Home » There Was A Time When You Could Buy A Twin-Turbo BMW 5-Series Wagon With A Manual: Holy Grails

There Was A Time When You Could Buy A Twin-Turbo BMW 5-Series Wagon With A Manual: Holy Grails

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My recent obsession with BMWs has taken me down a rabbit hole and it seems that there is no bottom to it. Bayerische Motoren Werke AG has produced a number of rare oddballs throughout its history and if you don’t know where to look, you might miss them. Thanks to the Bishop I’ve found another. For three model years in America, you could buy a BMW 535xiT, a wagon with all-wheel-drive, a twin-turbo straight six making 300 HP, and paired with a manual transmission.

Last time on Holy Grails, reader MEK reminded us that Mazda had more fun cars in the 1990s than just the RX-7 and the Miata. In 1991, Mazda released the MX-3. The higher trim level of the MX-3 came with an odd configuration. Under the hood sat a tiny 1.8-liter V6 driving the front wheels. Backing up the engine was a form of passive rear-steer. Mazda’s baby V6–touted as the smallest mass-produced V6 of its day–wasn’t all that fast. It had fewer ponies than its four-cylinder competitors, after all. Instead, Mazda touted the engine’s smoothness and the fact that you could buy a compact economy car with a V6 in the first place.

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Today’s grail will take us in a slightly different direction. This car was normally common, but when enthusiasts optioned it in a certain way, it became something rare and desirable.

Down The Rabbit Hole

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A couple of weekends ago, I adopted another car into my fleet of misfits. Our very own Daydreaming Designer, the Bishop, sold me his 2007 BMW 530xiT wagon. Maybe I’m so used to driving featureless cars with questionable quality, but this wagon is easily the best cheap car purchase that I’ve ever made. Heck, in terms of how nice it is to drive and just sit in, it might be the best vehicle in my current fleet. Sure, I have cars and motorcycles that are far more fun, but I feel like I could drive this BMW across the country and not feel a bit fatigued.

Now that my wife and I both own BMWs that were formerly under the care of the Bishop, we’ve been looking for little quality-of-life improvements. Sheryl fixed her E39 wagon’s abysmal factory cupholders and I’m thinking about swapping out the gauges in my E61. Along the way, Bishop is telling us some history about the cars, offering advice, and even revealing his own holy grails. He’s actually given me two grails, both of them rare BMWs.

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The Bangle Era Of BMW

Mercedes Streeter

As I’ve written before, the 2003 release of the BMW E60 5-Series (that’s the fifth generation 5-Series) caused a bit of an upset. BMW, a brand then known for conservative and stately designs, started a revolution. Cars like the E39 5-Series (this car’s predecessor) featured bodies that some might describe as timeless today. But the E60? It practically burst through a wall like the Kool-Aid man with its bold curves and a rear end so big it would make Sir Mix-a-Lot break into a sweat. Oh yeah!

Of course, the E60 hails from BMW’s Chris Bangle era. In October 1992, Chris Bangle became BMW’s head of design. At the time, he was notable for being the first American to take on the position. Over time, he ushered in a new era where BMW’s cars became increasingly striking. Whether it’s praise or disdain, the vehicles designed under his leadership certainly seem to invoke some kind of response from enthusiasts and the public at large.

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BMW

The E60 was another vehicle designed under the direction of Chris Bangle. Its design was initially penned by Boyke Boyer and finished by Davide Arcangeli. At the time, Arcangeli was known for his work at Pininfarina, where he worked on the Peugeot 406’s design. Arcangeli reportedly struggled to get the E60’s design into the clay. Apparently, he spent weeks trying to get all of the curves into a clay model. But he succeeded and finished the E60’s design in 2000. BMW brass loved what they saw and gave it the green light.

Sadly, Arcangeli passed away later in 2000 and would never get to see his baby turned into a production car. Fueled with grievous determination, Bangle and the rest of the car’s design team decided to honor their comrade by pushing the E60’s design into production just as Arcangeli left it. Every E60 5-Series on the road is basically a celebration of Arcangeli’s work.

A Buffet Of Power

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BMW

When the BMW E60 5-Series launched in 2003, it was available with a variety of engines. Here in America, the base 525i sported a 2.5-liter M54 six making 184 HP and 175 lb-ft torque while the top of the line was the 545i with its 4.4-liter N62 V8, which made 325 HP and 330 lb-ft torque. In the middle sat the 530i with its 3.0-liter M54 six making 225 HP and 214 lb-ft torque.

