2005 BMW 330xi
2005 BMW 330xi. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

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For years, BMW has used its “Ultimate Driving Machine” tagline to describe its entire line-up, but no single model has lived up to that slogan as consistently as the 3 Series: its compact size, balanced handling and smooth powertrains combining to create a nearly perfect car – one that can do double duty as a sports car and a family sedan.

In 1999, BMW launched the fourth-generation 3 Series. Known internally and to Bimmer fanatics as the E46, BMW launched the four-door sedan – historically the volume seller of the 3 Series line – first, followed by coupe and convertible models in 2000, and the performance-oriented M3 re-joined the line-up in 2001. In 2002, a 3 Series wagon arrived.

The E46 was originally offered as in 323i and 328i variants, powered by 2.5-litre and 2.8-litre in-line six-cylinder engines respectively; horsepower ratings were 170 for 2.5-litre and 193 for the 2.8-litre. The wagon was dubbed the 325iT and 325xiT (x for all-wheel drive, T for Touring); a 325xi sedan became available in 2002 as well.

2004 BMW 330Ci
2004 BMW 330Ci. Click image to enlarge

In 2001, the line-up was expanded to include the 320i, powered by a 168-horsepower, 2.2-litre six; the 323i became the 325i and its 2.5-litre engine got a boost in horsepower to 184. The 328i became the 330i and got a 3.0-litre six making 225 horsepower. The 330i was also offered in all-wheel drive form; cars so equipped were known as the 330xi. The cult favourite M3 got a 333-horsepower motor – a big increase from the 240-horse engine in the 1999 M3.

Initially, all transmissions were five speeds whether you chose manual or the optional automatic. The M3 got a six-speed manual in 2002, and a six-speed became the standard choice in 330i models in 2004. In 2006, the all-new E90 3 Series sedan arrived, but once again, coupe, convertible and M3 models remained unchanged for that model year.

An interesting tidbit: according to the FAQ at E46fanatics.com, E46s produced between June and December 2000 got a modified steering rack designed to address concerns of overly-heavy steering at parking lot speeds in the initial run of E46 cars. Then, drivers complained the steering was too light and offered too little feedback, calling these cars “the Ultimate Parking Machine,” so BMW changed it back – sort of. Check out this thread in the E46 forum at Roadfly.com if you have a couple of hours to kill.

2003 BMW M3
2003 BMW M3. Click image to enlarge

According to Natural Resources Canada testing, city cycle fuel consumption ranges from a low of 11.3 L/100 km to 13 L/100 km; on the highway, the numbers range from 7.2 L/100 km to 8.6 L/100 km. So, a Toyota Yaris at the pumps it’s not, but considering the amount of driving satisfaction the 3 Series is designed to deliver, its thirst is actually pretty reasonable. Be aware, though, that like all BMWs, premium unleaded is required; also, as it is with most cars, real world fuel consumption will be higher than NRCan’s numbers. All-wheel drive and automatic transmissions tend to drive consumption upward in the 3 Series’ case.

But the reality is that BMWs are not cheap cars to run, neither in terms of fuel nor maintenance. And buyers looking for stellar reliability need not apply; BMW enthusiast website BimmerFest.com flat-out admits that BMWs are not as reliable as most Japanese makes and that if you buy one, you most likely will have problems with it.

Thankfully, the E46 appears to be one of BMW’s more reliable models in recent years. Consumer Reports gives it an “average” used car verdict, noting problems with power-operated accessories as the only consistent mechanical issues. Again, BimmerFest.com’s FAQ backs this up, noting that the E46 3 Series is “very sensitive to maintenance, or a lack thereof.” Well-documented problems include grouchy sunroofs; bad window regulators (the bits inside the doors that move the windows up and down); weatherstripping that likes to fall out of place (an easy fix); suspension control arm bushings that need replacing at as early as 60,000 km; and BMW issued a recall for engine ignition coilpack failures. The BimmerFest FAQ also lists a couple of other items covered by technical service bulletins.

