It just didn’t do it for me anymore. No matter how much that Mystic Blue paint flashed, electrified in the sun, no matter how much the scouring exhaust note of the inline-six warmed my heart, the E46 ZHP I’d lusted after for so long ZHP just wasn’t satiating me. What was wrong with me?
I had a ZHP years ago, in 2017. It was an admittedly rough example of a sedan, six-speed manual, that was originally Silbergrau metallic and repainted Alpine White II, not III, before my ownership. I owned that car as a broke-as-heck and extremely misguided teenager just out of high school. My life was weird at the time and I ended having to sell the car in less-than-ideal circumstances and I always wanted to try another one. The Mystic Blue ZHP in my driveway was that second try.
I bought the car in good faith from a good seller. Still, waves of anxiety always radiated from my chest after drawing the money from an envelope and exchanging it for a large metal anchor that happens to have wheels. Every time I buy something I always worry about how the first drive will go, what I will feel wrong the first time I take it to the canyons, and I’m especially wary of new drips appearing on my driveway.
See, I’ve had a solid one and a half years of security and familiarity with my 2010 Volkswagen GTI I call Six Iron. It is my first committed car ownership experience I’ve had after owning 11 cars before it, and two after it, including the ZHP. I’ve found that in moments of disquiet or discomfort, Six Iron could offer me an escape. Or even a chance to be present when I simply couldn’t be.
I would retreat to Six Iron when I felt like I made a bad decision, like my Outback. I did the same thing when I found out how bad the handling of the supposedly incredible BMW was. The steering on my ZHP was light, imprecise, wandering, and confidence diminishing. This wouldn’t be an issue, because I had Six Iron to drive. That is, until I crashed it.
I hadn’t planned on driving the BMW much before its problems were sorted — and suddenly, my project car became my daily. Because of the state of the car, I was uncomfortable and I was starting to second guess my decision to buy it in the first place. I had to force myself to love and understand the car, rather than taking the time to gel with it like the GTI. It would have been fine if it wasn’t the variety of holes I had to dive neck deep into to get the car tip-top.
First, it was the engine, which was a shitshow that took two months to fix thanks to BMW not being able to design a proper vacuum system. I could actually solve that issue, unlike my steering. I totally refreshed my front suspension and replaced everything pertinent in the rear.
First, an obviously bad steering coupler surely seemed like my problem. About $100 later and a new one was in. Slightly better, but still bad. OK. Then, I found some totally cheesed front lower control arm bushings. Another $100 and some bushings from a Z4M were on the car. Better, but still bad. I got a set of new tires because I hated the Federal RS-RR tires on the car, $800 down the drain that didn’t solve anything.
After that, I decided to get a brand new set of Bilstein dampers and Eibach springs for the car to the tune of $600, replacing the blown H&R Cup Kit on the car. Didn’t change anything. I then did the homegrown Camry spherical rear trailing arm bushing for $50 and it saw the biggest overall improvement of the car from horrible to a solid driveable. Still, it was not the steering I remembered. Hell, it wasn’t even good steering.
I theorized that I might have been psyched out by the car, so I had some friends drive it on Angeles Crest. All I heard were reports that the car was concerningly disconnected, and the steering was shockingly bad. They felt what I was feeling. Now, the car felt like a dynamic masterpiece from the seat of the pants and felt like a school bus from the tiller.
So I decided to give it new tie rods, which is when I found out that the steering rack had the most bizarre radial play I had ever seen. When I was loosening the inner tie rods, the entire center of the rack would rotate away from the pinion gear. Surely, this was my issue.
I sourced a known good rack from a friend in the SoCal E46 community and had it installed in 30 minutes, which was surprisingly easy to install. I drove it around and voila, it no longer felt broken. But it still didn’t match my memory of the ZHP car I’d had five years ago. It had the precision, but none of the weight or charisma I remember. It certainly did not have the feel.
I racked my brain for weeks about this. My white ZHP didn’t not have the absurd steering that I always heard and read about, still, it was better than this. Or was it? Could it be that when I had only ever driven five cars that the white ZHP felt incredible, when now that I’ve driven everything from a 1956 Porsche 356 to a GT3 Touring it feels subpar, just a few feet off of the mark?
Or was it because I felt trapped? All I could do was keep throwing parts at it and find out, with no clear end in sight. I just wanted to feel free like I did driving Six Iron. All I felt with the Mystic Blue car in my driveway was frustration and back pain. Lots of back pain. Thanks for not putting lumbar support in any ZHP, BMW. Some of the most uncomfortable seats ever for my body shape.
I gave the thing a fair shot. So fair, in fact, that I tested an additional steering rack I got from a junkyard. Before you shoot me, they were all gold tag, or yellow tag, or “712” steering racks. I tried the new rack and the result was the same: precise, but not weighty and not a ton of what I would call road feel.
I even tried new wheels in a last-ditch effort to see if the aftermarket wheels that came with my car had ruined some important suspension metric like scrub radius. The new wheels didn’t help. Same story. I even tried a reverse stagger with the 245 width tires on the front and 235 width on the rear. It certainly got a more responsive front end with alert steering, but I still didn’t have a great sense of what the wheels were doing.
I was at a crossroads. I’m over $9,500 deep into the ZHP with no end in sight, and the initial joy it had given me was waning quickly. I have a simple rule with my cars: either it can corner well, or it can take me to the top of a mountain on a dirt trail. This car didn’t do either. I had a wrecked GTI to deal with as well. I decided to sell the BMW.
It wasn’t a guilty sale because the car was genuinely in ace mechanical condition. I felt good about offloading this car. I listed it and not two days later was it in a trailer with its new owner. The weight I felt lifting from my heart was the best I had felt in months. I could finally tackle getting Six Iron back, and better than ever.
I think the tale of me and the E46 chassis ends here. My experience with this ZHP and the anecdotes I’ve heard from M3 owners that I reported my steering issues to have actually made me turn utterly cold on these cars. I once dreamed about taking an S54 to redline in my own E46 M3, now I have something bordering on no interest. I’ll take a Cayman S, thank you. Or an E90 M3, if they weren’t like litter in the Los Angeles car scene. Maybe my mood will change after being removed for a while. Hopefully, I get to drive an E46 M3 that changes my mind.
For now, the saga of Six Iron begins again with a post-crash restoration (resurrection?). Catch it here on Car Autance. There’s a long road ahead to fixing my mistakes. I intend to do it right for the car that has always done me right.
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