To date, BMW has released the 3-Series over seven generations. As the most recognizable and celebrated model of the entire BMW lineup, the 3-Series epitomizes the fun daily driver. To the die-hard BMW enthusiasts out there, a battle rages on in regard to the 3-Series. Which generation is the best? While some BMW enthusiasts claim that the earlier, bare-bones, 3-Series chassis like the E30 and E36 were the purist incarnation of the performance driving machine, others enjoy the modern amenities and comfort that the newer 3-Series generations provide.
Both the E36 and E46 split the difference between the two arguments. The E36 3-Series is often regarded as the last analog 3-Series, giving the driver a more intimate and connected driving experience. On the other hand, the E46 arrived at a time when early 2000s technology was beginning to creep into cars in a big way, introducing electronic aids, more sophisticated management systems, and more creature comforts.
While both the E36 and E46 have their own individual strong suits and weaknesses, there is a reason why both are so beloved in the BMW community and the wider automotive community at large. In this guide, we cover the E36 vs E46 3-Series debate and provide information that might help you decide which chassis is best for you. For the sake of this article, we’ll only be covering non-M E36 and E46 models as an article dedicated to the M3s will be coming soon.
BMW E36 vs E46 – Background
Both the BMW E36 and BMW E46 had decade-long production runs, with the E36 being sold from 1990 to 2000 and the E46 sold from 1997 to 2006. The E36 followed up the E30 3-Series which truly cemented the 3-Series as a driver’s car which didn’t sacrifice performance in the name of luxury. The E36 certainly continued this legacy, implementing even more performance-oriented features – like multi-link rear suspension and a more aerodynamic-conscious design – which would go on to inform the E46 chassis to follow.
By the release of the E46 in 1997, it was clear that BMW had come a long way in terms of technological advancements were concerned. This was reflected in the E46’s heavy use of modern computerized systems, but also in the design of the E46 chassis itself. BMW’s advances in materials led to the E46 being 70% more structurally rigid than the outgoing E36 while also using lighter and stronger compounds in other aspects of the chassis design. Despite the advances in chassis development, the E46 was significantly heavier than its E36 predecessor due to its heavy integration of computerized functions and larger overall size.
The BMW E36 was available in six different body styles including a 4-door sedan, 2-door coupe, 2-door convertible, 5-door wagon/touring, 4-door Baur cabriolet, and 3-door compact/hatchback. The BMW E46 was available with a similar range of options but lacked the Baur cabriolet option from the generation prior. The E46 also brought back the all-wheel-drive 3-Series which was previously seen on the E30 3-Series and absent on the E36. While the two did share quite a few similarities, the E36 vs E46 debate took shape out of the differences.
BMW E36 vs E46 – Models and Engines
Both the E36 and E46 were offered in a staggering number of model configurations and engine options. The E36 chassis offered 12 distinct models ranging from the 4-cylinder 316i all the way up to the S50B32 straight-6 powered E36 M3. Through the models, the E36 made use of 21 different engines/engine variants including both traditional gas-powered options and diesel-powered engines. I suppose that speaks to BMW’s engine development prowess.
Carrying on that tradition, the E46 was offered in a similar spectrum of models and engine configurations. In fact, the E46 chassis was offered in even more models, totaling 16. As with the E36, the E46 also made use of 21 different engines/engine variations throughout its production run. Historically speaking, lower-trim 3-Series models made use of 4-cylinder engines while higher-tier models – like the M3 – used BMW straight-6 power. That was true for both the E36 vs E46 and was a trend until the introduction of the S65 V8 found in the E90/E92 M3.
Due to the fact that there are so many models of both chassis, we don’t have the screen real estate to cover them all here. For that reason, we’ll cover the most common models of both the E36 vs E46 chassis’ found in the US.
E36 Models and Engines
The E36 model lineup can be generally broken up into two larger categories, 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder models. As we stated previously, the lower tier E36 models featured less powerful 4-cylinder engines while the higher tier models used 6-cylinder BMW engines. The 316i, 318i, and 318is models ranged in horsepower between 98 and 138 horsepower and employed M40, M42, M43, and M44 BMW 4-cylinder engines.