2002 BMW 325iT
2002 BMW 325iT. Click image to enlarge

Now, I said above that there are no serious mechanical flaws with the E46, and that’s true. But there is a potentially serious problem with the car’s rear suspension, wherein the rear subframe – to which the rear suspension and differential are fastened – can separate from the car’s body. I noted this issue in a used car review looking at the 1996-2002 Z3, and it’s been talked about at length in BMW forums, so it’s apparently a well-documented issue in enthusiast circles. For discussions specific to the problem in the E46, read these threads – one, two and three – at E46fanatics.com.

Safety’s a German-car strong point, and the E46 holds up its end in this regard. It earned the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) “good” rating in frontal offset crash testing; and 2002 and newer E46s tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) earned four and five stars (driver and front passenger) in frontal impact tests, and three and five stars (front and rear seat occupants) in side impact tests. However, in side impacts, the NHTSA noted a high risk of pelvic injury for front seat occupants due to intrusion of the front door into the passenger compartment.

All E46s got side airbags, anti-lock brakes and traction/stability control.

You won’t be surprised to learn that these four-gen 3 Series’ hang on tightly to resale value; for 1999 models, Canadian Red Book only lists prices for the 328i, and it’s worth $12,350. At the opposite end of the sedan spectrum is a 2005 330xi, which carries a value of $38,475; coupes tend to run anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 more than their sedan counterparts, and wagons tend to run $1,000 to $2,000 more than a similarly-equipped sedan.

2005 BMW 330xi
2005 BMW 330xi. Click image to enlarge

My favourite of the bunch is indeed the wagon, for its combination of cargo hauling ability and sporting personality. According to Red Book, you should be able to get a 2004 3 Series wagon for less than $30,000, while 2002 models might be found for less than 20 grand.

As far as German cars go, this particular range of 3 Series models is quite appealing: they’re old enough now that prices are within reach of many, and these cars boast a reliability history that, while far from perfect, seems to be better than many other German cars’, and indeed, many other BMWs.

Your best bet might be to seek out a BMW Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) example, as these cars get an attractive extended warranty and, according to BMW, go through an extensive reconditioning process before they are parked under the dealership’s CPO banner. While you’ll probably pay a little more for such a car (compared to buying from Eugene’s Used Cars down the street), I’d say it’s probably worth for the extra piece of mind. No doubt the driving experience will speak for itself.

Online resources

BimmerForums.com is one of the most comprehensive BMW enthusiast sites on the web. With close the 50,000 members, the forums here are a veritable encyclopedia of BMW knowledge with sections dedicated to the company’s many models, past and present. Membership is free. DTMPower.net calls itself “the future of BMW tuning.” As such, it caters to BMW owners interested in modifying their cars, of which there are apparently many: more than 50,000 members call this site home. Like BimmerForums.com, this site’s discussion area is split up into sections for each BMW model, plus sections dedicated to other car-related talk. Membership is free.

HotBimmer.net has just over 10,000 members, features a polished layout and gives more attention to general BMW news and updates than some other BMW sites. Despite a smaller member base, there’s still a lot of good information here. Membership is free.
The membership statistics for Mwerks.com are deceiving, listing more than 200,000 members. This site is run by Vortex Media Group, which also manages VWVortex.com, a huge Volkswagen enthusiast community. Mwerks.com is actually one of the lesser-populated sites in the Vortex empire, but a free membership here also gets you access to The Car Lounge, a very active general automotive interest community that’s full of knowledgeable members.
The E46 forum at RoadFly.org is one of many run by this site. The layout is simple, and the forums use an antiquated style of displaying member’s posts and threads, but there’s lots of information here. Membership is free.

