Your twenties are a truly curious time. It wasn’t that long ago that I was 18, parting broken cars out for money, and hustling my way up to owning some decently nice cars that I could only kind of afford. Somehow, I worked my way up to my first BMW 330i ZHP in 2016, a Silbergrau manual car repainted Alpine White II. That car felt like a huge deal to me when I had it, and coming back to the platform again now, feels like a chance to atone for some of my sins as a less-experienced owner.
For anyone who could use a reminder on what ZHP means: It’s the option code for a performance package available for 2003-2006 BMW 330i sedans, coupes, and convertibles. It’s important because it came with a few choice upgrades like control arms, shocks and springs, sway bars, a six-speed ZF GS6 gearbox before it became standard with the 2005 330i, a nylon lock-nut on the infamously loosey-goosey oil pump, and uprated camshafts that are supposedly good for 235 hp, up from 225 hp. Aesthetics including exclusive M colors like Imola Red II, and added other colors like Mystic Blue and Oxford Green II along with some normal E46 colors all coated over M-Tech II front and rear bumpers. Finally, exclusive interior treatments included black cube or silver cube trim, 6,800 rpm redline tachometer with orange needles, and optional Alcantara/cloth seats with standard Alcantara shifter boot and parking brake boot.
Before any of that, I started with some seed money from my dad that bought me a 2001 five-speed Honda Civic EX. I promptly traded that for a 1998 Lexus LS400. Around that time, I got a crashed 1992 Nissan 300ZX to part out and made about $3,000 with it. I then traded the LS400 for a terrible Miata which I sold for $3,000 and a Macbook. With that $6,000 in cash, I found the aforementioned ZHP and paid $5,700 for it.
That white ZHP informed everything I ever knew about cars and really advanced my addiction to automobiles in general. The hefty steering with just the right amount of feel, the chunky, notchy short shifter, the swelling torque of the M54 3.0-liter straight-six, the size of the car, and the quality of the car were all just right for me.
Well, now I’m learning something new about myself; it was right for me… at the time. In fact, the entire ZHP idea that felt so right in the throes of my teenage years, even more specifically the period of growth, pain, and social discovery just after high school, now feels utterly different.
Driving this car, my new-to-me Mystic Blue slick top 2004 ZHP, is making me realize how much I’ve grown and changed since the last time I owned one of these. Even with 190,000 miles, this car drives tighter than the white one did at 146,000. The engine is somehow smoother and sweeter, the gearbox slicker because it is without a short-shift kit and a general feeling of care and love that the last car didn’t convincingly have.
So why am I so mixed on this new purchase of mine? Is it because I spent $8,000 on it, at the mercy of a horrendously swelled used car market? No, because I think the color and rarity of the spec make the money worth it to me.
Is it because the car feels so different, yet so similar compared to what I remember? I think that might be a good hypothesis. That dichotomy somehow haunts me as I drive the car. The naivete of my 18-year-old mind exaggerated the greatness of the old car. The experience of my more mature self sees the car more clearly than I ever could have at any other locus of my life. It feels vintage now where it felt alien before, the same way it feels much slower now than it did when I was 18.
My new car, in that gorgeous shade of Mystic Blue, is the prettiest car I have ever owned. It has a ridiculous presence, nay, it has main character energy. The car is confident in itself and its rarity, which if ZHPMafia is anything to believe, my color combo, manual gearbox, and sedan body only exist on 45 cars for North America. That’s insanely special. What I didn’t expect to find was a different kind of car from my new one.
It might be the early signs of aging up, though I am only 24, but I love this car most when I’m cruising it around town. Enjoying the UUC Corsa exhaust that came with the car, with its soul-twisting BMW rasp at 4000 rpm, hearing it bounce off of buildings, and rowing the long, light shifter through its six helical cogs. This car makes a drive to Best Buy special.
When I took it to the canyons, it was very good. That excellence was tempered, however, by an uncharacteristic wave of mechanical sympathy. I didn’t feel like tossing the car around like I used to, I didn’t want to push it, nor did I derive much pleasure from wringing the car out once I could bring myself to do it. I think the terrible Federal RS-RR tires that came with it have a lot to do with the car’s current character, so I’ll have to revisit that later. But that feeling of the car coming alive and dancing was absent, and I’m convinced that it’s the tires and maybe a set of bushings away from being tip-top again.
Even then, that willingness to push, to drive spiritedly, never came. I was never gripped with the desire to warm the muscles of the car. My compassion for machinery has grown over the years, and the nearly 20-year-old ZHP officially feels like an older car, something that I don’t want to break, and something that doesn’t satisfy my current dynamic tastes. It also has this pervasive sense of being loved and even coveted, that I feel bad desecrating it with my normally aggressive driving style.
My current car, the 2010 Volkswagen GTI I call Six Iron, has had more time and love spent on dynamics and feel than any other car I’ve owned, or most cars ever. I spent a full year dialing in a setup that serves my needs as a driver, a setup that rotates before the apex, dances, and glides from corner to corner, all while balancing the immense turbocharged power the front wheels possess. I love to push that car on the track and trust it explicitly while I’m doing it.
What I’ve been really shown is that I truly do love the experience and idea of my GTI, and it was never a fluke or Stockholm syndrome. The ZHP is the honest-to-god antithesis of the GTI in nearly every relevant way. For that, it makes the car fascinating to me, and it sets me on another journey of understanding the ZHP for what it is, but I don’t feel like I’m going to imprint my personality on such a special driving experience. I’m but a meek man who is in possession of the keys to a coveted BMW, and I’m going to do my best to make it original and cared for while it’s in my possession. I want to correct the sins of my 18-year-old self, the kid who thrashed his ZHP and abused it, the kid who loved the car but was misguided, young, and stupid.
Owning the same kind of car twice is starting to feel like the biggest mindfuck of my life. I’m questioning what I knew back then, and remembering who I was, a person I didn’t even realize I forgot about. 2016 Chris Rosales, BMW idolizer, and intense car nerd, but also lacking much experience in anything. The white ZHP was my first performance car, and I was learning with the car. Now that I’m meeting it again, I’m seeing just how long the lonely road has been since I last saw this old friend, and realizing how far we’ve drifted apart, and how much I’ve actually grown up.
Cars are just as much a reflection of ourselves as the clothes we wear, the movies we watch, and the things we say. Your sense of style, of drama, of what you want to say, all happen with your car. In a way, my experience with this new Mystic Blue car is more mental than physical, because it’s such an offensive monument to myself of who I used to be. Offensive, because I desire nothing more than to grow and change beyond the idiot I used to be, and much rather prefer the idiot of today, the one writing this piece to you right now, in an almost cathartic lament to the personal significance of the motor vehicle to my personal identity.
I’ve already ordered the Morimoto ZKW headlight fix kit because the projectors are the most burnt out I’ve ever seen on an E46, and I’m budgeting for some tires soon on the car. My instinct tells me that the car’s suspension is tip top, and my inspections have backed that theory up. This car also has the driest M54 I’ve ever seen; zero leaks or seeping. Headlights and tires, and I’m going to enjoy the car as it comes, until it’s time for someone else to love it.
The E46 ZHP is a special car, no doubt. Is it forever for me? The jury is still deliberating on that one. Until next time, folks.