When I decided to start looking for my first Bimmer, the E46 seemed like the obvious choice. The chassis offers countless variants and engine options, but for me it had to be a wagon. As you know, wagon people are a little “different.” As an enthusiast, there are fierce wagon advocates, and people who don’t really care for them. You might be able to guess what side I’m on: after owning a Volvo V70 wagon that my grandmother gave to me, I learned how versatile the wagon platform can be. It offers both convenience and endless performance possibilities, if the example is chosen wisely.
This brings us to the E46 Touring. Simply put, the E46’s popularity and high volume production numbers make them extremely affordable for young enthusiasts. Occasionally earning the affectionately-given title of the “Civic” of the 3 Series, the early-2000s chassis may not be the most modern, luxurious, or high-performance 3 Series in recent memory, but the value proposition is still one of the best. With a modern airbag system (so long as the recall is completed), you can feel safe regardless of who’s behind the wheel. Additionally, their relative reliability makes them easy for anyone to catch up on maintenance. “Timeless” has become a buzzword for modern classics, but it applies to the E46 as well; its relatively simple design has made it well appreciated across the BMW community—and so my hunt began.
My search began fruitlessly. Months passed, yielding little more than a rusted out, pre-facelift, all-wheel drive car. The Northeast proves, as always, a challenging place to find any halfway decent “modern classic.” But finally, I stumbled across a Craigslist listing in upstate New York. The ad showed photos of a rear-drive, sport package, slick-top, five-Speed wagon in Alpine White. This was perfect. Despite its 177,000 miles, the body appeared to be in great shape, and was clearly well taken care of over its life. I assumed the price in the listing was some sort of typo, seeing that it was well above any other stock wagon I had come across.
As the story went, it was brought to New York by an owner who had found it in Florida. After this gentleman’s M3 track-car motor popped, his spare S54 was no longer available for an M3 converted wagon (a classic story). Despite my skepticism, I reached out to pursue my possible interest in the car.
After chatting back and forth with the seller, I quickly realized that his listing price was not a typo. He was sure that the car was the cleanest, most perfect chassis he had ever come across. The ideal swap candidate. Along with its cleanliness the car sported a Diffsonline-built limited slip rear end and H&R Cup Kit springs, or so I thought. He was steadfast in his negotiations, not giving an inch; our conversation left me frustrated. Another potential wagon too far out of reach.
Three more months of exhausting searches went by and still, nothing. At this point in my search, I was becoming increasingly frustrated that I wasn’t finding the right wagon, and began considering other options.
As I was about to express interest to other sellers, I came across the same Alpinweiss touring from before, featuring the same astronomical list price. I decided to channel my inner Ed Bolian, and give it another crack. Whether from my burgeoning negotiation skills, or his inability to move the car, it ended up working the second time around. The seller agreed to drive the car more than two hours to my apartment in Burlington, Vermont so I could give it a once-over.
Highlighting a couple of minor issues I spotted through the inspection, I was able to negotiate the price down further to a point that I would have been silly not to bring it home. We agreed on a price—and the one that got away was officially mine.
Only after my purchase did I decide to do further background research. This proved to be a big mistake. It turned out that I was now the proud ninth owner of this beautiful Bavarian longroof. It began its life in Maine, spending its first 70,000 miles as a summer car (there is, surprisingly enough, no rust under this car). Its first owner clearly had taste: what a preposterous specification for an owner from Maine!
After making its way down to Florida it changed hands many times while acquiring its next 100k miles. Finally, our friend from New York happened across it to build it into a track car. Like miles, owners are just a number, right? Oh, and the H&R Cup Kit springs turned out to be a Harbor Freight special, and I found tow lights zip-tied up underneath the rear of the car. If only I could get all the owners in one room to swap some stories…
As a first-time BMW owner, I went through the usual honeymoon phase with the car. I brought it skiing and drifting out in the snow, and it became an awesome daily-driver in Vermont despite being rear-drive. However, rust makes fools of us all—or at least it does when the car has 185,000 miles on them. After two seized calipers, blown rear struts, a busted window regulator and window motor (it is an E46, after all), there were issues with rust and tired consumables that all needed to be solved.
