There's nothing quite like tracing the history of BMW's core models to make you feel old. 2021 is the year the E39 5 Series becomes a classic, having been launched in 1996; sometimes it's easy to think of the 1 Series being a fairly new addition to the BMW family, but it was launched in 2004; and the E46 3 Series, the vehicle to be raved about for the next few hundred words, went out of production just two years later. That was 14 years ago. It was launched in 1998, a year when the average house price was £70k, All Saints had three (!) separate number one hits in the UK and the McLaren F1 hit 240mph. Also known as an awfully long time ago.
That said, time has done nothing to dim the significance of the E46 3 Series. While the E36 predecessor had been a competitive compact exec for a lot of its time on sale, towards the end of the 1990s it was being given a very hard time by new rivals like the Alfa Romeo 156. The E46 re-established dominance for the small BMW saloon, and how: more dynamic, more luxurious, and more capable than the car it replaced, the E46 3 Series was the car to have for, really, its entire time on sale. At the same sort of time as the E39 was the larger executive saloon class leader also - bring that together with the contemporary M3 and M5, perhaps the most complete examples of each ever to exist, and it was an incredible time for BMW.
And although those M cars have very much enjoyed - and continue to enjoy - they're time in the sun as far as values are concerned, not many of the more humdrum variants are that coveted. Which is understandable, because to a lot of people they are just another of the BMW saloons that you see on the road every day. But look how in demand those early, six-cylinder 3 Series now are, and also how the compact executive car is moving away from the template that served the 3 Series so well for so long, and it's easy to see them becoming more coveted. Especially as so many will be driven hard, and driven a lot, because the E46 really was that good.
Cars like this 328i SE are always going to be interesting and desirable to the right person. Though not the best example of a car that'll one day be worth more - because it's already a lot - this E46 is a remarkable survivor. For a car so popular, so accessible and now two decades old, it's incredible such a thing exists.
This Titanium Silver BMW 3 Series has covered 11,600 miles since 1999. At 21 years old (or very nearly), that's 550 miles a year. The advert states its original owner, who bought the car from Sytner BMW Tamworth, used it "sparingly" - you don't say - and owned it for nearly two decades. Now not every low mileage find looks that fresh, but this is a gem: seemingly perfect body and paintwork, flawless interior leather, lustrous wood veneer. It's surely as good an example of an E46 to now be found, crucially with that lovely 2.8 straight six as well.
Being sold with a new MOT and warranty, as well as recent service that refreshed brakes and pads at all four corners as well as the usual fluids, plugs and so on, it's a 328i ready for its next owner to cherish. Perhaps not as a regular driver - something like this might suit better - but as a usable modern classic that must now exist in miniscule numbers. At £15,000 it's chunky money for an ordinary 3 Series but, if you'll excuse the cliché, it must be near-impossible now to find another. And for a car that defined a genre like the E46 3 Series, especially the six-cylinder cars, that could easily be temptation enough.
SPECIFICATION - BMW 328I (E46)
Engine: 2,793cc, straight six
Transmission: 5-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 196@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 206@3,500rpm
MPG: 27.7 (NEDC)
First registered: 1999
Recorded mileage: 11,600
Price new: c. £27k
Yours for: £14,995