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Used BMW E46 review: 1998-2005

2003 BMW 330Ci Coupe.

There's little doubt that BMW is the brand that paved the way for the plethora of other prestige brands that now litter our market, and the 3-Series was the BMW model that made the breakthrough.


The 3-Series was a prestige model that was tantalisingly within reach for people who wanted to move up from local models but couldn't afford the huge step up to a bigger Beemer or 'Benz.

The lowest model on the 3-Series totem might have only had a modest four-cylinder engine, but it had a blue and white spinner badge and that was enough for many buyers. The E46 was a marked step up in size and shape from the earlier E36, its proportions were more generous, its lines more plump.

But it delivered the same solid drive experience. It felt planted on the road, the steering was re-assuring, the ride firm without being uncomfortable, and the engines were smooth and responsive.

The range began with the four-cylinder 318i, which was generally panned by reviewers for being boring. Compared to the six-cylinder models that criticism might have had some merit, but viewed alone the four stacks up solidly against its rivals with decent performance around town and on the highway and quite acceptable fuel economy.

The rest of the range was powered by the marvellous BMW six-cylinder engine in various capacities and outputs, from the 2.2-litre at the lower end to the sizzling M3 atop the pole. A choice of manual, five and six-speed, and auto, also five and six-speed, was offered, and a sequential manual was also offered on the M3.

The levels of equipment varied enormously from the 318i to the M3. While the base car, the 318i, was reasonably well equipped it didn't have cruise control, to get that you had to step up to the 318i Executive.


The 3-Series was generally well built and has stood up quite well over time. The body remains solid and rarely develops any squeaks and rattles, the handling remains true and responsive, and the engines continue to deliver the same liquid smooth performance even when they've reached high miles.

For that reason they can be a little deceiving. While they might drive and perform impressively, they can develop issues as the kays climb that can be expensive to repair. BMW engines generally don't use oil, and they give little trouble, but they are known to leak oil. The leaks are usually picked up at service time.

The plastics BMW uses in and around the engine, particularly in the cooling system and engine ventilation system, go brittle with age and eventually crumble. Most mechanics report that once one goes it's a good idea to replace all the fittings because they'll all go and replacing them in one fell swoop avoids the expense of repeated trips back to the workshop to replace them as they fail one by one.

Radiators are another weakness, and they can be expensive to replace. Instrument clusters and A/C control panels are other weakness and are known to burn out requiring replacement.

Brakes are also an issue, the 3-Series tends to go through pads and discs every 50,000 km or so. Cheaper aftermarket parts are available to help keep the cost down.

If you're thinking of buying an E46 with more than 100,000 kays on the clock think about having a BMW specialist mechanic check it for you, it could save a lot of heartache later on.

It's also worth getting to know a BMW specialist mechanic to keep your car running smoothly without costing you a fortune. On the plus side even older, high mileage 3-Series are comfortable and drive smoothly.


Generally sound, but can be expensive as the kays climb. Shop with care.

BMW 3-series E46 1998-2005

Price new: $56,170 to $158,000
Engine: 1.9-litre 4-cylinder, 87 kW/180 Nm; 2.0-litre 4-cylinder, 105 kW/200 Nm; 2.2-litre 6-cylinder, 125 kW/210 Nm; 2.5-litre 6-cylinder, 125 kW/245 Nm; 2.5-litre 6-cylinder, 141 kW/245 Nm; 2.8-litre 6-cylinder, 142 kW/280 Nm; 3.0-litre 6-cylinder, 170 kW/300 Nm; 3.2-litre 6-cylinder, 252 kW/365 Nm
Transmission: 5-speed auto, 5-speed manual, 6-speed manual, 6-speed sequential manual, RWD
Economy: 7.2 L/100 km (318i), 7.6 L/100 km (320i), 7.5 L/100 km (328i), 8.0 L/100 km (330i), 7.6 L/100 km (M3)
Body: 4-door sedan, 4-door wagon, 2-door coupe, 2-door convertible
Variants: 318i, 320i, 323i, 325i, 328i, 330i, M3
Safety: ABS braking and airbags, plus ESP from 2004


Do you own a Holden Captiva? If so tell us what you think of it by sending your comments to Graham Smith at or Carsguide, PO Box 4245, Sydney, NSW, 2010.


Year Price From Price To
2005 $5,720 $19,580
2004 $5,720 $19,690
2003 $4,730 $19,690
2002 $4,730 $18,260
2001 $4,730 $18,260
2000 $4,950 $18,040
1999 $4,400 $13,970
1998 $2,420 $13,750

View all BMW 3 Series pricing and specifications

Pricing guides

Based on third party pricing data
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Range and Specs

318ti 1.9L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,720 – 8,030 1998 BMW 3 Series 1998 318ti Pricing and Specs
318is 1.9L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $7,150 – 10,010 1998 BMW 3 Series 1998 318is Pricing and Specs
318i 1.8L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,420 – 3,850 1998 BMW 3 Series 1998 318i Pricing and Specs
318ti Contour 1.9L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,830 – 8,250 1998 BMW 3 Series 1998 318ti Contour Pricing and Specs
Graham Smith
Contributing Journalist


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