When asked which 3 Series is best, almost every BMW fan on earth will say the same thing — the E46. Just a few months ago, I would have said the same thing and, in fact, I did. A few months back, I wrote a story about how I’d just bought an E46 3 Series and how well it still drove, how it could show newer 3ers a thing or two about what it means to be a proper sport sedan. However, I’m here now to take those words back and make the likely controversial claim that the E90 3 Series is better.
Only a few months after buying my E46 325i sedan, I sold it. Why would I sell a car I was so effusive about, after only a few months of ownership? Because the E46 is great in a vacuum. It’s great if you don’t need to depend on it to get your kids to school, it’s great if you don’t have said kids to put in the back seat, and it’s great if you’re single. However, try living with a high-mileage E46 today, with multiple children that need to get to school on time. It sucks.
I’m not a large man, at 5’9″ on my best day. I may have gained a few pounds since my second son was born but I’m still under 170 lbs. So I can pretty easily fit into any car. Except I couldn’t fit comfortably into the driver’s seat of my E46 with my four-year-old son behind me in his car seat. It felt as though the steering wheel would saw my naughty bits off. Plus, my son complained about a lack of leg room, the trunk was too small to fit my six-month-old’s stroller, and its rear door apertures made stuffing aforementioned children into their seats an arduous task.
And then there’s the engine. Oh, that pesky M54 engine. It’s a lovely motor to use, with silky power delivery and a nice growly noise, but it’s maddening to own. Cooling issues, DISA valves going bad, and a misfire in cylinder three that I still never figured out after changing O2 sensors, swapping coils, replacing spark plugs, fixing vacuum leaks, and even just screaming at it tirelessly. After months of it aggravating me to no end, and just being overall inconvenient, I decided enough was enough and sold it. I even made a couple hundred bucks doing so.
Welcoming an E90 to my Garage
But I still wanted a 3 Series. There’s something in my DNA that requires a 3 Series as my daily driver. For me, the idea of a 3er is perfect for my everyday needs. So I went searching for E90 3ers, to see if I could find one within my admittedly small budget, in good enough shape to get along with. Fortunately for me, I did.
I bought a 2006 BMW 325i sedan; rear-wheel drive with a ZF six-speed automatic transmission; the slowest, least exciting E90 3 Series in North America. However, at least thus far, I’m very happy with my purchase and here’s why — the E90 is better than the E46.
For starters, it’s the right size. The E90 sort of kicked off the 3 Series’ continuous increase in size, with each generation, but it’s still small enough to feel like a compact sport sedan. More importantly, I can now fit my son in his car seat behind me and not only does he have ample leg room, I no longer have to move my seat. So I’m comfy, he’s comfy, and every one’s happy. And yet, it still feels like an appropriately sized sport sedan.
Then there’s the fact that it still feels like a proper BMW. Steering is heavy, possibly even heavier than the E46’s, and offers plenty of feedback. It’s not quite as talkative or pure as the E46 but it’s talkative enough and weight builds nicely as you add steering lock, giving a good sense of what the front end is doing. It also rides beautifully, far better than the E46 out of the box, and my car’s shocks have 161,000 miles on them, which means they’re toast. I can only imagine how much nicer it will ride once I replace the suspension.
N52 – A Great Engine
Another reason the E90 is better is its engine. While M52 engines are great, the more modern N52 is even better. It’s smoother, makes a better noise, and it lacks a lot of the annoying issues my E46’s M52 had. For starters, its electric water pump can self-bleed the engine’s coolant system, which is a god-send for anyone that’s ever had to bleed air from the coolant system of any M-series BMW engine. Yes, it’s a more expensive water pump but the previous owner of my car replaced it a month prior to selling.
Being an E90 325i, which was only made for the 2006 model year in North America, my car also lacks a DISA valve, which is another few hundred dollar part I don’t have to worry about replacing. Sure, it loses 15 horsepower and a few torques to the more modern 328i, which came a year later with DISA valves, but I’ll take the reliability over the two fewer tenths of a second to 60 mph.
Driving the E90 325i everyday makes me realize just how much better it is for modern day-to-day driving than the E46. If you handed me the keys to both cars, if both were in perfect condition, on a back canyon road, I’d probably still choose the E46 for its slightly smaller size and slightly purer handling. However, to live with on a regular basis, I wouldn’t even consider the E46 anymore. It’s E90 all the way now.