What seemed like a cheap, stylish daily driver for our managing editor Phill Tromans is, unsurprisingly, a massive money pit.
Let’s address BMW’s current elephant in the showroom. Styling is a subjective thing, of course, but this is a subjective bit of writing, so: modern BMWs look terrible. I’m all for pushing the boat out on design, but not when it looks like you pushed the boat into a bridge and mashed the front end up.
For me, the late ‘90s and early 2000s were prime BMW design time. The Z3, the E39 5 Series and even the original X5 still look great today. But the E46 3 Series is the suavest of the lot. Especially in Touring estate form.
So anyway, I bought one, and here it is. It’s a 2002 facelifted 330d, currently with 195,000 miles on the clock, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. I wanted a relatively affordable retro daily driver, and was actually looked for a ‘90s boxy Volvo estate, but when this Sapphire Black M Sport model flashed up on Pistonheads, I fell for it immediately. Within an hour of calling the seller, I was driving to see it, and put in an offer. It was all mine for £2,500, and the previous owner even MOT’d it for me, popping on some new (but cheap) tyres.
At the time, it seemed very affordable for what I’d got. I prefer the look of the facelifted E46, I’ve always loved an estate, and the powerful diesel engine has a reputation for reliability. It’s relatively frugal on long motorway drives, even though the previous owner had the M57 straight six mapped on a dyno for more power. It now makes 230bhp, up from 184 as standard (weirdly, this E46 has the older 2.9-litre engine, with a five-speed manual gearbox, rather than the 3.0-litre, 204bhp, six-speed model you’ll find in most facelifted cars). It also has a buttload of torque, with 368lb ft at 2,580rpm. Midrange for days.
Other spec highlights include all the M Sport trim goodies, a Harmon Kardon sound system, sat-nav (complete with 21-year-old maps), and even a TV. It doesn’t work, because the analogue TV signal in the UK has been turned off, but still. A TV!
On paper, then, I’d found a great deal. Of course, that wasn’t the whole story. I took my new ride straight to BMR Performance in Turners Hill, Sussex, for a post-purchase check-up, and it wasn’t good news. Although the car felt okaaay during my short test drive, and I’d spotted a couple of minor rust patches, a detailed look from someone who knew what they were doing highlighted myriad problems.
The main one was a cracked boot floor where the rear subframe is mounted. This is a common issue on E46s, and needed immediate action. I had factored in some extra cash in my overall budget to get the things spick and span, but welding in reinforcement plates took care of all of that, and more. And, when the subframe was taken off, a load of rust was found, which will probably need cutting out and replacing soon. I haven’t had that done yet, but the rusty bits have been Waxoyled to heck to stop them getting much worse.
While the welding was done, I replaced the whole rear subframe and just about every bush (with OE-spec Lemforder rather than too-harsh poly bushes). New track rod arms, new shocks all round and various seized and rusted fixings were sorted.
It made a massive difference to the way that the car drives, but the costs have kept coming. With British summers now very hot, I overhauled the air-con and needed a new pusher fan and condenser, although as BMW prices were sky-high, I went aftermarket for those. The water pump failed, so I got a used one and stuck that on.
Since then, I’ve run it through a full service at BMR, with a new main drive belt and various new hoses, and I’ve tidied up a few cosmetic bits. A rip on the driver’s bolster was retrimmed by Cartrim in Haywards Heath, and rust on the boot lid and offside rear arch was fixed and repainted by Southdown Bodyshop in Ditchling. I put on new OEM headlight lenses and seals myself, although the Xenon lights still fog up in bad weather, so clearly, I didn’t do a brilliant job. The 18-inch BMW Style 32 wheels have been refurbed, which included taking a buckle out of two of them.
The Touring sailed through its November 2022 MOT with no advisories, although it was noted that one of the cheap tyres fitted just a year before was started to go all misshapen. I threw caution (and cash) to the wind, and splashed out on a full set of Michelin Pilot Sport 5s, which have dramatically improved both steering feel and ride quality.
That said, there’s still much to do before the car is how I want it. A couple of rusty bits on the bottom of the front doors still need sorting, as do the inner rear arches, which have gone rather crunchy. There’s still the rust under the subframe that I’m trying not to think about. Neutral sits under fifth gear, rather than between third and fourth, because a detent spring has gone. Fixing it means dropping the whole transmission. The handling’s not quite right either – it feels a bit floaty in a straight line, so I need to get that looked at.
I’m going for an OEM-Plus look rather than something wild, at least for now. In the future, I love the idea of some kind of engine swap, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Total costs so far? I’m not going to tell you in case my wife reads this, but it was way more than I expected or had budgeted for. But for all my sighs and the bulging file of receipts, I bloody love this car. It’s a perfect blend of long-distance cruiser and enjoyable B-road hustler (or will be once I’ve properly sorted the handling).
And dammit, if it doesn’t look the bomb. It sits slightly lower than standard thanks to Eibach springs, but it’s otherwise pretty stock. I’ve put two bike racks on the roof, ostensibly to carry my bike around but also, if I’m honest, because they look awesome. I delight in cleaning it, and in looking back at it when I park up and walk away. Ultimately, isn’t that the best measure of love for a car?