MF Review: 2004 BMW 3 Series ZHP

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Normally we keep out BMW related content on our sister site BimmerFile however this is a special case. Considering the reader interest in my accounts of selling my MINI and buying something else, I thought some of you might enjoy a full review of my new car.

It’s early Saturday morning. Spring in Chicago. The kind of hour that an auto enthusiast looks at as the golden hour. The roads are clear and the weather is back from the brink of a wretched Chicago winter.

And I have a red BMW parked in my garage. Yes the MINI is gone and I’m back to rear wheel drive with a propeller on the hood. I wouldn’t call the car “just” a BMW, yet it doesn’t quite justify a real M badge (despite the peppering of that letter throughout the car by the company). It’s not single purpose driven like the Z4 M that I’ve lusted after for years, or the perfect urban runabout like a stock manual transmission Cooper would be. Instead it might just be the best all around automobile I’ve ever owned.

Every so often the right people inside a car company get just the right amount of freedom, time and budget to create something out of nothing. The BMW 330i ZHP was born out of these circumstances. It was 2001. The new E46 M3 had just hit the market and the critics were buzzing with glowing reviews and sales were off to a robust start. Yet the public (specifically the US market) was quietly asking where the four door version of this latest M3 was. The previous iteration (the E36 M3) had one, why not this new car? Where was the answer to the four door Audi S4 or the Mercedes C32? Why was BMW simply ceding this market?

As it turns out the accountants in Munich simply looked at the market for the four door, the tooling and engineers costs associated with bringing it to market and said no thanks. And that should have been the end of the story. But a few enthusiasts deep within BMW knew better. So they went about creating a hybrid of sorts. An Alpina tuned, M engineered and BMW individual designed creation that would turn out to be one of the best sport sedans ever released by BMW.

Ok I’ve clearly given away a little too much already. Yes I am completely smitten by my new BMW 330i ZHP. For those that missed my previous pieces on the purchase, it’s a 2004 Imola Red four door (as all were in 2004) complete with almost every option available. Oh and it was a steal at just over $20k and under 20,000 miles.

It’s not a perfect car mind you. The Alcantara steering wheel feels like it dematerializes a little more each day (BMW has since improved the material they use). Then there are the bespoke engine electronics (giving the car such a responsive yet livable throttle feel) that allow for the idle to get a little confused at times. Finally there’s the depressing lack of a limited slip (BMW likes to keep those for M products these days) that makes tail out power slides less likely.

But that aside the ZHP is very hard to fault. The 235 hp & 222 ft·lbs of torque wasn’t setting records in 2004 and certainly can’t hold a candle to BMW’s new 3.0L 300hp twin-turbo (soon to be 320+). But there is something a little more honest and tactile about the naturally aspirated massaged M54B30 3.0L. Power builds as revs do and there is a turbine smooth delivery that cannot be mistaken for anything but a BMW inline six. it’s intoxicating on the on-ramp and at the track but is also completely livable and useable in a bumper to bumper Chicago commute.

The engine and drivetrain were thoroughly modified resulting in a much quicker revving experience with the best short-throw hot knife through butter transmission I’ve ever driven from BMW – including pretty much any M product.

The suspension was substantially upgraded on the ZHP by the M Division with firmer springs, shocks, bushings, larger anti-roll bars, and a lowered ride height. Yet none of it makes the car tiring on the worst pothole ridden roads around Chicago. M struck the perfect balance between every day livability and on road performance. This may not be the perfect suspension for the track (few roads cars can come close to boasting that) but it’s the closest compromise I’ve ever driven.

Outside BMW made the car look the part with the off-the shelf M aero-kit which is more angular and (in these eyes) is actually a little more aggressive looking than the M3’s kit. Additionally I added a matte black grille (similar to BMW performance grilles just released for the latest 1 and 3 series) to further the performance look.

Completing the look is the M lip spoiler and M designed 18″ wheels with 235/40s up front and 255/35s out back.

Inside BMW made liberal usage of M accessories with the alcantara M steering wheel and shift/ebrake boots, anthracite headliner and M black cube trim. It creates a sense of occasion that no other E46 interior had outside of the M3 CSL.

