E46 vs E36: What Are The Differences?

BMW 3 Series vehicles are emblematic of what the maker is and stands for. The engineers are some of the best in the world, and both the E36 and E46 generations showcase that incredibly well – to the point where people wonder which generation they should buy.

In a battle of BMW E46 vs E36, which one is better for you? Your decision will depend on several very specific factors – this isn’t a decision someone else can make for you. Consider what you want and need in a vehicle and your personal preferences for what you consider to be “best.”

Then, narrow down your choices to an exact model and specific vehicle. This due diligence will serve you well in the car shopping process. Among BMW enthusiasts, you won’t hear a unified “correct” answer on which you should buy, but that’s part of the fun of it, right? You’re in the driver’s seat on this choice.

First, a breakdown of each generation. Then, let’s talk price, reliability, maintenance, luxury, and performance. Arm yourself with facts and think about what you want from a car, and you’ll have your answer in no time.

BMW 3 Series – E36

Driving enthusiasts absolutely love the BMW E36 models, with just a few caveats. First, the basics. The E36 is the third generation of the BMW 3 Series, produced between the years 1990 to 2000, with the previous generation being the E30.

Different models of the E36 have included a four-door sedan, a two-door coupe convertible, a touring five-door wagon, a compact three-door hatchback, and, much more rarely, a four-door convertible Baur TC4. A beloved model, the E36 was consistently named one of Car and Driver magazine’s 10 Best.

Silver BMW E36

Originally, the E36 included a driver’s-side airbag, and later (from 1993 on) included a passenger airbag. Side impact airbags were included in later years. The model had ABS braking, stability control, and available electronic climate control.

The E36, in general, is considered to be a more modern version in the line of 3 Series and is solidly in the middle when it comes to some folks’ preferences of “modern” vs “classic.”

Some prefer that the E36 generation relies less on electronic puzzle pieces than the E46. It is also considered by some to handle in a more “raw” way than the more modern E46. This is again, a point of preference when it comes to which is better.

BMW 3 Series – E46

Produced between the years 1997 and 2006, the E46 models have been considered a step up from the E36 models, depending on what you’re looking for. As with the E36, E46 models were available in a variety of body styles, including the four-door sedan (1997-2005), two-door coupe (1998-2006), 2-door convertible (1999-2006), five-door station wagon (1999-2005), and three-door hatchback/compact (2000-2004).

Setting itself apart from its predecessor immediately, BMW marketed the body shell of the E46 to be 70% more rigid. This, without making the vehicle clunky – many prefer its design over the E36. And, by those in the know, the E46 generation has been considered the peak of all generations regarding Series 3 vehicles.

White BMW E46

From the bare-bones 323i to the M3, E46 cars are a thing of beauty. Generally, features available for the E36 generation continued to be available for this generation, with even better luxury and safety features.

This specifically comes down to the exact model and body style you choose as well as the care and tending of the specific used vehicle you have your eye on.

Price Differences Between BMW E46 and E36

Sometimes, without warning, certain models become retroactively more popular for car enthusiasts, and therefore their value rises. There are many factors that go into what you can expect to pay, including the specific model and style you’re looking for, as well as the condition you’re willing to accept in a vehicle.

While the E46 has more luxury and power than its predecessor it will cost more to purchase and can cost a lot more to repair due to the increased luxury and additional electronic features. The E36 will currently run about $20K, while the E46 will cost on average $23K.

The M3 models will cost you even more than standard models but offer greater performance, and some wouldn’t consider buying either an E46 or E36 that isn’t an M3. If you have the money, the E46 will feel like the better car for many people, with more amenities, including side curtain airbags and a crisper feel to the cockpit.

However, if you’re looking to spend less at the mechanic but still want a solid BMW experience, the E36 will be a much better choice.

When it comes to price, there can be huge differences depending on vehicle mileage and relative rarity. Your budget will certainly come into play in choosing which vehicle is right for you. Crucially you need to weigh not just the initial cost of the E46 vs E36 but also the expected maintenance costs over the years.

Absolutely make sure you have a solid record of the history of any vehicle before you buy it as that can help you know what you’re in for down the road.

BMW E46 vs E36 Reliability

Which generation is more reliable between the E46 vs E36 generations is something up for debate among car enthusiasts. There are some who mark reliability as being easy to fix or more “classic,” in which case older models – the E36 generation – can better fit the bill. There are others who mark reliability as being more electronic and modern, in which case later models are the choice.

The E36 generation may be more prone to mechanical failures especially as they are inherently older. However, its failures can offer easier diagnoses, unlike the more mechanically-refined but much more electronically complex E46 generation.

As part of your buying process, it’s important you drill down into the exact model and style you want. Consider how others have rated that specific one and what is important to you in terms of reliability. It is most certainly a matter of preference as the BMW 3 Series is in general, reliable.

