A lot of BMW purists lament the loss of the naturally aspirated BMW engines. But, since the introduction of mainstream turbocharging in roughly 2007, a lot of BMW enthusiasts have found solace in the easy power gains and embraced the rush of forced induction. In fact, given a fairly reasonable budget of $20,000, you can get quite a lot of performance from these purist-defying models. Here, we’ll take a look at a few.
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1) 2008 – 2013 135i / 135is E82 Coupe
Easily one of the most desirable (and cheapest!) cars on this list is the 135i. Early models (pre-2011) featured the twin-turbocharged N54 inline-six good for a factory estimated 302 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. Widely considered to be underrated from the factory, the N54 is only a few choice modifications away from being a nearly 450 hp monster.
With lightly equipped versions of the early N54 135i weighing in at under 3400 lbs, old school hydraulic steering, massive 338mm front and 324mm rear brake rotors, and two solid transmission choices (a slick 6-speed manual or an automatic with a manual shift mode) – not to mention its sporty appearance – the 135i quickly becomes a track day hero.
But it gets even better. Well, kind of. In 2011 the 135i’s standard torque-converter automatic transmission was replaced with a lightning quick seven-speed dual clutch unit, straight out of the E90 M3. The N55 engine was also introduced, replacing the N54, with one less turbo but approximately the same power.
The same modifications will net you close to 400 hp, a bit of a downgrade from the twin-turbocharged N54. The 135is further improves on this formula with a factory sport exhaust system and lighter five-spoke Style 313 wheels, but with a bit of a price premium. With clean examples of the 135i starting at around $10,000, there’s no doubt that there’s a pretty solid value proposition for cheap speed here.
2) 2014- 2016 228i/228i xDrive F22 Coupe
So, here’s a choice that isn’t usually mentioned on a list like this- the little N20 four-cylinder is generally overshadowed by its six-cylinder brothers and sisters. But the F22 chassis is undoubtedly stalwart, and since it’s already built up to withstand the 300-odd horses in the M235i/M240i applications, it makes a great starting place for cheap enthusiast speed.
You can even get them in xDrive (BMW’s all-wheel drive nomenclature) which makes for some interesting races against cars that don’t have the edge of all four wheels being driven simultaneously.
While I can’t possibly argue that you’ll be breaking any land speed records building on the N20 engine, you’ll still be good for an easy 300 or so horsepower in a car that isn’t very heavy, you can get in manual, and has optional AWD. While ultimately this may seem a little bit pointless when the six-cylinder counterpart has a higher output than this before any modification, it’s still a bit cheaper.
$20,000 won’t quite get you into an M235i/M240i, yet. The downside is that it’s the only car on this list that doesn’t retain BMW’s hydraulic steering – so you’ll have a bit less road feel and lighter steering than anything else here – but maybe you’re okay with that. It’s still a fun car – and in my experience, more reliable than the more high-strung engine options.
3) 2007 – 2008 ALPINA B7 E65 Sedan
Oh boy, this car is interesting. Not only is this the only non-turbocharged car on the list, but it’s also one of the more polarizing body styles among BMW enthusiasts. It even comes with a history lesson: this is only the second Alpina in history to be released in North America, after the Alpina Z8.
Only 800 B7s came to North America, with production starting in 2006 and ending in early 2008. It’s still the only supercharged BMW to ever make it to North America, as well. With these kinds of credentials, you’d think it’d be pretty sought after, right? Well, not exactly.
They still regularly sell for under $20k, even with power being not hard to come by. 500 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque came standard from the factory, from a supercharged 4.4L V8 – but it weighs in at around 4,500 lbs. Your only transmission option is a column-mounted ZF six-speed automatic.
Bone stock, the car does almost 200 mph, which isn’t exactly slow. But sadly, there isn’t much mainstream room for improvement. There are ways to improve on the car’s stock power – supercharger pulleys, exhaust modification, alternative fuel, and tuning – but most of this will come down to very specialized shops or the extremely ambitious DIY-er.
Another caveat is the price of upkeep – even though this super sedan has fallen far from its original MSRP of around $120,000, parts remain fairly expensive. Still – nearly fifteen years on, the E65 ALPINA delivers on its promise for both exclusivity and speed.
4) 2008 – 2010 535i xDrive E61 Touring
Do you have two kids, but also an undying need for speed? Own a catering business but hit the drag strip on Friday nights in the company van? Perhaps you enjoy street racing, but need room for your twelve dogs to tag along and hold the GoPros?