The more upscale E36 models include the 320i, 323i, 325i, 328i, and M3. The 6-cylinder models were separated by a more significant power discrepancy, with power ratings between 148 horsepower and 321 horsepower. The S50B32 found in Euro-spec E36 M3s is the obvious outlier, producing a massive 321 horsepower. The other 6-cylinder E36 engines include the M50, M52, and S52.
BMW E36 318i/318is
1990-1993 – M40B18
1993-1998 – M43B18
1992-1995 – M42B18
1996-1998 – M44B19
The E36 318i was the top-of-the-line 4-cylinder-equipped 3-Series at the time. With an array of engines under the hood – which was dictated by the model year and sport or non-sport designation – the 318i varied in power from 111 horsepower to 138 horsepower. The 318is cars saw a healthy 27 horsepower increase over the standard E36 318i model from either the M42B18 or M44B19 engine. The 318i was available as either a coupe or a compact and was sold until 1998 when it was replaced by the 1999 E46 318i which we didn’t get stateside.
BMW E36 325i
Unlike the E36 318i/is which utilized a number of engines over its 8-year production run, the E36 325i only used a single engine that received a technical update in the middle of its production cycle. The 325i was the mid-tier 6-cylinder-powered E36, producing 189 horsepower. While the E36 325i falls in the middle of the E36 model lineup, it is only lacking a marginal amount of power from the 328i which is the highest trim E36 model outside of the M3. Due to the nearly unnoticeable power difference (outside of torque), many people prefer the 325i model to the 328i.
The introduction of the technically updated M50B25 – the M50B25TU – introduced single VANOS variable valve timing to the 6-cylinder engine. The single VANOS on the M50B25TU was used on the exhaust camshaft, allowing peak torque to come on earlier in the rev range. Single VANOS would continue on to the M52 engine which we’ll cover next.
BMW E36 328i
With the introduction of the E36 328i in 1995 came a new engine as well. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. The M52B20 was technically introduced in the E36 320i in 1993, but wasn’t sold in the US. With that being said, the M52 engine found in the E36 328i was based massively on the M50 engine that preceded it. The M50 and M52 engines were even more similar in the US than they were in the rest of the world, as US-spec M52s retained a cast iron block while the majority of the world received the aluminum block M52.
The M50 vs M52 debate is one that continues to rage on in the BMW community, with some E36 enthusiasts claiming that the M50 is the more reliable and easier-to-modify engine due to its lack of VANOS in early model cars and its use of OBDI instead of the more complex OBDII system that the M52 employed. While the overall horsepower between the 325i and 328i is nearly identical, the M52-powered 328i has 25 lb-ft more torque, aiding in slightly faster acceleration.
E46 Models and Engines
As with the E36, the E46 was offered in a number of models utilizing a variety of engines in the US from 1998 to 2006. However, unlike the E36, the E46 can’t be broken down into 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder models in the US, as the US only received 6-cylinder E46 models. The three most common E46 models in the US were the 325i, 328i, and 330i, all of which were powered by a 6-cylinder engine.
BMW E46 325i
While the E46 325i wasn’t the lowest trim in the US E46 lineup, with that distinction going to the M52TUB25 powered 323i, the 325i was certainly the most popular of the lower-tire E46 options. The E46 325i was released a bit later in the E46 production cycle in 2001. As such, it featured a newer engine than earlier E46 models. The 325i was powered by the M54B25 which produced a respectable 184 horsepower.
The M54 engine was the successor to the M52 straight-6 engine that was introduced in the E36 3-Series. The M54 featured an aluminum block and cylinder head in the US compared to the US-spec iron block M52. Additionally, the M54 received double-VANOS on both the intake and exhaust sides of the engine. While the M54B25 retained the same 2.5L displacement as the M52B25, advancements to the engine’s design made the M52B25 the more powerful engine with 20 more horsepower.
BMW E46 328i
While the E46 328i used the older M52TUB28 engine when compared to its M54-equipped counterparts, it is still the second most powerful non-M E46 model. Since the E46 328i used the technically updated version of the M52B28, the discrepancies between the engines in the 325i and 328i were minimal despite being different generations of engines. The M52TUB28 used double-VANOS like the later M54 engines and still produced a healthy 190 horsepower. The 328i also has significantly better torque figures than the US-spec 325i, with an additional 20 lb-ft of torque.
