I’ll be perfectly honest, I have the most boring garage of anyone at The Autopian. David has his hoard of Jeeps, Jason has a car from a country that doesn’t exist anymore, and Mercedes is gradually collecting enough Smart Fortwos to block every pump at one of those enormous Bucc-ee’s gas stations. In contrast, I don’t even have a two-car fleet, just one slice of depreciated regular-ass traffic — a 2006 BMW 325i. Nevertheless, there’s still a slight strangeness to my vehicle history. So how on earth does someone go from sketchy but characterful claptraps to the Bavarian equivalent of a Corolla? Well, growing up is a hell of a drug.
My first car, a 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Brougham sedan, came with several kilos of hot peppers and was so bad that I had to give it away rather than sell it for actual money. I’m convinced that it only still exists to spite me. My 1996 GMC C1500 pickup truck had its own ecosystem growing on the truck cap and ended up with a sweet Alpine audio system. The seller of my old Crown Victoria dropped a racial slur on the test drive, and I promptly ruined that Crown Victoria by dumping it on its nuts, installing a mini-spool, and having far too much fun. It made it across Canada at this low ride height, only once almost getting stuck in Revelstoke, B.C.
Once that Crown Victoria properly and catastrophically broke, it was time for something a bit more sensible, reliable, and less prone to catching on fire. A used compact Japanese sedan with traction control, side airbags, and a slightly more modern crash structure than the taco shell used in the construction of the Crown Victoria. A reasonable form factor to appease my grandmother, a raucous V6, six-speed manual gearbox and limited-slip rear differential to appease me. Yeah, I went online, ticked the boxes for ‘Infiniti G35’ and ‘Manual’, and went to work. While that G35 was a stupid amount of fun and definitely more reliable than my Crown Victoria, it wasn’t exactly reliable full-stop and a few key modifications really sacrificed comfort. So, after two years of ownership, I was just about ready to move on.
The plan was a rather stupid one. Can a high-mileage German car like a naturally-aspirated E90 BMW 3-Series be cheaper to run than a Nissan with some fancy emblems on it? Common sense says no, but common sense has no air of optimism. We as enthusiasts don’t buy cars to be sensible, we buy them because we’re hopeless romantics.
Whether you’re in love with chassis tuning or clever engineering, or locking diffs, or having a long enough hood to land a helicopter in the space between your windscreen and hood ornament, you typically buy the car you want and other perks like low running costs and reliability are pleasant surprises. Truthfully, I’ve wanted an E90 since they came out. Period reviews were glowing, and I’ve always found the styling to be absolutely sensational.
Plus, it appealed to maturing sensibilities. Parts support is tremendous, fuel economy is purported to be excellent, and there’s something nice about a well-tuned stock car. However, love isn’t enough to convince everyone. One of my best friends, a great skeptic and keeper of many reliable vehicles, was convinced that an E90 would be a lateral move at best. Obviously, I didn’t hear the “at best” part and thought that a lateral move wouldn’t be so bad as a worst-case scenario.
Now, a low-trim 3-Series has a certain air of ill-repute to it. The stereotypical chariot of a dull city boy with some bullshit job who could be easily replaced with any member of Beta Lambda Theta or whatever local fraternity’s known for awful parties. Don’t ask me why I picked that name, I’m a total geed. You can typically find a clapped-out 3-Series with M stripes on the grille, hacked-off mufflers, and more electrical faults than a mixing board with a Solo cup full of Smirnoff Ice spilled on it.
However, the 3-Series exists as an archetype for a reason. It used to be the textbook sports sedan, seven-tenths the fun of a sports coupe with roughly twice the practicality. I mean come on, I lust after a 370Z but know damn well it’s not exactly suited to IKEA runs. Nor is a two-seater the best option if you have friends or cousins or grandparents or anyone you’ll be driving around. Old 3-ers have great naturally-aspirated inline-sixes, manual gearbox availability, and rather feelsome hydraulic power steering, they’re less about numbers and more about joy. Plus, they pack proper refinement.
