BMW recently turned 100, and with plans to launch up to 40 new models by 2018, the brand from Bavaria isn’t lacking for ambition. The company’s racing heritage is baked into every model they build, and while that can incur a bit of a hit in maintenance costs, choosing the right car can go a long way if you’re interested in your first BMW.
This five-car snapshot is based on the models available now that someone on an entry-level budget can afford. We’re talking $10k or less here. If you’re expecting to read about M cars, that’s a different buyers guide.
What I’ll try to do here is give five examples of cars that you can find and service with relative ease. No, it won’t be like owning a Camry, but it won’t be like driving a Camry either. That’s the cost of entry, so if you’re up for it, here are my suggestions for first-timers.
THE GO-TO:’01-’05 330i/330ci
I’m probably not blowing any minds with this, but these are still very relevant cars 16 years after they debuted. The 3-liter M54 six was a Wards 10 best engine in ’02 and ’03, and more importantly it embodies the silken character and linear power delivery that made BMW famous. You get the option of a five-speed automatic, five-speed manual or an optional six-speed box in later cars.
Both four door and coupé versions of this car are understanded but still present well nearly two decades after their launch. Good luck finding a wagon, buy it if you do. They have the advantage of being smaller than many modern sedans, which makes them maneuverable in urban settings.
The e46 offers accessible performance that is practical on the road, with high enough limits to be enjoyable when pushed. These aren’t muscle cars, but they offer a supple, communicative ride, excellent balance, and steering feel that arguably hasn’t come back since the introduction of electronic steering.
If you have the extra change and can find one, a ZHP car, with uprated trim and suspension, and a few extra horsepower, is the connoisseur’s choice. These are admittedly rare, so don’t get hung up if you can’t find one.
If you go the e46 route, make sure the car has had its VANOS solenoid replaced, or fastidiously inspected. Low-mile examples are out there, but you’re probably looking at something over the 100k mark, so get a compression check as these do occasionally suffer from head gasket issues.
The e46 is a rewarding drive that could be described as the simplest modern BMW.
HIGHWAY STAR:’95-’04 530i/540i
If you spend more time on highways than backroads, or need a little extra room for your friends, a 5er could be just the thing. The six-cylinder 530i is certainly not underpowered, but there are no shortage of V8 cars available. With a 282 horsepower NA V8 under the hood (291 in later models), the 540i is amply motivated, Motor Trend even accused it of being a thinly-veiled sports car in 1997.
The 540 features a premium interior rich with leather and wood, and devoid of the complex iDrive system BMW would implement on the following e60 cars. While not a compact car, the 5er feels small on the road, and delivers the more responsive dynamics that set these cars apart from rival Mercedes’ offerings.
Look hard and you can find a 540i Msport with the six-speed manual and uprated suspension. These have been called “the poor man’s M5,” that’s a title I’ll leave it to you to have out. What can be said is they’re much less expensive to maintain than the e39 M5, which, for all its glory has been called the most expensive-to-own car BMW ever produced.
Common problems include the idle control valve (ICV) and rear subframe bushings. Pretty minor in BMW terms, really. Much like the 3er of the same period, extra points if you can find a wagon.
WHEN THE ANSWER ISN’T MIATA:’95-’02 Z3
I bet you didn’t know that the Z3 gets a 9.3/10 from Kelly Blue Book, a 4.5/5 from Cars.com and a 4.9/5 from Edmunds. Here’s a car that took a lot of flak for its looks early on, but offers a lot of fun in an affordable package…and these days it doesn’t look so bad if you can handle those side vents.
Most of the Z3’s mechanical issues align with those of the e46 3-series on which it was primarily based. It does use the rear suspension from older-generation 3-series cars, and that can create some bump-steer in corners; you have the option of either not driving the car at the limit, or living with that. It certainly won’t keep you from enjoying the Zed sled.
The Z came in a number of flavors. Probably the most accessible are the 2.8i and 3.0i cars produced later in the car’s lifecycle. If you’re the type who prefers to row your own, these cars also offer the advantage of a six-speed vs. the earlier five-speed transmission.
As for the M cars and coupe models, they’re certainly a hoot, but they’re difficult to find and not for everyone.
Retro M3 Clone:’89-91 318iS
Lots of people want to buy e30 M3s these days, but don’t want to pay the exorbitant money they’ve come to demand. Unless you’re buying the car as a collector, that’s a good policy, but if you want an e30 with the M3’s good looks, and don’t want to deal with all the bs of finding a 325 that hasn’t been thrashed, this little-known model makes a good choice.
Keep in mind that these are more difficult to find than the other cars mentioned here, but they have some unique traits that make them underappreciated cars. Short of the fender flares, they’ve got all the good looks of the M, and won’t run up the same maintenance bill. You also get upgraded suspension and a limited-slip differential.
You could argue that the LSD isn’t going to get much of a workout with the M42 four-cylinder producing only 134 hp and 127 ft-lbs., but you’re not going to win any drag races in a 325 either and the 318’s light weight gives it a handling edge. The car has also shown itself to be stout, as do most bimmers of this era, with fewer moving parts than its six-cylinder brethren.
All-Weather Bimmer: ’00-’06 X5
If you must have an SUV, or something more practical than what’s already been covered here, the first-generation X5 can be had for reasonable prices these days. BMW claims to have invented a segment with this car, which is probably stretching the truth, but it was handily better than other luxury SUV competition for its time.
People still compliment the original X5 on the way its driving experience manages to feel sporty, not truck-like, and its interior (available in vinyl or leather) features a premium stereo, climate control, and other luxo-goodies that competitors of the era were offering.
You can take confidence in knowing the X5 will perform off-road if that’s what you have in mind, though most X5 drivers do not use their cars this way. It’s no Wrangler, but there’s enough ground clearance and suspension travel to get you through a potted-out fire road any day, or more likely, through the snow to the ski hill.Speaking of which, models built after 2003 get the uprated xDrive all-wheel-drive system.
Engine choices range from the tried-and-true 3.0 six to a 4.4-liter V8, or a 4.6-4.8 in the upmarket iS trim. Six-cylinder cars are more affordable, and neither model is particularly prone to mechanical issues. Do check the transfer case, as they can fail, and give any prospective cars a thorough looking-over to spot any signs of off-road abuse. Oh, and make sure it’s got the rubberized floor mats.