This is the moment everyone (including me) has been waiting for. The first road test on Clunkerture. It was a long time a coming (about a week), but I finally had time to write the review and (more importantly) get some pictures of the car.
Author's Note: For those of you who were wondering where I sourced the car from, it wasn't from BMW of North America. Regular readers will note that I've referred to my dad owning an E39 530i and that this is possibly his car. Well, you're right. So this review will almost certainly be biased.
For those of you unfamiliar with my review format, I use nothing empirical. I may reference speeds, prices, and gas mileage numbers, but I won't create some newfangled scoring system to determine whether a car I test on Clunkerture is good or not. It may seem like I'm rambling through this review, so I'll be sure to section it out so I can reference certain aspects (like performance, fuel economy, price tag, looks, etc.) directly and to ensure I don't jump all over the place in the review. So here goes:
Since this is a BMW, I'll start with the reason people consider these cars. After all, when E39 5-Series cars were being sold, BMWs were being advertised as "The Ultimate Driving Machine." And this 530i is a real driver's car, even though it doesn't have the manual. It has the Steptronic transmission, which is quite good, except for the torque converter that had to be switched out last month so it could pass the California smog test. Since I had a 100 mile round trip journey to the airport last weekend, I took the BMW to see how good the performance was. It didn't disappoint.
These cars are engineered for the German autobahns and it really shows with the performance of that inline-six, even after twelve years. The engine loves being in the 75-80 mph range on the highway (about 120 kph for anyone outside the US reading this) and it can safely stay there. In fact, it feels as if you're doing 20 mph less, a common characteristic told about BMWs after their driver has received a speeding ticket. Furthermore, since I live in Northern California, I have to deal with people in the fast lane who won't move to the right. As a result, I had to slalom around three cars at a high amount of speed, and the BMW handled it perfectly.
Somehow, the BMW manages to shine here, considering the speeds it gets driven at by both me and my dad. At that all-too-wonderful 120 kph sweet spot that I mentioned, the MPG gauge shows the car is getting between 20 and 30 mpg. Using the onboard computer, the car tells me it gets an average of 25.2 mpg, which is really good. But then again, it is primarily used as a highway car. In fact, since the E39 has an almost 20-gallon fuel tank, the range is exceptional. Getting at least 450 miles out of a tank is fantastically easy. In my Jetta 2.0T, which does get better mileage, if I stay below 3000 rpm and don't engage the turbocharger, I have to feather the throttle to get 400 miles out of a tank.
The E39 5-Series has the notable distinction of being the last good-looking 5-Series, since the E60 that came after it had those weird slicked-back front headlamps and wedge-style rear lights. All of this worked to the E39's advantage, since when the divisional VP arrived at the office in his newly-leased 545i Sport, people would see the director's E39 530i next to it and ask "What's happened to BMW?" Even today, people still give the car a second look, and sometime even say they like the color (Steel Blue Metallic).
Even on the inside, the interior design is extremely functional. Every control is oriented towards the driver and can be operated on the go. There is no iDrive to fiddle around with which makes you concentrate on and enjoy the driving experience. It's a very nice place to be, especially for a fast BMW ride to the airport.
Those of you familiar with my work will recall that time I wrote that article on Jalopnik which stated that getting the sport package sometimes wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Personally, I think this car works best without the sport package, especially on choppy Bay Area highways. After I endured the vitriol from that piece, I was driving my dad back from the airport (BMW drives to the airport are surprisingly common for me), there was a bad bump due to a resurfacing of the exits. Once I told my dad to brace himself, he promptly responded "Not in this car." And he hadn't even read the article. The ride is that good. Yes, the turn-in might be as quick and it might not be as grippy as an E39 with the sport package. But this car blends comfort and sport beautifully. You don't need a sport package to enjoy this car. And any long trip you do somewhere in this car is never a simple car ride. It's a BMW ride.
This car doesn't have the upgraded sound system that was available at the time. Unfortunately, I've never heard the upgraded sound system in other E39s, but the base stereo in this car is quite good. It seems BMW has come a long way with the stereos in its cars, since David E. Davis took special pains to criticize the high-end Blaupunkt unit in his 1968 BMW 2002. I love it, especially on those fast BMW rides on a way home from an event.
But you wanted me to discuss the 3-liter inline-six engine note. It seriously doesn't disappoint. I put the transmission into manual mode specifically so I can hear the engine sing at 6000 rpm, which is something you don't get from today's turbocharged 535i. Honestly, the natural-aspiratedness of the engine is amazing. Everything is so predictable, and after 12 years, you know the engine like the back of your hand, even though I've been driving the car for 6. Sure, it may not do 0-60 in under 6 seconds like a current 535i, but you'll enjoy every moment of that seven or so seconds it takes to reach 60 in the 530i.
Unfortunately, this is a 12-year-old car with over 130,000 miles that was engineered and made by Germans. So there definitely have been more than a few problems, especially compared to my mom's Odyssey, where pretty much the only thing that has to be worried about is the transmission. Maintenance is tremendously expensive, with my dad putting at least $2,000 a year into the car for the last five years. He's replaced a lot of things, from the torque converter, the oxygen sensor, the climate control system, the radiator, and a few other things I can't remember.
And then there are the things that currently don't work, but he's totally fine with. The sunroof doesn't tilt anymore, because the flimsy plastic parts responsible for that mechanism have collapsed. The same is true for the flimsy plastic parts that are supposed to represent the cupholders. At the moment, they're both broken and I don't anticipate them ever being fixed. Instead, if I'm drinking coffee, the Thermos is held between the legs and is thrown in the front passenger seat once the beverage is finished. God help me if I drink a can of Coke in the car.
This is still a fantastic car, even twelve years on. Any twelve-year-old car is going to need plenty of maintenance, but it'll be tough to find the same kind of fun and practicality that the E39 530i offers. You can still fix things yourself on this car, unlike any other 5-Series from the E60 onwards. Considering these cars with over 100K miles constantly go for $5-7,000 on Craiglist, Autotrader, and sometimes even in used car lots, an E39 530i is really good value, but you'll need to budget $2,000 each year. It may even be a good buy for a Miata owner who's going to have kids. Keep in mind that manual cars are surprisingly difficult to find, but the Steptronic really isn't that bad either. You'd be a fool not to try an E39 530i.