By on August 17, 2011



Kurt writes:


Really enjoy Piston Slap and could use some help working through this problem:

I am an expat working in Europe.  I brought one car from the US with me and picked up a 1997 BMW 528i Touring (5 speed) here.  I just found out that I will be transferred back to the US next year and have to make a car decision pretty soon.  I really like 528iT and would like to take it back with us, but it seems that the cost to self-import the Bimmer to the US is about equal to what I paid for it (and its a little long in the tooth).  I really like the combination of the Touring’s performance and carrying space and am trying to decide what to buy next.  The short list is:

  1. Find another E39 Touring in the US (hopefully with a manual and a little newer)
  2. E61 Touring (but am concerned with reliability)
  3. 2003 745i

Sajeev answers:

Speaking with some level of confidence, importing a non-classic car (i.e. younger than 25 years of age) could be difficult, as anything even remotely new may need to be federalized.  That means a bumper swap, headlight swap, and who knows what else an E39 needs to get legal.  Probably nothing else. Fingers crossed on that.

If you must have an E39 Touring (which I totally dig, btw) odds are bringing yours over is easier than finding one in the states with a good service history.  Even if you find a nice one, who knows how many thousands of dollars in reconditioning will be needed: none of which is needed on your car? Perhaps.

And there’s the rub: your idea of automotive nirvana pleases the senses, but punishes the wallet.  You probably don’t want to buy a (non 3-series) BMW out of warranty in the USA. These cars are rather expensive to fix here for a multitude of reasons. Even assuming your ExPat salary leaves you fairly well off, don’t even consider the impossible-to-CPO-warranty, Bangle butted, E65!  Nobody hates their money THAT much…right?

My advice is simple: buy any BMW with a CPO warranty, or short term lease a brand spankin’ new one. This isn’t Europe, these cars turn into hard-to-diagnose, expensive-to-repair money pits far too quickly. And if you are that averse to newer Bavarian beasties, consider my bizarre wagon short list for you:

  1. Lexus IS Sportcross
  2. Acura TSX Sport Wagon
  3. Subie WRX Wagon (new, not abused)
  4. Dodge Magnum SRT-8
  5. Ford Flex EcoBoost (with a computer re-flash)
  6. Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8

Off to you, Best and Brightest.

Send your queries to [email protected]. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.


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49 Comments on “Piston Slap: Blinded by the E39 Wagon’s Light?...”

  • avatar

    As much as the E39 528iT is Nature’s Most Nearly Perfect Car, I’d agree with Sajeev that, in North America, it doesn’t make sense, long-term ownership wise, either to import or buy used. Even CPO can turn PITA very quickly.

    If you’re ok with the maintenance costs, go CPO (but these are not easy to come by). If you are going to lease, go for the later 5-series wagons. If you can’t, import and live with it.

    From the list provided, the IS300 SportCross is about as good as it gets, and it doesn’t ride nearly as well as the BMW. The other options—of which the Magnum is the closest—are much softer. The Magnum is not hugely common, the SportCross even less so.

    You might also want to try finding a prior-gen Legacy GT wagon. These were available in Canada for a bit longer and getting a Canadian car into the US is not nearly so hard.

    • 0 avatar

      As an owner of the prior generation Legacy GT wagon, I would not recommend for spirited driving performance… Of course, it may be that mine is AT and not tip-top running shape…

      • 0 avatar

        Must be something peculiar to yours. I have an 05 LGT wagon (with 5EAT) and it is a blast. Plus it can swallow tons of stuff — I am constantly packing it with guitars, amps, PA equipment, etc. A manual would certainly add to the fun, but I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Oddly enough, when packed with about 500 lbs of gear, it feels even more solid and Germanic, and still moves quite well.

  • avatar

    Most of Sajeev’s suggestions are automatic only. I had to laugh at the IS300 choice — what a POS. Extremely difficult to fix, too.

    Finding an E39 wagon with manual transmission in the States will take a lot of stamina. I have been looking for one for about 9 years. No luck so far.

