Want to Upgrade Your BMW E46 Without the Aftermarket? Try OEM Plus Mods

It’s easy to ruin a car by modding it. Using stuff from the factory parts bin can prevent this.

byChris RosalesJun 24, 2022 3:30 PM
Want to Upgrade Your BMW E46 Without the Aftermarket? Try OEM Plus Mods
Chris Rosales
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The E46 BMW 3 Series is one of the most beloved cars of the past 25 years. Even if I’ve had my beef with them after owning a couple, nobody can doubt the greatness of a golden-era BMW sedan. I’ve learned a few neat mods for them in my time and I especially love the stuff that came from the factory and makes the car better. It’s time for some OEM plus mods.

OEM plus is a way of modding cars that retains the intentions of the original engineers and designers while making it better, or just making it seem like it came from factory. As a product of making cars that require thousands of parts, companies parts share constantly. It would be too costly to make new parts and production processes for every car, so platforms and parts are shared. In the case of the E46, it was the basis of the BMW Z4 and has bones that go back as far as the E30. This means the well of parts is deep and exciting to dig through, so let’s go right in.

Shifting Gears

Touch points are critical to the enjoyment of a car. All of the best driver’s cars have well-crafted and thoughtfully appointed steering wheels, shift knobs, and controls. I say modding touch points is tuning a car just as much as adding horsepower or grip. So, the first thing any E46 should get is a so-called ZHP shift knob.

It’s the shift knob from the 2003-2006 BMW 330i ZHP, which is BMW’s best shift knob. It’s not too tall or too short, and it looks quite good in the cabin of any BMW from any era. But it’s especially correct in E46s. They’re made in five-speed and six-speed variety for both gearboxes that were fitted to the E46 and also work for most BMWs after the early ‘90s. If you’ve experienced several BMW manual gearboxes, you’ll know that they lack precision and usually have strange shift knobs. The ZHP knob fixes that, mostly.

The next mod I would go for is a short-shift kit. BMWs have some of the most disappointing shifters for performance driving. The clutches have long travels, and the shifters are light and vague. They’re great for cruising or city driving, but there is a little bit more feel to be unlocked. BMW offers short-shift kits from the factory like the ZHP kit, but it’s hard to find. I’ve been a fan of the Dinan shifters for a long time, and doing a swap is a great mod. The throw is short but engaging, and it doesn’t shorten the actual height of the shifter much, which gives the driver leverage to actually shift gears. Short-shift kits can easily go too far, but Dinan’s doesn’t.

For the most fanatical of drivers, there is now an aftermarket clutch pedal assembly that shortens the clutch travel. It’s a kit made by Mason Engineering that totally replaces the factory clutch pedal to shorten its leg-stretching throw. With all of that, the shifting experience should be much less lackadaisical and much more focused.

Suspension

The E46’s suspension is what makes the car special. It was decades ahead of its time and it still has excellent engineering that stood the test of time. I have my thoughts on E46 steering (read: disappointing), but there is always a sense of something incredible happening beneath the driver when at the helm of an E46. There are simple mods that make that experience even better, and they’re relatively affordable.

My favorite one is the Z4 M front lower control arm and control arm bushing. For ZHP owners, the ZHP control arms are the Z4 M arms. The primary difference between a standard E46 arm and the ZHP/Z4 M is the strengthened inner ball joint, a notorious failure point on normal cars. The control arm bushing is Z4 M only and features an offset that increases caster while fitting inside all E46 bushing housings, including M3. It uses factory rubber to preserve ride quality while improving steering response and handling. No downsides – rare for any mod.

My DIY award goes to the Camry rear trailing arm bushing (RTAB) mod. I did this and the Z4 M bushings on my former ZHP and found a serious increase in precision and steering directness. Instead of being squeak-prone and rough riding polyurethane, the Camry RTAB is a sealed spherical joint from Moog, designed as a Toyota Camry control arm bushing. It is the exact right size and shape to fit perfectly in the E46 trailing arm and replaces the failure-prone factory rubber RTAB. I also found that ride quality improved with the spherical joint compared to the rubber, with the suspension able to articulate without the spring rate from the rubber. Best of all, it costs $50.

Keep on Driving

Those mods should improve any E46 a significant amount without any real penalty to comfort, efficiency, or reliability. I also enjoy that they’re easy to DIY and help focus BMW’s hard work a bit more on performance driving. Yes, even the “ultimate driving machine” needs some more to get it across the line, at least for me.

Most importantly, never put an M badge on a non-M car. That is not OEM plus. It’s just corny.