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Over time, BMW would expand the line and the engines. The E60 is notable for having the first and only M5 to come with a V10. That beastly 5.0-liter S85 V10 makes 507 HP and 520 lb-ft torque. Even the 530i got a power bump over time. My 2007 530xiT has the aforementioned 3.0-liter straight six, but it’s making 255 HP and 220 lb-ft torque.

Now, the V10 lovers in our midst might feel that the M5 wagon would be the holy grail. I love a good V10 so I would be right there with them.

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However, the M5 that Americans got was the sedan, making the wagon M5 more of a forbidden fruit. Making things a bit weirder is the fact that Europeans got the M5 wagon, but their wagons came with BMW’s controversial SMG automatic.

Fear not, because there’s another way to get a quick manual 5-Series wagon.

The Grail

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BMW

On Saturday, the Bishop told me that there is a grail hiding in BMW’s ranks and you may not even know about it. In September 2007, BMW announced a facelift of the E60/E61 generation. The 2008 5-Series would get updated styling, improved interior materials, and some interesting powertrain updates.

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On the lower end of the 5-Series’ line was the 528i, which offered a 3.0-liter N52 six making 230 HP and 200 lb-ft torque. Meanwhile, on the high end sat the 550i with its 4.8-liter N62 V8 making 360 HP and 360 lb-ft torque. What we’re looking for here is the middle of the line. Why? I’ll let BMW explain:

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The 535i models are powered by the world’s first inline six-cylinder with Twin-Turbo and High Precision Direct Injection technology and an all-aluminum crankcase. Rated at 300 hp at 5,800 rpm and 300 lb-ft of torque at 1,400 -5,000 rpm, this 3.0-liter engine offers cutting-edge performance thanks to the theories behind BMW’s Efficient Dynamics.

That’s right, BMW added a straight-six twin-turbo engine to the lineup and it’s reportedly an engine exclusive to the North American market. Indeed, that means that we got the M5 with a manual that the Europeans couldn’t get and we also got our own engine. That’s only part of the holy grail formula. If you so desired, you could have that engine in an all-wheel-drive wagon body and shifted with a manual transmission. A twin-turbo straight-six manual AWD wagon! I feel like this car could only get more Autopian if it were brown.

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The 535xiT was sold with a manual transmission from 2008 to 2010 and nobody seems to know just how many of them are out there, but one person claims to have asked a dealership and claims that the total number sold is “less than 40.” In my research, I’ve seen estimates as high as “under 300.” I reached out to BMW to see if it knows and as of publishing, I have not heard back. I will update should I get more concrete information.

What I can tell you is that these are so rare that the Bishop has seen only two of them. I’ve also not found a single review of the 535xiT configuration out there. The closest I’ve been able to find are reviews for the 535i sedan with this engine and transmission. Here’s what Car and Driver had to say:

Shouldered with a couple hundred extra pounds in the 5-series, the twin-turbo 3.0-liter’s delights are only slightly diminished. After driving all varieties of the 5-series, this is the car that was unanimously voted the best buy. The 200-pound weight saving over the more powerful 550i results in a car that feels more balanced, with a sportier feel and greater willingness to engage and conquer corners on the roads snaking down toward Death Valley’s floor, 282 feet below sea level. Even better, the 535i should be good for scampering to 60 mph in the mid-to-high-five-second range, nearly running with the far more expensive 550i.

As delightful as the engine and ride are, the car is not perfect. Although nicely weighted, the schizophrenic steering is curiously twitchy and numb just off-center. Once the car is bent into a turn, confidence builds, but when traveling in a straight line, the 535i nervously feints after every irregularity in the road. Placing the car near the outside stripe on the pavement takes more faith than it should. This, of course, is a problem present in all 5-series models, regardless of engine choice.

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The publication even goes as far as to say that the turbo six is better than the V8:

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The twin-turbo inline-six, quite frankly, renders the 550i obsolete, a tool for ignorant status seekers and those with a vendetta against Mother Earth. If that’s the way you feel, though, save yourself $10,000 and just turn on the pump at a gas station and lay the nozzle on the ground. In addition to the inline-six’s better feel and responses at the limit and better fuel economy, the 535i barely trails the 550i in performance categories that matter on U.S. shores. Maybe on a German autobahn the additional power would come in handy at high speeds, but here, that 10 grand would be better funneled into heated seats and the Sport package.

What it sounds like here is that the 535i and 535xiT aren’t on the level of the M5, but perhaps you’ll enjoy them more than a 550i. Besides, you cannot even get the M5 as a manual wagon in the United States.

