On Thanksgiving, while most of you were probably getting into a food coma with your family, my wife and I were out buying another car. This one is different; it’s not a Volkswagen, Smart, or another bus, but another BMW. And this 2001 BMW 525iT came from an interesting place: the Autopian’s own Daydreaming Designer. I can confirm that the Bishop is a real person, and he has fine taste in automobiles.
Last month, the Bishop sent me a Slack message containing an offer that I couldn’t refuse. See, his parents owned a BMW 5-Series wagon and soon, they would no longer be able to drive it. That meant that the BMW needed a new home, and of course, Bishop reached out to the Autopian’s German wagon lover. And the Bishop knew exactly how to draw me in, with a price so low that I couldn’t say no. Like David, I love a dirt cheap car. It’s how he ended up with his $700 Chevy Tracker and now why I own a $1,500 BMW 525iT.
BMW fans are probably already nodding their heads, but if you aren’t familiar with these, I’ll give you the low down. What you’re looking at here is an E39 5-Series. This is a car nearly universally praised by the press and owners alike. Road & Track says “elegant, restrained styling combined with a superb chassis and great engines made this one of the best luxury sports sedans of all time.” Hagerty UK calls it a future classic. What Car? magazine called the E39 one of the best cars it has ever tested. You get the point. Hagerty even goes as far as to say that no matter which E39 you buy, you’re getting a good ride. So what made these so awesome?
The Ultimate Businessman’s Express
As BMW Blog writes, development on the E39 started in 1989. Back then, the vehicle was known internally as the “Entwicklung 39.” Joji Nagashima penned what would become the design chosen by BMW in 1992, and locked in by then new BMW design head Chris Bangle. When the E39 was released at the 1995 Frankfurt Motor Show, it appeared to be more evolution than revolution when compared to its predecessor. The E39 took the late 1980s design of the E34 and smoothed it out into something still conservative, yet elegant and timeless. The E39 still looks like a stunner today, even 27 years after its initial release. Even the UK’s The Telegraph sang praises for the car.
When the model was launched in 1995, it was given a rapturous welcome by journalists and buyers alike. Instantly, the Mercedes E-class was made to look wooden; the Jaguar XJ to look cramped and dated; the Audi A6 to look deeply humdrum.
And the E39 is more than just good looks. Under the sheet metal, E39s were high-tech for their day, from BMW Blog:
Boasting features such as a multifunction steering wheel, a navigation system, active seats and Dynamic Stability Control, the BMW 5 Series was acknowledged as a particularly outstanding high-tech representative of its segment.
In the interest of enhanced driving dynamics and safety, the body came with a significant increase in torsional stiffness over the former model, and the fourth-generation BMW 5 Series was the first large-scale production car worldwide made almost completely of light alloy. The newly developed all-aluminium power units also helped to significantly reduce the weight of the car.
Elaborating further, the aforementioned light alloy construction involves aluminum suspension components, an aluminum chassis, and a galvanized steel body.
[Editor’s Note: Six-cylinder models used an aluminum front subframe but that’s about as far as aluminum was used in the chassis. The aluminum arms still feel really special for the era though. –TH]
Those aluminum suspension components meant a weight loss of about 41 pounds up front. And the use of an aluminum chassis meant weight reductions of up to 143 pounds. BMW itself goes on to say that the E39 was built with a focus on aerodynamics, resulting in a 0.27 drag coefficient. And to achieve a flat load floor, BMW made a new compact aluminum rear axle.
Buyers even got to choose from a wide array of engines. At the lower end was the 520i, which had a 2.0-liter straight six making 148 HP. Or if you preferred diesel flavor, the 520d had a 2.0-liter straight four making 134 HP. On the high end, you got the 540i, which sported a 4.4-liter V8 making 282 HP. Or there was the 530d, which made 190 HP from a 3.0-liter straight six.
And then there was what BMW head Bernd Pischetsrieder called “the ultimate businessman’s express,” the M5 and its 4.9-liter V8 making 394 HP. This is all to say that BMW’s work on the E39 was obsessive. And as a result, some publications called the E39 years ahead of everyone else. And while the flagship was the M5, Hagerty UK argues that it really doesn’t matter which E39 you got, because you got a fantastic car no matter what.
My New-To-Me E39
The Bishop and I have been ironing out this purchase for over a month. Somehow, he’s lived within an hour of me this whole time and I didn’t even know. Yes, the Bishop is a real person, not a sentient chess piece! And, whatever vision you have in your head of what he looks like, he doesn’t look like it. What he looks like will remain a secret, but I can tell you that his family has a great taste in cars. This 525iT belonged to his parents, but they’ve now reached the point in life where they could no longer drive, so the car needed a new home.
It was built in 2001, after the E39’s graceful facelift in late 2000. That refresh included subtle, but noticeable styling changes like the addition of BMW’s famous “angel eye” halo rings in the headlights. And the taillights were given a fiber optic treatment. These are little changes, but ones I feel definitely keep this design fresh so many years later.
This E39 is a 525iT, which means that it’s a wagon with a 2.5-liter straight six under the hood and driving the rear wheels through an automatic.
Here in America, this car was the base model 5-Series, with a base price of $35,400 for a sedan with a manual transmission. Opting for the wagon body means $37,200 before options. That straight six is pumping out 184 horsepower and 175 lb-ft torque, or fewer than half of the M5’s ponies.
