Three years ago on July of 2018 I bought a car after a summer of commuting by motorcycle to save up money. The car was a 2003 Lexus IS300 SportCross with 190,000 miles and a clean carfax.
I got some OEM wheels for it, some black headlight housings to replace the painted-on stock faded units, fixed a couple of vacuum leaks, and enjoyed it for a while.
It was pretty okay transportation. Quick enough, fairly comfortable, mediocre fuel economy, able to swallow big loads through the rear (uh, phrasing?). Fine and dandy. But as a Certified Car Jerk (tm) some things just started to bug me. The IS was marketed as the Smart Man's 3-series (tm). 80% of the performance, 50% of the price. Cool and dandy, but... I couldn't help but feel Lexus didn't commit to the bit. The suspension was a bit too... soft and wallowy. The automatic transmission was... absolute dog shit.
Seriously, I can't say enough about how much of a joke it was that absolute infuriating slushbox was allowed in anything with any pretentions of "sportiness". Shift times were on par with a domestic Buick and the "manual mode" was an insult, as tapping the up and down buttons merely set an upper gear limit. The car wouldn't shift beyond that gear, but you couldn't force upshifts nor could you manually shift down into first without using the squiggly gated console shifter to do so. A manual was available in the sedan, but from what I've heard it's... pretty horrible as far as manuals go.
To make matters worth, it is 100% impossible to tune the Toyota powertrain control modules to fix the shift controls or fetter with the engine itself. Annoying. And parts were damn-near BMW prices with very little in the way of aftermarket, and so few IS' were sold that finding one in a junkyard was a rare event. To wit: BMW sold more 3 series in one year than Toyota sold IS300s in its entire run, and a majority of those BMWs were owned by spoiled rich idiots who punted them into junkyards prematurely leaving all the weird random interior bits ripe for the picking for your own car.
So I owned the IS300 for a while and it had some typical old car problems. A caliper stuck on and had to be replaced. Whatever. Eventually the bushings aged out and I started to get front-end clunks and vague-as-hell steering. A stint at the rallycross course likely accelerated this but it would have needed done regardless.
Sir, would you like to replace the forward lower front control arm on an IS300? Well you'll have to unbolt the steering rack and wiggle it out of the way. No bolts are easy to get to, they're all different sizes, and everything is obnoxious as hell. Have fun.
Shortly after this the AC stopped working. Eventually I tracked it down to the shraeder valves themselves in the AC fill ports and had those replaced at a shop. The AC worked again, wonderful! For one day. Then the expansion valve shit the bed. How do you replace the expansion valve? Remove the dash (4.6hr shop labor).
So I sold it. At this point it had been totaled by cosmetic damage (barbed wire fence disagreed with an icy road) and rust had set in on the rockers in a bad way, so I got less than half of what I bought it for (but my insurance paid it off already so...) and went to Texas to buy this.
I had a local friend to check it out, he negotiated down to $3600 (or was it 3400?) and said it was a deal at that price so I drove down and got it.
Here's a summary of what I bought and drove back to Wichita:
235k mile 2003 330i ZHP
Front end sitting higher than the rear
Center support bearing completely gone
Clunks from the rear end
Running a bit... funny
flawless interior save for worn steering wheel, driver bolster, console armrest
forged MSW Bathurst gunmetal grey wheels with walmart tires (lol)
a check engine light (no cats present)
rear bumper finish panel was missing and some sheet metal was buckled from a previous rear-end accident
three different shades of tint on the windows
rear left brake light needed re-wired due to a faulty ground and a botched repair job
the previous owner was selling it because it "didn't drift very well"
Odd spec, essentially a base 330i with Xenons, sunroof, performance package, heated power cloth seats, bose audio, and nothing else. No auto headlights or auto wipers, leather, or cold weather package
totally rust free
The trip was essentially problem-free other than lots of shaking from the totally munched center support bearing.
