Matt B
Matt B HalfDork
2/18/11 9:04 a.m.

Hey guys, We've been considering getting a third car with a little more room than the integra (mr2 doesn't even count in the "room" category). I've been surprised to find some decent-looking-over-the-interwebz E39's in our $5-$6K price category. So if I can find a decent example, what are they like to live with? I can do most of my own maintenance, but my free time has been short lately and I really don't want another "it's awesome if you do your own work" car. That's what I have the aw11 for.

The purpose would be a daily driver for the wife and the road trip car. With my long work schedule, it's possible I'll have to hire someone to do any unexpected repairs. If I can plan on it I can do quite a bit, but I don't want to be nickel-n-dime'd to death with blown hoses an weird electrical problems. I'm pretty comfortable with Japanese car repairs and their cost, so the European stuff is new and scary.

To get specific, I'm looking at the 99-01ish 525i models, manual transmission is a must. Finding a manual wagon would be the grail, but seems unlikely (did they even make 6cyl manual wagons?)

In addition, if anyone can give a shop recommendation for a PPI in the ATL that'd be helpful.

See, I got through that whole thread without saying, "learn me". Until now.

DukeOfUndersteer SuperDork
2/18/11 9:33 a.m.

Shop in Atlanta: The Bimmer Store, Harrison Motorsports, Performing Imports

yamaha New Reader
2/18/11 9:46 a.m.

theres so many of them around so used parts are inexpensive, but take care of it and itll last awhile

amg_rx7 HalfDork
2/18/11 10:06 a.m.

Here is a good FAQ for the E39

njansenv HalfDork
2/18/11 10:16 a.m.

Manual E39 wagons exist, but carry a premium.
Nice cars, but they typically have a lot more electronic things that can go wrong when compared to the same year 3 series.
E46 wagon? We fit a rear facing seat behind the driver w/o issue: it's quite a bit roomier than the E36's. (I'm 5'8")


amg_rx7 HalfDork
2/18/11 10:16 a.m.

Another good one:

02Pilot Reader
2/18/11 10:32 a.m.

E39s come in several flavors: pre-facelift (97-00) 528i and 540i, post-facelift (01-03) 525i, 530i, 540i. Tourings can be had in all but 530i variant, no manual 540i tourings.

I6 cars are the easiest to live with. Budget for an immediate cooling system replacement (~4 hours, ~$600 in parts); this will address the major reliability issue. Other concerns are the CCV, which can fail expensively, but usually this only occurs in northern climates; it will still fail in warmer climes, but the result will not be nearly as catastrophic or immediate. VANOS seals have already failed on basically all of them; replacement is easy and improves low-end performance, off-idle response, and cold idle. Other maintenance is pretty basic stuff, and the E39 is very easy to work on for a modern vehicle.

In short, there are a few issues to deal with, but once they are done, they are extremely reliable.

ansonivan Dork
2/18/11 10:33 a.m.

I salute your decision to have a PPI done, will save you much sorrow.

Unexpected things which will pop up and be expensive:

  • window regulators - $110 front $250 rear - don't try cheap aftermarket units, they all suck.
  • CCV - $100 in parts and a few hours labor for your first one. Around $600 if you pay a shop to do the work.
  • Cooling systems are not a surprise
  • the m52tu found in the 99-00 cars reacts oddly to worn VANOS seals, symptoms include rough and hunting idle. Later/earlier engines don't do this. It's diy-able but expensive if you have a shop do the work.
  • wagons have unique rear subframe bushings which cost $70x4 and will be bad by 100k. They require a special tool to install which can be rented from several different guys.
nderwater HalfDork
2/18/11 10:36 a.m.

Budget a little extra and buy one with good service history. The big stuff is rock solid, but the little stuff (cooling system, interior bits, anything rubber) is prone to wear and breakage and can be expensive to replace.

WilberM3 HalfDork
2/18/11 10:54 a.m.

abs modules are somewhat common too. theyre very easy to access in the engine bay but the parts can be somewhat pricey and they have to be coded to the car to function properly again which you cant do yourself.

another common thing with 100k+ e39s are worn out lower rear ball joints. theyre not a lot of money but you need special tools to replace and theyre WAY easier on a lift with a bunch of billable hours plus an alignment. if you look at the rear wear pattern and the tires are worn a bit funny its very likely to need them unless theyve been replaced semi recently.

paanta Reader
2/18/11 2:04 p.m.

Do it. The 3-series is the best-in-class at what it does, but the 5-series doesn't even have competition, IMO. Tires, springs and shocks and it'll hang with MUCH smaller stuff.

5ers up to the E39 are all pretty easy to wrench on. Plenty of room, logical component layout. Electronics fail, but are nicely modularized and available used. $500 dealer-only modules are more like $25 used.

