The BMW N54 engine made history in many ways. It was the first time the brand launched a turbo engine to power its most popular models, and it set a new paradigm for the following engines to come. When the engine first appeared, it shocked some BMW fans, which were used to the German brand’s naturally aspirated engines. However, for the most loyal fans, the engine was a fond reminder of the popular M12/13 F1 engine, which featured a massive turbo and achieved up to 1,400 HP with a displacement of only 1.5 liters.
The 3.0 twin-turbo engine, launched in 2006, was the engine that powered the first 335i versions until it was replaced by the N55. The engine won several Engine of the Year awards, among others, and immediately earned the recognition of the specialized press and car fanatics worldwide. From the year of its introduction to 2013, the N54 was one of the preferred powerplants for the 1, 3, 5, and 7 series, the Z4 roadster, and the X6 crossover.
Depending on the version, the N54 can pull from 302 to 335 HP with a maximum torque of 450 NM. The engine’s complex design and advanced electronics make it smooth and quiet, which quickly turns into an aggressive and roaring machine when you press the gas pedal all the way to the floor.
Engine Specs Cylinders and layout: Inline-six Displacement: 2,979 cc Bore / Stroke: 84mm / 89.6 mm Power / Torque: From 302HP /400 NM to 335 HP / 450 NM Compression Ratio: 10.2:1
The N54, in all its versions, has direct injection, double-VANOS (intake and exhaust variable valve timing), an aluminum block, and cylinder heads. The engine delivers an outstanding power output in all its versions, and its characteristics make it highly tuneable, as I’ll show you next.
What Makes The N54 Engine an Extremely Tuneable Engine?
Since its early days, tuners, BMW owners, and speed fanatics have noticed the potential of this engine. The fact is that a robust engine with forged aluminum pistons and forged steel connecting rods and crankshaft from the factory is almost unbreakable and, if you add the fact that the engine comes with two big turbos as the Mitsubishi TD03-10TK3-4.1, you have a great starting point to build an even more powerful engine without risk of blowing it.
Tuning products manufacturers and chip tuners didn’t take long to start making “plug-and-play” mods to this engine. Even nowadays, ten years after being discontinued, many products are still available to take advantage of this great engine’s potential.
I have been around cars and involved in engine tuning since I was a teenager, and I remember the day my cousin, a huge BMW fanatic, told me he got an invitation to the presentation of the 335i and that he might be able to test drive it. Around that time, I was expecting the E92 M3 with the V8 engine, so I didn’t pay him much attention, but when the first mods started to appear, and I started to have base maps to tune them, I knew that I was witnessing the beginning of a new era for BMW.
You could throw any “plug and play” part to this engine and gain HP easily as you did in VAG 1.8T and then 2.0T engines. The mods were relatively cheaper than the mods and preparation you should do to a naturally aspirated engine, and the power gains were impressive.
I had installed a big Garrett turbo to an E46 M3, and even though it’s an amazing car, even for today’s standards, it’s a lot of work and money to get a little more HP than you would get doing a few mods to a car with an N54 engine if you disregard the vehicle’s price. Even though, by that time, a decent E46 M3 cost a lot of money.
Simple “Plug And Play” Mods to Improve Your BMW N54 Engine
If you are the lucky owner of a vehicle fitted with the N54 engine, many “plug and play” mods are available to safely upgrade its power almost immediately
Before modifying your engine, you should have a plan or at least an idea of how much you will modify it. The idea is to avoid spending twice on the same mod, and if you choose to make larger upgrades, take precautions to prevent breakdowns and future headaches.
My list of recommended upgrades for the N54 engine is similar to the part list for any other car with a factory turbocharger. The list is ordered in the way it best worked for me as a tuning shop owner and my customers, but you can adapt it to your action plan.
Cold Air Intake
Although the efficiency of CAIs or high-flow air filters and intakes has been questioned many times, there are cases and cases, and in the 335i, for example, a good cold air intake kit can unleash up to 15HP by removing the restrictive factory air box. Besides, these products make the engine sound more aggressive, making the car even more fun to drive.
You should check your state laws to see if CAIs are street-legal where you live.
These downpipes can raise about 20-25 HP and between 30 to 40 NM of torque to the wheels of a 335i, for example. High-flow downpipes are less restrictive than the stock ones, improving the exhaust flow, increasing the engine power, and reducing turbo lag. Besides, high-flow downpipes are made of stainless steel, which is a great heat dissipator and lighter than the stock downpipes’ material.
High-Flow Charge Pipes
Replacing the stock charge pipes with a set of larger, high-flow charge pipes raises the engine power at high RPMs. Besides, stock charge pipes are prone to cracking when you tune this engine, so these charge pipes are also a reliability gain. High-flow charge pipes are made from aluminum and are something to consider when you are planning to upgrade your N54 engine.
Many companies make large intercooler kits that help to reduce the intake air temperature, increasing the engine power and keeping the intake air cold even when you are pushing the engine to the limit. Most of these intercoolers are “plug-and-play”, made to replace the factory intercooler. Reducing two or three degrees in a 3rd gear run is way better than the 30-32 degree rise you can expect with the stock intercooler.
A well-made custom chip tuning can release an average of 30% HP on turbo engines. The N54 engine isn’t an exception. If you plan to do several engine upgrades, it’s always best to reflash the ECU after you installed all the other mods so that the tuner can determine how your engine is running and adjust the air/fuel ratio to the perfect level and, in that way get the most out of it in all the powerband.
These are some of the most affordable, safe, and better upgrades in terms of cost-benefit for the N54 engines, but you should know that there are more, like, for example:
- Heavy-duty clutch with lightweight flywheel
- Water-methanol injection
- Cat-back exhaust systems
- Big turbo kits
- Big oil cooler kit
It’s interesting to know that the N54 engine with a big turbo kit, modified intake, and exhaust can deliver up to 700HP without touching the engine’s internals, something you should do to other engines if you don’t want to bend a connecting rod or worse.
The N54 is a great engine. If you have any doubts about how to tune yours or where to start, leave a comment so that we can share some ideas.
The BMW N54 engine is an excellent choice for those looking for a highly tunable engine capable of delivering a lot of extra horsepower and torque without investing a fortune in parts and labor. It’s a tough and noble engine that will make you smile every time you take it to the red line.