A Love Letter To BMW’s N52

There’s an upsetting trend in automotive journalism that has grown like a cancer across the online automotive community: excessive negativity. A new generation of writers has come up, eager to show editors and readers alike what they’ve got, and prove themselves as deserving of their attention and respect. A combination of a postmodern cultural shift and a desire to hide a lack of knowledge and experience — we’ll call it pride — has resulted in an impenetrable wall of irony and snark.

Go to any automotive website, and you’re likely to see a slew of articles with titles like “Why the (insert car/engine/racing series) is Overrated” or “Top 10 Reasons Why That Thing You Like Actually Sucks.” The entire industry could do with a little more sincerity and a lot more humility. In that spirit, this week’s article won’t be about what I don’t like about the N54 engine. It will instead be about why I love the N52. Maybe, by the end, you’ll discover that you love it, too.

The N52 is the last in a long line of overhead cam, normally aspirated inline six cylinder engines from BMW. To many, that configuration presents the classic ideal of the BMW driving experience.

As both customer demands and emissions requirements have changed, so has the BMW lineup. While there’s no denying that BMW’s turbocharged four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines offer an incredible balance of power and economy, it’s sad to think that successive generations of first-time BMW owners will not be privileged enough to experience the trademark pull of a normally-aspirated BMW inline six.

With a flat and even torque curve, partially thanks to variable valve timing on both camshafts, the N52 was like so many BMW inline sixes before. What made it truly remarkable, though, was its power output.

In 2006, and 2006 only, the then-new E90 3 Series was graced with the N52B30 in the top-spec model, the 330i. With a different tune and a three-stage intake that differentiated it from the 328i that followed in 2007, the 330i produced an amazing 255 horsepower. That makes it the most powerful non-M, normally aspirated BMW inline six ever produced.

Like a one-hit wonder, the 330i was almost immediately overshadowed by the awesome 335i that replaced it in 2007. Powered by a turbocharged N54 inline six, it was BMW’s first mass-produced turbocharged engine. While BMW had toyed with turbochargers before with the legendary 2002 turbo and the E23 745i, this truly put power in the hands of the people.

It is a shame, though, that the N52’s merits have been largely forgotten in the turbocharged wake of the N54. The benefit to enthusiasts like us is that N52 cars — even range-toppers like the E90 330i — are relative bargains.

Care and feeding of the N52 is comparatively simple, too. Save for a lifter tick issue with solutions that range from a BMW recall to “just live with it,” there are really no major issues. The Valvetronic motor may need replacement, and various gaskets that are best described as “occasionally porous.” Aside from that, a well-maintained N52 can give you tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of miles of loyal, reliable, reasonably quick service.

Special thanks to my buddy Chuck for letting me use photos of his ’09 328xi for this article. Chuck, if you’re reading this, buy the three-stage manifold already. You won’t regret it.

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