Late 90s/early 2000s European cars have always appealed to me. Considered by some as the golden age for the likes of Audi and BMW, nothing, to me at least, can beat them. So, when the time came for me to purchase a car, it seemed the logical choice. However, before I go any further, a quick disclaimer: I’m a high school student finishing my last year, so I don’t have years of motoring experience under my belt. Nonetheless I feel that I’ve owned the car long enough to know its quirks and mannerisms, so hopefully the review is an enjoyable read.
Back to the story. After saving enough money, the time finally came for me to begin seriously looking at first car contenders. As I said above, the Euro corner was where I headed first; specifically, BMW. The third generation 3 Series, otherwise known as the E46, is a car I’ve always had a deep passion for. Timeless styling with sweet handling and the option of a smooth 6-cylinder, it was all too tempting. I began my search and fell upon a 2003 330i Sedan, finished in Mystic Blue with a cream leather and wood interior combination. On the face of it, the car seemed cosmetically perfect. Further digging found the mechanicals were in top notch too, so I bit the bullet and bought.
With that aside, I’ll crack on to the oily bits. Sitting almost at the top of the E46 food chain, only being beaten by the M3, the 330i houses BMW's infamous 3-litre straight-six. Pumping out 170kW and 300Nm with a deep, snarly exhaust note, it delivers beautifully smooth and linear power delivery right up to 6500rpm. The lack of turbocharging also means there’s instant pickup, providing a swift take-off from standstill.
Coupled together with a 5-speed automatic, the 330i is neither slow nor considerably fast. The sprint from 0-100km/h takes a respectable 7 seconds, which is plenty fast enough for everyday driving or highway cruising when needed. Fuel consumption heavily depends on how ‘enthusiastically’ you drive; with a relatively gentle foot I average around 12 litres per 100 kilometres. As a result, the car isn’t exactly cheap on fuel, but it’s something I considered before buying and am happy to pay for.
However, as all proper BMW's should, the driving experience is where the 330i excels. 50/50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive and hugely enjoyable steering characteristics, the way the car drives never fails to put a smile on my face. No matter the circumstances, it always seems to make the seemingly boring thoroughly entertaining. The level of poise and sharpness is pretty unbeatable for the price, whilst the steering is, in my opinion, one of the best fitted to a car of this era.
Not too heavy yet not too light, BMW achieved the perfect balance between ease for parking, and feel through the wheel when hooting the car through mountain twisties. Ensuring confidence, this is also met with a highly direct feel when approaching and leaving corners, making the car extremely nimble and sure-footed. Wrapping up this perfect recipe is the beloved luxury of rear-wheel drive. Becoming a rarity in showrooms today, it’s undoubtedly the best E46 ingredient. No torque steer, no understeer, just perfect driving pleasure. A true BMW.
Stepping inside reveals typical 2003 interior styling. Nothing too special, but nothing boring. Using plenty of high-quality materials throughout, the overall cabin ambience feels expensive and ergonomically perfect. Soft touch plastics are found on the dash, door tops and even lower down on the door pockets; something many premium cars of today don’t even have. Ahead of the driver sits a classically styled instrument cluster, baring a rev counter, speedometer, fuel gauge and temperature gauge. The basics. Added to this, displaying trip information such as fuel consumption and range, is a small but clear and surprisingly configurable digital display.
My particular 330i was also optioned with the factory sport multi-function steering wheel, providing chunkier bolsters and controls to operate radio volume and cruise control, among other functions. Added as part of the facelift in 2001, positioned slightly below the drivers eye-line sits a 7-inch digital display. Whilst obviously not a touchscreen, it shows trip data, navigation details and selected radio stations – impressive for a car that’s 17 years old. All the buttons are sensibly positioned, with related controls being grouped together in sections to improve the ergonomics. Standard fit for the 330i, the electric driver and passenger seats are supremely comfortable, simultaneously providing support for those longer journeys and spirited driving. Coupled with the positioning of the steering wheel, pedals and controls, it’s easy to find the perfect driving position.
Despite this, practicality is a mixed bag with small door pockets and scarce cubby spaces throughout the car - you only get two cup holders too, both in the front. The back seats are adequate, with decent leg and head room. Again, the same high-quality materials are used, with a central armrest and cubby space where the rear air vents would be on newer generations of 3 Series. However, with 440 litres of boot space the 330i starts to claw back points. As well as a couple of lights, the space also sports tie down straps and other small spaces to house items. But most importantly, you’ll find a full-sized spare wheel – again, not something that’s becoming of a modern car.
In terms of standard equipment, the 330i is decently catered for. Being near the top of the range, features such as bi-xenon headlights, a 10-speaker HiFi sound system, full leather, a sunroof, one-touch power windows, single-zone climate control, a 6-stacker CD player and memory seating are all standard. Options on my particular car also include two extra rear side airbags, bringing the total to 8, as well as upgraded 5-spoke 17-inch alloys.
After owning the car for around a month, I’ve needed to replace the rear tyres and a coolant hose - nothing too major, merely just inconveniences. Naturally, a car of this age is going to have its fair share of issues throughout ownership, but as long as service intervals are kept up to date and overall general maintenance is done, you won't have too many headaches. The E46 is generally considered a robust, reliable choice, so don't let any of this deter you from buying.
Being 16, driving around in a RWD 6-cylinder 3 Series is certainly a treat. As I stated earlier, running costs will be higher than most, but it's justifiable to me. I’m a guy car and always will be, so a little bit of money here and there to keep it going didn’t stop me from buying a car I’ll forever want to keep. No regrets.