Would you date a pin-up girl?
BMW 320d touring (2004)
If you happen to have about 3-4000 Euros in your pocket for a used car, there are two reasons that can hold you back from buying a 320d immediately: the image and the fear. The E46, the 3-series built between 1998 and 2006, has already trickled down to the most shameful and at the same time most eye-catching BMW-fans: the bald ones commuting between the solarium and the gym. Nobody wants to join this club.
Fear probably doesn't need any explanation. Even a five-year-old can tell you that keeping a BMW is one of the more expensive affairs, no matter how convincing the fellas with the BMW-badged caps are playing it down, telling you that the scrapyards are full of cheap second-hand parts. Even the best cars have parts which are notorious for wearing out, and no matter how reliable the E46 is, it's always the same problems that turn up frequently, so used parts are not always the way to go. Besides, if something is sought after, it won't be cheap.
Before listing the 320d's catches, I can't skip the brownnosing part, because it's such a desirable thing. In 1998, after two slightly clumsy trials, BMW finally managed to design a 3-series estate that not only looked good but also could be used as an estate. The sedan is not bad, either - many think about it as the most beautiful 3-series ever - but now we are trying a Touring – supplied by one of our favourite used car dealerships – because it's really the Joker.
I'm trying to avoid being too enthusiastic, but it won't be easy. The only minor thing that troubles my mind is that our test car is not a first-gen E46, built before the 2002 facelift - I happen to like the looks of the older one. But there are no big changes, really, I can only recognize the newer ones by the headlights: this one has an upwardly curved turning signal and a milder look, while the first-gen has a meaner look with a downwardly sloping indicator. There were of course some other minor changes, but this is probably the most characteristic one.
Despite being an estate, the Touring still looks like a true BMW. It won't threaten the throne of the world's most beautiful estate, the Alfa Romeo 159, but it's a neat, uniform design with a touch of German stiffness. There's no reason for running away, there's no frightening details, it's just a slightly melted, rounded BMW with a moderately dull face. For those seeking more bewildering looks there are bigger, and also huge wheels available, but with the factory-spec 16-inch ones it's quite elegant and as a bonus it won't torture you at every single pothole.
If you check the contemporary reviews from the early 2000's, when this car was new, you'll find some criticism about the interior design and the colours. You see, there's a different approach if you want to buy a new car for about 30 grand or a second hand ride for three. Now, in 2014, this looks like a proper old-school BMW cabin, just as the outside. It won't set you on fire, but everything is where it should be, the patterns match and the look-and-feel is all right. Only the switches of the electric windows make you smile, sitting next to the gear lever, but one can quickly get used to that.
One specialty of this steel-blue car is the factory satnav. It looks extremely bizarre next to the cassette slot – I can't believe this was cutting edge technology in 2004. Of course, the navigation system with about 200x50 orange pixels is for the fun of some friends today, but I appreciate that it works and although it doesn't have a map of Hungary it can show me in what direction I should drive to reach for example Bratislava in our neighbour Slovakia.
The lad who ticked this option in 2004 was obviously generous. There are even heated seats and cruise control in this 3-series, and of course an automatic A/C - I only miss the sunroof. The glass part of the tailgate opens separately, like on every contemporary BMW estate, which is funny, but I could never find out what that feature is good for.
The dealer bought the car at an auction, so we don't know much about its past. It's mildly worn down, not too bad, but you couldn't sell it as new, either. The condition of the body is as you would expect from a ten year old car: two or three serious dents, a few scratches and two matt headlights. The licence plate indicates that it was imported in 2007, so probably one or two German or Austrian owners had used it before it came to Hungary into a harsher environment.
The German origin can be guessed from the post-it bookmark in the owner's manual with Lautstärke Navigation written on it. If I looked for a car of this age and value, I certainly would check the service history which can be revealing.