A Rare Luxury Liner

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Inside these cars, you’ll find even more technology than you’ll find in my 530xiT. You’ll get the same head-up display, parking sensors, motorized tailgate, night vision, and iDrive system that I have plus more. These can get equipped with an active cruise control system that has the ability to stop and go, a lane departure warning system, an updated iDrive interface, and even an electronic gear selector. Of course, like the pre-facelift models, you could get the car with an active roll stabilization system, variable-ratio planetary gearbox steering, and more.

My piece on my E60 explains even further, but to keep it simple: These cars are like rolling, exciting laptops. I still haven’t even discovered all of the features that my car has. Let’s go back to the rarity for a moment. Usually, when I’ve reached the end of a Holy Grails I will try to find some for sale to get a gauge on what they’re worth. In this case, I have no idea. I couldn’t even find press images of an E61 in this exact configuration. None of these have sold on Cars & Bids or on Bring a Trailer with a manual transmission.

As I said before, estimates place production numbers at under 300 units, so finding one might be a bit difficult. I did find one for sale on Facebook (featured above) with 190,000 miles. That seller claims it’s one of 328 and the asking price is a steep $18,000. If you find one, it sounds like you’ve found yourself a unicorn.

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Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
1 year ago

Unfortunately, the N54 motor is…problematic.

Collegiate Autodidact
Collegiate Autodidact
1 year ago

“A twin-turbo straight-six manual AWD wagon! I feel like this car could only get more Autopian if it were brown.”
And diesel?

Scott Swartzbaugh
Scott Swartzbaugh
1 year ago

Very cool find, and worth owning for a bit on its uniqueness alone.

But as a previous owner of a 2008 535xi, I would just buy an M5 from that generation. Does it have known issues? Yes. Is it expensive to fix and maintain? Yes. Will it cost more than any N54 engine and it’s problems? Probably not. Is owning a 500hp+ V10 cooler than a wagon? Almost always.

Frederick Tanujaya
Frederick Tanujaya
1 year ago

Both the N62 and the N54 are just hot garbage, id rather get myself a N52, less power is no problem, just get me off the oberheating issues

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
1 year ago

Most of the Bangle-era cars have aged pretty gracefully. This one in particular is pretty nice, inside and out. Love a big wagon.

(I probably won’t say that about the buckteeth cars of today.)

Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
Bongo Friendee Harvey Park
1 year ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

They’ve aged gracefully in that they retain their full youthful ugliness.

Ben Chia
Ben Chia
9 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

I disagree. I feel like they look incredibly dated now.

rctothefuture
rctothefuture
1 year ago

Tough choice. A piece of crap N54 that will blow up or nickel and dime you to death, or the N62 that will eat it’s bearings or need valve stem seals, while nickel and diming you to death.

DPeezy
DPeezy
1 year ago

As per this thread, which seems to be the most authoritative on the subject, the total number of manual E61s to come over is 663, with 328 of those LCI models (2008-2010).

I managed to acquire one with a Dinan tune, about four years ago, now going on 160k miles. Added an m-tech body kit and a full respray of black sapphire over the past year, and some black 19″ BBS CH-Rs to go along with that. Overall, it’s on its second set of turbos, third HPFP, second alternator, second set of trunk electronics (thanks sunroof drain!), manyeth rubber hoses. Love this thing.

Last edited 1 year ago by DPeezy
BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 year ago
Reply to  DPeezy

That looks sweet.

bmw325_num99
bmw325_num99
1 year ago
Reply to  DPeezy

Do mean manual e61 WAGONS or all sedans too?

E I
E I
1 year ago

The N54 was a complete piece of shit that got that quick update to the N55 because even BMW knew it was obviously not good.

It felt like it was half-baked, except when it was overheating. My mom had a 2006 535ix, and for like 8,000 miles it was great. After that, it decided it was done with the world, and started blowing turbo seals and wastegates, had battery drain issues, fueling issues, and generally stopped being reliable or even useable. BMW skipped out on some of liabilities, and left her hanging. I still wish she had Lemon law’d that thing, and seeing all of that turned me off of BMWs.

Adam Tensen
Adam Tensen
1 year ago

N54 is easy to tune to 450whp with a few bolt-ons, mild tune, and E50 availability.
Downside, as aforementioned, is the reliability of the turbos & fuel pumps.
Budget another 10k for repairs/upgrades for 5 years of ownership.
Source: 2008 E61 owner.

Is Travis
Is Travis
1 year ago

N54 reliability issues are why I upped my budget to N55, once I knew what I was getting into with the oil filter housing gasket I was confident to wrench my way out of whatever it would throw at me. Apparently they drive almost exactly the same, it is a fun powerplant.
I will add that these are grail status for the fact that you can get what is essentially previous generation M power without the insurance hit. You won’t have any issues getting to the speed limit or passing on the highway, and you aren’t getting people trying to race you every stop light like you’re in an M car. A modest tune and you are sub 5 second 0-60, in comfort.

