It’s basically a no-brainer that if you’re looking for a cheap, fun-to-drive, practical, everyday sports car, the E46-generation BMW 3 Series is the car you should buy. The E46 is legendary and yet can be had for less than $5,000 all day long and they’re relatively reliable, easy to work on and fantastic to drive. The only problem is that they’re getting old now. So even decent examples have a lot of years on them. The good news is that there might be a new E46 3 Series of sorts — the BMW 128i.
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At the moment, the BMW 1 Series Coupe is revered among enthusiasts. That’s because of its small size, sharp handling and superb steering feel. It was one of the last BMWs to have hydraulic power steering and it steers with that old-school Bavarian precision. And the BMW 128i was one of the last Bavarians to be powered by a naturally-aspirated inline-six engine. So it’s the sort of car enthusiasts should froth at the mouth over. So how much does a decently nice example of such a desirable car cost? Between $6,000-$8,000. That’s it.
Now, that’s still quite a bit more than what you can get some E46 3 Series’ for, but the BMW 128i is more modern, has more modern interior amenities and is newer. Sure, it’s also going to be more expensive to fix and it’s a bit more electronic, making it more difficult to wrench on. But it still provides a similar balance of performance, handling and comfort to the E46 3 Series.
A quick search on both Auto Trader and Craigslist has shown me several nice examples of the BMW 128i for well under $10,000. Some of them obviously have more miles on them than we’d like but most of them have under 10,000 miles per year on them.
Sure, the BMW 135i is the faster, more exciting car but it’s also more expensive to buy, more expensive to fix and less reliable. The 128i, thanks to its free-breathing engine and (hopefully) manual gearbox, is relatively simple by comparison, making it the better car for enthusiasts on tighter budgets.
For enthusiasts on a budget, the BMW 128i could be the perfect little daily sports car, with enough modern amenities to be comfortable and more than enough fun and performance to be exciting. It’s also cheap, good looking and makes a great noise, thanks to that free-breathing I6. So it seems that the humble 128i could be to enthusiasts what the E46 3 Series used to be.