She's Gone: I Sold My 2003 BMW 325xi
Last summer, without much fanfare (on COTC at least) I traded a 2008 Honda Civic coupe with around 80k miles for a 2003 BMW 325xi with only around 34k miles. At first glance, it might have seemed unusual. Trading a newer car for an older one? A "reliable" Japanese car for an "expensive" German one?
On paper, however, there was no comparison. The Civic was two doors, front wheel drive, and four measly cylinders. After driving it for about 5 years I can tell you that it got pretty annoying, especially from the critical perspective of an auto enthusiast like me. It was unrefined around town, and slow on the highway until around 70-80 mph when V-TEC finally kicked in. It was pretty good at handling, but it blew like a ragdoll in crosswinds. The automatic transmission felt rough. Exterior styling was ok, but the interior was full of foolish flaws: a gaudy electronic speedometer that cast glare on the windshield, cheap spray-painted silver accents, and a steering wheel logo that started peeling (which I ended up replacing but was a huge pain in the neck to do). As for that famous Honda reliability, it needed a whole new engine block at 60k miles, which was mercifully under warranty, but after that all four coils broke, which wasn't covered, and upon hearing that, I became so angry that the dealer gave in and replaced them for free, sparing me $1,000+ in repair costs. A little bit of rage goes a long way sometimes.
So, feeling fed up with the Honda I decided to look for a replacement vehicle, before the Civic needed anything more. I knew I wanted four doors, rear or all-wheel drive, and more power. And since I had just come from a Japanese car, I wanted one of the coveted German automobiles I had read so much about.
There really weren't many options that were affordable and practical. The pre-owned Mercedes-Benz C-Class were all overpriced. Then I considered BMW, whose resale prices depreciate notoriously, making them available to basically anyone. At first I was dead set on an E32, then an E36, until I finally set my sights on a silver 2003 BMW 325xi I had found not too far away. The mileage was low, carfax clean, and the body free of major damage. The engine bay was spotless. The interior smelled delicious. It started strong and drove flawlessly. I was instantly addicted to the absurdly heaving steering, silky acceleration and sexy sheet metal. I bought it and drove it home.
The '03 325 was also known as the internally designated E46 chassis code, which debuted in 1999 and replaced the beloved E36. In 2002 it was given a cosmetic refreshening. The 325xi designates it as the 3-series with a naturally aspirated gasoline powered 2.5-liter six cylinder engine, fuel injection and all-wheel drive. In 2006, it was replaced by the E90.
Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of this car is the pre-XDrive all-wheel drive system BMW used on these cars for a couple years, simply called "xi". It was based on the X5 SUV concept and featured a permanent full-time system that divided the torque 38:62 front:rear, so there was still a bias towards desirable rear-wheel drive, but with the added stability of power to the front wheels as well.
Inside, the interior was one of BMW's best. The analog instrument cluster was crystal clear, buttons were all in reach, and everything was composed of high grade plastics and looked and felt great. Mine was rather unique in that it had vinyl seats, which I loved and preferred over leather because they are indestructible. I also had heated seats, but no headlamp washers and no cruise control.
So, was it the ultimate driving experience? In short, compared to the Honda Civic, yes, absolutely. There's a reason why these cars have reputations and the E46 was no exception. Every act, every switch, every function of the car is so deliciously engineered feeling, from the turn of the key to the heavy steering, that it was thoroughly satisfying to routinely operate. Around town, the 185-horsepower inline 6-cylinder engine was quiet yet torquey, like a coiled lion purring as it eyes prey. On the highway it was a true performer. No, it wasn't fast off the line. That's for drag racers and Corvettes. Where the car really excelled was in maintaining a high rate of speed for long distances. 85-100 mph did not feel nearly as fast as those speeds really are. The car was solid as a rock, composed, refined and stable. I had found it! It was the anti-Civic.
As for the all-wheel drive system, which was really rather basic and more truck-like than anything else, it worked really well. In rain it cut through puddles like a knife, sending a tidal wave over the hood where other cars would start to hydroplane. The winter of 2012-2013 also brought a massive snowstorm to the New England region, so I was able to test the car's foul weather resistance to the true limits. During one snowfall I was able to cruise long stretches of dark, icy highway at 60-70 mph (yeah yeah faster than I should have been going) and felt completely safe and comfortable doing so. The car also got me home alive in the thick of the later bigger storm. So in a way, it saved my life. Can the AWD system climb mountains? No, but the car wasn't designed for that. It was designed to add more control and predictability to the car's handling in inclement conditions. And after years of dingy FWD Hondas, this thing might as well have been a Land Rover in the snow.
What were the downsides? The sunroof slide (not the actual glass sunroof) fell off the tracks, and one mechanic told me repairing it would mean a whole new sunroof which blew my mind but may not be entirely true. Some plastics wore unfavorably. No cruise control was rather irritating. But perhaps the biggest flaw was fuel efficiency. If you drive with a lead foot like I do, combined with the full-time AWD system always churning, and add in the cost of premium gas during an era of escalating prices, this thing costs a lot to operate energy-wise. I was used to $40 or less bucks for a full tank after a week of normal driving, and the BMW was now costing me $60 or more.
As for reliability, I can't say much as I owned it for just around one year. The coolant light came on at first until I topped it off myself and it never came back. Oil changes could either be $20 mixed or $100 synthetic. I did need new rear springs, however. And of course, being the immaculate owner I was, there were the small cosmetic fixes I couldn't resist: a new OEM front emblem, new OEM wipers (hard to find), an OEM replacement rest pedal, factory OEM floor mats, European-spec OEM convex side mirror glass pieces, and a sliding-cover storage bin that replaced the 'ugly american' cup holders and was what actually came on European-specification models. But beyond routine maintenance, the springs, and some voluntary changes, nothing terrible happened. The engine is bulletproof and known to go many thousands of miles, and even the automatic transmission (normally another problem area) was sourced from General Motors on the E46 xi so those aren't too exotic.
A change in location forced me to sell her, but it's with a tad of nostalgia for last summer and the subsequent tumultuous winter that I'm here writing about it all, my brief flirt with a fancy, hi-tech German sedan. I can say it was definitely worth it and I recommend that model to anyone else interested. I savor the days I spent flying through sleet and slush, basked in the glow of the red gauges, safe behind the wheel of German silver-steel.