Get a PPI. Let's just say that my hastily purchased E34 535i got $5K in parts in the first year of ownership and only about $1500 of that was really elective. The rest was nickle and dime gremlin hunting bullE36 M3.

Any BMW of a certain age is going to benefit from a serious once-over of the suspension and anything rubber. Plus the aforementioned cooling system.

In the E39, the 540i is fast, but the 530i is almost as quick, handles better, has R&P steering and generally is the cream of the crop for a daily driver if you can find one at the right price, IMO. Definitely on my short list of cars to replace my 535 if/when it ever dies.

At $6K I'd also have a look around for a really immaculate E34. It's a worse car, but a better BMW. At the risk of offending E39 owners, the build/materials are better and if you can find a 535i/5-spd it's just plain perfect. Classic, bulletproof, glorious sounding BMW drivetrain with fairly modern car comfort. My dad has a 535i he still daily drives at 280K and mine with 230K is still a dream to travel in. Only real downside is the classic BMW fuel economy and lack of a dozen airbags.....

mad_machine GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
2/18/11 2:28 p.m.

that about sums up what to worry about on the E39.. the are good cars once you make sure the maintance is done and everything is up to snuff

Matt B
Matt B HalfDork
2/18/11 3:07 p.m.

As usual, you guys rock. Thanks for the info. Here are some thoughts and random questions:

  • Those links are pretty useful. Might even print some of it out for the "reading room".

  • Does the sedan's rear seats fold down? We have a 90lb German shepherd that goes with us on road trips, so a place for him to lay out comfortably for hours is necessary. (Here's where a wagon is obviously better, but if the seats fold down it might be doable)

  • Would definitely consider E46 wagon (see above). Seems harder to find though, dunno. That said, I'm in no rush to purchase.

  • Does the sedan also have rear subframe bushings that need to be replaced? Or just the wagon?

  • Definitely only looking at 6cyl models. No need for the cost, mpg, and insurance of a V8 model. 530i would be sweet, but I haven't seen any in my price range yet.

  • E34 sounds interesting, but the AW11 has soured the wife a bit on "older" cars. SWMBO is probably going to be the primary driver of whatever we get, so I need her to be confident and happy with the purchase. Thankfully, she's somewhat of an enthusiast too.

Again, thanks for all the responses and feel free to keep 'em coming.

nderwater HalfDork
2/18/11 3:35 p.m.

The seats only fold down in the wagon, not the sedan. Not sure why, because my E36 has folding seats. Our 530i has been the family taxi for almost six years now, and it's been a great car. The biggest lesson learned has been replace the cooling system at regular intervals - aka before they fail, not after.

DILYSI Dave SuperDork
2/18/11 4:05 p.m.

PPI - Eurasian Motorsports @ Gwinnett Place.

Matt B
Matt B HalfDork
2/18/11 4:21 p.m.
nderwater wrote: The seats only fold down in the wagon, not the sedan.

Crap. This makes finding a suitable one a bit harder. If only I was able to stomach automatics, lol.

93EXCivic SuperDork
2/18/11 4:36 p.m.

So basically the cooling system is crap, the bushings go out, the ccv is no good, the VANOS seals wear out and the window regulators go out and somehow that is a reliable car.

M2Pilot Reader
2/18/11 7:24 p.m.

In reply to 93EXCivic:

Why, yes indeed.

02Pilot Reader
2/18/11 9:03 p.m.
93EXCivic wrote: So basically the cooling system is crap, the bushings go out, the ccv is no good, the VANOS seals wear out and the window regulators go out and somehow that is a reliable car.

Well, let's put it this way: if you are aware of the weaknesses and deal with them in a timely manner, then yes, it is reliable. If you are unaware of them, or choose to ignore them, it isn't. At least the failures are predictable and the car is worth the effort.

mad_machine GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
2/18/11 9:43 p.m.

if the regulators are anything like the E36.. ie.. breaking the plastic bushings... then I suggest taking the door panels off and scraping out the old dried grease and putting in some new stuff.

I kept breaking the plastic sliders in my ti until I noticed that the 10 year old grease was so nasty it was actually sticky instead of slippery. Once I cleaned it all out and regreased.. I have not had a window problem.

dculberson Reader
2/19/11 12:13 p.m.

All cars have parts failures as they age. An unreliable car is one that has numerous failures, even on parts replaced recently. Example: Range Rover Classic. Perhaps the worst vehicle to keep on the road I've ever seen. I couldn't even afford to keep a 40k mile one going for more than a year or so before I cried uncle.

There's not a single car out there that doesn't at least have one or two major "quirks." Even the vaunted Volvo 240 has wiring harness problems.

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