Many enthusiasts hold that the E46 3 Series is the pinnacle of the BMW formula: a marvelous combination of sporting character and everyday usability in a timeless design. In fact, we heartily sing its praises in our E46 buying guide, calling it “one of the most enjoyable drives available in an affordable used car.”
But there are downsides. For example, the E46 interior can age poorly. Rubberized plastics on the center console and the door cards tend to scratch and flake; headliners are prone to sagging. And there are a few dogs in the range with sub-200 hp ratings that can feel pretty anemic compared to more modern machines.
Fortunately, the next generation 3 Series, the E90, along with its shortened-wheelbase cousin, the E82 / E88 1 Series, largely rectified these problems. Both are terrific cars. And the latter, with its tidy, E30-sized footprint and significantly lower price point, is possibly the last, best way for a budget-minded enthusiast to experience the purity of BMW’s original engineering magic, which has sadly been diluted in most of the automakers’ more recent models.
Long a favorite of driving enthusiasts, BMW’s 3 Series has nonetheless gotten bigger, heavier and less engaging with each successive generation. Nowadays, even a car buff could easily mistake a newer 3 Series sedan for a 5 Series. Make no mistake, the 3er’s performance is still impressive, but for many who relish time behind the wheel, the less quantifiable “fun to drive” factor has dropped off.
Indeed, many enthusiasts feel that the E46 generation marks the last time the 3 Series was truly engaging and true to its roots — a spry athlete of a car that offered not only quick reflexes but communication through the steering wheel and seat of one’s pants that let you know in no uncertain terms what the tires were doing.
And with cars from this generation now at least ten years old, depreciation has already taken its toll, making good examples as cheap to acquire as they’re ever going to be.