While I did not have the knowledge, experience or confidence to tackle the brakes or bushings, my friends and I did decided to address the rear struts and window assembly. Having very little experience working on cars, I enlisted the help of my two best friends; through disassembly, we managed to successfully destroy every piece of 20-year-old plastic in my trunk’s interior, strip a critical bolt, and find the strut had blown through the rubber mount. Perfect—E46 ownership was off to a lovely start!
Despite our initial adversity and stress we continued on, even driving to the world-renowned Bavarian Autosport (RIP) to acquire the parts we needed for reinstallation. Assembly was a considerably smoother process, mainly because most of my interior trim was broken and needn’t be reinstalled. We torqued necessary bolts, patched back the interior as best we could, and were on our way.
With maintenance out of the way, I figured I was in the clear. I started looking at coilovers, wheels, sway bars—all the fun things any E46 owner wants. When cruising through forms, however, I was introduced to any E46 owner’s famous last word: “subframe.”
After doing research online I discovered the ultimate nightmare, and was convinced the next time I put the wagon up on a lift, the entire drivetrain would fall out. In hindsight, I may have blown this out of proportion slightly, but it still kept me up at night. I knew sorting out the subframe was the next item on the list.
Jake from Wile Motorsport in Walpole, Massachusetts (whom I highly recommended for this and any other BMW-related project) was able to confirm that my subframe remained in one piece, and installed polyurethane subframe bushings, motor mounts, and transmission mounts. This made a significant impact to the feel of the car, cleaning up the slop and play in the drivetrain (and don’t get me started about the flex disc).
Since the most recent major service in summer of 2019, I’ve been enjoying the car. Lots of summer cruises up to Rockport, Massachusetts to visit RSS, lawn events with the BMW CCA at the Larz Anderson, and even moving myself out of college: the E46 Touring did it all. She was garaged this past winter, finally protected from the salt, but upon spring’s arrival she got some much-needed time in the higher rev-range (once up to temperature, of course). I’ve had such a blast owning this car, learning how to properly drive it, and discovering all the ins and outs of the E46 chassis. While minor rust repair is all but guaranteed as long as it remains in the northeast, I’m looking forward to enjoying (and maybe someday swapping) this car for many years to come.
So, after everything I’ve been through with my E46, why is it the best first BMW?
Owning an E46 allows young enthusiasts to learn how to own an enthusiast car. Sure, a Miata or a WRX can be fun, but the 3 series chassis is so unique, and offers a body style and engine combination to suit just about any enthusiast. Want to race-spec E46? Find a stripped 330i sedan. Want to cruise around town? An automatic 325i convertible could be the car for you. Need to get to the ski resort through during tough winters? An all-wheel drive 325xi Touring is the perfect tool. Want to flex on all you other E46 friends? An S54-swapped sedan is a potent choice. This variety in options and support from the online BMW community can make anyone appreciate E46 3 Series ownership.
Owning an E46 can also help young enthusiasts to learn how to work on their own car. With countless videos online walking owners through step-by-step guides to almost any common issue, maintenance becomes a breeze.
The chassis also sits in a great sweet-spot after the E36, which is over 25 years old and difficult to find in clean condition, and the E90 platform, in which more computer dependency becomes an issue. The E46 is very basic at its core, which helps with quick learning. Although there are some larger issues, like the subframe or lifter-tick, they are, mechanically, relatively reliable. Aside from the common maintenance needs of any vehicle with over 185,000 miles, I haven’t had many issues.
But perhaps most importantly, owning an E46 allows young enthusiasts to partake in the greater BMW community. The first item on my list after the purchase of my wagon was to become a BMW Car Club of America member; the BMW CCA is a great resource for all BMW owners to connect and share tips and tricks about owning different BMWs, discuss track days and autocross, or just to get together and go out for a cruise. I even managed to find (one) past owner of my wagon!
So there you have it. Not only is the E46 the perfect first BMW, but it offers an even more valuable service for the community: it’s the perfect first car to turn anyone into a petrolhead.—Tucker Beatty
[Photos and story courtesy Boston Chapter BMW CCA member Tucker Beatty.]