    Most US wagons are POS all-wheel-drive models. Finding a proper RWD wagon with manual gearbox is next to impossible.

    • 0 avatar

      How does AWD make a vehicle a POS? What does “proper” mean anyways, and how does it make everything else inferior? A wagon should be utilitarian and haul 5+ people. I’d say a Country Squire is more “proper” than a 5-series.

      But I also think my Outback is rather nifty; it’s RWD + FWD + manual. Is as enjoyable driving to the store and school as a BMW or anything “proper” due to school zones, speed bumps, etc… Hauls plenty under the roof and over the roof, fords streams, and my wife can still get the tail out on gravel roads if she so chooses. How improper!

      • 0 avatar

        AWD adds weight and complexity. It reduces gas mileage with no added benefit for the overwhelming majority of the year. It is unnecessary unless you are “essential personnel” in a rural, harsh climate (for example, an ER surgeon in northern Maine). For most everyone else, snow tires would be a better solution.

        I personally don’t dismiss all AWD vehicles as a POS, but AWD is something I prefer to avoid for the above reasons. It’s success is a baffling triumph of marketing.

        I do like the previous gen Legacy GTs, but it is the AWD sandbagging the gas mileage that keeps it on the fringe for me.

      • 0 avatar

        It ain’t just the AWD that makes the gas mileage so pitiful on those Legacy GTs. Subaru, like Mazda, seems to have this talent for making otherwise decent cars whose fuel economy lags the class by 3-5+ mpg. They seem to have improved this somewhat more recently, but IMHO they still have a ways to go.

      • 0 avatar

        I own a 2007 328xiT (AWD wagon) with manual transmission. My wife absolutely loves it and I can see why: it is very stable, has excellent steering and brakes and rear seat access is great for our two children in child seats. However, whenever I drive it, I compare it to our RWD 325i and there is no comparison. The perfect balance and the agility is missing. The AWD version feels heavy and deliberate, not eager and entertaining like the RWD. But the car is absolutely incredible in snow with snow tires on, I will admit that.

        I have also owned 5 Subarus, from 1989 Justy RS 4WD to 1998 Impreza 25RS. While I love Subarus for many different reasons, I still don’t like them as much as my RWD cars. In fact, besides the 25RS, only my 1994 FWD Impreza had the feel I always look for in cars. It was also best of all my Subies in snow, believe it or not. Not as good as my FWD SAABs but MUCH better than AWD Subies. The 25RS was especially unstable in snow, easily swapping ends on all-season tires. It was not bad when I put good snow tires on it.

        So yeah, I would not recommend AWD BMWs for a car enthusiast. RWD is MUCH better.

        Almost forgot. I have been getting a consistent 19 mpg with the AWD 3er. I average 26 with RWD. On long highway trips the only way I get less than 30 mpg with the 325i is by having a rooftop cargo carrier on it. Even then I can easily get 28. The 328xiT does not seem to get any better than 22 mpg on long trips. 18 with the same rooftop cargo carrier installed. Careful, super smooth highway driving with two little kids…. I have even tried swapping tires/wheels for smaller/ligher Michelin GreenX ones — no improvement.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re all off your rocker

        You like to “blame” AWD but in each case AWD just happens to be a feature of a car that actually has little to do with your gripes.

        Subaru has used a pretty low tech boxer 4 for some years now and that is the source of the fuel economy woes. The 2012 Impreza with the new design (only the 3rd new Subaru boxer ever!) motor seems to be turning that around, AWD still standard.

        I could pick up the R160 rear end with driveshafts myself, it is not very heavy, and Subaru makes pretty lightweight cars for the size, despite AWD.

        BMW does put the same suspension tuning into their AWD models, on my Moms 325Xi the standard ride height is higher than the RWD, the tires, sway bars etc are not the same, and the “sport package” is just wheels/seats/steeringwheel where the RWD gets a lower suspensions with even more aggressive tuning. None of this has anything to do with the addition of AWD, it was a conscious decision by BMW to tune differently, based on the pre-conceptions of consumers like you, funny how that perpetuates.

