$20,000 is, to most of us, a large amount of money. You could buy a decent Rolex. You could almost perform a yearly service on a Bugatti Veyron. More sensibly, you could probably get a year or two at a community college. But two of those options are ridiculous, and the other is boring, so we have devised another way to spend your hard-earned or ill-gotten cash: buy one of the cars on this list. Today, we explore the best BMW cars you can buy for around $20,000.
Z3 Coupe and Z3 M Roadster
When we wrote about the best BMWs under $10,000, we included the Z3 Roadster. But stepping up the investment means you get to pick from two much more interesting vehicles. Choose either the M-powered Z3 Roadster, or the non-M coupe, affectionately known as the “clown shoe” due to its unique, shoe-like styling. The Z3 Coupe comes in all the flavors its E36 relatives come in, and largely does the same things – but in a much more unique shape (and drastically lower production numbers!).
The Z3 M Roadster shares most of its components with the M3 of the day, the E36. That’s great news, as the E36 M3 is one of my all-time favorites (more on that later) and touts some of the best driving dynamics available at any price point. The Z3 even weighs a little bit less than the M3, and of course is the easy choice if you favor an open-top motoring experience.
Z4 Coupe and Z4 M Roadster
Much like the Z3, the non-M Z4 made our list for BMWs under $10,000. At the higher price point, you could just manage to get yourself into the S54-powered Z4 M Roadster. The big drawing point for these cars is that they’re generally the cheapest entry into an S54 powered manual car.
The Z4 Coupe is arguably a better option; as the cost to maintain will be considerably less, and the 3.0si is still an adequately powered car. Plus, the coupe’s striking looks hold up well today, another feather in Chris Bangle’s cap. Finally, you can find a decent 3.0si significantly under budget, leaving bags of cash free for repairs and/or modifications.
Much like early 2000s rock music, the E38 was underappreciated for years until a recent resurgence in popularity. Of particular note is the “shorty sporty”, or a 740i with the M Sport Package. In fact, the “shorty sporty” has appreciated so much in the last few years that a good one might be just a little bit over budget! But there’s a good reason for the hype. Besides the devilish good looks, the E38 provides ample interior space without sacrificing a ton of maneuverability – exterior dimensions are roughly the same as the current G30 5 Series. Factor in communicative steering, compliant suspension, and a V8, and its no wonder the E38 is aging so well.
E63 M6 Coupe / 650i
There are two kinds of people in this world – those who skydive, and those who do not. If you are a skydiver, in this sense, $20,000 for a questionably reliable, 8250-rpm redline F1-derived V10 might sound like an enticing proposition. But, it’s unlikely you’ve sat still long enough to read this, so good luck. If you’re on the other side of the coin, you can pick up the slightly more reliable, very-much toned-down but still cool V8 650i. Another Bangle gem, these E63 6 Series don’t get much love from the snobbiest enthusiasts, but I think they look like nothing else on the road. Especially in M6 guise, where the unmistakable looks combine with a glorious, unmistakable sound to match it.
In all seriousness, I’m the wrong person to talk to about this car – it’s a bucket list item for sure, and it isn’t backed by logic. The iDrive interface is terrible, the SMG transmission is a joke (and true manuals are impossible to find), it’s only middlingly quick by modern standards, and the S85 V10 engines cost to run is higher than some countries’ GDP. Even the 650i isn’t cheap to run as the N62 has its own set of guaranteed problems (valve stem seals, VANOS seals, etc). But you can find both under $20,000, as most of the issues are well-documented and have kept prices low.
Whichever E63 6 Series you choose, skydiving will have been cheaper and had less oil leaks, and maybe even provide a nice bonding experience for you and your significant other or family member. But life is far too short to drive boring cars, and one thing I can promise during 6 Series ownership is excitement and unpredictability.
We mentioned the 335i in our “Best BMWs Under $10,000” article, and the 335is is just the best version of that car. Powered by an updated twin-turbo N54, and pairable with either a six-speed manual or a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission, a good “driver-quality” car is just under $20,000. Costs to run can get high, as the N54 is a notably fickle beast, but its also very receptive to upgrades and performance modifications – cheap speed is rarely this easy to find. Plus, the “is” designation was a limited run and I think these cars will retain value a bit better than their non-is counterparts.
