Home » German Mechanic’s Specials: 2004 Audi A4 vs 2001 BMW 525i

German Mechanic’s Specials: 2004 Audi A4 vs 2001 BMW 525i

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Good morning! Today on Shitbox Showdown, we’re heading to the San Francisco Bay area to check out a couple of broken Germans. But first, we’ll settle the score on Friday’s rare stickshifts:

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Saab wins, again! I’d have to look back to check, which would be difficult because I don’t keep track, but I believe the defunct Swedish brand is undefeated. From the comments, a lot of you felt the Subaru was overpriced for its condition (I agree) and that the Saab was more worthy of attention (ditto). A nice European sports sedan in good condition is hard to beat.

But what about a nice European sports sedan in not-so-good condition? Well, they’re cheaper. But you have to be ready, willing, and able to get your hands dirty, because it makes no sense to pay someone else to fix these cars for you. Their values drop faster than Evel Knievel at Snake River, but parts aren’t all that expensive, which could make a broken German car a good value for a patient do-it-yourselfer. Let’s take a look at a couple of them now.

2004 Audi A4 3.0 Quattro – $1,350

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.0 liter overhead-cam V6, six-speed manual, AWD

Location: San Francisco, CA

Odometer reading: 179,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs, but…

Audi sedans are nice cars. They’re comfortable, good-handling, brilliant in inclement weather (especially, but not only, the Quattros), and feel solid and well-built. Unfortunately, they are also high-maintenance, fussy, and do not suffer ham-fisted attempts at repairs gladly, as the owner of this A4 found out. It allegedly ran and drove perfectly before a botched tune-up attempt: After replacing the plugs, coils, and some sensors, it “shakes violently” and there is “air coming from somewhere.” Uh-oh.

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The A4 is Audi’s small executive sedan, meant to compete with the BMW 3 series and Mercedes-Benz C class. This is the B6 generation, closely related to the contemporary VW Passat, but nicer-appointed. The A4 was available with a wide range of gasoline and diesel engines; this example features a naturally-aspirated three-liter V6 good for 217 horsepower. And yes, it’s a manual, and a Quattro, so you have your choice of six possible forward gears to send that power to all four corners at once.

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Apart from the noted engine woes, this car is in decent condition, especially for closing in on 180,000 miles. It’s dirty in the way that daily drivers usually get, lending credence to the seller’s claims that it ran fine before the fateful tune-up. It needs a good cleaning, and someone absconded with the Audi rings [Editor’s Note: We call them Auto Union rings around here, sir – JT] from the grille, but it still looks good.

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In theory, you should be able to just get a thorough accounting of what the seller touched and didn’t touch, go through their work carefully, find where they went wrong, and get this car going again without much trouble. Of course, after that, you still have a high-maintenance Audi to contend with.

2001 BMW 525i Touring wagon – $2,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 2.5 liter overhead-cam inline 6, five-speed automatic, RWD

Location: San Jose, CA

Odometer reading: 165,000 miles

Runs/drives? Runs, but…

I’m always a little nervous about posting a BMW, for fear of getting some detail wrong. Our resident newsman, Thomas Hundal, adores the brand, and will surely call me out on any mistake I make. Even worse, Mercedes Streeter owns this exact car, purchased from The Bishop, so I have to be doubly careful to check all my facts. I do, however, have direct personal experience with a BMW of this era with the same engine (an E46 3-series), so I do kinda know what I’m talking about.

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For instance, I can tell you that the M54 inline six in this wagon is buttery-smooth and, while not a screamer, never feels underpowered. I can also tell you that it almost certainly leaks oil from the oil filter housing gasket unless someone replaced it recently, the VANOS variable-valve-timing system probably clatters like an old Caterpillar at high RPM, and the entire cooling system is made of a substance resembling hard candy.

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Worse, the seller says this car is showing symptoms of a blown head gasket. As fragile as these cooling systems are, doing anything but starting it up for a second to verify that it does in fact run is inadvisable. Tow it home and get ready to tear it apart. At least you can fix all the other typical problems while you’re in there.

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That’s not to say there isn’t a lot to like here. I’ve driven a couple of E39 BMWs over the years, and they do have excellent road manners and are very comfortable. This one shows some wear and tear inside, but as a California car, is unlikely to suffer from the rust problems seen elsewhere. And a wagon is always a nice thing to have. It’s not worth having someone fix it, but if you’re handy and willing to take stuff apart, this could be a worthy project. For all the things that need repairing, BMWs are not particularly hard cars to wrench on. You just have to wrench on them a lot.

I know a lot of you are going to turn up your noses at both of these cars. But I also know we have some seasoned wrench-turners in our audience, and today’s choices are for you. The inexpensive way to have a car like these is to do the work yourself. Which one are you willing to dig into?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)




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52 Responses

  1. Normally I would vote Audi (especially with the manual transmission) but that B6 has the 3.0 in it. It’s a hard pass for me. If it had the 1.8T 4 banger or the 4.2 V8 it would be a different story. In my opinion it’s only value is as a roller used for a engine swap. As a B5 S4 owner I’m partial to the 2.7TT but most people would call me a masochist for this. A big horsepower VR6T would be a killer swap for this thing.

  2. BMW 525i E39 is not really a mechanic special if well maintained. They’re keeping their price very well in Europe and you can see a lot of them on the streets.

  3. *Ran when borked.*

    “which could make a broken German car a good value for a patient do-it-yourselfer.”

    It’s cars like this that have culled the herd of patient do it yourselfers. On the upside, cursing has really become much more acceptable in society. I like fuckin’ cursing. Except when I have to.

  4. As much as I like wagons, the Audi seems less hellish this time. The described symptoms should be diagnosable with a scan tool and a smoke test and won’t require the Audi Service Position.

  5. Can’t we get another Saab? No? I guess if I have to pick one I’m going Audi, as the combination of the words ‘blown head gasket’ and ‘BMW’ scare the bejeezus out of my wallet. I know the Audi isn’t much better.

    1. After reading your comment I went looking for the coolant reservoir globe found in my 03 Eurovan and 08 GTI… never had an issue out of those and I figured Audi would use them too.
      What’s the issue with the coolant tank in the B5?

  6. Just to be pedantic: This is not Mercedes’ exact car, although it is the exact same model of BMW.

    Mercedes has a much better example, with a nicer color combo.

  7. I’m going with the Audi. My gut tells me the owner did the tune up himself and probably crossed some wires… so it might be a simple/cheap fix.

    With the BMW, I’m 100% sure it will be a more expensive fix.

  8. If it were something less serious than a blown head gasket, then the BMW would win hands down. As it is, I’ve worked on BMW cooling systems and I know my limits. As for the Audi, I expect that fixing the current problem will only make it so that you can work on future problems. Can’t go with either of these.

  9. Neither of these is worth any more to me than the tax break for charitably donating them. That said; I voted BMW because even if you have to replace the drivetrain to make it right at least it can be right. The Audi can never be right for two consecutive tanks of gas.

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