E36 vs E46: Which One is Better and Why?

So, you want to purchase a 3-series BMW. That’s great! They’re awesome little cars if you take care of them. But maybe a newer 3-series is out of your price range. So, you’re stuck with the E30, E36, and E46.Maybe the E30 is a little to old for you, so you’re interested in E36’s and E46.

Let’s dive in and compare E36 vs E46 and find out which one is actually better


After the insane success of the E30, the E36 had some big shoes to fill in. Of course, BMW delivered and made the E36 the most luxurious and comfortable 3-series yet. The E36 was available in a coupe, sedan, convertible, and a wagon model.

BMW also produced the “compact” model which never sold well in the US but sold amazingly elsewhere.


After the insane success of the E30 M3, BMW upped production a huge amount. Making the E36 M3 attainable to the average Joe.


Just like the E36, the E46 had some fairly big shoes to fill in. BMW has always been good at out-doing themselves, and they did with the E46. Not only was it more luxurious, faster, and safer. But, it was only 100 lbs heavier. BMW used quite a few light weight materials and techniques to keep the weight of the E46 down.


Just like the E36 before it, the E46 was available as a coupe, sedan, convertible, and a wagon. However, the “compact” model was missing from the lineup.

E36 vs E46: Reliability/Strength

Once BMW started changing directions with the 3-series and making it more luxurious, it has lost some of its superb reliability. That said, the E36 is a fairly reliable vehicle, but not nearly as strong as the E30 before it.

Also Read: RB26 vs 2JZ: Which One is Actually Better?

The E46 shares many components with the E36, and as such, shares many of the reliable traits. But, with all the new luxury tech of the E46 chassis, the reliable isn’t as good as the E36.

E36 vs E46: Luxury

Now, this shouldn’t surprise you to much, but as cars get more advanced they also get much more luxurious. So when comparing the luxury features of the E36 vs E46 take into account the major age difference.

The E36 was already a massive leap from the E30 when it came to luxury features and overall comfort of the car. It had a more advanced suspension system and was designed to be a true entry level executive car.

E36’s came with power everything, leather interior, and a pretty quite and smooth ride.


The E46 is for the most part a lot like the E36 on the inside. Things like power windows, power locks, and power seats are pretty standard on the E46. They both use really nice leather and pretty nice materials. But, the E46 feels nicer and more modern over all.

E36 vs E46: Price

While prices for E30’s have gone up huge amounts, the prices for E36’s and E46’s have gone down a ton. Prices for a nice E36 range from $3-5k, and prices for a nice E46 range from $5-7k. This is of course very dependent on where you live. Those prices were an average of many different listings in the Phoenix, Arizona region.

Some area’s in the US, E46’s can rise as high as $10k for a decent condition model. Thats insane!

E36 vs E46: Maintenance Cost

This is where many people fear ever owning a BMW or any german car for that matter. Is a BMW more expensive to fix than a Honda? Yes. Is a BMW way nicer to drive than a Honda? Yes. Understand that you get what you pay for. BMW’s can be very complex and as such the technicians who work on them get paid a lot to understand how BMW’s work.

With that said, the E36 is dirt cheap to repair. This is because its mostly devoid of the complex system’s mentioned above. When BMW produced the E36 they were just getting focused on making the 3-series about luxury.

So, it wasn’t filled with insane tech that can break easily.

Check Out: Is BMW is Still Beating Mercedes?

The E46 on the other hand is nearly 2x the cost per repair of the E46. This is because they are much more complex in and out. This makes them harder to work on, and thats going to cost more. The E46 is actually fairly close in repair cost to the E39 (5-series).

E36 vs E46: M3

As a fellow enthusiast, I’m sure this is the only part you are actually interested in. How does the E36 M3 stack up against the E46 M3? Well lets look at the stats.


E36 M3 (US Model)
HP: 240 hp
TQ: 225 lb-ft
Weight: 3,439
0-60: 5.6 seconds

E46 M3 (US Model)
HP: 343 hp
TQ: 262 lb-ft
Weight: 3,399
0-60: 5.1 seconds

As you can tell from the numbers, the E46 is WAY more powerful. The crazy part is that its larger in every way, and has more luxury features, but doesn’t weigh anymore than an E36 M3. This is because of all the light weighting that BMW put the E46 M3 under.

Also Read: E30 vs E36: Which One is Better and Why?

Put these two on any track anywhere in the world and the E46 M3 will outrun the E36 M3 like its sitting still.

E36 vs E46: Track Use

The E36 is a great platform to learn on. It’s very well balanced, and has lots of room to grow into. But, it is limited by its narrow fender wells. The E46 suspension and chassis setup is nearly identical to the E36’s chassis. But, the E46 weighs about 100 lbs more than the E36.