My old G35 with its stiff coilovers, custom exhaust system, and horrendous seats was a blast on a back road, but rather tedious when slogging down potholed Canadian highways on a cold October night when you just want to sleep in your own bed again. Look, I love a good party, but I’m sort of past the point of wanting to party every waking hour. There’s a certain pleasure in a quiet evening curled up on the sofa with a good book and a cup of tea, and my G35 was really the antithesis of that. Plus, I was finishing up a postgrad in public relations. In my mind at the time, I’d soon be working at an agency downtown and was about to have much less time for mucking about with dampers settings and drone. That didn’t quite work out, but it doesn’t mean that a shift in mindset didn’t happen.
So, fully convinced that a 3-Series was the right idea, I started test-driving cars. See, Canada got several variants of the E90 that America didn’t. Early 323is had a measly 170 horsepower, manual climate control, and optional cruise control. Needless to say, it’s not massively quick. Later 323is added a trick three-stage intake manifold and upped output to 200 horsepower, but are still a touch slow for my tastes. The torque curve is alright but not great, plus the cars themselves are still somewhat lacking in equipment. Right, so I knew I needed something with the three-liter N52B30 engine, a six-speed manual gearbox, and rear-wheel-drive. At this point, heated sport seats and xenon headlights were must-haves, as was the rather advanced top-spec audio system that employs a fiber-optic connection between the head unit and the digital amplifier. Oh, and the hardest ask of all, I really wanted a good color. Yeah, this was going to take months.
Flash forward to March of 2020. The whole world was about to shut down and I figured that I needed to do something ASAP. I listed my G35 for sale and strangely enough, found a seller on my listing for the G35. Not only did they own a 350Z drift car, they had multiple Z32s and a well-maintained 325i they were looking to part with. While the initial pictures were terrible, the car held promise behind the mismatched wheels that just needed to function as a square set for winter. It had a new clutch, a new flywheel, a new valve cover gasket, a new oil filter housing gasket, and a general plethora of maintenance items recently attended to. Sure, it had 273,000 kilometers (169,000 miles) on the clock, an airbag light on the dash, and more than a few dents and scrapes, but those are minor details, right? Sure enough, I ended up coming home with a peach of a 3-Series in exactly the spec I wanted. Plus, since temporary registration was extended indefinitely due to the pandemic, I could take as long as I needed to sort out the airbag light for inspection.
After a quick scan, a few little error codes popped up – one for each front seatbelt pretensioner and one for the battery safety terminal. Hey, a battery safety terminal only ran me around $40, so I quickly tended to that issue. Next up was sorting the seatbelt pretensioner codes, which brought a bit of amusement. Someone had jammed a crude homemade bong under the front passenger seat which knocked the plug out of the seat harness. Simply removing the bong, scrubbing the carpet, and popping the plug back in fixed one of the codes. After dropping $379 Canadian on a brand new driver’s side pretensioner and clearing the last code, this bad boy was ready to go. More importantly, this initial wrenching experience validated a hunch. See, most 15-year-old cars in the rust belt will fight you every step of the way with every minor repair. I’ve never seen a rotten E90, so I was rather delighted when every bolt came out perfectly cleanly, ensuring that this car is an actual joy to work on.
Next came the question of wheels and tires. I’m a huge fan of a bit of chrome and M Parallels, and the online classifieds threw me a really weird bone here. Four chromed E39 M Parallel front wheels. Yeah, I have no idea either. As for tires, I knew I was going cheap. At this point, I was road testing at least one new car every week, and since cars only rarely get brought to Canadian journalists, I knew I was going to flat-spot the hell out of whatever tires I’d get. Fortunately, a set of cheap, reasonably sticky tires typically used as burners went on, and have been proving themselves to be quite competent.