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Manufacturer’s Website


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003107; Units affected: 1,041

2003: On certain vehicles, an electronic control unit pertaining to the window lifting anti-pinching device may not function properly and pinching may be possible. Correction: Dealer will inspect and if necessary replace the electronic control unit.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002215; Units affected: 1,721

1999-2000: Certain vehicles may experience inadvertent or non-crash side impact lateral air bags deployment. In addition, the Battery Safety Terminal (BST) would also activate, disconnecting the starter cable from the battery. In this case, the vehicle electrical systems would continue to operate and the engine would continue to run; however, after the engine is turned off, it could not be restarted. Correction: Dealers will recalibrate the side airbag system in order to reduce the possibility of such non-crash deployments.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999086; Units affected: 3,209

1999: On certain vehicles, non-crash impacts with a significant vertical and/or longitudinal component, such as experienced when contacting large potholes or curbs at substantial speed, could cause the lateral airbag and head protection system (HPS) to deploy inadvertently. Correction: Airbag control module will be reprogrammed.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1999099; Units affected: 2,686

1999: On certain vehicles, the retaining clip that secures the brake booster pushrod to the brake pedal arm may be incompletely seated. Depending on the manner in which the brake pedal is operated (e.g., if the Antilock Brake System (ABS) is repeatedly activated and the brake pedal pulsates), it is possible for the clip to detach from the pin on the brake pedal arm. This could cause the pushrod to detach from the brake pedal arm resulting in loss of braking capability. Correction: Clip will be inspected for tight installation and replaced if loose.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000065; Units affected: 2,686

2000: On certain vehicles, the brake light switch capacitor housing may be cracked and in high humidity conditions the capacitor and switch housing could become overheated and deformed. As a result, a short circuit or an open circuit could occur in the switch. This could cause the switch to remain either in the “brake lamps off” position or the “brake lamps on” position. If the switch remains in the “off” position, the brake lamps will be rendered inoperative. Conversely, if the switch remains in the “on” position, the brake lamps will be continuously illuminated when the ignition switch is in the “on” position. Correction: Brake lamp switch will be replaced with an improved switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000278; Units affected: 347

2001: On certain vehicles, the inner rim flange of the wheel rims may have incurred damage during fitting of the tire. In extreme cases, this could lead to a sudden loss of tire pressure and result in loss of vehicle control. Correction: All five wheels will be inspected for damage to the inner rim flange. If pertinent damage is found on any wheel, all five wheels will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002049; Units affected: 284

2002: On certain passenger vehicles during the strut mount manufacturing process, the thrust bearing was not properly positioned and secured. If the suspension is fully unloaded, the front strut could separate from the upper mount. This could affect vehicle handling and control, increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: Dealers will replace both front spring strut upper mounts.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002052; Units affected: 89

2002: On certain passenger vehicles a problem in the manufacturing process of the rear brake rotors may have resulted in the creation of a crack where the brake disc and the parking brake drum meet. Further cracking of the rotor could occur due to braking torque when the vehicle is driven and the brakes are applied. The brake drum, connected to the wheel hub, would completely separate from the disc. If this happened, the wheel would continue to turn, but the disc would stop, and there would be no braking capacity at that wheel, increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: Dealers will replace both rear brake rotors.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001182; Units affected: 4,812

2001: Certain passenger vehicles. The engine auxiliary/cooling fan operation, including variable speed, is electronically controlled. Failure of the fan motor can cause the electrical circuitry of the fan control unit to overload and fail, causing the fan to stop operating. If this were to occur, engine overheating and subsequent engine damage could result. In addition, it is possible for the failure of the electrical circuitry to cause a fire in the fan control unit located in the front of the engine compartment. Correction: Dealers will replace the fan.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001250; Units affected: 226

2001: Certain passenger vehicles that were manufactured from October 2000 to May 02, 2001. The two screws that secure the parking brake cable-mounting bracket to the backing plate were not tightened properly. As a result, the screws could loosen and eventually fall into the parking brake drum. If this were to happen, the cable-mounting bracket would no longer be fixed to the backing plate and the parking brake could no longer be applied on that side of the vehicle. It is also possible that a screw could lodge within the parking brake drum, impairing the free movement of the drum. This would produce noise, and could cause the parking brake on that side to lock up while driving. Correction: dealers will replace the parking brake cable attaching screws and secure them with the proper torque.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

Chris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist.

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