If you’ve ever wondered about buying a used prestige car, you might find my experience interesting. There are many articles saying to not do it – you’ll get burnt. While I’d agree to an extent, if you can handle getting ‘mildly toasted’ rather than ‘completely burnt’ and don’t mind taking a risk, you may find it gives you the chance to drive something that little bit more special.
So to the car: I purchased my 1999 BMW 535i in 2009. At that time, it was by no means a new car at 10 years old, with the warranty long expired and with 165,000km on the odometer. That would already rule it out for many, but I was tempted by the styling, comfort, long list of standard equipment (I’d always wanted a sunroof to feel the wind in my receded hairline) and relative bargain price of $14,000. Back in 1999, the new list price of the 535i would have been $121,900, or in my car’s case, around $135,000 with options. Depreciation had been savage. The car had been well serviced and this – rightly or wrongly – provided me some degree of reassurance.
So as I sit here in 2019 and reflect on 10 years of ownership, has it been worth it? In summary and from the perspective of driving pleasure, yes, absolutely. Perhaps most tellingly, I only ever intended to keep the car for a few years but it held its appeal for far longer than expected.
Even at 20 years of age and with now close to 270,000km behind it, the car still turns heads and attracts positive comments. More importantly – and putting aside any wank-factor of ‘brand-cachet’ - it still feels wonderful to drive, which more than anything is why I’ve hung on to it. Whether it’s running down to the local shops, a blast through the winding roads of the hills, freeway cruising, or a long interstate trip, it always feels special. The E39 5 series has a reputation for being one of BMWs better designs and I certainly agree. With a near perfect 50:50 front-rear weight distribution, it rides, handles, steers and stops beautifully. It is supremely comfortable, particularly with the Nappa leather and comfort seats as optioned in my car, which – with a bit of regular cleaning and conditioning – have worn remarkably well. It also has good safety and driving assistance features for its era: eight airbags, ABS with traction and stability control, rain sensing wipers, Xenon headlights with high pressure wash function, and parking sensors. About the only thing missing is a reverse camera and modern features like Apple CarPlay, which are easily retrofitted.
You can definitely still see the quality in the car. Thick, lustrous metallic paint, bumpers that have resisted several minor bumps, quality carpets, and beautiful detailing in the interior have all stood the test of 2 decades.
Performance from the silky smooth 3.5L V8 remains excellent, the 5 speed auto shifts crisply and for the most part imperceptibly, and fuel economy isn’t as bad as you may think. I’ve averaged around 12.5L/100km around town and better than 9L/100km on the highway, making Adelaide-Melbourne trips a single tank proposition.
So what has gone wrong? Well, it hasn’t been exactly failure-free but perhaps no worse than any other car of this age. More importantly, it has only failed to get me home once when the fuel pump went, which was fortunately less than 1km from home. All up I have spent a documented $15,000 on maintenance, excluding tyres. This seems hefty, perhaps even insane, when you realise that the amount exceeds what I paid for the car! That said, averaged over 10 years of ownership, the cost is not so bad. At purchase, I had in mind I might need to allow around $2000 per year for repairs and maintenance, so I have actually come in a bit under budget. Works include replacement fuel and water pumps, brake rotors and pads all round, a rear window regulator, three of eight ignition coils (others remain original), spark plugs, a few oil seals and gaskets (eg rocker covers) and a few cooling system hoses. There have been minor electrical issues with the electric adjustment for the steering wheel. Then there was the odd oxygen sensor and light globe. Also for fixing were some other bits and pieces, plus routine oil, coolant, brake fluid changes and (against BMW's advice) changing the fluid of the "sealed for life" automatic transmission in the interests of longevity.
So, it’s been a spend of around $30,000 all up, including purchase price. Yes, I could’ve bought a new hatchback for the same money and probably enjoyed greater reliability. But perhaps without the same style and certainly not with the same comfort, refinement and quietness.
By far the biggest single expense has been the timing chain, or more specifically, the plastic guide rail for the chain. This broke last year at 258,000km, as evidenced by a loud whining noise from the chain running over the broken plastic. While it didn’t stop the car in its tracks, I was advised that continuing to drive the car would bring the extreme risk of the timing chain itself breaking and turning the engine to scrap metal. Having had several quotes of $5000-$7000 to replace the offending part (and almost selling the entire car for scrap on the basis of cost and that it was time to let go), I was saved at the 11th hour by an independent sole operator repairer (recommended to me by a relative) who said he could replace the timing chain guides, chain, tensioners and various other parts for around $2,500 including parts. Job done and the car has never run better.
In summary, I think the secret to running any older used prestige car is to be switched on to maintenance requirements, set a realistic budget for annual maintenance, expect the unexpected, know some sources of good aftermarket/OEM supplier parts, build a good relationship with an independent repairer and be prepared to do some basic maintenance yourself. For example, an OBD code reader synced to an iPhone app enables me to read error codes and determine whether the fault is fixable within my limited mechanical skills, such as changing an ignition coil.
It also probably depends on your circumstance. I travel only 10,000km a year, can use public transport for the work commute and have access to another car when mine is being repaired. This might not suit everyone who needs a car to be dependable without fail.
Recently I have been tempted to upgrade to something newer, with a budget of $30,000 in mind. There is not much in used BMWs that appeals at this price point so the 'sensible new hatchback' may be the best option this time around. For example, the Hyundai i30 SR turbo seems great buying at around $30k. The other option is to stick with the devil I know, perhaps until 300,000km or so – given I still enjoy driving it and its value being at rock bottom. That’s another 3 years of driving for me and frees up money in the meantime for a few more overseas holidays…… subject to any more repairs!