BMW E46 – A Driving Masterpiece that Pushed BMW 3 Series into the Future

The phrase “they don’t make them like they used to” is undoubtedly overused, but also appropriate at times. It’s often associated with borderline melancholic nostalgia – a deep yearning for times long gone. Portuguese even have a word for this emotion: Saudade. BMW E46 is one of those rare instances where this phrase is completely justified.

It’s the last of the Mohicans – the model that announced the dichotomy of what 3 Series was initially about and what BMW had planned for it going forward. Don’t get us wrong; there were legendary 3 Series models before it and several after it. However, the E46 marked an end of an era.

BMW E46 – A Driving Masterpiece that Pushed BMW 3 Series into the Future 

Birth of a Blue-Blooded Lineage

BMW has had a turbulent, yet very interesting history. From a small machine shop in Bavaria to one of the most respected car brands in the world – all under 100 years of existence. With that said, many diehard fans of Bayerische Motoren Werke will argue that this company’s ‘true’ history starts with the launch of the 3 Series cars.

The post-war period was rough on BMW. The company was still recovering from numerous allied bombing raids that left its facilities in the rubble. However, things were looking up. Like most other German brands at the time, BMW tried to find its place in the executive sedan territory. Sure, they made a few ‘compact’ vehicles like the 700 or even Isetta, but those were anomalous outliers.

Before they knew it, BMW found themselves in trouble. The brand was simply having a hard time keeping up with the industry. These dark times culminated in Herbert Quandt, who, alongside his brother, owned stakes in both BMW and Mercedes-Benz, suggesting that the two brands should merge. Unions went into full defense mode, fighting this ludicrous idea tooth and nail. 

Out with The Old, In with The New

The company knew they had to change something on the fundamental level, and so they did. In 1975 BMW introduced the first 3 Series sedan – the E21. It was compact, sleek, and just about everything the BMW 02 wasn’t but wanted to be.

Then came the legendary E30 with its sharp lines and even more aggressive aesthetic. E21 introduced the angled dashboard that faced the driver, but E30 took this concept a step further. This is the car that launched the 3 Series in the United States. Despite being labeled a yuppie car, E30 endured the somewhat negative rap only to become a legend we know today.

The next iteration was the E36, a giant in its own right. With E36, BMW moved away from the super-compact form factor and introduced a larger chassis, with more room and more modern design. Even back then, many started to visualize where the industry was heading. Computers slowly started permeating every aspect of automotive design. 

Carbs were out, and the direct injection was in. ECUs were becoming the norm. Enthusiasts were wondering whether all this new technology would simply kill the raw driving experience, or would it make it better? 


E46 – A Truly Timeless Design

When E46 was first announced in the mid-’90s, many saw it as the pinnacle of 3 Series design. If E21 was a rough sketch on a piece of paper, E46 was the completed oil on canvas masterpiece. 

During the design phase in the early ’90s, the chief engineer and head of the R&D at BMW, Wolfgang Ziebart, had turned to Chris Bangle to run the project. Being the Chief Designer at BMW, Bangle would later go down in infamy as the man who zigged when he should have zagged with E65 and E90 design. 

Although Bangle had oversight control over the entire design process, BMW had turned to DesignworksUSA for further creative assistance. Bangle’s limited involvement and the fact that BMW allowed Designworks USA and Erik Goplen to nurture the project to completion was the pivoting point for BMW

E46 – A Truly Timeless Design

Bringing the BMW 3 Series to the New Age

The turn of the century was fast approaching, and BMW wanted a car that would bring the propeller badge into the future. Goplen had a perfect idea. His early sketches show complete divergence from BMW’s prior boxy design. However, Goplen didn’t want to completely reinvent the 3 Series. Instead, he wanted to elevate the existing core design to a whole new level.

The car became just a little bit larger than its predecessor, and a little bit longer too. Erik didn’t mess around with the windowed section of the vehicle. BMW E46 had to retain that utilitarian note that allowed the driver to see clearly in every direction – something that E30 solidified as dogma. DesignworksUSA achieved this by keeping clean cuts between the hood of the car, the passenger compartment and the trunk.

What truly made the E46 a proper modern design was Goplen’s idea to flare the body and give it more width. Such a simple yet radical design move had given the E46 the aggressive stance it is known for today. Compared to its predecessor, E46 looked more masculine and potent. The car looked like it could handle any corner with ease, and indeed that’s what it did.

Even though sedan is absolutely amazing in its own right, it’s the coupe that truly gave Goplen enough maneuvering space for him to turn his ideas into reality. E46 coupe is arguably one of the best looking cars ever to grace the roads. Even though Goplen is credited with designing the E46, we have to mention Adrian van Hooydonk whose input has made the E46 such an aerodynamically optimized car.

With that said, the E46 was ultimately available as a sedancoupeconvertible, tourer, M3, and of course, the notorious Compact. The entire line E46 line received a facelift in 2003, which didn’t bring any drastic changes but infused the car with more energy.