Two years of duty later, and I can proudly say that I’ll never sell this little 325i. I won’t lie, I usually get bored of cars quickly. I just get to this point where I understand the excitement or twist or genius of a vehicle, then start picking apart flaws. Once the flaws outweigh the fun and I no longer love the car anymore, it’s likely time to sell. Despite, this I’m yet to be aggravated by my 325i. It’s been a brilliant companion for early-morning drives and late-night adventures alike. I’ve laughed, cried, kissed, sang, sipped countless cups of tea, and listened to an ungodly amount of indie trash in this car. I’ve cruised along twisty roads with Vipers and 911s, hauled home coffee tables and bookshelves, and visited old friends and family alike in this humble little 325i. It’s been absolutely marvelous. But has it fulfilled its mission? Was it cheaper to run over two years than my G35?
Surprisingly, yes. See, the G35 required $4,895.62 in maintenance and repairs over two years, while the 325i has only needed $2,902.25 in maintenance and repairs over two years. That latter figure breaks down to $1,451.12 or so per year, or about $120.93 a month. Yeah, I’ll gladly take that. Honestly, most of the maintenance boils down to typical old car stuff – tires and wheels to put them on, recharging the air-con, a little driveline refresh, a few bulbs, a set of spark plugs. The only really unexpected repairs were of a used replacement amplifier, two used replacement speakers, and a set of fuel injectors. The gap widens even further when you consider fuel and insurance. Lifetime fuel economy for the 325i sits at 29 mpg (8.1 L/100km) compared to 22.6 mpg (10.4 L/100km) for the G35, while switching to the 325i instantly saved me $30 a month on insurance.
So then, who’d have honestly thought that a reasonably reliable yet extremely pleasant one-car solution would be an old German car with more owners on the history report than strings on a guitar? As a bonus, I haven’t really had to mess with it much to get it to where I want. A pair of subtle color-matched front spoilers fill out the chin as a sacrificial lamb for any unavoidable road debris, an OEM ZHP shift knob feels nicer than the stock piece, OE-style alloy pedal covers provide better grip than aged rubber pedal pads, and a silver steering wheel bezel covers some of the chipping on the soft-touch rubberized piece underneath. Other than a cold air intake to add a touch more induction noise, this thing’s pretty much bone stock. As it sits right now, my 325i is still a bit cosmetically grungy and has a few things likely worth tending to, but that’s largely okay. I haven’t tended to the creased hood or scuffed bumpers because they almost function as insurance. Street parking downtown can be a minefield and if someone backs into my car, it’s nice being able to largely shrug it off. The tires could use re-balancing as I’ve found a few wheel weights on my driveway, but the tires still feel balanced at legal speeds, so I’m not too fussed about it for now. I definitely want to refinish the headlights soon though, so expect to see clearer lenses in the near future.
Despite the largely visual flaws, the brilliant hallmarks of a 3-Series are still all present. Fantastic seats that feel like slipping into an old pair of jeans, wonderfully accurate steering, a sweet inline-six that rips silk at 7,000 rpm, excellent damping, and all the toys I could possibly want. The color-shifting Arctic Metallic paint still functions as a weather station, glistening blue in the sunshine, green in rainy or mildly overcast conditions, gold as the sun rises and sets, silver when light is lacking, and absolutely elusive to camera capture. The Logic7 audio system still bumps LCD Soundsystem better than premium audio systems in most brand new luxury cars, and the heated seats go all the way up to “Bluetooth vasectomy” levels of hot.
This car serves as a solid benchmark for all the new cars I test, a standard for refinement, seat comfort, headlights, audio system performance, the lot. It’s so good at most things that while I could own a second car, I haven’t found anything reasonably-priced that provides a substantially more joyful experience yet. Until I have proper Porsche or Lotus money to spend on a toy, I’m extremely happy to just stick with my little 3-Series. Even if I do eventually end up in a Boxster or imported S1 Elise, I’ll still keep the 325i because it’s just so damn good. In a way, my 325i is a paradox. It’s joyful yet boring, an agile slice of heaven when the road gets twisty and a comfy sitting room for slogging through rush hour. A durable machine with a fragile reputation. Then again, who ever said that cars have to make sense? What matters is that my 325i balances my current wants and needs perfectly, a sign that growing up isn’t really so bad after all.
