When it comes to high-performance BMWs, the M-series always takes the spotlight; yet BMW produced a wide range of capable vehicles without the "M" badge. These five BMWs are some most fun (and reliable), that you can purchase today—whether they sport the "M" badge or not.
Model Years: 2006-2013
Current Prices: $4000-$15,000
The BMW E9X chassis was one of the most groundbreaking chassis for BMW, and can still be seen on roads nearly everywhere today. Even with the first models reaching fourteen years old now, the E90's styling still holds up and blends remarkably well with new cars. While the M3 is the pinnacle model of the E9X chassis, prices for those still start in the mid $20,000 range. For a fraction of that, though, you can get a 335i that's almost as capable with just a few modifications.
In the United States, we received the 335i in three different variants—the E90 sedan, the E92 coupe, and the E93 convertible. Unfortunately, the E91 wagon was never shipped to the US. When it comes to purchasing, all three models are essentially the same; it all depends on your body style preference.
Depending on who you talk to, the BMW 335i can be a dream to own and incredibly reliable, or the exact opposite of that. Up until 2009, it shipped with BMW's twin-turbocharged N54 engine. The N54 made 300 horsepower, came with forged internals, and remarkably strong turbochargers from the factory. Unfortunately, early models of the N54 were known for high-pressure fuel pump failures, turbocharger failures, and costly fuel injectors that need regular replacement. However, what the N54 offered was massive tuneability—for just a couple thousand dollars, you can achieve "full bolt-on" (FBO) status, and make 400whp on pump gas. For those taking note, that's around 50 horsepower more to the wheels than the same M3 with BMW's S65 engine.
If you're the kind of person that would rather give up overall power for reliability, in 2009, BMW put out their facelift known as LCI. Not only did you get updated styling, but they also replaced the N54 with their new N55. Instead of twin-turbos like the N54, the N55 came with a single twin-scroll turbo. This unit was infinitely more reliable and had nearly no noticeable turbo lag. Another added benefit was the use of less-costly fuel injectors. The downside of the N55 is that there's less to gain power wise when modifying. To reach the 400whp number of the N54, it requires the addition of E85 fuel or methanol injection.
Which engine to go with depends entirely on your preference and intentions with the car. No matter which one you go with, we always recommend buying a car that has had all of the basic maintenance completed regularly and the big-ticket items replaced in the recent past. Look for cars that have had a carbon cleaning done, fuel injectors replaced, and the high-pressure fuel pumps replaced to avoid high-dollar repairs. We also recommend sticking with the 6-speed manual transmission over the 6-speed automatic, as the automatic is the one thing that easily dates this car the most.
Model Years: 1992-1999
The BMW E36 is regarded as one of BMW's greatest chassis and for a good reason. It dominated the racing scene in the 90s and continues to do so today in series like AER, NASA GTS, and countless others. The M3 variant took the positives of the chassis and ran from there with a higher-output engine, upgraded suspension, and slightly more aggressive styling. While the E36 M3 doesn't blend in as well with modern cars as others on this list, it's still a timeless classic that will get the attention of enthusiasts anywhere you go.
In the US, you can find the E36 M3 in three variants, the coupe, the sedan, and the convertible. Unlike the E9X chassis, these variants did not have separate codes and are all referred to as the E36. In general, the convertibles have depreciated the most, followed by the sedans, and finally, the coupes. Choice on this is all down to personal preference, as they are equally as good in either form.
While Europe was lucky enough to get the more powerful S50B30 engine (and S52B30 after the facelift), the US was stuck with the S50B30US, which was essentially a modified M50, and the S52, essentially a modified M52. The US-spec car came from the factory weighing in at roughly 3,150 pounds, making 240 horsepower and 236 lb-ft of torque, still more than enough to get sideways at the push of the throttle.
The E36 M3 is one of the most-reliable M3s that BMW made, even to this day. Couple that with it being one of BMWs last easy to service models means ownership is actually incredibly affordable. When purchasing, you want to check that the cooling system has been overhauled, the shocks have not blown through the shock towers, and the rear subframe hasn't torn away from the car. Otherwise, there are minor issues like valve cover gasket leaks that are annoyances rather than major problems.
Prices vary wildly when it comes to the E36 M3. It's a solid collector's car, so clean, low-mileage examples fetch pretty high price tags. Mileage and condition aren't the only defining factors on price with these cars. Paint colors like Dakar Yellow, Hellrot, Boston Green, and Estoril command a premium—especially when paired with Vader sport seats. If you browse Facebook Marketplace right now, average examples in the common paint colors go for $7000-$14,000.
The BMW E36 M3 is for you if you like the idea of the M240i/M2 but can't quite afford it yet. It's a no-frills sports car that still has enough modern comforts to drive every day.
Model Years: 2007-2010
High-performance doesn't necessarily rule out SUVs, and BMW has been building them since before they were taking over the roads. The very first E83 X3s that BMW produced didn't really catch the attention of buyers with its dated-when-new styling and lackluster engine options. It wasn't until the mid-cycle refresh happened for the 2007 model year that the X3 really came into the spotlight.
