Off we went. Two BMW enthused gear-heads that are always seeking the freshly paved asphalt, mountainous views, and to perfect our heel-toeing. We drove through the surreal Skyline boulevard up highway 84 in Northern California; it was too cold for my friend Griffin, he kept the windows up. However, I layered up; it was worth being a little colder if it meant experiencing the sounds of the car rather than just hearing them. Griffin occupied his BMW N55 135i, coupled with a DCT transmission, and fresh Hankook tires all around. I ran my own pride and joy—a 2005 E46 M3, controlled by a manual transmission, and a newly installed coil over suspension and muffler.
Turn by turn we realized why we bought these cars. The maintenance is more demanding than a Japanese vehicle, the price tag may have paid for a semester of college, and we know that as the miles rack up our bank account might diminish. We agreed that when we are not driving the cars we wonder if these relationships are worth the commitment. However, when in the cockpit of these metallic demons all the worries dissipate. We remember why we love these cars and comprehend why they are some of the best driver’s cars under $25,000 currently in the market.
Let’s compare them.
IN THE MARKET
If one would search online for a used BMW under $25,000, the top results query a 10-15-year-old E46 M3 or a five-year-old 1 Series turbo. Neither of these coupes are being produced anymore, yet both cars demand more than one simple glance and beg for their MPG average to dwindle as the smiles escalate.
The 1 Series “N55” turbo engagement mirrors similar emotions to when you’re watching a horror movie—for the second time. The climactic moment when the turbo is fully spooled is not as frightening as the first time it hits but is still very much gripping to the seat.
The legendary 3.2 liter inline six in the E46 M3 presents a raw and more refined hustle, while on the other hand, we don’t get all the crackles and pops as we do from the 135i’s sound. Whereas, the S54 engine in the M3 has one of the most unique sounding exhaust sounds of any driver’s car—an infamous rasp that drivers either love or hate. These cars both present a fine line between intimidating and onerous. They are comparable not just because of their price range, number of doors, or overall size, but the similar degree of exhilaration.
It’s the new breed of BMW’s vs the old. The E46 was the last model of this legendary species; no one can fully explain why the newer models are set so apart from the E46 and yet no one would disagree that they are different kinds of cars. The 1 series has that “new BMW” feeling—the smells of unmolested leather, sounds of the safety from the doors closing, and perhaps a lasting warranty. Some praise the old with every type on every forum. So, it is time for a duel. Both cars lie in the same price bracket, and at a decade difference, do they match up?
Either 1 or M, both machines spirit the yearning for the rare roads every driver hopes to stumble upon. We might all know the local spots and roads to enjoy in our own towns, but every enthusiast has that glimmer of hope when behind the wheel, that if the journey would continue, maybe the road of all roads will be found. This is the place where we drop it from 5th gear to 3rd, and forget about all the other worries, the maintenance costs, and any end destination. This is the beauty of these cars. Both of them have the character of a young lion cub, begging to be let loose—even when one of these creatures has already matured.
The M3 carries something special. The M3 is known throughout the world, as the car. BMW enthusiasts drool over the rare and clean E46 M3, as it’s six cylinders hold a myriad of history and tradition. It was the first engine to be produced that is over 100 horsepower per liter, and birthed dream car status for generations. It screams to 8000 rpm, and does not want to drop below 5. Its value carries beyond it’s numbers.
The 135i is the younger brother that mirrors great genetics. He’ll stay in the ring and fight the fight, but it knows that it’s the younger brother. The new smell is in there, maybe a bit more reliable, and the turbo-technology gives it a torquey advantage. It’s a wonderful experiment. It has relatively cheap potential to push 400 horsepower to the wheels, whereas the M3 already has nearly every horse squeezed out of its inlined powerhouse.
Upkeep is where the 1 Series shines. The M3 will require more depth in the wallet as it holds the letter “M.” It is an older car that is known to have four figure maintenance costs via sub-frame issues, hefty 100,000 and 120,000 mile services (the likely range you’ll find one), and cooling problems that appear once the mileage enters six figures. It is an overall reliable vehicle; customers have reported daily drivability into the 200,000-mile mark—yet its age equates to daunting maintenance costs.
If the scoped 135i is between 2008-2010, it had a lot of high-pressure-fuel-pump issues. However, these problems were declared recalls by BMW, and most vehicles have been given the Mark V Fuel Pump that has been more reliable. If the 1 series is 2010-2013, BMW fixed the Fuel-Pump issues, and carries the reliability of a newer car.
The dichotomy of these cars is that they are the same species, albeit different animals. The M3 edges the 135i out in the apex, but may end up in the shop more than desired. The 135i can blow the M3 out of the water in a straight line with a few minor modifications, yet it does not carry the raw, crude, and unedited feel its competitor retains.
If you’re looking for a daily-driver with some out-of-the-gate torque, go for the 1 Series. If your willing to read up on some DIY’s online, and be a star at the local Euro meet up, go for the older brother. This decision comes down to what you prefer, as the driver and not the statistician. We love both and you can’t make a poor decision either way. Go for it. Get behind the wheel of these champion steeds, you will not regret it.