BMW E39 5 Series: Autocar buys a modern classic

Of course it had to come home. All too often are cars of this ilk modified beyond recognition – fitted with gaping exhaust pipes, ill-advised lowering kits, badly tinted windows and illegal numberplates – and it stands to reason that future enthusiasts will hold original-specification examples in higher stead.

So what if you can’t plug in your iPhone, backfire at will or do a burnout? BMW’s engineers – as we know from various five-star Autocar road test verdicts – are well versed in the art of building an executive saloon, so a factory-spec example is all the more desirable.

This particular car is the entry-level 520i, and although its 2.2-litre straight six emits that trademark naturally aspirated six-cylinder hum and sends its power through a five-speed manual gearbox, be under no illusion that it shares any character traits with the legendary E39 M5.

Tipping the scales at 1700kg, the 520i’s performance is best described as leisurely, which is good news for the insurance company but rather embarrassing when you get flashed out of the fast lane on the M40 by a Chevrolet Matiz.

That said, swapping out the perished tyres for a set of value-friendly but pleasingly sticky new items has transformed the handling, and a pair of wiper blades for £16 is a supremely cheap lifesaver. It’s best not to get carried away with spending money on a bargain banger such as this unless it needs critical care and you’re confident about getting that money back.

Another thing to bear in mind when buying what you might call a future classic is just how often it will be used. More recent models will generally be less susceptible to tinworm and water ingress, so dry storage isn’t essential, but no car likes to be left unattended for long periods. That’s why it’s worth going for a well-made model that will stand up to a bit of abuse and that’s less likely to leave you stranded on the way to that important meeting, so you feel more inclined to use it as a daily driver.

This is where this E39 really comes into its own: despite the complexity of its double-Vanos variable timing system and unquenchable thirst for unleaded, it’s quiet, sits comfortably at motorway speeds and is popular enough for common faults to be well documented on the wealth of online forums, so it’s nearly as practical as its modern-day descendant.


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