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Used car review BMW 5-Series (E39) 1996-2003

Graham 'Smithy' Smith reviews the used BMW 5-Series 96-03, its fine points, its flaws and what to watch for when you're buying it.

BMW’s 5-Series is universally admired by owners and rival carmakers alike. So much do its rivals admire it that they have regularly used it as a yardstick when developing cars of their own.

Holden used the then current 5-Series as the main benchmark when it was developing the VB Commodore in the 1970s, and again when it did the VE a couple of years back, and Ford has also used it in developing its recent Falcon models.

Remarkably, given so many companies have used it as a benchmark for their own new cars the BMW has managed to keep its allure. It seems that it remains tantalisingly out of reach.

MODEL WATCH

The E39 5-Series followed one of the best, and most successful models BMW has ever produced, the E34, in 1996. Previous 5-Series BMWs were highly regarded, as can be seen by then Holden chassis guru Peter Hanenberger’s choice of the 5-Series as a benchmark for the VB Commodore in the mid-1970s, but the E34 cemented its place at the head of the pack.

It had a unique blend of chassis agility and six-cylinder sweetness in a fully equipped package able to accommodate five in refined comfort that no other carmaker could match. Even its great rival Mercedes-Benz couldn’t match it for dynamics.

The E34 really brought BMW to the attention of the Australian motoring public. Here was a good-sized car they could afford, at a pinch, if they were doing well. It’s now 20 years old, but it’s still popular with buyers of used cars.

So the E39 had lots to live up to when it was launched in 1996. Unlike the models that followed it the E39 was a mild evolution of the E34, which was wonderfully elegant with clean lines and perfect proportions. The E39 was sleeker and smoother, but it retained the elegance that keeps the E34 looking fresh even today. There were new headlights and a new grille at the front, a smoother roofline and a stubby tail reminiscent of the smaller 3-Series. It was a car that looked good from all angles, a modern classic and a worthy successor to the great E34.

The six-cylinder is BMW’s signature engine and the E39 had a number of choices of engine size. All had the silky smoothness, purposeful response, and seductive snarl that were so characteristic of BMW sixes down through the ages, but in the E39 they also delivered more power and torque for an enhanced driving experience.

They started with the 2.5-litre double overhead camshaft engine with 125 kW and 245 Nm, but for more grunt there was the 2.8-litre engine that boasted 142 kW and 280 Nm. They were followed by the sportier V8 models, which packed the considerable punch of a 180 kW 3.5-litre double overhead camshaft bent eight and its bigger 240 kW 4.4-litre brother. All were linked to a five-speed auto transmission, but it had the option of the Steptronic sequential shift that aped a manual change.

The agility of the BMW classic has always been one of its most admired attributes and the E39 could claim even better dynamics, partly because of its much stiffer body shell that gave it a very stable foundation. Independent suspension front and back with a sporty tune, precise and responsive power steering, and the power of ABS-supported disc brakes on all corners combine to deliver a dynamic driving package. All models were well equipped with all the fruit you could wish for in a prestige luxury car.

ON THE LOT

The E39 is a popular car with used car buyers so the resale values have been maintained quite well. A 523i opened the range from 1996-2000 and these can be found for $14,000-$22,000. This was replaced by the 525i Executive from 2000-2003 and these can be found for $24,000-$$42,000.

There was also a 525i Sport between 2000-2003 and these are priced from $24,500-$44,000. The 1996-2000 528i is priced from $16,000-$25,000, the Touring wagon version $1500 more. There was also a 530i Executive from 2000-2003 and this is now priced at $20,000-$42,000, a similar Wagon is $1500 more, the same as the Sport model. A 1996-2000 535i V8 will go for $14,000-$30,000, a 540i is $6000 more. The later 2000-2003 versions go for $33,000-$55,000 for the 535i with the 540I $6000 more.

IN THE SHOP

The attraction of a used 5-Series is strong for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t afford one new, but they need to be approached with both eyes open and a questioning mind. As with any used car buy the best you can afford within your budget and leave enough left over to service it.