The holy grail of M cars, the E46 M3, used to primarily exist at or below this price point. Gone are those days; but there’s still some cheaper M3s floating around at this price point. Primarily convertibles, and mostly SMG cars, but you can find the occasional manual coupe, usually badly needing maintenance. But if you don’t mind a little bit of elbow grease, and you’re willing to roll the dice a bit, you can pick up what is certainly one of the best BMWs ever made. There’s no shortage of things to look for when picking one of these M3s up, and we’ll have a buying guide coming, but its well documented everywhere on the internet. Either way – a car to consider if you’ve got some money set aside for maintenance.
International Tourings (E36/E30 wagons)
You may remember the 318ti or Touring International as making the last list; but upping the ante gets you into a bunch of different touring models, not necessarily just the ones originally released in the United States. Specifically, I’m thinking of the E30 and E36 touring models, both of which can now legally be titled and registered in the United States. Most of them find their way to online enthusiast auction sites, and most of them end up selling for right around the $20,000 mark.
Most of these early 1990s BMWs are prime candidates for engine swaps, and the most common seems to be the S52 out of the US E36 M3. That’s a good pairing for these, providing reliable and adequate power in a chassis that weighs right around 3,000 pounds. Plus, either chassis has plenty of space to do whatever you need it to do. If you’re burned out on “the usual suspects” at this price point, these tourings are great options to stand out from the crowd a little bit without sacrificing driving dynamics.
The E34 5 Series typically gets overlooked in favor of the newer, prettier E39 5 Series. In the old days, it used to be only the super rare E34 M5 Touring that commanded a huge premium; but recently more pedestrian models have been come into appreciation as well. Clean 540i and 535i examples can get right up to (and exceed!) the $20,000 mark, and a E34 M5 sedans are trading well above that point.
The E34 535i is particularly sought after, primarily because of the engine; the M30B35 inline six. This is largely considered to be the best of a good lot, so to speak, as it’s the final iteration of the ubiquitous M30. These make prime candidates for modifications, particularly turbocharging, and the ALPINA B10 Biturbo backs that claim up by way of twin-turbos and forged pistons – providing a rowdy 355 horsepower. But you won’t find one of those at this price point. What you will find is a versatile, reliable, and balanced chassis likely under the $20,000 budget and ready to provide miles of smiles.
We mentioned the 135i in the “Best BMWs Under $10,000” article, and here we are to talk a little bit more about it. Early cars got the N54 twin-turbo car, paired to either a six-speed manual or a traditional auto. 2011 and newer models got the N55 inline-six, paired to either a manual or the same seven-speed dual-clutch transmission in the E9X M3.
It’s business as usual with these N54 cars; they’re a few wrench-turns away from a tire-roasting 400 horsepower. They all get hydraulic steering, power seats were an option, and the 1 Series does everything the 3 Series does but better when it comes to driving dynamics. Some people aren’t crazy about the looks, but that’s subjective.
The N55 cars have the advantage of being paired with the dual clutch; allowing for quick downshifts and what seems like an endless supply of power on upshifts. Having owned a dual-clutch car, I would do it again – but the N54 with a manual would be more fun. But you can’t really go wron
Again, the best is saved for last, and again it’s an E36. You can get into a driver-grade E36 M3 comfortably at this price point, in any choice of color and interior. Like we talked about in the last article, the E36 is a fantastically versatile chassis and is one of the best handling cars at any price point. The general reliability and classic looks are enough to make this my choice over the 135i, but admittedly, they’re about even – I just prefer the naturally aspirated six.
The other reason the E36 M3 takes the crown here is because of the analog nature of it. No turbos, no screens, no comfort access – just you and the car. Some of them got a CD player, and there’s a perfectly era-appropriate onboard computer. Analog is good, and nothing does it better than the E36 M3. The counterargument here of course, is that a 328is for $9000 will do 90% of the things the M3 will do for half the price. I guess that’s a decision for the prospective buyer to make.
So, that’s a look at what kind of BMWs you can get into for $20,000. Did we miss something? Are we way off base? Let us know in the comments!