As soon as I got it home I did the following:
Center support bearing replacement
Fixed the goofy front ride height (struts were not installed properly)
Re-wired the tail lights properly
Replaced a half-melted turn signal holder
This resulted in a fairly drivable if not still considerably in need of help E46. The thing was... it was all super easy to do. To get to the center support bearing the exhaust and a heat shield had to come off first... but the entire bottom of the car could be disassembled with one size socket. The undertray on the Lexus? Fifteen different styles of 10mm bolt, plastic rivnut, etc. The undertray on the BMW? Quarter-turn Dzus fasteners you could use a socket or flat-head screwdriver to take off.
Since then I've done the following repairs (with a description of my thoughts on each repair):
Bank 2 sensor 1 O2 replacement The most annoying thing here was getting the header flange nuts on and off. The rest of it was absolute cake, complicated somewhat by the fitment of the cheap eBay headers (fixed partially by having a welder friend put a new o2 bung on it).
Vacuum leak repair Fairly obvious, easy enough. A couple of rubber vacuum nipple caps had perished and started leaking, as had the vacuum softline at the fuel pressure regulator. $7 and a few minutes to fix, and I've solved several E46 friends issues with this fix as well.
DME update Setting up the software on the laptop was the hard part here, but once that was done a few clicks on the laptop and I had the latest and greatest BMW software in my car that had a few bug-fixes and improvements over older versions.
New plugs They're spark plugs. The tray that holds the cabin air filter comes off in about 30 seconds with a torx driver and you have unfettered access to the plugs, the coils, and the super cool connectors.
Front control arms/bushings/ball joints Wildly simple. Pop off the undertray, pop off the frame-stiffening brace with my M18 impact and about 10 bolts, then it's two bolts to un-do the "lollipop" bushing, one nut and a picklefork for the ball joint, and away you go. Surprisingly economical repair with OE parts.
Coolant expansion tank, radiator hoses, radiator Not as easy as an NA Miata, but damn close. Everything snaps together sensibly, though I did have an issue with a hose being bad out-of-the-box. I guess even OE parts can have QC issues. Only difficult part here was the aftermarket radiator (same brand used in spec E46) not quite fitting the locating tabs, requiring a bit of force to get it to seat right.
Window regulators These literally take 15 minutes and there's no reason to buy anything other than the cheapest one. Look up how to do the "zip tie mod" for a pre-emptive futureproofing of the new units.
Headlight retrofit IDK if this is a mod or a repair. Basically there were two contractors for the headlights and one of them dropped the ball in a big way (VW boys know what I'm talking about) leading to the internal wiring harness disintegrating and the bowl at the back of the projector melting. Pretty easy evening project, due to the absolutely wonderful way that these light assemblies come apart. No glue, just clips and you can tear out all of the haggard wiring and put in a jumper harness and new projector unit. Had to re-code my lighting computer due to the fact my xenon flapper and halogen high-beam were wired together now, which I honestly love.
Tuned Bought tuning software to remove the secondary air injection system and secondary O2 sensors. Messed around with VANOS timing a little.
Touchscreen head unit Eonon carplay/android auto unit. The inability to hear a quality audio source through the frankly superb Harmon/Kardon system was bothering me. This also included a backup camera install and wiring in a subwoofer.
Muffler Installed a Vibrant Performance muffler. The drone in combination with my headers is pretty bad but... see the above subwoofer/head unit for my solution. Eventually I need to make a full 3" midpipe for the car with Vibrant resonators but that's $$$$.
Shit bodywork Car got hit by someone and they lied to insurance and I was SOL so I bought some junkyard doors that are in mediocre condition and put them on. Fairly upset about that whole thing.
New tint 35% ceramic. 10/10 modification, do this on every car.
Painted interior trim The interior was a frankly depressing black, with black, and black trim. I removed the kinda scuffed "black cube" trim and repainted it with bronze wheel paint. It looks excellent.
