2003 BMW E46 330ci Coupe Review: Will It Dog?

The mid-’00s BMW 3 Series is still one of the best-value driver’s cars out there. For dog owners, it’s not even all that impractical.

byAndrew P. Collins|
BMW 3 Series photo
Andrew P. Collins

We’ve watched the BMW E46 coupe evolve from an instant icon to a driving-enthusiast benchmark to what it is today: A modern classic, and still a great value for people who love driving and don’t mind spending energy on maintenance. Tomes have already been written about peoples’ love for these cars, but today we’re going to talk about what dogs think of them.

Let's go! Andrew P. Collins

The 343-horsepower M3 is of course the pride of the line, but even a basic variant is enjoyable to drive if it’s in good condition. Our example vehicle is, in my opinion, the second-best E46 for those who don’t want to drop M money—a 330ci ZSP. While the ZHP is the “non-M special” you usually hear about (that one got a hotter cam and cool gauge needles, among other things) the ZSP sport package includes enough goodies (namely, nicer seats and suspension) to squeeze a great drive out of the E46 chassis without further modifications. I also think the pre-facelift headlights (2003 and older) look superior to what BMW did afterward.

The E46 was available as a four-door sedan or even a wagon, either of which would be objectively easier to load a dog into. But the coupe has the iconic look of one of BMW’s best eras, so our dogs just have to make do.

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Welcome to Will It Dog, The Drive's car review series for canine owners. Here we'll look at what a BMW E46 (1999-2005) coupe's like to live with if you have dogs and point out any specific aspects that help or hurt its case as a dog taxi.

Our main test dogs Bramble, Indi, and Silas are littermates; half Golden Retriever (dad) and half Australian Shepherd (mom). Bramble's the smallest at 40-odd pounds while her brothers are about 60 pounds apiece. They're energetic animals but comfortable with car rides, harnesses, and travel. You can click here to see my favorite photo of them.

Which snoot would you boop first?

2003 BMW 330ci ZSP Specs for Dog Owners

  • Base price when new (general prices today): $35,600 ($3,500-$7,500)
  • Seating capacity (people): 5 (4, really)
  • Seating capacity (dogs): 2 (comfortably)
  • EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city | 27 highway | 22 combined
  • Observed fuel economy: About 26 mpg over thousands of miles
  • Cargo volume: 14.5 cu. ft.
  • Dimensions:
  • Rear seat to floor height: 13 inches
  • Rear seat to ceiling height: 35 inches
  • Door sill to ground height: 14 inches
  • Trunk opening to ground height: 28 inches
  • Rear seating width (widest point): 56 inches
  • Rear cargo width (main usable area): 35 inches
  • Quick take: A non-M can still be an amazing car to drive if it’s in good shape, and a coupe can still be a viable dog taxi if the back seats are this nice.
  • Will It Dog Score: 6/10

Interior Materials and Layout

After about 160,000 miles and 20 years of continuous use, our BMW 330ci has had a much harsher materials test than the new cars we usually look at. The headliner still looks lovely but the A, B, and C pillar upholstery is molting like an adolescent penguin. Liners around the doors have completely detached. The wood trim has developed a few cracks you can see, but not feel. The leather, hard plastic, and rubber surfaces have held up remarkably well, though. There are pretty much no cuts or scratches in any of that stuff.

"Did somebody say 'stick'?!"Andrew P. Collins

As far as coupes go, the ergonomics and layout are still as exceptional as it was two decades ago. Most importantly, the rear seat is large enough for two human adults. That means two large-breed dogs could sit together for extended periods without worry. There is technically a middle rear seat and we did cram three animals in the back briefly, but that starts to make things pretty tight.

A generous trunk in back holds plenty of cargo when the passenger cab is full, although you can’t snap the whole rear seat down, limiting your flexibility somewhat.

Climbing In and Out

The front seats collapse forward very easily; a manual lever like what we have here is so much better than watching a little electric motor tediously buzz the seat forward. The floor is low enough that a small-medium dog in good health would have no problem hopping into the rear footwell and either staying down there (as Bramble did as a pup) or hopping up onto the seat.