The 328i was released in 1998, making it one of the first E46 models to hit the market. It was only made for two years between 1998 and 2000 when it was ultimately replaced by the E46 330i in 2000.
BMW E46 330i
The BMW E46 330i is the most powerful non-M E46. It made use of the M54B30 engine which is the largest M54 variant in the engine lineup. The E46 330i was offered in a number of different trim levels and configurations, with two available in the US. The standard E46 330i produced 225 horsepower while the performance-oriented ZHP 330i produced 235 horsepower by using different camshafts and a tuned DME.
In addition to the superior performance, the 330i came with more standard features than the lower-trim models such as power seats, HK premium sound, and a trip computer. The 330i is also said to get better fuel economy than the 328i due to its more modern engine construction that optimized fuel efficiency. Generally speaking, the 330i ZHP is the best-performing E46 model, but some claim that the M54’s switch to an electric throttle made the 330i slightly less responsive than the 328i which used a throttle-by-cable system.
BMW E36 vs E46 – Performance
When it comes to performance, the E36 vs E46 debate can get somewhat tricky. It is hard to say which is better from a performance standpoint because the metric is so subjective. Looking at the strong points of the two generations of 3-Series, it is clear that one is the better driver’s car while the other is the better car to drive. Does that make sense?
The E36 is arguably the better driver’s car due to its simplicity. Compared to the E46’s bells and whistles, the E36 really doesn’t have a lot in the way of creature comforts. The E36’s more analog feel is preferable to many people when it comes to performance driving, as there is less that gets between you and the road.
On the other hand, the E46’s bells and whistles make it the superior 3-Series chassis when it comes to comfort and daily driving. While the E46 certainly has its quirks, it is the more luxurious option out of the two. A second-hand E46 will likely need less work than a second-hand E36 to get it into a respectable condition as well.
BMW E36 vs E46 – Handling and Road Feel
In many ways, the E46 is simply a more refined version of the E36. In terms of the chassis, the E46 is unquestionably stiffer, making for slightly better handling characteristics overall. With that being said, there is something about the hydraulic power steering in older BMW chassis that translates the road directly into your hands much better than the newer chassis. Many BMW enthusiasts will tell you that this distinction began with the E46.
The E36 and E46 feature an almost identical suspension arrangement despite being released almost a decade apart. That goes to show how spot-on BMW got the multi-link suspension with the E36. Despite having similar suspension characteristics, the E46 is the heavier car. The added weight makes the E46 feel slightly less responsive around corners.
So, in an E36 vs E46 side by side, the E36 is the better overall driver’s car while the E46 is the better car to drive in terms of handling and on-street performance. If you see track days in your future, the E36 is the chassis to have. It distills most track car essentials into a single package. Between the E36’s lighter weight, better steering feel, throttle-by-cable setup, and 50/50 weight distribution, the E36 is ready to go as far as performance driving is concerned.
While it is less the case for the E46, it is still a great platform. The E46 might not feel as connected to the road or as performance-focused as the E36, but its updated interior and more modern amenities make it the better daily driver.
E36 vs E46 – Reliability
Reliability is a huge consideration, especially when considering that some E36s are over 30 years old at this point and even E46s are nearing 20 years on the road. Luckily, both the E36 and E46 were blessed with some of the most dependable powertrains ever offered in BMWs. As with any car, maintenance is of utmost importance when it comes to E36 vs E46 reliability. Since the E36 is older, you’ll likely find more neglected E36 examples than neglected E46s.
BMW E36 vs E46 – Engine Reliability
We’ll start with powertrain reliability, as that is the area that tends to get the most expensive when it comes to repairs. As we previously stated, none of the models in the E36 or E46 lineup were truly unreliable. While the M42 4-cylinder is extremely reliable as well, the straight-6 engines from 1990 to 2006 are some of the most reliable engines BMW has ever built.
Many BMW enthusiasts agree that the M50 found in the E36 325i is the most reliable engine in the E36 chassis. It is said to be more reliable than any of the engines in the E46 too. The M50s reliability boils down to its simplicity, absent of VANOS or DISA found on later M52 and M54 engines.
