BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The E46 generation of 3 Series Convertibles were hugely significant cars for BMW. Although its predecessor, the E36, had a relatively easy run at the marketplace, the later cars had to contend with vastly improved rivals from Mercedes, Audi and Saab. As the recognised market leader, the BMW has thus far managed to stave off these more concerted attempts to dethrone it, but make no mistake - the 3 Series is top dog on merit.
If you're in the market for a used BMW 3 Series Convertible there's a decent amount of choice facing you and no real lemons in the whole line up. What's more, these cars are usually well looked after so there are many more diamonds than dogs on the forecourts. The E46 3 Series Convertible is one of those cars where it's actually quite difficult to go wrong when buying used.
The fourth generation - or E46 - BMW 3 Series, with more rounded styling and slightly bulbous nose, arrived in Britain in time for S-plates in September 1998 but it wasn't another couple of years until drop top versions began to arrive in BMW dealerships. This suggests that the conversion was more than a simple buzz saw job and so it proved.
The Convertible made its debut in May 2000 as a 323Ci, with the 330Ci following in June. The 323Ci was short-lived and was replaced by the more powerful 325Ci model in September 2000, at which point the 320Ci made its debut. March 2001 saw the arrival of the rocketship M3 Convertible with the sequential SMG gearbox being offered to M3 customers in July. In September 2001 the 318Ci slotted in at the opposite end of the line up. In a final and surprising throw of the dice for the 3-Series Convertible, BMW's 150bhp 2.0-litre diesel engine was added to the range during the latter stages of 2004. The next generation 3-Series Convertible arrived to replace this model early in 2007 complete with a folding hard-top roof.
What You Get
Ever since BMW took over building its own drop-tops, the 3-series version has always looked sleek with the lid off and the current one continues the tradition perfectly. It's based on the Coupe version and shares that car's sheet metal as far back as the windscreen pillars. The Coupe itself, as BMW addicts will already know, does in fact share little more than door handles, indicator repeaters and badges with the saloon on which the whole 3 Series range is supposedly based. Take one look at the convertible and you appreciate the trouble BMW has gone to make the two-door models lower, wider and longer with a more steeply raked windscreen.
As with the previous generation version, no fixed rollover hoop or bulky tonneau cover disturbs the lines of the E46 Convertible. However, should the standard automatic traction control and stability systems included as standard not be enough to prevent the car flipping over, strong steel beams instantly shoot out from behind the rear head restraints to protect the occupants' skulls. When folded, the hood sits neatly under a metal cover.
Redesigned front seats, unique to the convertible, incorporate the seatbelts into their structure, rather than attaching them separately to the car body. This, says BMW, allows a better fit, easier access to the rear and stops the passenger belt flapping in the breeze when you're cruising alone, top down. Speaking of the top, this is another completely redesigned part of the car. The triple-layer hood itself has a padded lining to reduce wind noise and there's a proper glass rear window, with demister, in place of the old, easily scratched plastic pane that annoyed previous generation 3 Series Convertible owners..
BMW engineers have also come up with a sneaky hood stowage system that houses the whole convertible roof unit in a removable cartridge. With the roof up, you can fold the container out of the way where it extends into the boot to gain 30 per cent more space than in the old model. With the roof down, and the optional hardtop to hand (which gives you a stylish four-seat coupe and convertible in one) the folded soft top can be removed for winter stowage as a single unit.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
This shape 3 series has had an encouraging record as far as reliability is concerned and general build quality is very good. Check the usual - clocked odometers, body nicks and scrapes, damaged trim, cellphone mounting holes in the dashboard and a cast-iron full BMW dealer service history.
It's worth being fussy (avoid dull colours, low ex-rep specifications and gloomy interior trim colours) so that, when resale time comes, you'll get a lot more for your part exchange than you might expect.
Be suspicious of cars that have had many owners in a short time (this could be a sign of ongoing problems). If you really want peace of mind, buy from a BMW dealer - but be prepared to pay the premium. As with all convertibles, check the soft top for signs of rips, discolouration, water ingress or damage. The folding procedure for the electric hood isn't immediately obvious and an attempt to gorilla the hood down manually can blow the motors.
The SMG gearbox as fitted to the M3 model is a massive improvement over its predecessor and some 60% of M3 owners have chosen to change gear with paddle rather than stick but its worth checking to see if the clutches are still working properly. Negotiate a reverse hill start if possible to find whether there's excess slippage.
(approx based on a 318Ci Convertible) A clutch assembly is around £130. Front brake pads are around £40, a full exhaust about £360, an alternator around £100 and a tyre around £40. A starter motor is about £120. A headlamp is about £165.
On the Road
You'll need a fair amount of disposable income washing about in the slush fund to land an E46 3 Series Convertible. Is it really that good? It's hard not to think so once out on the road, with the dreamily smooth engine note and exceptional refinement. This car flatters your driving without overtly doing so thanks to two clever features - Automatic Stability Control + Traction (ASC+T) and Cornering Brake Control (CBC). It's ASC+T you'll notice most, but only because of the yellow light on the dashboard that occasionally flickers as you hurl the car through the corner. Unless you've the driving reflexes of Juan Pablo Montoya, this electronic safety device could quite literally save you from yourself.
No matter how heavy your right foot, the system will only give the rear wheels as much power as they can take without spinning, so every time that little light flashes, you're avoiding a lurid tail-happy slide. If despite all that, you still go too fast into a bend and do exactly the wrong thing (slam on the brakes), CBC will help you out, applying firmer braking to the outside front wheel as the car corners and hugely reducing the risk of a spin.
Then there's DSCIII, the latest version of BMW's Dynamic Stability Control System which is standard on all but the 318Ci. Here, sensors positioned in the ABS and scattered around the car detect a possible loss of control before it actually happens and correct the situation automatically by individually braking all four wheels and reducing engine power. It's almost foolproof. All models are respectably quick but the 330Ci and M3 versions are genuinely rapid. A spell in the back after some top down 'enthusiastic' driving can leave passengers feeling a little weather beaten.
It seems convertible buyers respect a meritocracy. The BMW 3 Series Convertible is the best in the business and reaps the reward in sales. Don't expect to find any cheapies washing about the used network, but overall running costs needn't be punishing because of the steady residuals these cars command. Best buys are probably the early 323Ci if you're on a tighter budget or the 330Ci if funds are slightly less of an issue.