It's been since my high school days that I have had a car-crush on the E46 BMW 3 Series. Whilst I appreciated getting dropped off by Dad in the Transit Van, it seemed like every well-to-do school goer would be dropped off by mum in some kind of E46 variant - probably something M Sport to increase the jealousy!
Fast forward to today and I find myself still deprived of 3 Series ownership thanks to having company cars for the past 15 years (I’m in the auto industry). That was until my partner quit her job and needed a temporary car. All of a sudden I found myself in unfamiliar territory - shopping for a car (for her of course).
Due to only needing a car until a new job was landed, requirements in the car such as long term reliability, functionality/convenience and long term maintenance costs took the back seat, and sensible options (Corolla, Mazda 3, etc.) were not considered. Without further thought I narrowed it down to this MY04 BMW 330Ci Individual finished in a rare Messing Bronze Metallic and Kiwi beige leather interior combination. Okay, so it didn't have the Sports exterior package everyone lusts for but it did have a tonne of factory options, a healthy service log and a subtle exhaust system which really complemented the already deep-toned 3.0-litre straight six. Picking this car up over six months ago and driving various other models (work) allows me to share my thoughts on owning this fine vehicle - I mean co-owning.
On the road the 170kW naturally-aspirated six-cylinder is silky smooth, and power is instant to what your right foot is asking for - no lag and no gearbox thinking about which gear to be in - just go, go, go. My car has the 5-speed auto box which does well and allows me to play with the + and - when I'm feeling like a more spirited drive, although I do wish I had waited for a manual to show up for sale. Steering is what you'd expect from BMW; the car falls into corners perfectly when pushed and at lower speeds offers a great turning circle and grip feel in all weather.
Speaking of steering-related things, a small gripe I have is with steering wheel adjustment; it doesn't sit low enough in your lap or extend out enough for my boy racer style of driving (seat back), but is forgiven for its thick leather, stitched and sporty aesthetic. If it weren't for this car being optioned with the Individual pack (Sport seats, door sills, wood grain and interesting leather colour) the interior could be perceived as a tad mundane and uninspiring. If you haven't noticed, this is a coupe so practicality may be an issue, but in saying that, boot space is excellent and the seats fold down allowing for more room when furniture shopping.
Interior materials, bar the leather, are all showing their age. The roof lining sags, the A, B, and C pillars have loose fabric, and some of the interior plastics have peeled paint as if they were coloured in by crayons at factory. This is an issue not just for this car but commonly discussed on E46 forums and witnessed by myself on other vehicles. My car was optioned with satellite navigation, TV tuner, Bluetooth (text display also) and Harmon Kardon sound system, all controlled by the in-dash pop out screen display. It all works fine, however compared to newer cars it lacks Apple CarPlay and more ergonomic navigation operation. If I were planning to drive this to work daily I would easily be able to install an Apple CarPlay option and desire nothing more.
Both my partner and I get a sense of safety when driving the 330Ci. It feels planted, carries six airbags and has an overly-active traction control system, which for safety purposes is a great thing, especially in the wet. However unlike the Apple CarPlay I could retrofit, matching modern vehicles for active safety features is pretty much impossible. Having been spoiled by these features in our other company cars, I was quite taken aback on how reliant you become on them (auto brake, lane departure warning and active cruise to name a few). This isn't such a bad thing, as driving this car has sharpened my driving skills and made me more aware of the road/traffic conditions.
Owning this vehicle for six months means I can’t praise it for its reliability yet, but I can say that I have had no mechanical issues and had the car checked/serviced as soon as we brought it home. This is relieving as I have heard some horror stories relating to cooling systems and oil seals. With my car touching just over 200,000km, the previous owner deserves credit for keeping it so well.
The last thing I’ll say in this review is how fond I am of the exterior design. It is sleek, well-proportioned and has a real sophistication to it by today's design standards. For me it is one of those cars you lock in the Coles car park and glance back it a couple of times before entering the store, so if the car is still able to do this after 21 years from its model release, surely it deserves the love that us E46 fanatics give it.
So in summary if you are after a sub $10K sports luxury vehicle that you can take pride in owning, look no further. Don't like the practicality of a coupe? Buy a different shape. My only advice would be to buy a 330 over a smaller capacity engine car (318-325). The 330 had a hefty price premium when new, so take advantage of the depreciation as they are almost identically priced now.
This car is from an era when BMW had it so right, unlike the structure of my first review.. thanks for reading!