SilverFleet SuperDork
June 28, 2013 11:20 a.m.

Lately, I've been getting bored with my Mazda 3. It's been a great car, don't get me wrong, but coming from 2 WRX's, it's just not as exciting to drive. What it has going for it is dependability and it's easy to wrench on.

Lately, I've been thinking about replacing it with a cheaper E46 (yes, I know that sounds funny), preferably a 330ci ZHP or a 325iT. Something like this:

330ci

or this: I didn't even know this happened... 325iT with a SMG

Is this a really stupid idea? Right now, I like my 3 because it's stupid simple to maintain and run, and has very little maintenance needs. No timing belt, oil changes every 7500 miles, and consumables are dirt cheap. Are these BMW's maintenance nightmares? Aside from rear subframe issues, what should I look for?

Also, I put about 30k a year on my daily driver. My 3 is a 2012 and it just hit 44k the other day. It still drives well, except for some 2nd gear crunchiness that I want to address before the power train warranty is up. The gas mileage is about what the BMW's get (26-29mpg) so that is a wash, except for the need to run premium in the BMW. All I've done to it was replace the oil, rotate tires, and do the air filters. Is a 10-year old BMW going to nickel and dime me to death? This is my biggest concern. How long can I expect one to last without major issues?

I would probably get a manual transmission, but the SMG intrigues me with all the highway driving and sitting in traffic that I do. That wagon I posted above appears to be quite the unicorn, but they want stupid money for it. That $18k price doesn't include a $2995 down payment. As far as I can tell, this wagon should RETAIL for around $13k.

So, GRM people... What do you think? Should I find a used, out of warranty German chariot of awesomeness and risk the possible wrath of expensive replacement parts, or should I soldier on with the sedate, safe Mazda and keep fixing my other two perpetually broken project cars with the hope that one might be done in my lifetime?

MadScientistMatt UltraDork
June 28, 2013 11:51 a.m.

I'm using an E36 in much the same way. It's currently up to 206K miles, and I plan to keep it for a few more years. Repair parts are reasonable, although not quite as cheap as parts for a Honda or Chevy.

dj06482
dj06482 Dork
June 28, 2013 12:08 p.m.

I recently went through a similar decision process between my current DD ('06 RAV4) and an E46 325ix with the Sport Pkg. I commute about 20k per year, and 2-4 days a week our 3rd vehicle becomes a necessity for the babysitter, so I wouldn't have a backup vehicle on those days. In the end, I decided to stick with my current DD because if I need something fixed ASAP, I can either take it to the dealer or an independent mechanic and not be completely hosed on cost. For the E46 to be practical from a cost perspective, I'd do most of the work myself and source parts via the internet (which is what I did on my E36), which means a repair could take a week or two to get done (depending on parts availability and my schedule). An independent BMW mechanic could be an option in a pinch, but those types of costs could add up quickly.

If you have a backup to your DD, and don't mind maintaining your DD yourself, I'd say go for it. If you don't have a backup DD, and have too many projects as it is, I'd stick with what you have.

If you decide to buy an E46, go for the best-maintained example you can find (preferably with a stack of maintenance records). You'll thank me later.

SlickDizzy UberDork
June 28, 2013 12:32 p.m.

I don't think it's a bad idea at all. My E46 has been doing DD duty since February. As long as you keep the cooling system maintenance up to date, they are pretty much bombproof. The SMG is very polarizing, you either LOVE or HATE it, so drive it first before committing. I hear that they totally suck for stop-and-go traffic, and clutch replacements are EXPEN$IVE, so keep that in mind.

99-00 cars had major issues with subframes tearing out of the body, later ones have an improved design. Otherwise they tend to leak a little oil from the valve cover gasket and oil filter housing gasket once they clear 100k, both of which are easy DIY jobs, and heavily used window regulators need to be re-greased periodically otherwise they will start to bind. Minor suspension refreshes are generally a 100k item too (control arm bushings, ball joints, etc).

Other than those minor issues, they are great cars. Phenomenal steering, great shifter, awesome seats (sport seats anyway), smooth and torquey inline six. Just change your oil and drive. I see enough for sale with 200-300k miles, that tells me they are good for the long haul if you treat them right.

