Home » No Longer Cheap, But Still Cheerful: 1985 BMW 535i vs 1985 Toyota MR2

No Longer Cheap, But Still Cheerful: 1985 BMW 535i vs 1985 Toyota MR2

Sbsd 7 21 2023
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Good morning, and happy Friday! I’m mixing it up a little this week, and doing two new cars for your end-of-the-week pleasure. These cars are both very similar to cars I once almost bought, but didn’t, for roughly one-eighth the price, many years ago. (I was young and foolish then; I feel old and foolish now, to quote wiser men than myself.) But anyway, let’s finish up with yesterday’s fossils, and then we’ll check them out:

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Well, that settles that. It was the mags, wasn’t it? I don’t even care that much about the wagon; I just want those wheels. Old RWD Datsuns have the same lug pattern as MGBs, after all.

Oh, and just to settle something from the comments: “overhead valve” is indeed the correct term, even for a horizontally-opposed engine. The valves are at the “top” of the cylinder, relative to the piston’s stroke, regardless of the cylinder’s orientation in space. Still disagree? All right then; describe the orientation of valves to cylinders in a radial engine in any other way. See what I mean?

Now, it’s no secret that cars are expensive these days. And the cooler and more desirable they are, the higher the price climbs. Cars like these are getting thinner on the ground every day, raising the price on the remaining examples even further. And what makes it even worse is that we all remember how much these cars used to cost, back when no one cared about them. Watching cars you remember from your youth turn the corner from “old” to “classic” is cool in a way, but it also means you’re probably priced out of them. Is there really any chance that either of these is worth the asking price? Let’s take a look and find out.

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1985 BMW 535i – $8,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 3.4 liter overhead cam inline 6, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Agoura Hills, CA

Odometer reading: 170,000 miles

Runs/drives? Yep

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Remember that BMW we looked at on Tuesday? The one with the ugly Chris Bangle styling and the terrifyingly complex V8 engine? This is absolutely nothing like that one. The E28-chassis 5 Series is light (comparatively), sharp, mechanically simple, and a joy to drive. I remember test-driving one, a 528e if I remember right, that was for sale for $1000, and loving it. In fact, I can’t remember why I didn’t buy it, or what I bought instead. This 535i model would drive very much the same, I imagine, except with, you know, horsepower.

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These cars are simpler and more reliable than newer BMWs, but that doesn’t mean they are simple, or reliable. You could probably drive this car every day, but be prepared to do some tinkering on the weekends if you do. The M30 inline six is stout, and capable of racking up some serious miles, but the rest of the car has its issues. Electrical gremlins are common, as are bad suspension bushings. This being a California car, you don’t have to worry about rust, at least.

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This E28 is in good mechanical shape, with some suspension and brake upgrades. It runs and drives great, but it does still need a few things: the air conditioning is out, it needs a battery installed in the dash (?), and the paint isn’t the greatest.

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But still, it’s a bona-fide classic BMW from arguably the marque’s golden era. We may be too late to enjoy it on the cheap, but it’s still a relative bargain for the fun it can provide.

1985 Toyota MR2 – $9,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.6 liter dual overhead cam inline 4, five-speed manual, RWD

Location: Alhambra, CA

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Odometer reading: 300,000 miles

Runs/drives? Sure does

Speaking of fun, how about a mid-engine sports car that’s actually reliable? Like Pontiac with its Fiero, Toyota claimed that the MR2 was meant to be an economy car, not a sports car. Right, because you hire a former Lotus engineer to design your suspension when you aren’t designing a sports car. And every economy car is advertised as being as much fun as a pinball machine. At least Toyota’s effort was a bona-fide sports car from day one; the Fiero took several years for its performance to catch up to its looks.

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Nestled behind the MR2’s seats is Toyota’s 4A-GE four-cylinder engine, a revvy little 1.6 liter twin cam delight that also found a home in various Corollas. It is, of course, mated to a five-speed manual; an automatic was optional in the MR2, but anyone who bought one so equipped should be ashamed of themselves. Like the Fiero and the Fiat X1/9, as well as Ferraris of the era, the MR2’s rear window is nearly vertical, and engine access is via a cover wedged between two buttresses.

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Toyota reliability and durability is legendary, of course, and this extends to sports cars as well as Camrys. This MR2 has racked up 300,000 miles, albeit with an engine overhaul, and still looks presentable. Better than presentable, actually; compared to the beat-up rusty one I almost bought instead of a Chrysler Laser for $1000 back in the mid-1990s, it looks damn good. (I chose wrong on that occasion; the Laser was… not a good car.)