Servicing BMWs can be expensive if you stick with the dealers. They generally give good service, but you pay top dollar for it, so link up with a specialist service mechanic with a good knowledge of BMWs and you will save heaps. Little goes wrong with BMWs on a regular basis, but brake wear is a consistent complaint with owners facing a hefty bill for replacement rotors and pads.

Look for oil leaks around the engine. A rough idle could indicate a lack of servicing and extended oil change periods. BMWs also require the factory replacement parts, like shocks, exhaust etc. to give their best, but that’s not to say non-genuine parts will completely ruin the driving experience. A BMW specialist should know which non-genuine parts can be safely used and those to steer clear of.

IN A CRASH

The 5-Series has an array of airbags to protect the occupants in the event its chassis and braking prowess aren’t enough to avoid a crash. Front and side airbags were standard across the range.

AT THE PUMP

Expect to get around 11.0 L/100 km on average from a six and 13.0 L/100 km from a V8.

OWNERS SAY

Ed Malek’s 2000 523i had done 79,000 km when he bought it. It was clean and tidy, performed well and passed a mechanical and safety check. He hesitated for a while before buying it, but each time he hopped back into his 2005 Magna, he was convinced he should. He was impressed with its handling, low level of road and wind noise, comfort, and safety with eight airbags. The 2.5-litre six lacks a little grunt from take-off, but on the open highway it powers along admirably. Around town he gets 10.7 L/100 km. A few rattles have developed, which he believes could be the window regulators, and the CD changer is malfunctioning.

LOOK FOR
• BMW badge cred.
• Timeless elegant looks
• Great chassis dynamics
• Sweet six under the bonnet
• Roomy interior
• Costly parts and service

RIVALS
• Mercedes-Benz E-Class – 1996-2002 – $13,000-$58,000
• Lexus ES300 – 1996-2001 – $9000-$26,000
• Honda Legend – 1996-2005 –$9000-$45,000

THE BOTTOM LINE
Great looking and performing sporting saloon that rewards the driver.

RATING
80/100

Comments on this story

Displaying 3 of 3 comments

  • Ipurchaced a1996 528i from a friend for$7000 have spent around $20000 changed the block overhauled the head radiator front suspension almost finished ccv is the last project drives like a dream got myself a$96000 car now

    Brian Armstrong of Perth WA Posted on 11 October 2013 6:02pm
  • Hi. Have read some of comments on e39.and having owned/a e21/e30/e36/ and now an e39 535i....it's all that it can be.Strong,safe good fuel,stable pushed hard.It is a great saloon,and having three cars betweeen myself and good wife,where at times I feel to get rid of one...the e39 does not equate in that thought.

    Giovanni C. of Sydney...Australia Posted on 23 May 2013 2:51pm
  • I purchased a 1998 model E39 523i three years ago with 248000 km on the odometer. My pride and joy now has 322000km on the clock and it's quiet, rattle free, smooth, fast and more economical than my old 1800 Jetta. Besides the cat clogging up, the driver's door handle shearing off and the fuel gauge inoperable, this limo has very few flaws. Spares are relatively easy to find and far less expensive than VW parts. Since the cat was removed fuel consumption radically improved, power increased substantially and it sounds like nothing else around. It growls at pull off and in full song (3500-5000 rpm) it'll give u a hard on. The only thing that could come close to this exhaust note is a Million+ Rand supercar. As a travelling rep, some say I should be using a small car. I'd rather spend the money keeping this thing new. Even after 15 years it's still one of the best looking saloons on the road - the strongest BMW ever built. Techies everywhere report that the new models are crap. You can pick up low mileage immaculate examples for less than R100K. Compare that to a horrid 1000cc lunch box that would cost more and be in the scrap yard 2 decades sooner. Sheer driving pleasure!

    Daniel Malan of Cape Town, South Africa Posted on 08 April 2013 9:06pm

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