Revealing is the condition of the cabin, too, which tells us that the 320d has reached the status of a utility vehicle, indeed. The backside of the front passenger seat is quite scratched, and the thoroughly vacuumed boot can't hide the fact that the backseat was quite often folded down. I can understand that - as I said, the Touring can absolutely be used as a proper estate. The driver's seat is also a bit stained which brings the acceptable condition of the interior one peg further down. A professional clean would probably help - the BMW obviously hasn't had too much care recently.
I haven't driven an E46 for quite a while, and I have to admit I had a good feeling while settling myself into the driver's seat. Yes, this is an old-fashioned BMW from the days before Chris Bangle put his hands on the brand. This is the familiar gearshift knob, the well-known letters on the four gauges and the rubber on the pedals which hasn't been changed for about twenty years. The sporty three-spoke steering wheel looks more up-to-date than grandpa's four-spoke which BMW used at that time. Old fans of the brand probably will have to get used to the three strange seat-adjusting levers, but that's all.
After starting the engine, minus 78750 appears on the display telling the kilometres until the next service - whatever this may mean, it's not a good sign. Another bad sign is the vibration of the idling engine. There's always a mild resonance in the 320d, but this is a bit too much: maybe a worn engine mount or something else is the reason. The disgusting sweet exhaust smell, typical for common rail diesels with high mileage, is another reminder that nothing lasts forever.
To be honest, I don't care if the 220 thousand on the clock are genuine or not, since the engine with the code number M47N – and in fact, any engine - can reach the end of its lifecycle by that time. The question is: how much is left of the engine's life. That's what bothers me when going out for a test drive with the 320d.
Right after the car starts rolling, the vibrations straighten out and the BMW shows its good side. Bloody hell, this is still a great car! The engine still has a lot of pull, even at very low revs, and doesn't complain when driven flat out to the redline. If you want to drive relaxed, just click gear after gear until you reach sixth, and cruise on. But when you push it, you'd guess it's even stronger than the 150 PS that stands in the catalogue. It's no worse than any new diesel engine of 2014.
The gear lever has just as much play as you'd expect from the torn gaiter, but this is normal for a BMW of this age and the lovely, machine-like gearshift feel makes up for it anyway. The big surprise is the suspension which steamrollers all opposition with its precision and playfulness. It has been said about many generations of BMWs, so I repeat: this is probably the best suspension of all the 3-series. Everything that came before was entertaining, but a bit clumsy, and the following generations were too much trimmed for comfort.
This one allows very respectable cornering speeds, even from a 2014 point of view, and you don't have to be afraid of going beyond the limits of grip, because what's coming after is very predictable. That's what I call a properly balanced car which doesn't need the electronics to keep everything under control. For that matter, it has stability control, but you can switch it off.
I believe that keeping an E46 is like dating a pin-up girl. Every time you see her is like being hit by a thunderbolt. Every minute you spend with her is pure pleasure. But you can't get rid of the fear, how long it'll last. When will her voice be as cold as ice? When will the day come when she doesn't pick up the phone any more?
It's just a little vibration, a strange number on the display. For about 4-5000 Euros a 2004 320d is very tempting: a car that cost about 30.000 when new, in acceptable condition, within reach for many of us. I'm not a big fan of roulette, but I'm close to putting everything on red. How about the chances that I will win? Probably a bit less than 50% - like in roulette.
The E46 is known to be a tough car, but many take advantage of this. The known weaknesses of the suspension are usually minor problems. Rear springs seem to break more often than usual; on bad roads it consumes the front control arms quite often, and in the rear suspension there are some bushes that need frequent replacement, therefore long-sighted owners often use Powerflex bushes. In this steel-blue 320d everything seemed to be intact, but if someone wants to use it for longer than 10-20 thousand kilometres, they should be prepared for some kind of suspension overhaul.
Rust can be a more serious problem: on the test car there was already some corrosion on the front left door's edges, although it was only ten years old. If you are seriously interested in an E46, don't be shy about asking to look underneath - especially the area of the rear suspension and the classic spot, the rear wheel-arches are often rusty.