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I’m almost certain this car has been repainted, and it looks like they forgot or lost a piece of trim above the rear window. But otherwise, it looks really sharp, refreshingly stock, and I prefer these in this basic trim without the rear spoiler.

Yes, I know they’re expensive. I didn’t set the prices, and I’m not suggesting that you pay them. But if this is the future of classic cars – high-mileage well-kept examples of truly fun-to-drive cars as opposed to the fast-but-mushy muscle cars or fast-but-janky hot rods of earlier eras – I see good things ahead. I do lament not picking up an E28 or an MR2 back when they were just dirt-cheap used cars, but I imagine we all feel that way about something or other. If you were shopping for a fun-to-drive classic from nearly forty years ago, and your budget was $10,000, how would you spend it?

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(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
10 months ago

BMW 535i for me, please.

The battery in the dash is (relatively) easy (it’s a coin cell soldered to the circuit board for the check control). The AC issue is probably due to needing a refill of r134 (or whatever is legal to use now), and paint can either be addressed or can be thought of as ‘patina’.

The Toyota Mister 2 is a very nice car, and if I had my druthers, I’d choose both, but there’s just a certain je ne sais quoi about the BMW E28 that can’t be denied or resisted.

I see from the ad that the Bimmer has an LSD, Ireland Engineering springs, Michelin Pilot Sports on 17″ wheels, and Bilstein Sports shocks, so handling should be fantastic.

Oh, and blue license plate – that means it has been a California car for its entire existence.

Last edited 10 months ago by Derek van Veen
Tommy Helios
Tommy Helios
10 months ago

Late to the party but it has to be the bmw for me as I can’t fit in the mr2.

Also, props mark for referencing some TMBG, I did the same quote on a comment a few weeks ago.

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
10 months ago

This is the toughest decision in quite a while.

I’ve already owned an early 80s manual 535i.

The E28 (and E12) BMWs will etch your soul. They’re that good.

Everything I know about the MR2 says it will, too.

I chose the Toyota because I’ve driven an MR2 but I’ve never owned one.

Mike F.
Mike F.
10 months ago

That particular Bimmer is a very good one, but there’s no question that I’d take the MR2. A friend had one of those back in the day and all he did was replace the wheels and tires with slightly wider ones and that thing was amazing. I would love one of those. If the BMW were $3000 cheaper or something like that, then it might be a contest but given that they’re both pricey for what they are, I’m taking the fun one.

Ricki
Ricki
10 months ago

Midengine all day erry day.

LikesCars
LikesCars
10 months ago

My vote, I’ve got 5 on it! That BMW is nice enough shape AND it still has the original blue plate!!! The MR2 is tempting but it has a relatively new plate, maybe a project car someone is trying to unload for “reasons”??? Who knows, I’d rather carve some canyons in something with a back seat.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
10 months ago
Reply to  LikesCars

The plate was what it came down to for me, as well as the possibility of the MR2’s newer paint hiding past bodywork, especially if it came from the Midwest or Northeast originally. (The all-caps light-on-detail ad doesn’t exactly not say ‘sketchy seller’ either.)

The BMW’s not as cheap as Mark and I remember ’em being, but it seems honest. I might even be able to find a set of Style 5s from an E34 and at least break even after selling the wheels on it now to a buddy with a few turn-of-the-century BMWs.

Last edited 10 months ago by FuzzyPlushroom
Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
10 months ago

MR2 for me. I like things that are reliable and well designed.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 months ago

Man is anyone else needing to request a sign in link everyday?
Anyhoo if the BEEMER needs a battery how is it running and driving? Doesnt really matter the Toyota is the better deal.

Dumb Shadetree
Dumb Shadetree
10 months ago

I want to vote for the MR2, but it’s seen some shit. Yes, it is a durable little machine, but at 300,000 it is going to haven problems. It’s still tempting to pick it up and engine swap it for a 2ZZ or even a 2ZR, but I can’t justify that price.

Reluctant vote for the BMW, because old BMW’s always have problems but this one looks like an awesome cruiser.

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
10 months ago
Reply to  Dumb Shadetree

For BMWs, if you go old enough the problems start going away again. The M30 in this one is rock-solid and simple. Given the difference in miles, I’d actually bet on it giving less trouble than the 4AGE in the MR2. Replacement parts are still BMW-priced if you have to go OEM, though.

Andrew Gessel
Andrew Gessel
10 months ago

That C-pillar trim is easily replaceable on the MR2. Twosrus (easily the biggest and best supplier of the MR2 community) started making reproductions of them a few months ago.

Holly Birge
Holly Birge
10 months ago

This was a no-brainer for me. If I had more parking, I’d be looking for an 84 or 85 MR2 — I like them when they still had the black molding on the bumpers.