2007 was the first model year of the facelift, which was much more than just a visual update. The biggest change of this refresh was the switch from the M52 engine in the 3.0i to the newer and much-improved BMW N52B30 engine. At the time, this engine could be found in the 330i as well as the 128i. Naturally aspirated, this engine was much more reliable than BMWs other offerings, such as the N54. Amazingly, BMW gave us the option of pairing the N52B30 engine with their 6-speed manual in the X3 3.0si—completely changing the driving experience. The 6-speed automatic at the time was pretty slow to bang out downshifts, even in "sport" mode.
Prices of the X3 3.0si range from $6,500 to $12,000 when looking at private party sales as well as dealerships. Since there are fewer available with a 6-speed manual than automatic, they do command a premium. And there's even more of a markup if you're able to find one with the M-Sport package.
The X3 3.0si is as close as you will get in this price range to "sporty" handling while still having the space and ground clearance of an SUV. BMW was able to strike a balance of a comfortable ride and enough composure to make back roads drive both fun and forgiving. If you're looking for something easy to carry kids and gear with daily, you can't go wrong with the X3 3.0si.
Model Years: 2003-2006
Maybe you have your sights set on an E46 M3, and the collectibilty tax has it just out of your budget. Or maybe you can't settle for any less than four doors. If that's the case, the E46 330i ZHP might just do the trick.
The BMW E46 330i ZHP is the only car on this list that isn't a separate model and instead just an option package. The ZHP package was a nearly $4000 addition of options that included styling, suspension, engine, and interior modifications. It was fitted with the M-Tech II body kit, which gave it a slightly more aggressive styling over the standard 330i. That, coupled with sport springs that lowered the ride height, style 135 wheels, and additional negative camber blurred the lines even more between it and the M3.
When it comes to power, it didn't get the legendary high-revving 333 horsepower BMW S54 engine like the M3. It still came with the same M54 found in countless other BMW models, and by this time, had any major issues already ironed out. However, it did receive a few upgrades that helped set it apart such as different camshafts and a revised ECU. This was good for 10 additional horsepower and a 300RPM higher redline over the stock 330i. This was coupled with a shorter final drive, dropping the 0-60 time by nearly half a second.
The E46 330i ZHP's following is almost cult-like, so prices can vary wildly. It's still possible to find these at a good price, and it's even possible to find ones that the owners don't quite know what they have. Like other collectible BMWs, certain interior and exterior color combinations can affect the sale price greatly. As with most of the cars on this list, the best place to find good deals is Facebook Marketplace. However, if you're looking for the absolute best, you might have luck on forums like ZHPMafia and boutique dealers such as Enthusiast Auto Group.
Model Years: 2008-2013
If you like the idea of the E36 M3 but are looking for something a decade-plus newer, the 128i is one worth looking at. Often touted as one of BMW's last "driver's cars," the 128i is quickly becoming a future classic.
When it released in 2008, the 128i was shadowed by the more powerful and much more expensive, 135i. Because of this, the 128i was looked at simply as BMW's base model and was optioned as cheaply and mundanely as possible. Most models on the used market are either convertibles or are equipped with an automatic transmission—neither of which is where the 128i shines. It's best had as a coupe with BMW's 6-speed GETRAG transmission.
Under the hood, you'll find BMW's N52 inline-six engine producing 230 horsepower and 200 lb-ft of torque. Coupled with its lightweight and short wheelbase, this made for the perfect balance that you could wind out enthusiastically on back roads. There are a few modifications that you can make that will increase the power and torque output, but gains are limited and come at a cost. If you're looking purely for power, the 135i might be a better choice for you. The downside to that is more weight over the nose, upsetting the overall balance of the E8X chassis.
One of the biggest pitfalls some might find of the 128i is the interior. Often criticized as basic, and that of a much cheaper car, the interior is spartan in all of the right ways. The cockpit is driver-focused without any distractions, especially when optioned without the Navigation Package. Beyond that, you could option the Sport and M-Sport package that gave you manual seats with adjustable bolstering. And, while although a small car by today's standards, the front of the 128i offers enough space for a six-foot adult to spend their time comfortably.
Where engine modifications don't yield much in terms of a performance boost, upgrading the suspension is where your money is best spent. Being BMW's cheapest model at the time meant sacrifices were made. The 128i rode on the cheapest damper that BMW had to offer at the time. Aftermarket dampers or a good set of coilovers coupled with aftermarket sway bars are all it takes to transform the handling of the 128i and are highly recommended.
It's becoming more and more difficult to find the 128i on the used market. Mentioned earlier, models with a manual transmission are rare, and even more rare are ones equipped with the Sport package. When browsing Facebook Marketplace, you can find models that need a lot of work as low as $4,500; it seems the sweet spot is around the $9,000 range, however. These are reliable cars that don't require many major services. Like most BMWs, though, they benefit from regular suspension maintenance to retain their superior handling characteristics, so I would recommend budgeting a small suspension overhaul if it hasn't been done in the recent past.
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Writer/Editor at FCP Euro and owner of a daily R53 MINI Cooper, a track-built R53 MINI, and a 1997 Dakar Yellow E36 M3 Sedan. ••• Instagram: @evan.madore