Lead photo credit: Thomas Hundal
First year E90 is not well known for reliability. the stick likely helped with it staying on the road, but man oh man the Vanos and Coil issues are a pain, even though some say they are easy to fix, you should not have to. the G35 would have been probably more reliable if it had not been mucked with. this one too will fail if mucked with too much.
I have a 2006 E90 325i Motor Sport. It has never failed me and I still can’t let it go. The bonnet badge flew off last week and I was devastated.
Radiator has been replaced once. Full service history including brakes, oil, coolant etc.
Still has original stock manual gearbox – the clutch is starting to slip now (after 16 years) and the diff is starting to make a slight vibration noise.
I added a custom exhaust, manifold, air filter and chip once-off in 2011 with a dyno tune at a total cost of circa ZAR 9,000. This boosted performance from stock 250nm to 290nm Torque, and power from stock 160kw to 173kw at peak. Given the power to mass ratio, I can accelerate from 0-100km/hr under 6.8 sec.
Show me a normally aspirated car that handles like this, performs consistently and reliably after 16 years even after being modded (11 years ago) – I will surely be impressed.
People never believe me when I tell them that my 25 year old E39 I6 is more reliable than a lot of other supposedly reliable cars are. Maybe I got lucky or maybe with the right maintenance they are actually not bad cars at all. It has been so reliable that I supercharged it 10 years ago and nothing has failed ever since.
BTW, sand and polish those headlight lenses. It will make a world of difference at night and being hazy like that date the car a lot. Trust me.
I’m an idiot and for some reason skipped that part about the headlights in the article. We really need that edit button to mask stupidity.
The E90 was PEAK CAR. You’re right to never get rid of it. And they ARE quite easy to work on. Buy all your parts from FCP Euro and they’re guaranteed for life, too!
I’ve had an E90 335i (I miss it), 330xi (what a beast in the winter), and currently have an E82 128i that I have no plans to part with. You should consider doing the 3-stage intake conversion and associated tune to get you up to 255-265 hp (depending on whether you go with OEM or aftermarket tune) like the 330i’s had. It really wakes up the top end of the rev range! A limited slip is also a huge upgrade, but they’re very expensive on these cars due to the ring gears being welded rather than bolted on. About $3k USD. I put a 3.64 3-clutch LSD on my 128i and it transformed it.
Oh how you make me long for my 2006 325i E90 that I gave up on too soon.
Mine was full poverty spec (manual heated seats covered in vinyl) in the generic dark grey but was such a wonderful car to ride long distances in. Mine had window regulator failures and a battery failure which caused a bunch of random errors, not least of which was being bricked by the electronic steering wheel lock. On the 2006 if that failed it was a new steering column. Sold it for a Wrangler, and while I loved that one too I should have just kept both for an ideal garage.
The only thing better than a 6spd, RWD e90, is a 6spd, RWD *e91*, aka the station wagon version of that generation 3-series. I made the big leap and ordered one for European Delivery in 2011, and I still have it. Also pretty low spec, no iDrive or other electronic fanciness, though I did go for the Harman/Kardon stereo system that succeeded Logic 7, A grand total of 51K on it to date, and it is as reliable as sunrise, death, and taxes. My only out of pocket repair in 11 years – a new battery two years ago. It just does everything perfectly, from going out to dinner to a long highway run to bringing an assembled grill home from Lowe’s to going around a race track at speed. I cranked the drama level of mine up a couple notch the day after I got it back from BMW by adding the BMW Performance Exhaust and Intake – it doesn’t just sing to 7K rpm (peak hp is right at the 7K redline in these cars) but it sings Wagner with all the Sturm und Drang you could ever want in a car that will cross a continent with civility.
I too have that ZHP shift knob – the car presenter at Der Welt looked at me like I lost my mind when I yanked the shift knob off the right there on the floor. But smiled when I pulled out the replacement. I special ordered mine without the \\\M though, just plain 6spd pattern. LeatherZ.com will make one for you that way.
I like it so much I plan to be buried in it. And a couple of years ago I picked up a same year little sister – a 128i convertible, also with 6spd. Which I love almost as much. I need to order another ZHP shift know though!