As time marches on, the perspective of the present allows us to truly appreciate the greatness of the past. One of BMW’s greatest eras was the early 2000s. This was a time before the domination of the crossover, a time when the sedan reigned supreme, and when the E46 3 Series and E39 5 Series made up the backbone of the BMW inventory. While the E46 M3 and E39 M5 have aged gracefully into modern-day collectibles, their non-M siblings were used and enjoyed much more thoroughly, making nice examples harder to come by. That’s what makes these two clean, lower-mileage cars so special: a 2004 BMW 330Ci and a 2003 BMW 530i. They belong to a local enthusiast whose first BMW was a 2002 and who owned several E46s and E39s before landing with this duo—an excellent two-car solution.

A late-model Mystic Blue 6-speed manual 330Ci is a rare car these days.

By the year 2004, the E46 was nearing the twilight of its timeline. In 2003, the 330Ci coupe received a cosmetic facelift, which included wider kidney grilles, adaptive headlights, and LED taillights. For the 330Ci, the sports suspension was also offered standard, along with a six-speed gearbox and staggered Style 68 M sport wheels. Mystic Blue Metallic was more often reserved for the M3 or Performance package (ZHP) cars than a regular 330Ci, but it makes any E46 look good. This 2004 six-speed manual Mystic Blue 330Ci benefits from all of these E46 timeline evolutions. Additional options for this car are lowering springs, along with AC Schnitzer rear spoilers and exhaust. Of the two, the E46 is the canyon carver, having crisper edges than the larger 5 Series best suited to spirited drives in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Post-face-lift 330Cis received wider kidney grilles, adaptive headlights, and LED taillights. This one has Style 68 wheels and AC Schnitzer rear spoilers and exhaust.

Two blues on opposite ends of the BMW color pallet.

At first glance, the 530i looks like what could be a 540i M Sport.

When longer grand-touring journeys are required or additional legroom for rear passengers is needed, the 2003 530i is deployed. The final year of production for the E39 5 Series was 2003, and they are also some of the rarest. The M54B30-powered 530i had more punch than the 525i, yet it did not have the timing guide issues of the V8-powered 540i. While the latter was offered in a special 2003-model-year-only M Sport, a 2003 530i Sport package car included Shadowline trim, the M Sports suspension, steering wheel, sport seats, and Style 42 wheels. This Blue Water Metallic 530i Sport significantly closed the gap with the 540i M Sport. When was the last time you saw a Blue Water Metallic E39?

Exterior mods feature the M Sport front bumper with “T-bar,” Style 37 M Par wheels, M5 mirrors with Euro glass, and AC Schnitzer side gills and rear roof spoiler.

Interior upgrades include AC Schnitzer pedals and e-brake handle, TV module with backup camera, BMW logo projectors, M5 door sills, M5 instrument cluster, and M3 steering wheel with SMG paddle shifters.

The upgrade list is lengthy! Cosmetics include the M Sport “t-bar” front bumper with CSL-style carbon fiber splitters, AC Schnitzer side gills and rear roof spoiler, M5 mirrors with Euro glass, BMW mudflaps, 18-inch Style 37 M Parallel wheels, and an M5 rear bumper to accommodate a quad-tipped exhaust. This is complemented inside by AC Schnitzer pedals and an e-brake handle, M door sills, an M5 instrument cluster, illuminated lower door projectors, a TV module with a backup camera, and an M3 steering wheel with SMG paddle shifters. Those shift the automatic gearbox, which may seem contrary to such a heavily modified car, but it soaks up the rigors of rush hour wonderfully.

Under the hood is a VF Engineering Supercharger flowing through a Super Sprint exhaust.

A previous owner went so far as to notch out the rear tire well to accommodate the quad-tipped exhaust.

While the previous owner spent untold thousands on cosmetic modifications, those pale in comparison to what’s under the sheet metal. The M54 is breathing through a VF Engineering supercharger under a carbon fiber Dinan valve cover and exhaling through an M5-style Super Sprint exhaust. They even went so far as to notch out the rear spare tire well so it would flow freely. The suspension is all Dinan with upgraded springs and tuned Koni struts, front and rear strut braces, and sway bars. Braking is handled by StopTech front big brakes, which make fade-free work of hauling in the big 5’er when it’s time to shut things down.

Both the E46 and E39 herald one of BMW’s greatest eras.

Driving both cars back to back, the underlying impression I got was just how wonderful this era of BMW’s timeline is. There is a lovely subtlety to both of these cars, that original DNA that earned BMW its driver-centric reputation. They aren’t as hard-edged as their M brethren, but that makes them more comfortable and more tolerable for the trials of daily operations. The 330Ci is an honest sports sedan that does just what you ask of it with linear torque delivery, exploitable power, and communicative handling. It does so without massive wheels over man-hole cover-sized brakes, a suspension that won’t rattle your fillings loose, and a cockpit filled with analog gauges and buttons. Compared to the modern car, the E46 shows just how far the performance arms race has removed the driving experience from the equation.

At first glance, one can’t help but wonder why someone would so heavily modify an automatic 530i. It is the last year of production and a proper 530i Sport in an extremely rare color, but for what the total package of upgrades cost, they could have easily just bought an M5, or if the auto was desired, a 540i M Sport with a slushbox. But, having succumbed to the obsessive “never enough” syndrome of modifying my own cars, I hypothesize that this 530i started with some minor upgrades that snowballed over time into the one-off example it is today. Unfortunately, the records were not provided to the seller the current owner purchased the car from, so we will never know for sure.

Those upgrades turn up the volume significantly behind the wheel without compromising the 530i’s original DNA. The VF Engineering supercharger adds more top-end power linearly but is subtle enough to keep things civilized. The Super Sprint exhaust walks the fine line to let the world know this isn’t a normal 530i at higher revs but is still unobtrusive under normal driving conditions. The six-cylinder E39s had a tighter steering rack and pinion compared to the V8’s recirculating ball “steering box,” which is improved considerably with the Dinan bits. While still not as agile and crisp as the E46 is, the E39 truly shines out on the open roads and long drives. The most remarkable thing the inner E39 guy in me appreciates about it is the overall pristine condition, unique color, and E39-specific oddities. The backup camera was only offered on late-model E39s, and the Euro switch panel above the cup holders has literally every option available, even though the car isn’t so equipped.

The Euro switch panel has every blank filled!

Working from the mission backward, these two cars offer an excellent two-car solution of some uniquely colored and outfitted examples of one of BMW’s greatest eras without the expense or preciousness of their modern-day collectible M brethren.–Alex McCulloch





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