Young woman loving her new car.

Crucially, and it needs to be stressed, you have to realize that you’re buying a used vehicle and so the history of that vehicle matters greatly. The reliability of the ride you end up with will be impacted by its previous owner/s handling of it. With that said, keep the differences in modernity in mind and what you need.

BMW E46 vs E36 – Maintenance Needs

When it comes to maintenance needs, there are a few things to keep in mind when it comes to the E46 vs E36 generations. First, again, is age. It can be the case that older vehicles with more miles can by nature, need more maintenance than newer models.

However, it highly depends on the model you’re getting, M3 E46 can be very expensive to maintain, for example, but are also highly coveted and reliable. E46 models also, in general, can have more electronic features and so need a different kind of maintenance at times.

Many people consider their BMW 3 Series vehicle, whether E46 or E36, to be the most reliable vehicle they’ve ever owned. As long as you’re prepared to deal with potentially-needed maintenance on the specific model you’re interested in, you should be in for a relatively smooth ride compared to other makers.

Maintenance needs will matter more or less to you depending on your knowledge level in diagnosing and fixing cars, as well as finding a trusty mechanic who knows your generation and model of the vehicle inside and out.

This is as with everything to do with choosing a car, a personal decision. Are yourself with knowledge about the specific model you’re considering buying, including what average repairs on certain parts and repairs that tend to fail.

BMW E46 vs E36 – Luxury

BMW knows what it’s doing when it comes to luxury, so you really can’t go wrong when you choose anything 3 Series. There’s a reason the BMW name is what it is. With that said there are some things to keep in mind when you’re choosing between the E46 and E36 with a particular eye toward luxury.

Luxury features were available for both generations, with some definite upgrades available for the E46. Just as the E36 saw more luxurious upgrades to the E30, so did the E46. BMW knows what it’s doing when it comes to making its cars feel like a privilege to drive, so honestly, you can’t go wrong.

However, that comes with a big caveat. If you want something specific, you’ll definitely need to keep those things in mind as you come through various E46 and E36 models. The previous owners will have opted for various customizations, from the bare bones to the truly luxurious.

On luxury, you’ll want to consider your personal preference as well as the very specific vehicle/s you’re considering buying.

BMW E46 vs E36 – Performance

Performance is something BMW handles well. You might think that “newer” equals better, but this isn’t true in all cases. Some consider the E36 generation to have better performance because it has less of a disconnect between the driver and the road. It can feel more “true.”

However, the E46 generation is generally more refined with more electronic features, so can feel like it handles better. This is absolutely a matter of preference. What do you want out of a car? Knowing that can help point you in the right direction when it comes to choosing a generation and specific model.

If you want to feel more connected to the road, rawer, you’ll go with the E36. If you want to feel more modern and refined, but still with that BMW edge, you’ll go with the E46.

It goes without saying that specific models have a lot to do with this – the M3 in both categories will offer a different performance level than a bare-bones model.

Which is Better – The BMW E36 or E46?

When deciding which is better the BMW E46 vs E36, really consider the features you want and need. Consider your needs for a vehicle and whether you want something more modern or something more raw and classic. What’s better for one person might not necessarily be better for you, and this really is a very individual decision.

The better option is debated all over car enthusiast forums and you’ll hear impassioned opinions for and against the E36 and for and against the E46. Make a list of the key features for you, see what’s available, and arrange for some test drives before making this decision.

As long as you do your due diligence on the very specific model and the vehicle you want, you should end up thrilled with your purchase.

What’s the Difference Between a BMW E36 and E46? Here’s What You Should Do

The BMW E36 and E46 are both great classic options within the BMW lineup from the nineties to the early 2000s. Depending on how much you’re looking to spend and what level of luxury you are interested in, you may prefer one over the other.

If you’re looking for a more reliable ride with lower maintenance bills and a decent amount of luxury, the E36 is going to be your car of choice. If you have a little higher budget up front and don’t mind spending a little more for upkeep, the E46 offers more luxury and performance in a body that is barely heavier than its predecessor and which handles in a more modern way. Want something more classic and raw? Go with the E36.

These are both solid vehicles, and ultimately the choice between the two becomes a matter of dollars and cents and personal preferences. Still, either one will give you a quality BMW experience.

Absolutely make sure you have a solid record of history and maintenance on whichever specific vehicle you narrow it down to and weigh in future maintenance costs. Ultimately, go with your gut and what will make you happy as a luxury car driver when it comes to the E46 vs E36. Thank you for reading, and happy driving!

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About Brock Rangel

Hi, I am Brock, and I am the lead editor/photographer for TheCarColony. I have been a mechanic for over 14 years now, and I am here to spread my car knowledge across the web!

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