SEADave Reader
June 28, 2013 12:33 p.m.
dj06482 wrote: .... For the E46 to be practical from a cost perspective, I'd do most of the work myself and source parts via the internet (which is what I did on my E36), which means a repair could take a week or two to get done (depending on parts availability and my schedule). An independent BMW mechanic could be an option in a pinch, but those types of costs could add up quickly.

My DD is an E36, and I agree with the above wholeheartedly. With the BMW the cost difference between mail order parts and even local parts stores is tremendous. It is even worse if it is a dealer only part.

Pretty much any job involves disassembly and determining what parts you need, waiting for your box from Pelican, and then finishing the job. My E36 was out of comission for 3 weeks doing rear axles/wheel bearings/shocks/mounts/bushings because I kept finding things that needed replacing and I wouldn't pay 10x the cost to get them that day from the dealer.

dinger Reader
June 28, 2013 2:31 p.m.

I DD a '04 330 ZHP, and love it. They are a little more needy than the average car, but not incredibly so. Like has been mentioned, take care of the cooling system, watch for upcoming problems so you can order needed parts up front, and you'll be fine. Between Rock Auto, Amazon, ECS Tuning, and AutohausAZ I've been able to get everything I've needed to keep mine happy and not break the bank.

And they are just great, great cars. The motor is quiet and torquey, the sport seats are awesome, the steering is fantastic, and the ride is quite firm but never jarring. It just does everything well. As a DD it is quiet, comfortable, and decently economical, it's a fantastic autocross car since it's such a handler and the motor is so torquey, and it's a great date night car, because hey, it's a BMW.

June 28, 2013 2:33 p.m.

My wife's E46 325XiT is very solid at 110k. I have no plans to replace it in the next 10 years.

SilverFleet SuperDork
June 28, 2013 2:47 p.m.

Great feedback so far. Thanks guys! Keep it coming.

Another question.... How are these in the snow? I would be most likely running dedicated snow tires like I do with my Mazda now. Is it sacrilege to try and drive one of these in the winter? I haven't driven anything RWD in the snow since I had my 1964 Buick Skylark.

If I did do this, I'd most likely have to go through a dealership. I'm not willing to try an sell my Mazda privately, as I don't have the time or patience to do that, and I also don't want to lose my shirt. Either that or I would wait until I pay the 3 off in 3 more years.

June 28, 2013 3:36 p.m.
SilverFleet wrote: Another question.... How are these in the snow?

The AWD BMW has in the later iX cars is unstoppable. It uses 3 open diffs with a beefy one in the center locked at 62% rear bias. It uses DSC to emulate LSD by applying brakes to a slipping wheel (which then transfers torque to the other wheel). The whole 3 open diffs thing is what keeps the tires from cupping like a jeep. I've driven mine in 8" of snow on crappy all-seasons. With good snow tires you will be able to mock mountain goats.

SlickDizzy UberDork
June 28, 2013 5:52 p.m.
SilverFleet wrote: Another question.... How are these in the snow? I would be most likely running dedicated snow tires like I do with my Mazda now. Is it sacrilege to try and drive one of these in the winter? I haven't driven anything RWD in the snow since I had my 1964 Buick Skylark.

My E46 330ci (RWD) kicked ass in the snow with nothing more than a set of Blizzaks. BMW's dynamic stability control is some of the best in the business; I never once got stuck even without an LSD...and I live in Wisconsin. I'm sure the AWD cars would be even better, but they don't handle as well in the dry due to compromised front suspension geometry.

mad_machine MegaDork
June 28, 2013 6:24 p.m.

I can't say about E46s.. but I dailied my 318ti for the past 7 years... aside from a self inflicted fuelpump failure (ran the tank dry trying not to get gas on the highway) it never broke down in over 60,000 miles of use. It was easily the most reliable car I have ever owned.

I would still be driving it if not for terminal rust

aussiesmg UltimaDork
June 28, 2013 8:58 p.m.

Our son has driven a 330xi we bought him for three years since he got his license at 16. I did the cooling system replacement at 100K and fixed both tail lights one after the other when they burned up the plugs (now a recall)

Car has been fantastic, we wanted him to have the AWD for winters in Ohio. That has been a great deal too.

Just a really nice car.

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