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Forget The E46 M3, This Is The Used BMW You Need To Buy

Smart Buy / 18 Comments

You'll save a ton but enjoy yourself just as much.

Whenever the conversation of future collectibles gets brought up in any automotive circle, the spotlight typically gets pointed on the E46 BMW M3. Even we have succumbed to the E46 M3's charm and with prices on the rise, we don't think it will be much longer before it becomes "unobtainium" for the average enthusiast. So what is the car enthusiast on a budget to do when the M3 becomes too expensive to buy and maintain? As it turns out, there is another less talked about E46 3 Series that deserves your attention - the 330i Performance Package.

Why You Should Buy One

The 330i Performance Package, known as ZHP to BMW geeks, was an optional performance package introduced back in 2002 on the E46 generation 3 Series. Only offered on the 330i in the United States from 2003 to 2006, the ZHP was the pet project of a few enthusiasts at BMW Individual who wanted a "baby M3." This package had such a cult following that BMW brought back the name on the 4 Series Coupe.

So why would you want a generally unknown performance package instead of a fully-fledged M car? Well, anonymity can be a good friend to bargain hunters and the ZHP's lack of popularity means prices are a fraction of what you'd spend on an equivalent M3.

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The Price

Unlike an M3, searching for a 3 Series with the ZHP package isn't the simplest task, as there is no '330i ZHP' option for most car search websites. We recommend searching for a 330, then narrowing down the year search from 2003 to 2006 to weed out most of the unwanted cars. After doing this, keep an eye out for the unique wheels and tires, aerodynamic package, and black headlight trim (all pictured above). Original press photos of the ZHP Pack are surprisingly difficult to track down but we managed to find a few images showing a red sedan and a silver coupe.

Even the cleanest, low-mileage examples we found barely exceeded the $15,000 mark and some of the rougher, high-mileage examples can be found for as low as $6,000. We dare you to find an E46 M3 for that price without a broken SMG transmission or an accident on the title. If you do, let us know.

The Performance

As you'd expect, the 330i ZHP isn't as quick as an M3 but the difference is closer than you'd think. The M3's 3.2-liter S54 inline-six engine produced 333 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque and the car could hit 60 mph in 5.1 seconds. For the ZHP, BMW increased the output of the 3.0-liter M54 inline-six from 225 to 235 hp. The base transmission was a six-speed manual with a short-throw shifter and shorter final drive ratio. There was also a five-speed automatic offered, which some enthusiasts say is very competent. In addition to the extra power, BMW also fitted a sport suspension and new 18-inch wheels with more aggressive rubber.

As a result of these performance upgrades, a 330Ci Performance Package was estimated to hit 60 mph in 5.9 seconds (around a half-second quicker than a 330). Car and Driver was able to best these estimates, by recording a 0-60 run of just 5.6 seconds (only a half-second slower than an M3).

The Interior

Inside, the ZHP is differentiated from a standard E34 3 Series with cloth and Alcantara sport seats as well as an Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel. Silver Cube aluminum trim completed the sporty look and the engine was modified to rev 300 rpm higher than the standard car, which is reflected on the instrument panel. Aside from these changes, the ZHP boasts typical E46 trimmings, which do feel dated by today's standards. A base radio was standard but BMW offered a navigation head unit. We suggest ripping out the stock head unit and replacing it with a look-a-like system that appears like a factory unit but adds a touchscreen and modern features.

The Practical Stuff

Unlike the M3 of the era, the ZHP was available in coupe, convertible, and sedan body styles. This meant trunk space could range from 10.6 to 15.4 cubic feet and overall interior volume could differ dramatically. Since convertibles are heavier and offer the least practicality, we suggest opting for either the coupe or sedan, depending on your personal preference. Even without a modern four-cylinder turbo up front, the E46 ZHP achieved EPA ratings of 18 mpg city and 27 mpg on the highway.

Verdict

The E46 ZHP Package never receives the same fanfare as the M3 and we think it is time to change that. As every old car with an M badge continues to rise in value, we must seek out deals within the BMW pantheon. The 330i Performance Package was the closest car you could get to an M3 without actually buying an M3 and today this fact remains the same. This is still a perfectly balanced sports saloon with a smooth inline-six up front. There may be plenty of M purists out there who will scoff at any non-M BMW but we'll be happy driving our ZHP knowing we spent a fraction of what the M3 owner paid for their car.

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