To figure this out, I scoured forum classifieds, used car sites (Cars and Autotrader), craigslist, and Facebook marketplace to try and find some trends. I was also looking for one car that fit all of my criteria for the best cheap BMW: which car was being sold for cheap regularly, that could be found with decent miles and in good condition but is also fun to drive and relatively easy to maintain. My price ceiling was $5,000, as that seems to be the lowers amount of money that can actually get you something decent.
My scouring actually made me a bit sad. Cars that I knew used to be cheap a few years ago; E38 7 Series, BMW Z3, first-gen BMW Z4, and first-gen X3, were all very hard to come by for under five grand without being in rough shape. The market is getting too expensive for young enthusiasts to get into a lot of BMWs and that was a bit disappointing to learn. However, there was one car that I was able to find regularly that was inexpensive, fun, good looking, and typically had good mileage — the E46 BMW 3 Series.
It’s as predictable a choice as they come, with BMW. The E46 3 Series is often considered to be the 3 Series model’s high-water mark for its handling/comfort balance, purity of feel, and simple good looks. It’s the go-to used BMW for almost all enthusiasts. However, it also seems to be still be the one that can be had for an affordable price.
What’s great, though, is that you can find all manners of E46s at that price point, in good enough shape to buy. Sedans, coupes, and even wagons are all readily available. You can find cars with rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive and enough of both to be picky about what you want. You can find pre-LCI cars, post-LCI cars, smaller engine, bigger engines, manuals, and automatics. As a buyer, the choices really seem to be vast.
So if you were to ask me today what the best cheap BMW is to buy, my answer — unequivocally — would be the E46 3 Series. It’s cheap, easy to find, easy to get parts for, easy enough to work on, fantastic to drive, and still looks great. It’s the best cheap BMW you can buy right now, without question.