Here’s a full rundown of the stock upgrade and specification changes:

  • Engine mods (new camshafts, electronics, & lighter flywheel) for 10HP & 8 ft/lb of torque increase & 6800 max RPM (from 6500) designed and built by Alpina.
  • 6 speed short throw shifter with unique shift knob
  • 3.07:1 Final drive ratio (instead of 2.91:1)
  • Max Speed Limiter set to 155 mph (instead of 128)
  • M suspension, more aggressive than standard sport package: Firmer springs (front +6%, rear +8%) and firmer shocks (Jounce: front +50%, rear +20%), (Rebound: front +35%, rear -8%)
  • Larger diameter anti-roll bars: 23.5 mm front (v. 23.0), 18.5 mm rear (v. 18.0)
  • More rigid front bushings
  • Lower ride height by 15 mm (.6 inches) utilizing shorter auxiliary springs
  • -.5 degrees of camber
  • BMW M Aero Kit (front & rear fascia, side sills, & trunk lid spoiler)
  • BMW individual exterior trim: Anthracite (charcoal) headlight & foglight surrounds, High-Gloss Shadowline (black gloss) trim
  • Large diameter stainless steel dual exhaust outlets
  • Extra thick M Alcantra steering wheel
  • Sport Seats
  • “Black Cube” or “Silver Cube” M trim
  • M Anthracite headliner
  • M Red needles on the instrument cluster
  • Optional Imola Red (unique M only color)
  • Unique M division 18″ Wheels (style 135M), 18×8.0″ front, 18×8.5″ rear
  • Wider Tires: 225/40ZR-18 in front and 255/35ZR-18 in the rear.

So yes, this is a rather unique car in how it was created and the resulting product. But is it worth the money with 325i and 328i E90s selling for similar prices? For the enthusiast I would say yes resoundingly. This isn’t as a pure statement as an M3 but it’s much less compromised than almost any other standard BMW product I’ve ever driven. To put it another way, this is the best all around non-M 3 Series I’ve ever driven. And this is a classic BMW – one of the last. Getting into the ZHP from an E90 is eye-opening. The steering wheel, shifter, controls and even the dials feel as if they’re almost from another era. There’s a classic feel to it all that creates an experience that is hard to pass-up.

It’s not the perfect car and it’s certainly not the most powerful. Yet it poses both tangible and intangible qualities that create the kind of owning and driving experience that is aimed squarely at the classic BMW enthusiast. It’s pure when it needs to be and modern when you need nothing more.

  • goat

    Good review and glad you are loving the ZHP. The black grille is a well-chosen touch, ties in the bumper beautifully while staying OEM+. The e46 really represents a different (I would say better) era of BMW sport sedan. Enjoy!

  • JonPD

    Another great review Gabe, thanks.

  • that.guy

    Too bad they didn’t make a ZHP wagon. They didn’t, right?

  • Mini2Go

    I don’t believe that MF’s generally good taste and discretion are on display with this post. It should have been posted only on BF. I understand and appreciate that there may be a contingent here interested in Gabe’s saga. For them, a brief post that pointed to the full review on BF would have been more appropriate than the full post here.

  • Marcus Quinn


  • hardingsan

    but a post that said “go to bimmerfile to see how i like my new car” would have taken up the same amount of space as this did on the front page. it only takes up more space if you click through the link, at which point one would assume that the headline got your attention, no?

    and besides this saga of mini vs new car was cross posted the entire time, why not the epilogue?

  • Mini2Go

    @hardingsan: Well, I only see this site when I post comments. I read everything via RSS. I read the headline, and – after a WTF moment – the italicized intro.

    Everything else aside, I’m just saying that it would have been better form to leave a simple intro post and link it to a full post on BF. From a content relevancy and site traffic (SEO) perspective, from a target audience perspective, etc.

  • Nice review Gabe. I’ve actually been looking for one myself, but I’m not in a hurry and don’t have permission yet. 🙂 I did however find this one:

    Oh, and I appreciate the BMW stories on MotoringFile. Keep them coming. Thanks!

  • JonPD

    As for this review being on Motoringfile, I think it has a place. Seeing the direction that Gabe went after is interesting to me, not because its Gabe’s car as much as a well established Mini owner looking at up-scaling his car to fit his current needs. This is something that happens often and to me personally its interesting to see how future choices of people are influenced by their Mini ownership. Also since this is Gabe’s site think he can post whatever he wants to 😉

  • Mike

    Nice write up, as usual, Gabe. I think it was definately appropriate to post a review of your post-MINI car, as long as it wasn’t a Smart car. Use it well. Will you drive this over the winter, and if so, snow tires?

  • Hoover

    Thanks for posting, Gabe. I certainly wanted to see this review!

  • that.guy

    Too bad they didn’t make a ZHP wagon. They didn’t, right?

  • Evan

    Great write-up. I think reviews about the parent company of MINI are not out of line. If you don’t want to read it, then don’t click on the link.

    Anyways, I think my next car for the pending baby will be a 2004 325i w/70-80k miles for $12-14k. Which is funny only b/c my ’04 Cooper is worth the same with a few less miles after starting out life about $10k cheaper.

    What would it involve to convert the suspension to ZHP spec on a regular 2004 325i? Any idea? It mustn’t be too hard. And then what would the minimum wheels for it need to be? Just wondering….