Despite the M50 being the superior engine in terms of overall dependability, the M52 and M54 are also extremely reliable engines when properly maintained. Ultimately, that is what all E36 vs E46 reliability hinges on. Regardless, there isn’t a significant difference in reliability between any of the E46 models, at least with the 6-cylinder engines. The general rule is to buy an E46 that has been meticulously maintained. The better the previous owner took care of the E46, the more reliable it will be regardless of what engine is in it.
E36 vs E46 – Other Common Problems
While the engine options in both the E36 and E46 are solid, they both have a few known problems that are only destined to get worse with age. To start with an issue that both the E36 and E46 share (along with pretty much any other BMW from the late 80s to early 2000s), the cooling system on both cars is prone to failure.
As crucial cooling system components like the water pump impellers were made of plastic, they often failed even before BMW’s recommended service intervals. That is an increasingly pressing concern for both the E36 and E46 chassis, as both are over 20 years old. It is imperative to stay on top of cooling system maintenance on both the E36 and E46 or else it can lead to terminal damage.
Looking at the E36 specifically, most of the chassis issues at this stage revolve around old parts failing. E36 radiators have an expected lifespan of around 100,000 miles before the plastic necks start to break. Fuel feed hoses and coolant hoses often need to be replaced due t cracking and splitting. Factory E36 suspension is also likely on its way out at this point, with the rear shock mounts as a common source of problems. Other suspension bushings, subframe bushings, and ball joints are also likely in need of a replacement by now.
Common problems with the E46 are very similar to those with the E36. However, the E46 has a few unique issues of its own. One of the most well-known issues with the E46 is subframe cracking. While there is nothing inherently wrong with the E46 subframe design, repeated stress can cause a fatigue failure which eventually leads to fractures.
This is a common issue with the E46 chassis and one that you should look for if you are in the market for an E46. Outside of the subframe issue, the E46 suffers from similar cooling system problems as the E36. While a bit newer, E46 bushings and suspension components are likely pretty worn at this point too.
E36 vs E46 – Value
When it comes down to the value for money for the E36 vs E46 chassis, things get a bit complicated. In the last 10 years, classic 3-Series have shot up in price exponentially. That is especially true for E21 and E30 models, but E36s and E46s have also seen a major price hike. Obviously, E36 and E46 M3 models fall outside of this list and are outliers in terms of pricing.
Nonetheless, as E36s have been recently deemed “the last analog 3-Series” by many enthusiasts, prices have reached an all-time high due to the demand from purists looking for that old-school feel. While you could find a good condition E36 325i or 328i for around $4,000-$5,000 around 5 years ago, you’re looking at around double that in today’s market.
Unlike some other 3-Series chassis, there isn’t a huge discrepancy in price between E36 models, with a nice example of a 4-cylinder 318i selling for around the same price as a nice 328i. If you are looking for a project or a thoroughly beaten E36, you can likely find a few for around $3,000-$4,000. But, if you are looking for a quality driver’s condition car, you’ll be looking at around $8,000-$10,000.
The E46 chassis hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as the E36 when it comes to aftermarket price inflations. Even so, I have noticed that E46 prices have been climbing steadily over the past few years from an all-time low around 2015. Unlike the E36, there is a pretty significant difference in price between the E46 models. The least sought-after 323i and 325i models can be found in fairly decent condition for around the $4,000 mark, while nicer examples could fetch a couple of grand more than that.
E46 wagons are also fetching a big premium in today’s market, largely because they are rare and damn cool. Expect to pay around $10,000 for a decent-quality E46 wagon. The 330i and 330i ZHP prices are beginning to get a bit ridiculous, with the ZHP, in particular, fetching what the E46 M3 used to cost a couple of years ago.
When it comes to value for money, it really boils down to what you are willing to pay for your ultimate goals. With the E36, you’re essentially paying more for less. E36s aren’t as comfortable, lack a good amount of modern amenities, and are significantly older. With that being said, they are almost unanimously cited as much more fun to drive. In contrast, you’ll get a solid daily driver with an E46 and likely pay less than you would for an E36. The trade-off is ultimately a lack of a true analog connection to the road.