Blast from the Past AC Schnitzer’s supercharged E46 330i may have been short-lived but it was a great drive.
The human mind is an amazing thing. On the one hand I can remember things that happened years ago as if it were yesterday but when it comes to recalling the three things I’ve just popped to the shops to buy, more often than not my mind’s a complete blank. Hopefully that’s not just me… These thoughts have been prompted by reacquainting myself with AC Schnitzer’s supercharged E46 3 Series as many, many moons ago – 2002 if memory serves – I drove one of these marvels and it really imprinted itself on my mind.
The chaps at AC’s HQ in Aachen often used to joke that my photographer was called ‘Rain Man’ as just about every time we seemed to bowl up there the heavens would inevitably open, but on the trip I remember so vividly nothing could have been further from the truth. There were blue skies overhead and in the bright sunshine the bright red 330i Touring we’d come to drive looked utterly beguiling. It wore the full Schnitzer body kit and sat on lowered suspension and a set of wonderfully evocative Type III Racing splitrims. In short, it was a stunning machine, not least because it featured Schnitzer’s new supercharger kit under the bonnet.
We had two cars to shoot that day and as the weather was so nice and there was an open track session at the ‘Ring we decided to head in that direction and I vividly remember piloting the red Touring along the Autobahn at an indicated 280km/h – around 170mph – and being amazed at how rock steady it was. At the time it was the fastest I’d ever driven on the German Autobahn and I can still remember being shocked at how at these sorts of speeds what was a very, very gentle curve felt significantly more like a corner! It was a wonderful day and having put the car through its paces on road and track we headed back to Aachen somewhat sunburnt but buzzing at what was a superb day it had been. I’ve visited Schnitzer countless times and driven some awesome cars over the intervening years but that red Touring still sticks in my mind as being one of my all time favourite modern BMWs.
So when it came to my attention that Rossiters (AC Schnitzer’s UK arm) had a supercharged E46 330Ci in stock I was straight on the phone to see if I could pop up for a drive. As I headed there I did wonder whether I was doing the right thing… what if the car wasn’t as good as I remembered it? After all, cars have moved on quite a way since the E46 was introduced and was it likely that this example would in any way match that brand-new machine I drove all those years ago?
I was feeling pretty confident though, especially as an E46 in fine fettle is still a lovely thing, and I was pretty sure that there was no way Rossiters would allow a duffer to be sitting on its forecourt. But perhaps before we get onto this particular machine we should just remind ourselves as to what makes a Schnitzer C30, to give the car its proper moniker.
While Schnitzer had traditionally offered capacity increases for its petrol-powered offerings it was becoming increasingly difficult in the late ‘90s and early Noughties to make this a viable proposition. The bottom line was that opening an engine up and fettling it was hugely expensive and the number of customers who were willing to fork out for this sort of treatment were few and far between. On the other hand the amount of additional power that could be teased from a petrol engine through remapping was pretty low – certainly when compared to what was possible with a turbo-diesel – so Schnitzer decided on developing a supercharger setup for the M54 straight-six.
With a moderate 5psi of boost it didn’t offer a stratospheric performance gain, but 295hp and a maximum torque of 280lb ft were increases of 64 and 59 respectively – enough to improve performance significantly. The 0-62mph time dropped from 6.5 to 5.6 seconds while top speed was lifted from 155mph to 167mph. It wasn’t a cheap upgrade though – back in 2003 the parts came to £6725 and around 15 hours of labour to install the kit would have brought the total bill to somewhere around £8500 depending on your local dealer’s labour rate. As well as the blower, the kit included a carbon fibre air box and an exhaust, too.
The car we have here is a 2003 330Ci Coupé with a manual ‘box and a selection of Schnitzer goodies and when we arrive in Dersingham in north Norfolk it appears we’ve brought the ‘Rain Man’ curse with us as the skies are looking very threatening and the roads are already damp. So much for the sunkissed memories of that 330i Touring. No matter really as the 330Ci is still a fine looking beast with almost perfect proportions which are set off rather well by the 18-inch AC Schnitzer Type III alloys. 19s might fill the arches better but the 18s will almost certainly deliver a better drive on our lumpy back roads.
As it looks like we’ll be dodging the weather we say our hellos and then snaffle the keys and head off in search of a photo location – preferably one that’s under cover. Slipping into the cockpit might feel like taking a step back in time when compared to the latest generation of machinery but it’s still a benchmark for how to do an ergonomic dash layout from the analogue age before everything went digital and seemed to gain an ‘i’ prefix for no real apparent reason. Everything falls perfectly to hand and I still prefer to have my window switches on the centre console rather then hidden away on a door trim panel! The leather’s still supple and in excellent condition for a machine with 75,000 miles and 13 years under its belt. There are plenty of options in here too – Harman Kardon stereo, electric heated seats and an electric sunroof, too. All-in-all it feels like a great place to spend wheel time, and that’s before I’ve even turned the key.