    And my R50 will not be going anywhere. The BMW is a compromise for not getting a Clubman…

  • Mike

    Gabe, Very nice car! It seems to me that the decision you made is exactly the issue facing many MINI buyers. MINI is trying to market their cars to performance-minded small car people at the $30,000+ level and that money buys some new and used nice wheels from other manufacturers. I moved from my high mileage 1995 325i as it started to suffer from annoying and expensive electrical system glitches. I picked the 09 JCW, but I was second guessing myself the whole time, wondering if a used M3 wouldn’t be the ideal choice. I’m happy with my JCW, but a six cylinder BMW engine is damn hard to fault and the 3 series are exceptionally refined cars. In terms of passenger comfort, engine smoothness, and for rapid interstate travel, the BMW wins hands down. For in-city, “point and squirt” commuter combat driving, the MINI is quite good. I think MINI really needs to stay with a single design concept (not SUV’s and roadsters) and fine tune this so that the compromises are minimised in order to hold on to their base of die-hard fans. Then again, getting MINI buyers to eventually move up to a BMW may in fact be the companies ultimate strategic goal. Have fun with the new toy – but please don’t get all yuppie on us!

  • Dude!

    What we see to have now is MIMERFile! GAK!

  • All I can say is I’m VERY envious of you and that spectacular 3. I think I’d take the ZHP over an M3 and I LOVE all M3’s. I know you’ll get years of joy from that car. Cheers!!

  • SFRedMCc

    That Imola Red is amazing…..

  • hector M.


    Did your car come with the blacked out front grill or you got that done? if so where did you get it? thanks for the review.

  • Ben


    Did I read right, all the ZHP’s came in Imola Red? There is a guy on my local Craigslist selling one, but it’s not red. Advice?

  • @hector M.: I think you mis-read. They were available only as a four door in 2003 and 2004. Imola was the one M specific color that was offered.

  • Chris

    I liked your writeup, but you’re mistaken on the stock upgrades to the ZHP. Although BMW published the spec sheet you used as a reference, it’s pretty misleading. The shocks, springs, short shifter, ride height, and sway bars are identical to those on the 330i sport. The trick was that BMW didn’t compare the ZHP specs to the ZSP specs. There’s an endless number of threads that confirm it. Though, real changes were made to the steering rack, rev limiter, flywheel, exhaust, and camshaft, among other things.

  • OK, I’ve owned 2 NXSs, a 911 Carrera, a Boxster, Saabs, and several MR2s. The NSX was a beautiful and unique car, but it drove so well and so effortlessly that it lacked road feel and if blindfolded and placed in the passenger seat felt like a highly modified Honda Accord. The ’99 911 had amazing curb appeal and the police around here loved it sad to say. The car drove well, but was not that comfortable and the shifter-clutch match-up was tedious at best. Handling was superior though. The Boxster handling felt more precise than the 911– seriously. Anyway, after a few bouts of sciatica, I began looking at BMWs– first for their comfort (especially with the extended thigh support seats) and for its reliability and durability. I looked at the M3 but the SMG transmission turned me off. The ride was harsh– as it probably should have been. Then I looked at 330s. First the standard version, then the ZHP. Once I drove an ’04 2-door ZHP, I was hooked. The ZHP was the most comfortable car I had driven since owning an early model Saab Aero. The interior was M3-like and the automatic shifter was perfect for being involved without killing my back. Handling was amazing with lots of road feel. I hit exits and entrance ramps at speed comparable to the 911 but with less stress and strain. OK, the ZHP is not a seat of the pants sports car mind you, but it is not your run of the mill 3 series BMW either. This is a car for the sports car enthusiast who needs rear seats and some trunk space, but wants the joy of the drive and the understated elegance and reliability of a world class car. To me the test of a car, beyond its performance is how many times you wash it and how many times you turn around to look at it after it’s parked. The ZHP has the feel of an older BMW (before the new generation Accord look alike profile) and the uniqueness of a special edition from the M division with a classic, muscular stance. The front nose coming at you is a sight worth experiencing. I love my ZHP and will likely keep it for years to come.

    • Asif

      the person who thought your NSX sounded like a modded Accord is DEAF



    You list in the specs that the car has 225/40-18 fronts… then in the spec rundown you list 225/40-18.

    Which is it or have your tire sizes been changed?


    oops. Looks like I have a case of it also.

    I mean that you list in the description 235/40-18, and in the specs 225/40-18. Two different sizes.

  • CarmenMorris

    I now own a 2004 330 CI ZHP am a woman with a permagrin ! THANK YOU BMW!!!

  • BMW fan

    Hey man I love the review. I own a ZHP in imola red, 2 door coup, 6-speed and convertible with the black cube interior. I was always curious as to why my parents car had all of these M accessories and it said 330ci on the back. But once I did some research I found out about it’s significance as a ZHP, so I immediately bought it from my parents. I’m so excited that someone else has the same feelings as I do for their car and all that you said is so incredibly accurate, I got goose bubs reading your description. Thanks again for the extra insight, I always love hearing reviews on my car.