Last edited 1 year ago by Is Travis
Michael Beranek
Michael Beranek
1 year ago

What’s in this car’s comparative wheelhouse? I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen an E-Class with a manual in a very long time. Same for the Audi 6.
The Lexus IS wagon is far smaller. Saabs don’t make this kind of power, and are badge-engineered GM junk. The Jaguar X maybe, but it’s also smaller and badge-engineered.
A Mazda 6 wagon doesn’t offer AWD, and Subarus are far too underpowered and common to play in this car’s sandbox.
Buick TourX? Sorry, no manual. Plus good luck finding one.
Nothing else offers this combination of size, wagon, AWD, manual, and horsepower. Except the W8 Passat, which is just silly.
A true holy grail.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael Beranek
Studdley
Studdley
1 year ago

You could argue the Audi allroad would comparable to this. Twin turbo 6, AWD, manual, and I sure hope you like silver.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

Saabs don’t make that kind of power from the factory, but since they’re GM junk, a suitable alternative should be easy enough to swap in 😉

The Forester XT used to offer a manual up until 2008, and more power is possible from them. In fact, some people have even swapped in an LS and kept the AWD 😀

Older Foresters are more of a wagon than a crossover.

Ecsta C3PO
Ecsta C3PO
1 year ago

CTS Wagon 2008-2012 would be close, but would need a manual swap from the sedan.
300HP from 3.6L V6, AWD or RWD.

There is the V of course, but that’s a whole ‘nother ballpark

Thomas Hundal
Thomas Hundal
1 year ago

What about the Volvo V70R? Sure, it’s down a cylinder, but there’s something alluring about that Swedish quirkiness.

Berle
Berle
1 year ago
Reply to  Thomas Hundal

As the owner of a 2004 V70R automatic, I say hard NO. I enjoy driving my 2003 Saab 9-5 Aero automatic much more, even though the Saab is “down” 50hp. The auto V70Rs are artificially limited in power and/or torque through the first few gears of the transmission, and it is a HUGE difference.
And honestly, the Saab’s handling and steering feel are better as well. I almost prefer my ’03 XC70 compared to my V70R due to the better turning circle and softer suspension. It sounds really weird, I know. Maybe I’m getting old?

FWIW, I also own a 2009 w204 MB C63 AMG, and after driving a Alfa Romeo Giulia Ti Sport, I’m thinking of getting rid of the MB. Perhaps I’m weird AND old now?

Berle
Berle
1 year ago
Reply to  Berle

I forgot to say I owned a basket-case 2003 Audi Allroad with the manual transmission (probably another holy grail topic for the future, if you are a frickin masochist). I still prefer my ’03 Saab 9-5 Aero with the automatic.

Arch Duke Maxyenko
Arch Duke Maxyenko
1 year ago

That’s just the tip of the BMW unicorn horn of options that would make boomers cream their Marti Reports.

Parsko
Parsko
1 year ago

Perhaps the perfect car?? Maybe. The perfect car for me is naturally aspirated, but this is VERY VERY VERY close, and would be an acceptable alternate. But, I wouldn’t buy one considering I currently own a 2006, and I can only imagine that adding 2 turbo’s under the hood would make this miserable to work on. Not that a V10 would make it better, at least a V10 is a V10.

Gareth Wood
Gareth Wood
1 year ago

And here I thought I had bought the highest mileage N54 E61 6MT at 172k miles, but got it for less than the 190k one is asking, but that was just before the pandemic. Just after the start of the pandemic was the low point, with much nicer examples going for just a little over mine, and then prices shot up like everything else.

I’m paying for it on the back end with maintenance though. Got a coolant leak in one of the turbo cooling lines that I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

There’s definitely more than 40, as I have over 60 VINs recorded since I started keeping track of sales 8 years ago (which isn’t an exhaustive list, since I hadn’t seen this FB one yet!).

Last edited 1 year ago by Gareth Wood
DDayJ
DDayJ
1 year ago

I remember when the E60 debuted and being one of that haters of the styling. It was hard not to be after the E34 and E39. Yet as BMW’s styling has progressed since then I’ve come around to like them, though I still hate all of the steering wheel options. My coworker had a new 535xi automatic, and I remember it was wonderful to drive. The N54 engine is a great mismash of older BMW (forged internals, no Valvetronic) and terrifying parts costs (HP Fuel Pump, fuel injectors, turbos). What a car!

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
1 year ago

I need this.

Dogisbadob
Dogisbadob
1 year ago

This is cool! I never knew about this one.

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