The E36 has been a favourite among track lovers for many years, but as those cars are becoming older and rarer, it’s successor, the E46, has become popular.
The E46 was introduced in 1998, as usual starting with the saloon/sedan body style. The touring (estate/station wagon), coupé, convertible, and compact were added later. The engine offerings were initially carried over from the E36, with the M52B28TÜ 2.8l engine being the top offering for the first two years. A new six-cylinder engine, the M54, was introduced in September 2000. The top offering was now the 231 hp 2.0l M54B30 engine in the 330i, which is the engine you should look for in a tracktool.
The saloon and estate received a facelift in September 2001, the coupé, convertible and compact in March 2003. The top models (330i, 325ti compact) now had a six-speed gearbox. The successor E9x was phased in starting in 2005.
- 330i has decent power, resulting in a power to weight ratio of 6.5 kg per hp at the factory-specified weight of 1,505kg for a car with driver and fuel
- Rear-wheel drive
- BMW’s most successful 3 series, meaning there is lots of choice
- Abundance of spare and performance parts
- Several known issues: subframe cracking (partly resolved in 2000), worn out suspension, window regulators, oil use of M54 engines, oil pump
- No factory limited slip differential available
- Relatively complex car – not as bad as more recent cars, but you’ll definitely want to invest in OBD software, BMW’s INPA is available on the internet
- Not exactly a light car
Get a 330i, don’t bother with the other engines. The 330 also had bigger brakes that may not be present on a 320 that had the M54B30 swapped in. Stay away from the SMG cars, they’re cheap for a reason. Don’t get the cheapest car you can get, make sure that it is reasonably well maintained. Try to inspect the rear subframe for cracks and all suspension parts & bushings for wear. Try to find out how much oil the engine uses – high oil use may come from leaking gaskets, bad valve shaft seals or a bad crank-case ventilation. Prepare to spend some money for a VANOS rebuild. Consider the 320’s shorter diff for a track-only car. Take into account that the oil pump has a reputation of throwing off the sprocket retaining nut at high RPM, aftermarket solutions are available.
The 330i is quite often found with staggered tyres, e.g. with 225s up front and 255s in the rear. Looks nice, but causes understeer and you can’t switch the tyres front to back. A square setup with 225s on 8×17 wheels on all four wheels is recommended. Wider is possible for track use (Spec E46 uses 255s on all four wheels), but this is not a BMW-approved width on the front wheels.
There is of course also an E46 M3. This car is famous for its high-revving S54 engine. Prices are much higher though than those for a regular E46, so it is not considered here. It is however a good base for a tracktool, but not without problems (see Cons above). The S54 is a real performance engine that needs more maintenance and care than the M54.
Robert’s dual-use 328i saloon.
Throttle House’s excellent series on preparing two 330s for track use.
Car Throttle’s series on upgrading a 330d. Timing is done with a phone so take this with a grain of salt, but some good advice nevertheless.