This might be it.
I’d been wanting something interesting for a while, and I bided my time over the holidays, scanning Craigslist and Autotrader. I was looking for something German (BMW or Audi), made from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, with a manual transmission. Most of the cars in decent condition that fit that set of criteria were a couple of hours away, and I even roadtripped with my son to go see a B6 Audi A4. It was nice, but had a number of cosmetic defects that would have been expensive to fix, and the seller (a dealer) wanted too much for it already.
Then, last Saturday, the car featured in this post popped up not 15 miles down the road. A 2002 BMW 330i, 5-speed, Orient Blue over gray interior, with only 135K on the odometer. I jumped on it. The seller was a local auto mechanic specializing in BMWs and other German cars. He’d just bought it off a trade-in at another dealership and hadn’t even had a chance to drive it yet before he put it up on Craigslist. It drove very well, had good power and was in great shape cosmetically outside a baseball-sized dent in the lower passenger side of the urethane bumper. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and there was a clunk coming from the right front wheel area at low speed. The car pulled slightly under braking and the shifter bushings were completely shot. Furthermore, the interior had that faint whiff of having been a smoker car. Still—none of the issues were terminal, the car’s mileage was low and the price was right. I bought it.
A week later, I’m still in love. The car has been debadged (removed the “330i” emblem), the windshield has been replaced and the front control arm bushings are new. The car is tight as a drum and—with the exception of the shifter bushings—drives perfectly. It’s a hair faster than my old 540i 6-speed and feels much more compact and nimble. I installed Koni yellow dampers in the 540i, and while they certainly benefited the larger car’s agility, the ride they provided could only be described as harsh. In contrast, the 330i, on its OEM sport suspension, strikes the perfect note, with a supple ride over the choppy stuff and a good set in the turns. Oddly, it doesn’t feel quite as balanced as my old 525i, but much more controlled and maneuverable. I’m starting to think the 525i’s handling feel was more a case of a big car with a smaller engine up front, with all the weight distribution advantages that offered, but that’s a post for another time.
The E46 (1999-2005) 3-series was, at the time, BMW’s most popular model ever, and was offered in myriad different flavors, from convertibles to wagons to sedans to coupes, with a plethora of option packages and a number of styling variations and refreshes. I told my wife that if I could have ordered any non-M BMW new in 2002 and optioned it exactly the way I wanted it, it would have been this car. The air dam and rear apron: Perfect. The Style 68 wheels: Right on. The color combination: Love it. Even details like the sunroof delete (extremely rare for a US-bound E46), the heated seats and the premium Harman/Kardon stereo are precisely what I would have chosen. The original owner, who clearly special-ordered the car, had exquisite taste. I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to own it, drive it and work on it. I’m notoriously fickle when it comes to my affection for various cars, but if any car was a keeper, this is it. There’s not a thing I would change.