So, logic would tell you that the E36 would be better due to its weight advantage. But, the E46 is a stiffer chassis over all, has a much wider body and can fit much wider tires, and has way more power. The E36 is better if you are on a budget, but if you want the ultimate track car go with an E46.


So, not only is the E46 more luxurious, but its also faster. Its faster in a straight line and a curvy road thanks to BMW’s light weighting. But, its about 2x more to purchase and repair an E46 than an E36.

If you have the money, an E46 is the better car wether you want a daily driver or a track car. But, if you are on a budget the E36 is defiantly a better car. Its much cheaper and easier to repair, its also cheaper to buy in the first place.

Be sure to share with your friends!

15 thoughts on “E36 vs E46: Which One is Better and Why?”

    • Can get a very nice E46 convertible for about $5,000. Has 120k on the odo and the owner (only 2nd) has fixed up everything – including adding new rotors, pads, and tires to keep ot going and stopping. Temptation. But how do these little beasts do after 100k?

  1. The e36 m3 US spec its not a “real m3” in europeu we have 3 versions with the s50 282hp, 291hp and 317hp.

  2. I loved e30’s and then the e36 got even better. I have a Z3 2.8 and the 325is is still more suitable for the driving I do. Although I miss the 2.8 I had in my previous 3-series, and that I have in my Z3, you just can’t beat the effect of the suspension mods on the 3-series. I had great success tuning the suspension on my first e36 convertible with the typical things you would change out. My current 325is has the same parts from my previous one but with m3 springs. Which are great! The Z3 is just too nimble. I recommend it for very tight fast turning. As well, I also recommend just doing the bushings with track power flex and just getting new struts. You can spend a lot of money tuning the Z3 and not improve the handling to make it more desirable. When it is already a pretty fun car to drive on tight twisty roads. If you do change the springs on the Z3 make sure you get the rear springs more than 6k because the rear end just won’t be as solid as the 3-series coupe or convertible without them. In other words just leave the stock ones on there. Of course there is the stock rear alignment adjustments as well or lack there of. When you lower it down it’s going to need special bushings, but I didn’t want to fool with it. I got a BC racing coilover Kit with 6k springs front and rear. Before that I had H&R’s with bilstiens and returned them. Now I have raised my coilovers to stock height with the stock rear springs.

  3. Nice write up.
    I am a fan of the old BMW’s. I have an E36 316i with 350 000km on the clock and I am only opening the engine now for the first time and because I want to redo it, it doesn’t have to be opened!
    It is all a personal thing and personal preference , but I love the E36 looks over the E46, the E46 still looks good but there is just something about the E36 for me. IMHO anything after the E46 is a throw away, my dad has the E90 and it is the an expensive, unreliable piece of junk.

  4. Great article… helps me a lot in deciding. Owned a G8 GT for 6 years and sold it recently to get a practical DD. However, I am hating the driving experience almost every day and considering to get a M3 myself. The only concern is the price. “Prices for a nice E36 range from $3-5k, and prices for a nice E46 range from $5-7k.” While searching I could not find any at that price. All of them are over 10k. Is that a recent surge in price for the M3s, should I wait? Any suggestions would be highly appreciated.

    • No don’t wait if you have the money. Check out that this review or comparison was made in 2016. Your post was in 2020, the year of the great lockdown from Covid 19. It is now 2922 and the prices of virtually everything is still on the rise including the highest ever for food.

      What brought me here? A friend who knows me to be a BMW 3 series freak sent me the pictures of a 325 e36 1997 model asking if it was a good buy at 60,000km for about $1,000 in Nigeria. It is a but on the high side for an e36. But then everything is expensive now. However, a 1997 car is an old car. I told him to get an e46 if he was not on a budget. I drove an e46 up on till August 2021. It was worth every second. The experts have said it all and I am tempted to agree all the way. I lost my first car and e36 325 V 6 in an accident in 2008. The engine was still so very strong but the body was falling apart. On a trip, I braked sharply and the back Camba, leg broke and the car lifted into the Bush, tool down a modest tree and hurtled down a ravine and was eventually stopped by a tree. I was wearing my seat belt. When it was being brought out by a crane, everybody there did not believe that I drove the car and came out in one piece. So I guess the reliability of the e36 must be as good as the reviewer said. That said, they are relatively good cars to enjoy…they are mot exactly super cars but they are the bridge between super cars and regular cars. If I had to choose again, it will be the e46 for everyday cruising and then a really clean e36 for the tracks periodically if inhad the dough. Great review by the way…but hardly replies questions.

  5. Bought a 26 yesr old e36 323i. as a cheap runabout. Fun to drive silky smooth transmission. Everything still works as it should. Could easilyhandle a lot more horsepower. Gets a lot of attention these days. My late model Subaru Outback 3.6 ltr. Mainly stays in the garage now. E36 just a fun road car. Cheap fun for the beginner. Getting rare now.


Leave a Comment