Since most of the E46s are diesels – not without reason, because some say, the 330d is the best of them all – and the most common is the 320d, let's see what can make trouble in these wonderful four-cylinders. In the last 15 years much collective wisdom has accumulated, so almost everybody knows by now that one should often take a look at the crank case ventilation system and change the filter regularly. If you neglect this, the turbo will break sooner or later because of the bad lubrication. At 2-3-4 hundred thousand kilometres – and most of the E46 320d cars will have reached that number by now – a turbo overhaul won't come as a surprise, even if the car was perfectly maintained. The early 150 horsepower models seem to be the most sensitive.
The dreaded dual mass flywheel is also installed in every manual 320d - the lifespan of this part is also 2-3-4 hundred thousand kilometres, depending on the user profile, then it has to be changed. First it makes a discreet knock when shutting off the engine, then a more audible one, and in the final stage it rattles, vibrates and what not.
The cylinder block and the head are known for durability, 4-5 hundred thousand kilometres without major repairs are not impossible, perhaps the big end bearings will need replacing. But the weak point of modern diesel engines is undoubtedly the injection system, and there are two significantly different ones in the E46. The pre-facelift with 136 PS has an injection pump with electronic controls, called VP44, whereas the newer 150 PS model, like our test car, has a common rail fuel system.
Neither of them is free of problems. The VP44 is unpopular, because some solderings in the built-in electronics can let go without any warning, and the car won't start any more. This can be fixed by specialists for an acceptable price, let's say a few hundred Euros. But there are some cases when the pump completely destroys itself, which leaves the owner with replacement as the only possibility. Used pumps, which can be better than ours or not, can be bought for 3-4 hundred Euros, an overhauled one costs here around 600. The good news is however that this engine sports conventional injectors where the nozzles can be changed for less money and if they are wearing out, the system doesn't collapse only the engine produces more smoke and begins to get weaker.
The common rail system is more sensitive to the condition of the injectors and since it's not pressure, but an electric signal triggers the injection here, the part doing this job can also wear out. Used injectors are available for relatively little money, even under 100 Euros, but these are not necessarily better then the ones you have in your car. If you want to overhaul a CR system properly, even the thorough diagnosis can cost several hundred Euros. At the end of the day, the bill will most probably be over a grand.
By the way, the 150 PS motor is known to commit suicide, too, because it already has the infamous swirl flaps which can detach from their shaft. If the flaps fitted into the intake manifold are sucked in by the engine, it won't be able to digest them, so you'll need a replacement engine or a major overhaul.
With every diesel engine of this era the biggest problem is that it's impossible to tell at first sight how long they'll last. If the seller is very patient and we are very cautious, some telltale data can be read from the on-board diagnostic system, and there's also the possibility of measuring the quantity of the leak-oil at the injectors. The deeper we look, the more certain it is that we'll find some parts that will soon need replacing. But there's no black magic that could tell you how many thousands of kilometres you may have to go without severe problems.
Let's do some maths. We can buy a cheap overhauled turbo for 400 Euros. The dual mass flywheel costs between 400 and 800 Euros, depending on the model year. Also, you can buy a refurbished injection pump for another 600 Euros or spend the same money on the CR system. Some bushes, two control arms, and you've spent the same amount of money what you did on the car.
Of course it's a rare misfortune if all of this has to be repaired on the car and you are even more unlucky if shit happens and everything fails at the same time. However, the chance is equally small for avoiding all that trouble, especially if you buy the 320d for what it's made for: driving a lot. It's hard to imagine that a BMW, older than ten years, will do another 100 thousand kilometres from now on without any of the aforementioned problems.
If you want to buy one, you have to consider if you can or even if you want to spend a thousand Euros every one or two years on your car. That's the price for driving an exceptionally fine BMW. You know, there are many cars which will cost you the same. I admit I'm still tempted.