The M54 ‘six erupts into life on the first turn of the key and bar the slightly more vocal-than-standard exhaust you’d be hard pushed to tell that there’s anything other than a standard mill under the bonnet. Pulling away and pootling around on a light-to-medium throttle also doesn’t really give the game away – it just feels exactly as you’d expect a good 330Ci to feel; brisk, composed and melodic. Push a little harder though and that supercharger starts to make its presence felt. We’re now all so conditioned to driving turbocharged machines these days that initially the forward momentum of the 330Ci is a little disappointing – there’s no massive wallop of torque to play with – the supercharger brings a more subtle performance upgrade. It simply feels like this car has a larger capacity normally aspirated engine and as the revs climb it starts to feel a little bit stronger than standard and the further you extend it the greater the rewards are. Torque starts to swell in the mid range but its peak arrives a fair bit later – at 4800rpm – but having said that at just under 2000rpm the Schnitzer setup is already developing more torque than a standard 330Ci does at its 3000rpm peak. Overall the sensation is of a very linear power delivery that offers significantly more power and torque than the standard machine but in an undramatic fashion. If we had a standard 330Ci here for comparison I’m pretty confident it would knock spots off it.
Once we’ve found a spot for pictures – sadly not undercover – I spend my time cleaning the 330 and then trying to dry it, and then drying it again… and eventually the photoshoot gods peer down kindly on us with a window in the drizzle that allows Smithy to work his magic and gives me time to give the car a proper once over. Externally there’s not a huge amount of clues that it’s punching above its weight, with just a pair of Schnitzer spoilers – one at the top of the rear screen and one atop the bootlid as exterior embellishments. Of course the lovely Schnitzer alloys are another clue that this might be something out of the ordinary but many standard E46s are equipped with uprated alloys so it’s not that much of a giveaway. Just about the only concrete thing that lets other road users know this is something a bit special is the subtle ACS3 C30 script on the bootlid – but chances are most folk won’t actually know what it means anyway!
Inside we’ve a few Schnitzer bits and bobs – handbrake handle, gear knob and a pedal set – but it’s not until you pop the bonnet release that you can really see what this machine is about. There’s a lovely carbon fibre rocker cover and a neat carbon air box still bearing its Schnitzer performance power graph decal and if you peer down at the front of the block you can just get a glimpse of the ‘charger setup too. It’s pretty unstressed in this application and chatting to the chaps at AC Schnitzer UK they know of several customers who have put high miles on their cars with few or no problems.
Once the pictures are in the bag it’s time to head off for some driving shots and as I become more comfortable with the car I’m confident to push a little harder and am rewarded with a decent turn of speed and some deft handling from the C30. In terms of outright performance it’s somewhere in between a standard 330Ci and an E46 M3 but thanks to its linear delivery you can feel confident exploiting the power and with a proper hydraulic steering setup there’s plenty of feel through the wheel to let you know what the front wheels are up to. The gearbox still feels great and overall it’s simply a fun machine to punt along. Ultimately it doesn’t feel super fast by today’s standards but the fact that it doesn’t feel that dramatic when peddling along quickly points to it being an excellent conversion. Enough power to be entertaining, but not so much to overwhelm the chassis.
The car’s currently up for sale for £9990 and while that might initially sound like quite an outlay for a 330Ci Sport, a standard example in this sort of condition and mileage will probably set you back between £5000 and £6000 these days, and this one has significantly more performance and rarity on its side, too. The flip side of the coin is that you’re bordering on decent E46 M3 money at this price point… the choice is yours.
It’s often said that you shouldn’t meet your heroes and while that red Touring I had such fun with all those years ago wasn’t exactly a ‘hero’ car it was hugely entertaining and left quite an impression on me. Driving this ACS3 C30 today it was easy to see why – it’s a fun machine to punt along and still looks and feels fresh even though we are two generations of 3 Series further down the line now. Progress might have brought us more refinement and outright pace but perhaps the older machines were more engaging to drive.
CONTACT: AC Schnitzer UK / Tel: 01485 542000 / Website: www.ac-schnitzer.co.uk
TECHNICAL DATA AC Schnitzer ACS3 C30
ENGINE: Straight-six, 24-valve, supercharged
MAX POWER: 295hp @ 6700rpm
MAX TORQUE: 280lb ft @ 4800rpm
0-62MPH: 5.6 seconds
TOP SPEED: 167mph
PRICE (TODAY 2016 UK): £9990
AC Schnitzer Type III Racing split-rims still look superb today and really suit the E46 generation 3 Series. Schnitzer engine conversion not only delivers the goods in terms of power and torque, it looks good too. The sensation is of a very linear power delivery that offers more power and torque than standard but in an undramatic fashion.