Black Peter
Black Peter
10 months ago

I had an ’86 MR2, probably paid less than this in ’89, it had just over 30k, I put about 100k on it with no troubles, loved it, and would love another one, but I voted for the BMW. I think with a BMW of this era you know it could be a mess, or you’ll spend what you paid sorting it out over the next 3 years. However the exact same thing can happen with Mister Two, you’re just not expecting it. The missing trim, indicates something, IDK what, but something. I suspect there might me more “things” missing, or overlooked, or bailing wired.

Myk El
Myk El
10 months ago

I know MR2s have some collector value, but this one seems overpriced for what it is. BMW probably is as well, but I’m taking the Bimmer reluctantly.

Black Peter
Black Peter
10 months ago
Reply to  Myk El

I think you nailed my thoughts exactly.

Tacofan
Tacofan
10 months ago

The MR2 is missing some key and cool parts that forces me to go with the BMW over it. The MR2 rear spoiler makes the car look way better than without it. The rear clear visor over the back windows is also one of those cool part that isn’t there. The entire rear trim is also missing along with the rubber in front of the headlight. With all that missing, I don’t see that it’s worth the 9,500 they are asking. BMW for me.

SolamenteDave
SolamenteDave
10 months ago
Reply to  Tacofan

My reasoning, exactly.

Andrew Gessel
Andrew Gessel
10 months ago
Reply to  Tacofan

The 1985 didn’t have the clear visor and the spoiler was optional. The rear trim can be bought new (a company does reproductions). Regardless, 9500 is still steep for 300k but I’d still take my chances with it over the BMW.

JDE
JDE
10 months ago

I would take the MR2 if they had receipts from the engine and trans rebuilder.

JTilla
JTilla
10 months ago

Neither. Too expensive.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
10 months ago

Excellent challenge for today. I would take either for $5K.

05LGT
05LGT
10 months ago

Really simple decision. The 535 is a bucket list car, but the MR2 is one of my bucket list cars.

It's Pronounced Porch-ah
It's Pronounced Porch-ah
10 months ago

Not sure how the MR2 is beating the BMW, the e28 chassis is truly fantastic. While not maintenance free, it could be a viable daily, the MR2 not so much (too small). I don’t love the wheel choice but, find a used set on CL or FB, show the paint some love and then drive the car!

Last edited 10 months ago by It's Pronounced Porch-ah
R Rr
R Rr
10 months ago

Cause most people here think 1. “german cars are complicated & unreliable because they don’t have pushrod engines designed in the 50’s” and 2. “any Toyota at any mileage will never break down”.

These opinions are usually based on never having owned any german car (or having bought a clapped out Mk5 Golf as its 12th owner) and their mom owning a Camry she drives to church in.

Last edited 10 months ago by R Rr
JerryLH3
JerryLH3
10 months ago
Reply to  R Rr

I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I can only speak for myself, but in this instance, mid-engine, two door, two seater will likely win any time against four door, four seater.

JDE
JDE
10 months ago
Reply to  JerryLH3

That and although both are relatively clean, the already arguably more reliable Toyota claims a rebuilt motor and trans. Ad in a fresh paint job(which would set you back 10K alone these days) and the MR2 seems like a pretty solid weekender. it would be fine for daily driving too, I am usually alone in the car or taking my 1 daughter somewhere, so it’s all good.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 months ago
Reply to  R Rr

Well my Japanese car i bought used and continued to run even after I rolled it over several times. Same accident as opposed to my weekend ownership of a german turd.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
10 months ago

I picked the Mr2 because Toyota makes the best cars. Too bad this one isn’t targa tho 🙁

Black Peter
Black Peter
10 months ago
Reply to  Dogisbadob

T-tops you mean?

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
10 months ago
Reply to  Black Peter

yeah

MEK
MEK
10 months ago

The missing trim on the MR2 is likely the tinted sun visor that most (all?) of these cars had. It’s prone to UV degradation and cracking.

I’m really drawn to the MR2 but 300k for 9k is pretty steep. It would probably depend on how thorough the ‘rebuild’ of the engine was. Just a valve tuning and some seals or a full teardown and rebuild. These have gone up in value alot recently and finding one in the northeast is pretty difficult as most dissolved over a decade ago. Most of the survivors are either priced like this or, if cheaper, are just dissolving a little slower but well on the way.

Andrew Gessel
Andrew Gessel
10 months ago
Reply to  MEK

The clear visor was added in 1986. It is missing the black c pillar trim.

OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
10 months ago

I like them both, but 9 large for a 300,000 mile MR2? They’re really worth that much?

Meanwhile I have a strange pull towards the BMW. There’s something about it I just like. $8,500 is still too much for that as well, but car prices are ridiculous these days.

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