BMW E46: Fun to drive and remarkably stable

Thursday May 21 2020


By Mark Kawalya

If you have driven a German car before, you probably have experienced that distinct feel of how it handles the road.

The way your hands on the steering wheel are cushioned from road feedback and the split-second throttle response you get when you step on the accelerator. It is a cocktail of things that gives these cars an entirely different driving experience when compared to most Japanese cars within the same class.

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to jump behind the wheel of this 2003 BMW E46, the fourth generation to the three series. I drove the car to and from the Central Business District as the owner rode shotgun and occasionally gave me anxious glances as if afraid I might pull a gun on him and steal his car.

In a nutshell, the E46 is a lot of fun to drive. If you closed your eyes for a minute, you might think you are driving its close competitor, the Mercedes W203 although the E46 has a more solid feel. This is possibly because the E46 is heavier than the W203 by more than 100Kg in terms of curb weight.

Target market
The E46 was targeted at those who want to grab a piece of flashy German engineering but cannot afford the bigger and more expensive models such as the BMW five and seven series.

Just like Mercedes, BMW decided to have a budget product that would appeal to regular hardworking middle-class people who were not blessed with deep pockets. Most of these people were more interested in the white and blue spinner badge as opposed to the ability to hit impressively high-performance benchmarks.


Model specifications
The E46 came with a host of new electric features, the first being rain-sensing wipers that would automatically turn on whenever it would start raining. To me, this must be the hallmark of 2000s German over-engineering. I picture a BMW owner bragging to his friend that drives a Toyota Mark 2 about this little feature as his eyes dance with a mixture of excitement and pride.

The E46 also comes with satellite navigation, LED lights and electronic brake-force distribution, a technology that varies the amount of force applied to each wheel based on road conditions, speed or loading.

The car is powered by the three engines for capacities between 1.8L to 2.0L. These are the M43, N42 and N46, which are all four-cylinder petrol engines produced subsequently in that order. The more powerful M52, M54 and S54 petrol engines were used for variants that run capacities from 2.0L to 3.2L.

With six engines to boot, you would think BMW was finished. Well apparently not. They had another lineup for diesel engines which are the 2.0L M47 engine and the M57 for variants with capacities between 2.9L to 3.0L. The E46 also came with a five and six-speed manual transmission while the automatic variants have a four, five and six-speed transmission configuration.

The variant I looked at had part sued part cloth seats which I particularly wasnt too keen on because sued tends to change appearance when touched. However some models have a leather option. The interior is well thought out with a muscular dashboard that entends inwards.

General use
The E46 has a firm but comfortable ride quality and the car comfortably sits on the ground like a Buffalo in the Serengeti sizing up an opponent surrounded by long blades of grass dancing in the wind.

The three-series is generally well built and the frame is sturdy and can handle many years of use without structural integrity loss if you are a driver with a good head on your shoulders. The car rarely develops squeaks, especially if its suspension is well maintained and is not put through the wringer.

As compared to other newer German cars, the E46 is fairly easy to maintain and its spares are available and well-priced. You will pay about Shs120,000 for an air cleaner and about Shs60,000 for decent spark plugs although cheaper options are available. However, while maintenance of the E46 is fair, it is significantly more expensive than what you would spend on a Japanese car within the same class.

Common problems
Joseph Sekitoleko, a mechanic, says the type of plastics BMW uses in the car’s engine bay fail after some time and need replacing.
Once this is noticed, it is advisable to replace all the other plastic trim since they fail almost at the same time.

This saves you the trouble of making many trips to the garage to get the issue sorted.
Another problem he has noticed with some owners is the early failure of the radiator, which can require a tidy sum of money to replace.

Buying advice
• Try to steer clear of the car if it has high mileage. If you are considering buying a locally used unit, seek the services of a qualified BMW mechanic to prospect the car for you.
• Ensure that the car is generally well taken off and that the engine does not emit unusual sounds or is leaking oil. Go for a test drive and see that the transmission changes gears fluidly with no struggle in between gearshifts.
• Look under the car to see if there is transmission fluid leaking from the car. Inspect that interior for wear, checking for things such as dashboard cracking or tears in the seat upholstery.