Over the years we at BF have about every kind of BMW you could think of both new and used. And the one thing that holds true with all used cars is that the simpler the better. Not just for reliability but also when it comes to driving engagement. And that’s why the 3 Series has always represented the best choice when it comes to used BMWs. Yet not all 3 Series are created equal when it comes to the used market. So follow us through the years as we look at each of the four generations of 3 Series taking into account price, performer, reliability and desirability until we find the best.
So much to say and yet this is just an overview. Yes the E30 can be an amazing used car. For under $5k it’s hard to find something more fun or more interesting. They’re not Toyota reliable but they were certainly built to a standard that a BMW 3 Series didn’t match until the later E46 some 10 years later. For performance clearly it’s the M3 your after. But prices have risen too far in my opinion for it to score highly here. It may be one of the best cars of all time but it’s scarcity and historical value make it far from the best used car.
For real value look for the later 318i with sport package. For fun the convertible were simple and have aged well with an 80′s patina that gets cooler by the year. But for my money I’d go after a well sorted 325is. In US spec trim it was basically the 325i with a sport package and a few M technic goodies including the always entertaining limited slip differential (hard to believe that simply was a box you could check isn’t it).
BMW looked a little too far into the future with the E36. It pains me to say it but I will never buy another another one. I’ve replaced enough plastic things (that shouldn’t be plastic) over the years on those cars that I’ve simply sworn them off. Yes a US spec M3 can represent great value for well under $10k (especially the sedan). But the major issue is that the E46 that replaced it is dramatically better built, engineered and in almost all guises faster.
The E46 isn’t perfect- though it’s close. But by its middle years BMW had quietly revised and improved it’s way out of some minor issues that plagued first yeas cars (like disintegrating wagon sub-frames for instance). The 328i and then the revised 330i (with the crucial manual and sport package) are great values and extremely entertaining. While the LSD option died with the early E36 they are still well balanced sport sedans in the puriest BMW way. Additionally, the M54 (found in the 330i) has proven to be one of the more bullet-proof modern BMW engines. With 225 hp in US guise it didn’t overpower but its power delivery was supremely linear thanks to a smooth revving inline six and ample torque. It makes the 330i the easy pick if you can find a well specced low mileage example. Especially when you consider good examples can be had for just over the $10k mark.
However it’s the special edition ZHP (US only) that may just be the best non M four door BMW has ever sold. We’ve waxed poetically about the ZHP on these pages before so we won’t go into details. But with a massaged engine, a suspension crafted by M and equipped with a host of M specific interior and exterior parts, it was a truly unique car. In fact one could call it (along with the E34 M540i) the first M Performance Automobile. For the money it was the best all around car I ever owned. At home commuting or road-tripping my ZHP was literally faultless for the 50k miles I owned it. But it was the driving experience (and rarity) that now makes it one of the best used BMWs of all time. The only problem is that they seem to be holding their value rather well with loaded low mileage examples still going for just under $20k. It sorta makes our next car on the list feel like the proper E46 used value.
The E46 M3 is becoming a car that is revered in hushed tones. Containing the S54 (making it last naturally aspirated inline six M3) the E46 M3 represents the pinnacle to more than a few BMW fans. Despite its known foibles – just adequate brakes, a finicky (optional) SMG and notable engine related maintenance needs – the E46 M3 can raise the hair on the back of necks with it’s engine note alone. And with low milage cars going for $20-25k, it’s increasingly attractive as a used car.
So which wins out in the E46 family? Crucially the ZHP was available as a four door making it quite a bit more practical than the M3. Also on the side of the ZHP is the lack of complexity when it comes to the drivetrain. To put it simply, if you prefer less maintenance and something satisfying to drive, the ZHP wins out. If you don’t mind some extra costs from time to time, go for the M3. There will never be another like it.
And bonus points if you can find one with the Competition Package which had that CSL brakes.
We’re in the early days for the E90 generation as a used car but it represents an interesting choice for those of us looking for value in a modern BMW. The 2006 330i with the N52B30 was the highest (non M) naturally aspirated inline six ever to wear the Roundel in the US. Equipped with the sport package and manual it must be considered a solid used car and an exceptionally rare prize for BMW fans. Beyond that there are the N54 and N55 335i models which famously moved the 3 Series into 300 hp territory and gave the car sub 5 second 0-60 times. However, early N54s have had their share of issues and they continue to be a little bit of an unknown when it comes to high mileage. The jury is still out on the N55 but early signs are positive that it could prove to be a bit more trouble free. Either way, a well sorted 335i is a great car with acceleration previously reserved for the M3 and refinement levels never seen in a 3 Series before that time. Prices are doing the typical drop with a new model out and there are plenty of values to be found. But in this list they don’t quite have the combination of performance, price and scarcity to get to the top.
The “IS” model is perhaps the pinnacle of the E92 with its 1M-like N54 and plenty of M inspired touches. However be warned, these cars are not inexpensive and our last car on the list seems infinitely more attractive in terms of the all important price and performance ratio.
Another smart choice is the 335d diesel (remember this is US only folks). The 35d had a stonking engine and decent MPG the combination making it what we called the ideal 3 Series for the masses. Yet as a used car it doesn’t quite get us excited like a well specced manual 335i would and therefore fall out of consideration. But if you’re looking for the ultimate commuter 3er with mountains of torque the 335d is hard to beat.
Then there’s the M3. Yes the E90/E92 M3 is an incredible used car deal. The S65 V8 is the last of its kind and thus makes the this M3 incredibly unique in the history of BMW. With the next version moving to a turbocharged inline six the E9X M3 will live on as likely the only M3 ever to have a V8. MPG was abysmal and should certainly be considered a major downside. But all is forgiven the moment you wind the 4.0L V8 up to its 8300 rpm redline. Early cars with decent mileage are not well into the $30s making it a deal if you can stomach the MPG and potential maintenance costs that may come with that exotic drivetrain. But perhaps the best thing about the E90 M3? It came in a four door.
Unlike the E46, the Competition package wasn’t as an essential option with the key differences being a a slightly lowered suspension, amazing 19″ cross-spoke wheels and a more liberal MDM setting.
The illiteration is over. The 3 Series can be a great used car. But there are 2-3 that can be exceptional. Here they are.
The 2003-2005 E46 ZHP is special and it absolutely deserves a place at the top of the list. Crafted from a combination of bespoke and off-the-shelf parts, it’s that rare non-M car that feels perfectly judged in every respect. In fact it may be the best all-round 3 Series of all time. But it’s not the best. That has to go to the E90/E92 M3 and its one of a kind V8. The latest (and last two door M3) is that rare gem that brings a real race car feel to something that is drive-able every day. And at current prices it’s a steal.
But the steal of the entire used 3 Series world has to be the E46 M3 – especially when equipped with the Competition package. Sure there are plenty of N54 and N55 equipped 3 Series out there that get to 60 faster. But speed doesn’t equal satisfaction. And the E46 satisfies the enthusiasts from idle all the way up to it’s rev limiter thanks to the unique note of the S54. It gets even better the moment you turn the wheel. The balance of the E46 chassis combined with an engine that feels like it revs forever creates an experience that’s almost impossible to find in a new car save for something over $100k. Sure it’s a shame there will never be another like it. But thankfully there are plenty out there that someday will be handed down to the next generation of enthusiasts.