Every product is carefully selected by our editors. If you buy from a link, we may earn a commission.

Affordable Dream Car: The BMW 330i ZHP Is the Smart Man’s M3

Sold between 2003-2006, BMW 3301 models with the ZHP Performance Package are available for a relative bargain, yet provide all the thrills.

BMW 330i ZHP performance package
Model Years: 2003-2006
Power: 235 horsepower
Redline: 6,800 RPM (up from 6,500)
ZHP Upgrades: hotter cam; stiffer springs and dampers; stronger anti-roll bars and control arms
Expect to Pay: $7,000-$10,000

How many of us actually use 100 percent of our smartphone’s capability on a regular basis? The short answer: very few. The same principle applies to legendary performance cars like the BMW M3. Very few, if any, drivers can extract 100 percent of what the car has on tap often enough to warrant getting one as a daily driver. Highly skilled marketing teams make bank cultivating your desire for the highest grade smartphone or car, or whatever. That you need the top-shelf M3. In reality, there is almost always a model that sits below a brand’s pinnacle version that’ll save you heaps of money yet features much more usable, and therefore more enjoyable, performance: a better, smarter buy. In terms of the legendary E46 BMW 3-Series, sold from 1997 to 2006, while the M3 seems most desirable, the model you actually want to find is the 330i ZHP.

The standard 330i was already a competent car right off of the showroom floor with a 225 horsepower (in the US) 3.0-liter inline-six engine pulling the famously balanced E46 chassis around the road. The ZHP performance package was a $3,900 option for the four-door 330i from 2002-2005 and the two-door models from 2005-2006. For reference, a modern analog would be the M240i – compared to the maxed-out M2, the “lesser” of the two is the smarter buy today as well.

In the early Aughts, the ZHP package provided hotter cams that moved the redline from 6,500rpm to 6,800rpm and added 10 extra horsepower. Making even more of a difference was the ZHP’s tuned suspension by way of stiffer springs and dampers coupled with beefier anti-roll bars and control arms. The E46 M3, by comparison, got a bigger 3.2-Liter engine, a higher redline (8,000rpm), around 100 more horsepower and even stiffer suspension. All of that makes for a stellar track car, but its high-strung nature means a compromise in comfort that can quickly wear thin on patience day in and day out, or on long-distance drives.

It’s no question that the E46 M3 is a dream car for many, many people. But if money is an object, the ZHP is much less economically painful, and a far less physically taxing way to get driving thrills. From a pure numbers perspective, a 2006 E46 M3 in excellent condition can go for well over $20,000. But it’s fair to say you won’t regularly use more than 50 percent of its capabilities — which means you’re paying a $10,000 premium. Using the same math on a 330i ZHP, which is relatively close to the M3 performance-wise, you’re looking at a car going for half the price.

So, do you want to spend $10,000 extra of your hard-earned money on bragging rights and M-badging, or save that money and get a car you’ll get better use out of? The 330i ZHP is a better buy because it’s the smart man’s M3.

Amazon: 2004 330i ZHP $6,420
Amazon: 2004 BMW 330i ZHP $9,485
CarGurus: 2004 BMW 330i ZHP $8,990
CarGurus: 2003 BMW 330i ZHP $7,990

Today in Gear

The best way to catch up on the day’s most important product releases and stories. Read the Story
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below