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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DadBod
DadBod
11 months ago

I am floored that an ancient MR2 with 300,000 miles costs that much.

R Rr
R Rr
11 months ago
Reply to  DadBod

it’s called “Toyota tax”

Rollin Hand
Rollin Hand
11 months ago

$9k for a car with 300k miles is too much, but that Bimmer looks great. I wonder if the paint is single stage, which would make refreshing it easier….

Either way, that Bimmer looks like a fine project. Sort out the interior, M5 as much of it as possible (does the E34 M5 engine fit?) and enjoy the delightfully mechanical drive.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
11 months ago

Both is the correct answer today, but since we have to choose, I went BMW. 5 series of this vintage really strike a chord for me.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
11 months ago

I’m less concerned about the mileage difference between two cars that have been kicking for nearly 40 years. Both have clearly been handled with care, and both are going to have their fair share of problems.

Going to go with the MR2 here, even though I think it’s a fair battle. They’re both worthy examples, if a little pricey for my liking.

Data
Data
11 months ago

My mom had an 85 MR2 back in the 80’s, but with the rear spoiler. I loved that car and have occasionally looked into buying one. They are usually modded to within an inch of their life and look rough. The price is probably correct for the Radwood tax.

On the other hand, the BMW is from the era when I fell in love with BMW’s. I still chose the MR2. It felt like the poor man’s Ferrari with the mid-engine, rear wheel drive, pop-up headlights, and side air intake.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
11 months ago

I’ve never tried, but I doubt I’d fit in a MR2, especially the first gen. Far more Germans my size, so the BMW is an easy fit. Throw in those delectable saddle brown seats and its an easy Teutonic decision for me.

IanGTCS
IanGTCS
11 months ago

I feel the same way. I think I’d prefer the MR2 but it is a very small car and I’m not so BMW got my reluctant vote.

Steve Pugh
Steve Pugh
11 months ago

As much as i would love to have an MR2, I voted BMW this time around. It’s a great spec of a good model from the era when BMW’s were actually ok to work on. As a bonus, i could fit my family of 4 in it!
Now, if i just had a plane ticket and $10k in cash to go get it and afford some inevitable parts for the drive back east…

EmotionalSupportBMW
EmotionalSupportBMW
11 months ago

The MR2 is a good car and a respectable choice. But we all need our Emotional Support BMW. To hear that M30 bumping limiter as it gracefully slides though an empty parking lot would bring me to tears. It’s not the safe choice, and likely will cost more in the long run. But unless the Egyptians were right, you can’t take it with you. So, bury me in the E28 just in case.

Man With A Reliable Jeep
Man With A Reliable Jeep
11 months ago

This is tougher than you’d think.

On one hand, there’s a lot to like about that BMW…except those wheels. I loathe those wheels. If it had the correct stock wheels, I’d be clicking that vote button so fast it’d sound like Morse Code.

The Toyota, on the other hand, is nice and stock as God intended. But holy moon miles, Batman. I like the fact that at least the engine was refreshed, but I’d need some assurance it was done by a reputable shop and not a garage jobbie with O’Reilly Auto parts.

Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
11 months ago

Sell the Style 65 wheels + tires (Pilot Sports!) for some period-correct BBS cross-spokes and new Pilot Sports. I’ll bet you come close to breaking even.

Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
11 months ago

This is the only occasion whereby I would choose the BMW (because it’s older and not the complexicon a more modern one is) over the Toyota (which would normally win based on Toyota reliability, but the high miles and repair access difficulty cancel that out).

Matthew Binns
Matthew Binns
11 months ago

MR2, though the miles foreshadow the end-of-its-times. Side note: my girlfriend (now wife) had one of these when I met her (a bait-and-switch as she cares naught for cars) as well as a young 70 lb shepherd mix. This combo gave rise to the still-used phrase ‘Dog or drive?’.
She drove it gently in the city, so when emissions time came around I would head for an early morning stretch of expressway and give it an Italian tuneup to make it pass. Good times, but I could never get the AC fixed and working in that confined space was a nightmare for the simplest of jobs.