The production of this model officially started in 1997 and ended in 2006. It didn’t take long for Goplen’s work to begin accumulating positive feedback. 

Elevating the Driving Experience to a Whole New Level

Looks aside, BMW E46 had a massive pair of shoes to fill. Both of its legendary processors were considered to be the right driver’s cars. The E30’s raw handling had defined an entire generation of drivers. After that, we got the E36 that was slightly more civilized but ultimately delivered more of the same. BMW E46 needed to step up if 3 Series were to remain true to its reputation.

It stepped up, alright.

BMW offered the E46 with a wide range of gas and diesel engines. Even though the latter were very popular in Europe during the whole Diesel renaissance era that came crashing down with VW’s emissions fiasco, gas was still the way to go for most driving enthusiasts.

The gamut of available engines included plenty of economical four-bangers. The 316i/ci and 318i/ci were excellent for those who wanted to get from point A to point B. Overall, it was no secret that these lacked power and performance. There’s one piece of advice that every BMW will offer – get the six-cylinder.

When BMW first produced the IIIa straight-six aircraft engine in 1917, it was a prophetic moment for the company. Straight-six engines would go on to become the trademark of BMW for years to come. BMW E46 came with three types of straight-six engines – the M52, M54 in the 323i/ci, 325i/ci, 328i/ci, and 330i/ci, as well as the stunning S54 from the M3.

Altogether, these engines offered anywhere from 148hp in the lower range to 343hp in the M3.

Many will agree that 328i and later 330i/ci were the right measure for this car. With 190hp and 225hp, respectively, these engines were enough to throw the E46 around with ease. The car felt light despite being the most extensive BMW 3 Series up to that point. Straight six M52/54 motors were boringly reliable if properly maintained as well. Overall, if you were going to buy an E46, these two engines were the way to go.

Bringing the BMW 3 Series to the New Age

Innovative Safety Features and Strong Connection to the Road

It didn’t take long for BMW fans to realize that E46 was a worthy successor of the 3 Series lineage. It had the power and handling ability that matched the pedigree of the brand. However, BMW has pushed the already substantial driving experience one step further.

Up until E46’s release, if you wanted to find a car with a reliable traction control feature, your options were limited at best. E46 introduced what was arguably the best traction control on the market at the time. Not only did it tame the car to a point where it would forgive you if you made rookie mistakes, but it also enhanced the overall driving experience.

For the first time, it was fun to drive up, and down narrow mountain roads with the traction control turned on. Although it’s not much by modern standards, this traction control system was something else back in the day.

Of course, if you wanted to wrangle the car without any assistance, all you had to do was to turn off traction control. A single press of a button is enough to let those rear wheels break the grip on command. 

BMW E46 M3

Just like its predecessors before, it didn’t take long for E46 to get an M badge. What BMW achieved with this car is nothing short of extraordinary. Siegfried Friedmann, the Head of Project for BMW E46 M3 recognized that the E36 M3 strayed away from the path laid out by E30 M3 and its performance. The car wasn’t as fun to drive, and it was far too tame for the M badge.

His mission to fix these flaws with the E46 M3 was a complete success. He and his team have managed to squeeze out 343hp out of a 3.2 liter, straight-six engine. That is 100 horsepower per liter – a level of performance that was reserved for supercars of the era.

Funny enough, the M3 caused so much ruckus with these figures that even Porsche went into full defense mode. They argued that the S54 might be powerful, but that it would never last. They were wrong. The car has withstood the test of time and grown to become an icon of automotive development and design.

Additionally, E46 M3 also brought back prestige to the M badge. Compared to E36 M3’s sleeper status, you could tell that an E46 was an M car from miles away. People loved that and for a good reason.

The Last of the Mohicans

BMW E46 is arguably one of the best BMWs ever produced. However, it marked the end of an era. It was the last 3 Series that offered a raw connection between the driver and the tarmac. In many ways, it had just the right amount of advanced technology and that trademark primal savagery we all love.

What came after the E46 was a solid but different car. Although we appreciate the work of Chris Bangle and refuse to jump on the hate wagon, he did essentially put a stop to an era of design that traced its roots back to the BMW 02 series. Some will argue that it was the right decision while most feel that this man did more bad than good for the brand. Either way, E90 that he designed as the successor of the E46 was nowhere near as popular as the model it was meant to replace.

Is It Worth Getting in 2020?

We, much like most other BMW fans out there, feel that E46 features a timeless design. These cars have proven to be reliable, especially if you go with the straight-six versions like the 330i and 328i. They’re getting harder and harder to find with low miles on the odometer, but you can still bump into a solid E46 out in the wild.

As far as E46 M3s go, it’s not a question of whether it’s worth getting? The real problem is, can you find one that fits your budget? These cars have gone up in value significantly. Even a questionable M3 that requires some TLC will set you back anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. Excellent condition, low mileage cars are much more expensive. Yet, they are worth the investment if you want that old school raw performance! 

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