You’d think that getting the low-spec 5-Series would be a drag, but true to all of those reviews and Hagerty’s word, even my 525iT is a ball.
Hopping into this 5-Series is in itself an experience. The driver door has heft, and closes with the sort of thud you’d expect from something more expensive. Once inside, BMW’s attention to making cars for drivers is evident. Ahead of you are BMW’s classic, yet easily readable gauges, and everything feels easily within reach.
This interior isn’t the best that you’ll find, and some things don’t even make sense. See this armrest? You’d think that there must be a small storage bin underneath. But it does not open. And that weird slot in the middle? That’s for a car phone.
And the seats sort of betray the car’s driving characteristics. You sit in nice and comfortable buckets that offer basically no support in spirited driving. Despite this, I love BMW’s attention to detail. The seatbelts look fantastic, as do the little bits and pieces finishing up the interior.
And most surfaces feel pretty good for a base model mid-level “business” car from 2001. They’re certainly better than any of my Volkswagens and better than my Smarts. Though, one huge letdown in the interior is the radio, which sounds weak no matter what settings I try. But this came from 2001, so I’ll give it a break.
Turning the key–which I’m happy to note does have a working sealed battery, unlike my BMW X5–spins the 2.5 into life. And, if you weren’t looking at the gauges, you might not know that the vehicle is even running.
This engine is smooth, and at idle, whisper quiet. But don’t let that fool you. Give this engine some throttle and it’ll thrust you in whatever direction that you point the vehicle. I’ve always loved BMW’s accelerator pedals. A lot of accelerator pedals feel mushy. But this? You feel a direct connection between what your foot is doing and what the engine is doing. If you’re not careful, you’ll be like my wife and pull out of a parking lot with the tail end out and tires screaming.
This engine doesn’t have enough power for a burnout. But turn off traction control, punch the throttle, and turn the wheel? Oh yeah, you can definitely get it to break traction and kick the rear end out. Sheryl told me that she’s never drifted a car before. Well, she could have fooled me because she had this wagon really sideways. Another thing that I’ve noticed is that while you don’t have a ton of power on tap, the 525iT seems to want to keep accelerating. If you’re not paying attention you’ll find yourself going way over the speed limit, and it won’t even feel like it. There are few cars that I’ve driven that seemingly want to cruise near 100 mph, and this is one of them.
This lovely throttle response is coupled to heavy, tight steering with plenty of feel. As a result, you feel like you can toss this wagon into any corner. And kudos to BMW because you can chuck this into corners and it’ll hang on as long as your tires hold out.
[Editor’s note: Although eight-cylinder E39s used a steering box due to packaging constraints, six-cylinder models featured lovely rack-and-pinion steering that’s arguably a step up in feel over the M5’s setup. –TH]
Sadly, the lack of seat support is less than ideal, but you can find one with the optional sport seats.
As much as I love my Volkswagen diesel wagons, this edges them out with the fun factor. And seeing how fun a base E39 is, I wonder just how magical something like a 540i or an M5 would be.
Ok, What’s Wrong With It?
So, you’re probably wondering how in the heck did I get this for just $1,500? While I’m sure that selling it to me was probably a factor, this wagon isn’t perfect. The dashboard features a Christmas tree of warning lights. Currently, the car doesn’t have working traction control or ABS. I plugged in my handy Autel scanner and found out that these lights all trace to one place. The car seems to be getting no data from the left front wheel speed sensor. The Bishop told me that the sensor was replaced twice and the error still persists, so I’m thinking that there’s maybe a wiring problem.
Otherwise, my scanner gives it a largely clean bill of health. The other real big problems involve rust.
The tailgate has a lot of corrosion, as does the rocker on the right side. Our Daydreaming Designer told me that the rust has been removed in the past, but it keeps coming back. Apparently, his other BMW has the same problems with rust that never goes away. The tailgate is actually rusting from the inside out, and used to leak before the Bishop patched it. So the best plan here would probably be to get another tailgate, or keep patching the rust. At least the rocker is still solid at the moment.
But hey, it’s a running and driving car–that was used as a daily until recently–for all of $1,500. I cannot complain! I even got a folder an inch-thick with nearly two decades of service records, and even a sales contract for the car. While I’m a sucker for a cheap car, perhaps I’m even more of a sucker for a car with loads of documented history.
And it really shows that this car was taken care of. Everything feels tight and aside from the faulty wheel sensor, everything works. There aren’t even dead pixels in the vehicle’s displays.
What’s the plan for this one? Normally, you’d see me brag about buying a vehicle with a manual transmission, but getting an automatic wagon was intentional. I want to fix the wheel sensor, have a shop fix the rust, then let it loose on Sheryl. This is already technically Sheryl’s second car. She loves it to death, and the smile she has driving it is wider than the Grand Canyon. She’s already said that this is her favorite in our fleet, which makes me happy. Normally, she doesn’t really drive my cars (she doesn’t drive manuals, either), but this BMW drew her in like a mosquito to a bug zapper.
If you’re looking for a decent luxury bargain, be sure to check out an E39. They may be two decades old, but the car publications are right, these are great rides even many years later.