Our agility-trained animals were gleefully bounding from the back seat to the front while we tried to take pictures of them, but other dogs might need to be lifted straight into the back if they’re confused by the prospect of squeezing by the folded front seat. Luckily, a fairly generous door opening makes this not too difficult.

Honestly, I had an easier time loading and containing dogs in this than I did in the four-door GR Corolla. For what it’s worth, the E46 coupe’s back seat is more comfortable for humans too.

Driving With the Dog

Our 40-pound female and the near-60-pound male shepherd/retriever mutts fit really nicely in the butt valleys of the E46’s back seat. In fact, bigger dogs can curl up and stay pretty well tucked once they settle in.

One of the E46 coupe’s unique features is a “push-out” style rear window, where instead of rolling down, the back windows actually pop out about an inch from the rear. This can be a good way to get the animals fresh air without letting them get their heads out the window.

For low-speed cruising and sniffing, we have found that Bramble really likes to rest her head on a shoulder and get her snout out the front windows. This lets her get a good whiff of the wind without allowing her to jump out after squirrels. Running a harness that buckles to the car’s seat belts keeps her in place even better, and still lets her stand in the middle seat to look out the front windshield.

Driving in General

I was a little underwhelmed when my wife and I first took delivery of this car at about 140,000 miles. The engine was warm-butter smooth, but the steering sucked and general handling was nowhere near the legendary status I’d heard about these things. A quick examination of the underside revealed toasted LCA bushings (critical to front-wheel positioning), wonky brake rotors, and oh yeah—the tires were ancient.

A silver pre-LCI E46 coupe is quintessential BMW to me. It'd be cooler if it were an M3, but a 330ci ZSP is still a lot of car for the money. Andrew P. Collins

Rectifying all the above transformed the car markedly, and if you’ve got an older E46 that feels a little disappointing I’d encourage you to replace all the little rubber bits that are now well past retirement age no matter how many miles are on your chassis.

The shifter on ours is a little rubbery (I suspect some fresh bushings would change things there, too) but clutch and throttle feel great. Walking this car up to the speed limit on an on-ramp is a joy, and even better is carving mountain roads with the windows down and sunroof open.

Pack Hauling

Carrying two decent-sized dogs is totally doable in an E46 coupe, though it’s a little tough before they settle. God help you if you’ve got to carry more than one during a coat blowout (shedding season) as the cockpit will quickly become fogged with flying fur. The grey leather and interior trim actually hides the merle-colored hair pretty well, though.

If this were an album cover, what genre is the band? Andrew P. Collins

Carrying Kennels

No kennel is going to fit in the trunk, and you’re definitely not going to get any hard-sided box into the backseat. While some collapsable hard kennels can be made to fit in the trunk, larger crates won’t (even folded). It’s too bad because the trunk looks pretty big, but the shape is tough for crates. The tent-style kennel we have folds up and tucks into the E46’s trunk nicely, with room to spare, but those are only useful if your dog can be contained by fabric walls at your destination.

BMW E46 Coupe Dog-Friendliness Verdict

A two-door 3 Series is definitely not what I’d call a “dog-optimized” car, but having lived with our 40-pound baby Bramble for about a year now and using this as our main daily driver, the coupe design has really not been that much of an inconvenience thanks to a still-generous backseat and trunk.

Andrew P. Collins

If we had to carry two dogs regularly, it would be pretty tough. And three … no.

One dog up to about 65 pounds is totally fine in one of these. Any bigger and the ingress/egress could get pretty annoying, especially as the dogs age. But if you want an E46 coupe and have a dog, or you have a dog and are trying to decide if you could get away with the coupe and still carry them, I’d say go for it as long as you’re not worried about transporting a large crate.

  • Harness: Kurgo Tru-Fit Enhanced Strength ($39.05 on Amazon)
  • Seat Cover: Kurgo Wander ($69.95 on Amazon)
  • Hard Kennel: PetMate Vari Kennel (1998 model, $NLA) (Similar: $159.50 on Amazon)
  • Soft Kennel: Backcountry x Petco Foldable Dog Travel Crate ($169.99 at Petco)

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Andrew P. Collins

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