The cars we loved.
A few years ago, I started this blog in an attempt to write something about every car I’ve ever liked, from my first fond memories to now. More than five years and hundreds of entries later, I realized that I had not written anything about the best car I have ever owned, a 2001 BMW 325ci (E46).
My first BMW experience came with a 1994 325is. The black Florida car was the first car I ever bought online in 1997. After flying down, the drive from Miami to Ohio felt like a victory parade. Everyone seemed to admire the black coupe’s handsome lines, made more attractive with the addition of a M-Technics appearance package (it looked like a M3!). That was a great car with a smooth shifting 5 speed manual transmission, plenty of mid and high end pep (187 hp) and decent gas mileage if you could resist the urge to step on it.
There were few problems, mostly related to trim bits that would come loose often to the point of frustration. In one instance a headlight nearly pop out of its socket while on the highway! That may have been more a result of the “tweaks” made by the former owner than BMW’s quality control. The traction control seemed useless in combination with high performance summer tires, or any tires for that matter. In the winter I usually drove around in a Eagle Talon anyhow (my second favorite car), but the BMW would start regardless of how cold the Ohio winters were.
With many small issues piling up, it became easier for me to fall for a 2001 325ci I bought in December 2002. Just off a short term lease, it too was a 5 speed manual that was loaded with the sport and luxury package. This car combined the great handling of my previous 3 but added a level of refinement and comfort that made my E36 feel like a well tuned Volkswagen (nothing against those). It may not have been quite that dramatic, but there was clearly a leap in engineering and creature comforts going on here.
Even though the E 46 325 had the old car’s 2.5 liter inline 6, new improvements to the Double VANOS system improved efficiency and more importantly low end grunt. My new car was actually down three hp over the E36, but felt far more responsive in city traffic. And then there was that sound, the growl of that engine still makes me smile over 120,000+ miles later.
The highway is where a 325 shines the most. Cruising back and forth from Ohio to North Carolina could be done in one tank even when pushing an average speed of 75 mph. I had no problem that dropping down a gear would not solve when passing fast moving traffic on the hilly sections of the highway. The car was as stable and composed at 80 as it was at 40 mph. This was achieved with BMW’s older engine technology. The 328 and 330 used a newer 2.8 and 3.0 engines with more power that did not sacrifice efficiency too much, in fact they were more powerful and efficient than the engine in my car.
My 325ci has been for the most part very reliable with only small issues. Aside from the infrequent maintenance requirements (the car tells you when to go based on your driving history and conditions). So no two cars would have the same maintenance schedule. I usually required a Level I service once a year (that includes oil changes) based on my -11,000 miles a year average.
Besides the excellent handling and comfort, the E46 struck an agreeable balance between ergonomic efficiency and understated luxury. BMW like many luxury brands have integrated screens into its dashes better than most makers, but the clean look of pre E90 cars is priceless in my book. Later E46 models did a great job of integrating the optional navigation screens into their dashes, but I never needed anything more than a simple map and common sense to know where I was going.
Thoughtful touches like the faint red light that illuminates the dash at night still amaze me in the level and attention to detail you just can’t find in a most cars, no matter how much kit they might come with. That point is made clear when I’m driving my 2012 Focus Ti, a great economy car with plenty of gadgets, but lacking in the graceful and elegant attention to detail of my old Bimmer. On paper, it has more of what makes a luxury car luxurious, but the magic is in the details. Maybe that explains why a A3 costs more than a Golf GTi.
I could go on and on about how my old 325 can still embarrass an old Mustang or teen raped Civic on the curves of an off ramp or how when it’s all clean and polished up, people think it’s new. The engine seems almost bullet proof and has always started when I needed it to. Even during the below 20 degree temps of last winter it started with no problem even when many newer cars were paralyzed by the cold.
Time however and the Ohio winters have been a cruel mistresses to my car. A small rust spot has developed on the passenger door, due to a flaw in the door seal design that allowed water to settle. It was a common problem with the 2001 models. Other small cosmetic issues have developed like the liner fabric on the passenger A pillar unfurling, rubber seals around the doors coming loose, the list goes on. Yet despite all these little flaws, my car still manages to make me smile. Recently some of my dash warning lights were stuck on. Swapping the instrument cluster with another car helped a little, but it made me realize that the point of diminishing returns may have arrived. I replaced the front windsheild due to a crack from a highway rock. I just got a new battery, but most of my repairs/replacements have been routine maintenance.
To top off all the issues, one of my streets developmentally challenged kids crashed his bike into the front, breaking part of the M-Technics front spoiler. I ghetto patched it up, but it forces me to decide the fate of my beloved 325, perhaps sooner than later.
At some point the car will need to be replaced, likely because I’ve had my eye on a E92 coupe for sometime. Its my understanding that new BMW’s are not the sporty cars they once were. The prices are insanely high new and BMW still nickles and dimes you for options that are becoming standard everywhere else. On top of that they have become soft in some respects and have lost much of the edge they had before. You have to buy a M car to really get that back and I don’t have 60K laying around for a new car.
The competition has been nipping at BMW’s heels and has caught up in many respects. BMW’s still offer the best combination of handling and ride comfort out there for the money, but even that is becoming a fleeting claim. In all honesty, brand heritage or snobbery might be the only tool BMW has going for in a market that sees cars as lifestyle accessories. I have owned Honda’s and Diamond Stars that have held up better over time than my beloved 3 Series. Despite that few cars have managed to still feel special like it has, even after the first decade of ownership.
In the meantime I will have to decide what I’m gonna do with my E46. It’s mechanically sound enough to warrant my keeping it (all maintenance is documented), but I have three cars and only need one (or two). Parting has never been so difficult.