Buying a BMW E39 5-series

When I bought my E46 compact two and a half years ago, the reasoning behind the choice was that I wanted a low mileage car, two doors were sufficient, and it had to be manual transmission for eventual track use. Since then, the requirements have changed. Not only does my son demand “his own door”, four doors are just more practical. And while I briefly considered getting a 330i and modifying it for track use a year ago (as evidenced by this post, and even going as far as starting a dedicated website on the subject), I quickly came to the conclusion that I have neither the time nor the funds to make this reality. I now get my tracktime on iRacing, where I can drive otherwise unattainable cars on tracks that I could never hope to drive on in reality any day.

Hence, I started thinking about a 5-series sedan. For tax reasons, the car had to be 15 years old. There are essentially two choices: E46 3-series or E39 5-series. This wasn’t much of a choice as the E39 is not only more spacious and of better build quality, but also usually found cheaper here in the Netherlands than the E46 with the same engine. So E39 it is. I briefly considered the V8s, but they are heavier and less reliable than the inline sixes, with the 535i having zero performance benefit above the 530i – and an inline six is of course the iconic BMW engine type. I also really wanted a facelifted (LCI) model, a 530i (as I expect that they will be more valuable in the future than a 520i or 525i), automatic transmission, and black interior, as I’m no fan of light interior that often looks dirty after 15+ years of use.

Known issues

The issues of the E39 are well known. It is considered to be among BMW’s best cars, and certainly of better quality than the contemporary E46 3-series. This doesn’t mean that it is free of issues, though, and many of them apply to other BMW models, too. There are several YouTube videos going into detail, but here are some of the foremost issues.

  • Rust. Especially at the trunk lid, wheel wells, and rocker panel ends.
  • Suspension wear. A common BMW issue, suspension bushings wear out quickly. Make sure to use good quality replacement parts, as cheap parts fail really quickly.
  • The M52 (pre-facelift) engine is considered pretty much bulletproof. The post-facelift M54 is known for using oil, with the crank case ventilation being a common cause. Crankshaft and camshaft sensors are a source of trouble. The V8s are generally less reliable.
  • Window regulators, another common BMW issue.
  • Pixel errors on the dashboard.
  • The manual five-speed gearbox has a better reputation than the automatic transmission. The latter was advertised by BMW as being maintenance free during its lifetime, but should be flushed/refilled every 100,000km.

So nothing too crazy. The interior is of good quality, the electronics work well. Most issues are relatively easy to check during a test drive.

The search

I remember searching for cars through newspaper adverts and dealer visits. How the times have changed… The two internet platforms I check here in the Netherlands are Marktplaats and Autoscout24. Sedan and Touring were originally sold at a ration of approx. 5 to 1, but this seems to have changed in the Touring’s favour regarding cars for sale now. So either more people want to get rid of the Touring, or there’s more of them left as they are more practical and hence retained longer. Practically all E39s have the automatic transmission, and are often of better specification (i.e. more options) than the 3-series.

One car immediately caught my eye, even before I had decided upon buying an E39:

  • 2002 model
  • Toledo blue
  • Edition Exclusive (meaning leather interior, clear turn signals and chrome accents, among other features)
  • Business package (Xenon, PDC fore and aft, climate control)
  • 16:9 navigation (currently an Android-based aftermarket system, original present)
  • no sunroof, manual seats
  • a useless phone, just like my compact

That’s €64,000 new! The downside: 320,000km. The upside: a large list of recent repairs, including the known troublemakers around the engine, A/C service, transmission flush, and new front brake discs/pads. Some Google-fu also led to the conclusion that the seller is a BMW enthusiast and car mechanic.

The test drive

I usually spend more time looking at the car and talking to the seller than actually driving it, as I can pretty quickly detect issues while driving. The suspension felt rock solid, no noises at all even on speed bumps. The car felt tight and comfortable. Issues: Optically it’s a bit worse than I was hoping for, including the slightest beginning of rust at the rocker panels. The rear windows wouldn’t go down and there was some moisture on the inside (we had had lots of rain the days before). The reason for sale (new job, longer commute, hence a Diesel) was legit, the seller offered to do a Vanos revision, and also had a set of winter tires on BMW style 48 wheels. I gave it a good night’s sleep. Considering the good technical condidtion and a price that would leave room for tackling the rust issues, plus the option list that is a perfect match with my preferences, I decided to bite the bullet and buy the car.

My E39 530i next to its slightly older (by two months) little brother.

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