One of the Best Non-M BMWs ever.
April 19, 2019
I bought this car off my aunt 2 years ago and to this day I have no regrets. It is a very expensive car maintenance-wise, unfortunately. Given that the car is currently 17 years old, it's no surprise that a cooling system made mostly out of plastic would have numerous complications. Despite only owning it for 2 years, I've put over 45,000 miles on it commuting between home and school. Apart from what eventually added up to an entire cooling system rebuild over time, I have had no major problems with this car. It has had one major problem when my aunt owned it, which was a failure of the ZF 5-speed automatic. The ZF is one of two automatics that could be had with the E46 (3 series generation from 1997-2006) depending on the year. If you're seriously considering any model of the E46 generation, look up the VIN number to see transmission it has. Having said that, the ZF will last around 100k miles, so if you stumble across one that's had a recent replacement don't necessarily let that put you off.
Of all the minor complications I have had, it's never left me stranded or failed to start. Where it falls short in reliability it makes up for in the driving experience. Driving an E46 330i sublime, thanks to a curb weight of a hair over 3,000 lbs and a perfect 50/50 weight distribution. The ZF 5-speed, while destined for failure (probably 20k miles left max), it shifts beautifully. It's smooth, responsive, and the gear ratios are nothing short of perfect.
In conclusion, this is probably the most fun you can have in any BMW costing less than $10,000 (for one in excellent condition), and regardless of price this is easily one of the top 5 BMWs you can own that doesn't have the letter 'M' in it's name. Just buyer beware, unless you have the means to work on it yourself like I did (I work at a BMW dealership), get your wallets ready.
WHEN TO AVOID AN E46, NO IFS, ANDS, OR BUTS:
If it has:
100,000+ miles and NO service history
A ZF 5-speed that has 100,000+ miles and has NOT been replaced
A low-coolant warning light that comes on at anytime
A rough shifting transmission
An engine warning light with codes related to the VANOS system (if you know, you know)
Regardless, ALWAYS get ANY used car checked by professional mechanic prior to purchase, but if an E46 you're considering passes inspection, what are you waiting for??