There’s a common belief among BMW enthusiasts that Bimmers just aren’t made like they used to be. This belief is largely rooted in truth, as modern BMWs are so filled electronic gizmos and doodads that they’ve become less robust, therefor less reliable and/or enjoyable. While we cannot actually put forth any real evidence to prove such claims, we can take a look at some of the claims made by others who’ve driven, compared and reviewed both old and new Bavarian steeds.
Take this account from the Telegraph, which talks about this journalists ownership of an E39 BMW 528i. His 528i already had 120,000 miles on it at the time of purchase and it he put 30,000 more on it by the time he sold it. His E39 was driven across Europe, through -20c temperatures and on his daily commute, all while remaining perfectly solid, comfortable and fun. Hell, he even received better fuel economy than a friend’s Golf 1.6 diesel. So the E39 BMW sold him on old BMWs.
In the Telegraph arcticle, the author points to a Top Gear episode of a couple years back, where the three hosts took three £1,500 wagons across Africa, with Clarkson’s being an E39 BMW 528i Touring. If you watched the episode (and if you haven’t, you should), you’d know that said Bimmer goes through hell and back and was the only car to make it to the end in one piece, despite the other two cars being a Volvo and a Subaru, both brands known for their sturdiness. Clarkson even wrote a review on his E39 for Driving and it’s necessary reading material for anyone that thinks old, used BMWs are scary, unreliable propositions. In fact, even though Clarkson’s 528i wasn’t cared for properly before him buying it, it handled Africa superbly. “But even though that car had been owned by a penniless enthusiast with a trailer, nothing broke. Nothing.” said Clarkson. Will some electronics go wrong? Of course, electronics always go wrong. But the engine, gearbox and suspension will always work.
So we’ve learned that the E39 BMW is a tough SOB, being able to tackle nearly anything without suffering any serious issues. But just being reliable won’t make it the best car in the world, because then the Toyota Camry would be the best car in the world. The E39 BMW 5 Series is actually great to drive, also. Its steering is still wonderfully mechanical and hydraulic, meaning that it drips with feedback and information. It’s also beautifully weighted and, compared to modern BMWs, feels unbelievable heavy. In a good way. The suspension has a remarkable ability to be both supple and dynamic, soaking up bumps but always feeling buttoned down and connected to the road. It’s comfortable and engaging in a way that not many cars, BMW or otherwise, have been able to say since.
Another feather in the E39’s cap is its price. Being that E39’s are over a decade old now, they can be had second (or third or fourth) hand for remarkably cheap. Look through classifieds online and you’ll find dozens in your area for less than $3,000. Not all of them will be in the condition for you to buy, but you’ll find one or two that still have a ton of life left in them.
The E39 BMW 5 Series is largely considered the best 5 Series ever made, a claim that we make ourselves. It is the last mechanical-feeling 5 Series and, in our opinion, is the pinnacle of the model. The Telegraph goes on to claim that it’s the best car ever made. While that might be a bit of a stretch, it isn’t impossible to imagine.