Well, have I got the car for you. The 2008-2010 535i xDrive came, astoundingly, in Touring (or wagon) flavor. That means you can really get a car that does it all – it gets the aforementioned N54 twin-turbo six-cylinder, it has plenty of space for your POGS collection, and just a few simple modifications will net you close to 450 hp.
Or more, if you want to go with fueling and turbo upgrades, etc – you can very quickly end up with a 600 hp wagon. You can even get these in a manual transmission – making this truly the car of the people. And by people, I mean car enthusiasts, who do in fact just barely meet the qualifications to be considered “people”.
At the time of this writing, most 535i xDrive wagons on Bring a Trailer have sold for well under $20k, with some very nice, manual selections selling for just a bit more than that. As I write this, one is currently sitting at just $13,000, but with 28k miles, it’s sure to go for a bit more.
As long as you can get past, or ironically embrace, the funky appearance of the E61 wagon (it came from the same Bangle-era design period as the E65 ALPINA I talked about above), there’s no more versatile choice on this list. Unless…?
5) 2010-2013 X5 M E70
So, for the last spot on this list, I cheated a little bit. I’ve only actually seen one X5 M under the $20k mark, and it was a little bit worse for wear. A more realistic filler for the end of this list would be a turbo E36 (which can be built for well under $20k), or maybe a supercharged E46 M3.
And if you just have to have a V8, you could forego the turbocharging and get into an E60 550i or the lower X5 4.8i, or even a dirt cheap, older 750i. You could even pick up an older F10 550i.
But dear God if those don’t seem downright pedestrian compared to this. I saw the listing online and just had to include it.
Let’s break it down: the E70 X5 M received the S63B44, a twin-turbo V8 delivering 547 hp and 502 lb ft of torque, powered through a six-speed automatic (not dual clutch) transmission powering all four 20” (or optional 21″) wheels. Tipping the scales at over 5000 lbs, it was important to make sure the car could stop reliably – so humongous 15” brakes were slapped on all four corners.
Sounds great, right? It gets better. A couple of bolt-on modifications and a $800 tune gets you straight up to 630 hp and 590 lb ft, with some tuning companies promising a 200 hp/tq gain over stock with supporting mods.
So with the potential for 750 hp only a few thousand of your hard-earned dollars away, why wouldn’t you buy one of the first super-SUVs ever made? Great question, I’m glad you asked it. The S63 in this iteration is a fairly reliable engine, with the most common issues being weird vacuum and oil leaks (which isn’t all that different from most older BMWs).
Typically, the engine can run a little hot, and some owners cure this, hilariously, by removing the exhaust’s catalytic converters and heat wrapping the new catless downpipes. The main difference between this car and everything else on the list (save the ALPINA) is that parts cost a bigger pile of cash, even when you’re wrenching on the car yourself.
Another thing to consider is the slowly rising prices on vintage trucks, SUVs, and super SUVs like this one – in a recent Doug DeMuro video, he all but confirmed these suspicions, citing a few auctions on his new website. It’s not totally insane to believe that this first gen X5 M could maybe start appreciating soon – making this otherwise slightly irrational purchase a little bit more practical.
Other Choices and Conclusion
We’ll start with the obvious – most of the E9x chassis has depreciated to well under the $20k price point, with prices starting with blown-turbo dumpster fires for $3500 to kitted out, 600 hp single-turbo N54 monsters for $12-15k. I didn’t include them in the initial five because they’re all over the place, but if you’re willing to wrench on a budget it’s hard to beat an E90 or E92 335i for cheap speed.
I mentioned the F10 550i, but the N63 engine these received can be notoriously unreliable, even by BMW standards. The 335D came to the States, and can make a ton of torque, fairly reliably, with only a few choice mods. Additionally, if you’re in Europe and got some of the other diesel offerings, you’re in luck – most of them share an enormous amount of aftermarket support and can make the 0-60 blast happen a lot quicker than they have any right doing.
Lastly, I did mention turbo E36s and supercharged E46 M3s – both which can be bought completed for around $20k or built by yourself for generally a little less than that. They’re notable, but kind of only an option as a second car or if you’re willing to wrench.
BMW’s naturally aspirated engines helped build its reputation as making some of the best driver’s cars out there. But the addition of turbocharged witchcraft doesn’t necessarily mean the thrill is gone – it’s just changed its style a little bit. And if you don’t mind a bit of wrenching and have $20k or a little more, you’re already pre-qualified!
Any of the cars on the list make for a ton of fun at a reasonably decent price point. I’ll assume you’ve already stopped reading at this point to go scour the internet for some bargain-bin, boosted BMWs.