For all the flack BMW gets from car enthusiasts, the vast majority of cars they produce are class-leading in most areas, particularly handling but also in terms of tech and efficiency. The company’s vast talents are not lost on buyers and year-on-year they produce growing sales figures, helped by the increasing number of new models they are introducing to compete with mainstream rivals (or to create new niches to themselves). Undoubtedly their most popular vehicle is the 3 Series, and even to me the model’s considerable charms are not lost…I can’t say I’ve ever really fancied myself a generic 320d saloon but a 3’er takes some beating along back roads.
Everybody has their own favourite 3 Series model and mine is the E46, the design which was on sale from 1998 until 2006. Even compared to subsequent generations, the E46 pretty much has it all; sharp driving experience, classic looks, a good selection of engines and even a good range of technology (for the time anyway). A E46 M3 resides in my dream garage and to be honest I would relish the chance to own one…even a lower powered model would suffice. Coupe or convertible it is a fantastic car for the money, just £3k would but £6k would get me a later car with the smooth and fast 3L petrol engine in a 330Ci.
Personally it is the convertible which really tickles my taste-buds. As I have already alluded to, a drop top (as opposed to an SUV) has been a strong contender for being my next car, and the E46 convertible is pretty much in a league of its own when it comes to choosing a 4 seater cabrio. Sure the Audi A4 has a classier image but it is quite abit more expensive to buy, and the Volvo C70/Saab 9-3 are much lesser cars with less premium badges. I did consider the Mercedes CLK for a little while too, but it’s also expensive and doesn’t have the engine range or image of the Bimmer. Like I’ve already said, the sleek looks of the E46 means that it has classic looks which are likely to be remain regarded highly in years to come. Facelifted models (2003 on in the coupe/cabrio) benefit from more aggressive headlamps and LED tail-lights, which help the car remain looking quite modern even though it was introduced 15 years ago. Roof down the convertible is the better looking of the pair, but the coupe holds its own and manages to look sporty and relatively compact (in fact the upcoming 2 Series seems to be a similar size…subsequent 3 Series have grown dramatically).
Inside it’s my opinion that the E46 has aged as well as a car from 10-15 years ago can…yes there isn’t an abundance of soft plastics, yes there is a lack of modern technology like iPod connectors and Google Maps based navigation, but it has a clean look which is unmatched by many current cars, and regardless of trimmings it is still a high quality environment to spend time in, though personally I would prefer my window switches on the door rather than next to the gear lever. Equipment depends greatly on spec and how much the original owner splurged on options; most models come with climate control, navigation is quite rare but is more common on bigger engined later models. Leather was also quite popular and a good chunk of those cars also have heated seats. Four adults can just about squeeze in both cars, and there is even a 5th seat in the back of the coupe which could be used for emergencies. Boot space is surprisingly large for a sports car too…the coupe has a load space that is only slightly smaller than the saloon car’s (around 330L I recall), and the convertible manages a credible effort (about 250L maybe) when the roof is up. Not outstanding figures by any means but enough for a couple of soft holdalls or a weeks worth of shopping.
As I have already said all BMW’s shine on the road, but older 3 Series tend to have a special space in the hearts of reviewers who love a great handling car. One of the last n0n run-flat Bimmers, the E46 is spared the harsh ride of more recent models, even if M Sport models do have massive wheels, and as expected handling is sharp and importantly more manageable than previous generations, even in the convertible (some may call it softer, but for the vast majority of buyers they won’t care). Things start to get complicated when you start to look at engine choices though…the original cars came in 318, 320, 323 or 328 guises, the 323 was later replaced with the 325 and 328 with 330, 320d and 330d diesel options were offered later and gave the car more appeal to business buyers. The 318 was actually 2 different engines over the course of its’s lifetime too; originally the car only had a 1.9L engine with 118bhp, but was replaced in 2002 with a 2.0L 143bhp version. Confusingly the 320 was a 2.2L 6-cyl (170bhp) , both 323 were 2.5L 6-cyls (170/187bhp) and 328/330 are 3L (with 193/231bhp), the diesels have 150/204bhp and although a little noisy they do get significantly better mpg than similarly numbered petrols. All those numbers and figures are abit much to comprehend, and given the similar performance and economy on offer it seems pretty pointless that so many choices were offered…but it was probably something to do with different markets and the tax systems on offer. For me the sweet spots are the top and bottom of the engine ranges; the 318Ci is abit slow (especially with an automatic gearbox) but they return reasonable economy-about 39mpg for the coupe and 37 for the heavier convertible (manual models). For not much more outlay you can easily get a 330Ci…31/28mpg should be attainable for couple and convertible models respectively (automatic figures as manuals are rarer), and get from 0-60 in around 7 seconds as opposed to 11 for the 318Ci. Inbetween models get slight changes in performance and even slighter mpg-wise. My only hesitation with the 330Ci would be the higher taxing costs, as otherwise the sweet 3L engine is a great choice for most buyers.
So why am I not taking the plunge and seizing my chance at drop-top motoring whilst I still have the chance? Well to be honest if had not developed my obsession with SUV’s then there would likely be a 330Ci convertible sitting on driveway right now. It would not be cheap to run however-group 18 insurance means it would cost as much as some of the more powerful SUV’s on my shortlist, and neither would it be any more economical on fuel or running costs…yes the BMW 3L 6-cyl is a great motor but for the size of car it has a drinking problem…especially when the diesel engines return around 45mpg. Why wouldn’t I want a diesel? Well they are significantly more expensive to buy and come with their own potential issues. There is also of course the issue of practicality; I know it’s not as though I really need a car with rear doors or with a large boot, but I tend to be the person who drives on visits to shopping malls, garden centres and DIY stores, as well as bringing my nan along when we are with her. Yes I know that climbing in and out of a 4X4 isn’t going to be easy for an 86yo either, but it will likely be abit more dignified than being pulled out of the back of a rear bucket seat. Anyone in the market for this type of car undoubtedly will be looking at the 3 Series, and if you can cope with the relative lack of space or want it as a weekend car then there isn’t any other option. As for me, well a 330Ci convertible will always have a place in my dream garage…and who knows when I have a garage of my own there might be space for one as my own weekend toy.