As predicted, with the Benz lease up, and a nearly completely impractical Corvette sitting in the garage, we made the decision to lease something new for the wife. I left it up to her what she might want, since the Benz really wasn’t her cup of tea, but provided some strong suggestions (I mean, why not right?) It turns out my wife has just a bit of “car gal”, buried in there somewhere and is also, honestly, a bit of a car snob. In addition, she likes cars that are “small and zippy”, but also enjoys the creature comforts. See where this is going? No? Well how about this for fate. On the corner of our block in Brooklyn, sat BMW of Bay Ridge. Clearly it was meant to be! A lust cultivated since high school was about to be sated! And what was even better was that year was 2001 and BMW had brought back the X class! The idea of an AWD sports sedan has always been an obsession of mine, as to me it represents the ultimate in “360 degree” vehicle coverage, but for some reason Audi has just never clicked as evidenced by the first entry in this series. When the original E30 325xi had come out I was giddy, since the Quattro finally had what I considered a real competitor, but then it had faded away. When I saw the banners marking it’s triumphant return in the guise of the E46 330xi, I was immediately sold. We marched right into the dealer and agreed to lease terms and a configuration before the car was even available. Probably not the wisest negotiation posture, but an AWS 3 series wiped out any semblance of rational thought I might normally have. It was a seemingly endless wait, but finally she arrived. Having a car dealership on your corner is a great thing because you can actually walk over to pick up a beauty like this:
On the personal side, I had left Time Warner to try my hand at the startup world in the last 11 minutes of the .com boom and, one year later, was staring straight down the barrel of the .com bust with the walls collapsing around me and an acquisition deal by Lumeta set to yield $0 and take only a handful of employees. Luckily my reputation was growing by this point, and I had strong contacts from my TW days. I made a call to a dear friend and mentor and was invited to join Microsoft as a consultant in the MCS Telecommunications Practice; my cable MSO experience, and deep knowledge of NT and SQL clustering, as well as breadth in networking operations, being a good value proposition for their customer portfolio. This job would keep me on the road running around the tri-state area visiting service providers year round, so the xi couldn’t have come at a better time! Going into the 330xi my expectations were higher than any time in the past; even higher than with the Vette. I had spent the better part of a decade reading about, fantasizing about, and lusting after BMW. The only thing that had kept me away in 2000 was my near equal desire to own what I considered a “proper sports car”, and the fact that I hadn’t yet built a correct understanding of, and appreciation for, the legendary M3 (and hence didn’t really view it as a true “sports car”). It worked out well, though, as there really wasn’t a better car for year round road warrior duty than the E46 330xi. Just how great was it, and did BMW in general live up to my expectations? Well a bit of a spoiler here is that I have owned at least one BMW continuously ever since 2001 (12 years as of this writing!)
Build Quality, Design and Ergonomics
It is my opinion that the E46 in general, and the 330xi in particular, is not only one of the best BMWs ever made, but really one of the best compact sport sedans of all time. It was really as close to a perfect car as one got in 2001 and, even today, is better than the vast majority of vehicles on the road. The size was perfect for it’s class, with an intimate cabin that still provided ample room for four average adult passengers. Build quality was superb. Leagues better than the Vette and noticeably better than the quite good C230. Everything was vault solid and high quality. The paint was excellent, the leather was excellent, the plastics and vinyl were excellent. The switch gear layout was simple and logical and the ergonomics were flawless. The cabin design was simple but functionally elegant and the aesthetic was very well balanced. Taken holistically, the effect was an “ooooh, I get it” moment. Anyone even remotely objective, getting in that cabin with an eye for quality and design excellence, would immediately begin to understand why there was value in the baby BMW above and beyond a “normal car”. And that was all before turning the key. I know this sounds like fanboy gushing, but the E46 really was that good.
If the cabin set a high bar, starting the car and driving it vaulted right over it. Driving a new 330 in 2001, the “Ultimate Driving Machine” slogan immediately made sense. Throttle response, suspension and chassis dynamics, steering weight and feel, brake pedal feel and action and transmission performance were all near perfect. The car wasn’t truly quick in absolute terms (my automatic equipped AWD model needing about 6.2 seconds for a sprint from naught to 60), but it always felt nimble, agile and alive. It wasn’t a particularly light car, at around 3400lbs, but it felt light. Most importantly, the handling and driver feedback were superb. The 330 was a car you could drive to the track, hot lap, and then drive home stopping at the drive thru on the way. It truly was a jack of all trades and a master of all trades. I have obviously since moved on, but that is really due to my own particular mental illness (I call it “automotive ADD”), absence of good sense, and availability of modest disposable income (and supremely patient wife, have I mentioned that?) In reality, the early 2000’s E46 is still a superior car to most vehicles on the road in every way and, while it has possibly started to look a bit dated, it’s mechanical qualities and prowess are timeless.
I owned the E46 for the duration of the 3 year lease and had no issues at all. Even then the BMW service intervals were fairly long so I think I only even saw a dealer a handful of times over 36 months. One of my very close friends only recently sold his E46, so I know that these cars absolutely go the distance. Of course it is a high performance sport sedan, so regular maintenance and premium care are a must. That should be a given though. This is a “pay to play” scenario and if top quality synthetic oil, premium fuel and OEM (or equivalent) wear and tear replacement parts are a problem, one probably shouldn’t be driving such a car.
In conclusion, as is apparent by now, I am an unabashed BMW fanboy and absolute E46 fanatic. I love the 3 series and I feel that the E46 might just be the best of them. They’ve gotten faster, they’ve gotten far more advanced, and even X-drive has gotten leagues better. In short, time has marched on. Throughout all of this though, the E46 has retained it’s magic and was just modern enough, that climbing in one even today leaves you just a bit reluctant to get back out! As with the Mercedes the leasing experience was a pleasure. All maintenance was paid and when the lease was up I drove it in, waited my turn (lots more people leasing and returning BMWs), signed some papers and left free and clear after handing over the keys.