performance and value in the range.

The 325i was available in all body styles and on the 325ti had a very special Sport version (see the Compact page). 325's were either SE or Sport spec with a large number of the latter being sold. They're a fun car to drive and very reliable if looked after. Today they are an excellent alternative to a 330i at a slightly lower price.

The 325ti Compact is covered on it's own page. They debuted in 2001 and always had the M54 engine.


BMW E46 328Ci

328Ci coupe, I prefer its early style mirrors.

328i / 328Ci

These were the contemporaries of the 323i but with the full caffeine 2.8 M52 producing 193bhp. They're a fast and reliable used buy if they've been cared for and rust hasn't set in. Compared to the 330i you can see where the restrictive intake and mid-range power focus of the M52's design plays it's part. The 330 is only 200cc larger yet makes almost 40bhp more and is freer revving.

328's were always high specification and if you can find one the early aero / sport body pack is a bit more agressive looking than the later style. An excellent buy if you find a good one.


BMW E46 330Ci CLubsport

330Ci Clubsport in Estoril blue.

330i / 330Ci / ClubSport / ZHP

The glorious 330i had 231bhp and was a fast car in any terms. It had a taller final drive ratio than the 325i and actually had very slightly better economy and emissions figures as it was lower revving. This means you drive it a bit more on revs than torque (like an E36 328i perhaps) but for those who're determined to hold the foot down and let it swing past 5000 there's a whole world of performance in those upper reaches. BMW really let the engineers have their way with this one and there's not much more to be had by tuning it further. In some ways it's like the American E36 M3 engine.

Unless you have horrible traffic problems the manual is worth seeking out for it's sheer driving pleasure. You have all the toys BMW could offer as these cars were well equipped when the dealers let them fly out. Sport models are common except on tourings where they have to be searched for a little harder. There was no Compact alas.

In 2003 a 330i Performance Package / Club Sport was announced, in the USA it was called the ZHP. This added bigger brakes, stiffer suspension, front carbon splitter, boot spoiler, short shift (on manual cars), nicer wheels, carbon bits inside and the removal of some soundproofing. The result was a car even more at home on twisties or track days. In the UK they were all coupes, in the US they were saloons with a coupe in the final year. US cars had 10bhp more but they started with a few less than euro models, I think euro cars had a few more horses but not very many.

Clubsports have become quite collectible and command a price premium somewhat above their status. Those buying one might question how much more an M3 might cost, they're only a good car if the price is right.

If you see one with the SSG flappy paddle gearbox don't be tempted. If they fail they're expensive to fix and few mechanics have ever seen one. It's not the same as the M3's more expensive gearbox.


BMW E46 330d touring

E46 330d SE touring.

330d / 330Cd

It was either a genuine accident or a superb marketing ruse, either way Formula 1 driver Jenson Button was pulled for doing 143mph in a 330d on a French Motorway. BMW wagged a displeased finger whilst smiling all the way to the bank. The 330d was the king of the performance diesels and the stunt probably sold just as many 320d's as three litres.

The M57 diesel was a real stump puller of an engine. It initially made 184bhp but this rose to 215 in post 2002 versions. Torque was a massive 290lb/ft from 1750 to 3200 rpm but even this was inceased later to 370lb/ft and after market tuners went further still. Six speed manual can be found but most of the sales were automatics and to be honest a car with such a large and flat torque curve suits that.

330d's were high spec cars with a price to match but fabric interiors can still be found on early examples. Most were SE spec but sports aren't hard to find.

The 2.5 M57 was only used in the five series and X3. There was no 330 diesel Compact.

Buying a 15+ year old BMW diesel today relies on finding one that's not coked up and way down on power as a result. They can be stripped, cleaned and brought back to life without major hassle but if you can't do it yourself it's not going to be worth the labour cost. The M57 is a good lump but any high power diesel is going to get sooty eventually. The trick is frequent oil changes (a 15,000 mile change interval isn't helpful) and changing of both air filters regularly. An oil catch can would have solved an awful lot of problems but I can see why one wasn't fitted to a mass market car. The good thing about a UK MoT or any other euro emissions test is that it'll fail the worst offenders. They'll do spaceship mileages IF you service them properly.


BMW E46 M3 cabriolet

2002 M3 Cabriolet.

M3 / M3 CSL

See the M3 page for details.