Rear diff bushings and seals This is the repair that is giving me the most pause because it requires a lift, a special press kit, and a decent amount of doing. I've assisted with this repair on a BMW Z4 and it seems doable in a day, though.
Rear trailing arm bushings Will be a similar job to the rear diff bushings but with less preamble.
Something in the steering There's some steering play I'm thinking is the inner tie rods.
IDK brakes probably?
Rebuild VANOS because why not? I don't think mine has issues but might as well. Dual VANOS rebuilds seem fairly straightforward.
New shifter bushings this probably needs a lift due to how the shifter linkage is set up. The same engine/trans has to work in 3 series, Z4, X3s, 5 series, etc. so the shifter is attached to the trans with a linkage on top of the transmission and replacement is definitely a "lift advised" situation.
So now that I'm done setting the stage (only a novel length introduction, bravo), what do I think of the IS300 and the Lexus it replaced?
Well, for starters, the IS300 is a half-assed and mildly cynical boardroom take on what makes the 3 series one of the most consistently lauded sports sedans of all time.
And also, the ZHP is definitely deserving of every bit of that praise (we don't talk about the 323/325/328, those are body panel parts donors).
Steering? Weighty and direct. Good feedback, not as telepathic as my NC Miata, obviously, but incredibly confidence inspring.
Power? 230-ish horsepower in a 3285lb package sounds pretty milquetoast on paper but the power delivery has a wonderful sense of mounting urgency that, combined with the stellar exhaust note through the headers and Vibrant muffler, practically begs you to play around in the upper 20% of the rev range. 0-60 is good for about 6 seconds flat, which is pretty much perfect for a daily-driven car that's gonna spend most of its time on the work-and-back commute without boring the driver to tears.
Handling/ride quality? My car is equipped with Bilstein B4s in the front and... something in the back. The fronts are brand new. I don't feel like anything needs to be changed. Stiffer roll bars? Eh. Stiffer springs? Absolutely not. The ride is composed and controlled without feeling overly crashy over bumps. I wouldn't say "nimble" but I might say "athletic". For as primitive as the suspension geometry seems to be it definitely punches above its weight class (seriously, macpherson struts? Why?)
Fuel economy? 20-23. Pretty typical.
Interior quality? Mine isn't a superb example of an E46 interior. It's all there, and it's not horribly beaten up, but it's clearly been taken apart and put together multiple times with fasteners missing as rattles and squeaks are present. My buddy's 325 (ugh) with similar miles is silent as a tomb due to its less-molested nature.
But here's the thing: the aftermarket support and easy of working on this thing is insane. Obviously not all BMWs are like that, and blanket terms are usually incorrect because I would hate to have to ever put a wrench to a 6 series or the newer direct-injection motors, and the actual Toyota-based Lexus models (ES300, some of the crossover things) are just as easy to work on as their Toyota counterparts (with equally cheap parts for most things).
But for as much as the internet seems to enjoy crowing about how buying an IS300 is the "smart choice" over a 3er... I don't get it. My E46 was 50% off market price due to a fairly long list of things that needed fixed but during the course of fixing it I've never come across any wrench-throwingly frustrating design decisions. German ones, yes, like the expectation that almost everything nonferrous in the engine bay has a 4 year lifespan, but the car was designed specifically to make replacing all of those items an absolute dawdle.
I don't have one.
The E46 ZHP has been a pretty perfect fit for me. The german-ness of it, the driving characteristics, the manual trans, the ease of repair, they all fit me perfectly.
I'm one of those guys where every car I drive has to interest me in some way. I enjoy driving, and I want to enjoy every drive even if it's just slogging 10 minutes to work every day. That means I want crisp handling, an enjoyable power band (not necessarily a powerful one; I find the Hellcat's power delivery to be bland and boring as hell but that's a discussion for another time), a good sound track, and a third pedal I can play with as I downshift up to every red light.
As it turns out, this cheap 20 year old BMW with moon miles gives me all of that in spades.