Richard O
Richard O
11 months ago

I’m well acquainted with the BMW e28 chassis, albeit in 528e form. I’ve got one outside with 290k miles on it. The cluster’s SI battery issue is a fairly easy DIY. Other than the taste in wheels, the mods are all good choices. Paint issues are probably peeling clearcoat. With the 3.5L motor, manual trans, and LSD, the $8k price is fair and the car gets my vote.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
11 months ago

Two more bangers! That BMW is a thing of beauty, but we’ll play the odds and go with the Toyota.

Outofstep
Outofstep
11 months ago

I fully expected to vote MR2 based off the images but I think the BMW is a better deal… If you can call 8k for a 38 year old car a deal. Sell the wheels and get a more period correct set and you’ll be good to go.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
11 months ago

Tough call but the MR2 wins for me

YikesamightyWow
YikesamightyWow
11 months ago

I’ve had both and I’d go for the BMW. It delivers a much better driving experience – the motor is so smooth, the steering is well weighted and communicative and it has a balanced ride/handling trade off. The MR2 was cool, but the ride was choppy due to the short wheelbase and it had a lot of understeer dialed in.

Also – for working on, the MR2 engine bay is super tight and a lot of work is accomplished from underneath. Without a lift it’s pretty difficult for middle age and older hobby mechanics.

Icouldntfindaclevername
Icouldntfindaclevername
11 months ago

I’ll take the MR2 with the rebuilt engine and trans

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
11 months ago

Clearly you needed laser eye surgery if you chose a Chrysler Laser over an MR2. Also, I might refer to the valve configuration in a radial engine as outboard valves in reference to their position vis-a-vis the engine hub.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
11 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

What would you call the valves in an inverted V12 (ie DB601/DB605)?

Acrimonious Mofo
Acrimonious Mofo
11 months ago

I was really torn here, mostly because of the high miles on the Mr. 2, but the inset circle for the window crank tipped the balance for me. Not sarcasm–like, it’s a really cool little detail.

Chronometric
Chronometric
11 months ago

Scary, I was going to make the exact same comment.

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
11 months ago

Mister Two for Master XLE.

We’re both high mileage.

Matt Woods
Matt Woods
11 months ago

I owned a gen1 MR2, and loved it. There is no way I would pay $9k for one with 300k with questionable engine and trans work, not to mention incomplete body work. This was certainly painted, and the lost parts make that questionable as well. This person is way too proud of this one, and likely has spent too much time on BAT looking at clean ones. BMW today.

Redfoxiii
Redfoxiii
11 months ago

it needs a battery installed in the dash (?)

Part of the service timer in the instrument cluster, that row of green-yellow-red boxes between the temp and gas gauges. It must be soldered in. You have to remove the cluster and disassemble it to get access to the relevant board. (I would replace the odometer gears while in there too)

The BMW is lowered, chipped/tuned, on sport shocks, and those wheels are aftermarket knockoffs of 2000s M5 wheels without the stagger that are 20 years of style too new for the car. I also would doubt the mileage is accurate as clusters from that time used a plastic that easily degrades, so there’s probably a fair amount more than 169k on the car.

It’s the obvious choice, though. The mods are tasteful (other than the wheels) and it comes with real nice new rubber. I think it would make a wonderful canyon carver, but the ride is likely going to be a bit rough for a daily.

Last edited 11 months ago by Redfoxiii
Timothy Arnold
Timothy Arnold
11 months ago

A genuinely difficult choice but the bimmer is one of my all-time favorite designs, so that’s the one.

Erik McCullough
Erik McCullough
11 months ago

Same miles, Toyota wins. For that mileage difference, it’s BMW.

TurboCruiser
TurboCruiser
11 months ago

Agreed. Went in with the intent to vote MR2, but 300k and not an AW11? Beam me up.

Brandon Forbes
Brandon Forbes
11 months ago

Love me an MR2, but not at 300k. The car does look amazing for the mileage though. I still went BMW because I need a backseat, and I am a masochist who eschews reliability.

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
11 months ago
Reply to  Brandon Forbes

Well, good and bad news on the reliability. Some of the interior electronics might be a bit of a gamble at that age, but the actual drivetrain is from the “luxury means overbuilt” era rather than the “luxury means overcomplicated” era that came afterwards. The M30 in there is simple and solid.

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