        Some of use AWD AND snow tires. I do agree snow tires are great, sometimes you can still get stuck with 2WD, especially with no LSD. Almost impossible to get stuck with AWD and snows if you keep it on the pavement.

        I agree AWD is only a part time benefit for most. I happen to drive powerful cars, I have a WRX so I enjoy the AWD all year long. Try driving a Mazdaspeed3 in the rain it is a miserable experience, dry pavement is only ok becuase electronics limit the power in the lower gears.

    • 0 avatar

      Other than oil changes, you must be the first person who ever had to fix an IS300. Or was it above 300,000 miles at the time.?

  • avatar
    Mr. K

    From Sajeev’s comments BMW’s (and other German cars) might not be as trouble prone in Europe as here. Am I reading that right? Sajeev says:

    “This isn’t Europe, these cars turn into hard-to-diagnose, expensive-to-repair money pits far too quickly.”

    I am so down with that! But do these issues arise in Europe or not? Why did Toyota kick GM and MBZ to the curb? Quality! Quality in both construction and reliability.

    I would love a 3 series but not sure I can afford it and with 2K repair tickets perhaps a LTC might be the choice, or a nice LS430.

    A6, 5 series would love one. I do not include the E class because of the brakes – I am not in the MBZ world are they bad enough with their various electronic doo dads to justify my caution?

    At least for now it’s detroit iron, or a used Lexus or Infiniti (I understand the G35 holds it’s value in part due to the fact that it does not break like a A4/3 series)

    So this is less a comment and more a series of questions I would be interested in learning the answers to.

    • 0 avatar

      “I am so down with that! But do these issues arise in Europe or not? Why did Toyota kick GM and MBZ to the curb? Quality! Quality in both construction and reliability.”

      Well said, but I suspect the European automotive service community is conditioned to understand the quirks of German engineering, because they know their past, are well informed on their present…

      …and I suspect the parts are cheaper and (sometimes) easier to get, because they are all local! I’ve seen far too many decent German rides sit in a shop gathering dust while they wait for a part to make it across the pond!

      • 0 avatar

        There are three reasons:

        European consumers don’t seem to care about quality as much. This is kind of a dirty secret of several industries, but quality (in the reliable/durable sense of the word, not design or build quality) is not help to the same expectation.

        The motherships at Daimler, VW, BMW and, to a lesser degree, the Swedes (and the French and Italians, when they were here), treat their North American child companies and dealer networks like crap. They put the screws to them about warranty work, don’t stock parts well, and generally consider them second-class. The dealers pass this maltreatment to the customer.

        Europeans don’t drive that much, don’t need them as often, and don’t own their own cars (or at least, not at the execu-sled level). Company cars are a much more common thing.

      • 0 avatar

        I’ve seen far too many decent German rides sit in a shop gathering dust while they wait for a part to make it across the pond!

        What? Where are they getting their parts from? Bavarian Autosport in Portsmouth NH has a 3 story warehouse for BMW parts and Pelican on the West Coast is a good source as well. Both discount the parts as well.

    • 0 avatar

      I was wondering about the same i.e. built in the same factory, what, 98% same car turns money pit in US? Very strange. Not that more complex and more powerful cars doesn’t have problems in Europe also, depending on model, but the problem level seems generally much lower. EDIT: yes parts are cheap for BMW usually, same level than all the other local brands, cheaper than Jap parts. From the list, Lexus IS and Subaru are much smaller than E39 which is not an packing wonder itself, compared e.g. to A6.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m wondering about long term German luxury performance also. I’ve got my eye on a gently used Audi S4 (after owning three VWs–1 very solid–the other two-not so much) and don’t want to deal with a slew of maintenance/reliability problems.

      Anyone who owns an S4 (6MT) please speak up!

      Also, how is the Cadillac CTS-V doing, reliability wise, compared to the German performance machines?

  • avatar

    The 5-series (at least through the E39) isn’t any more trouble or cost than a 3-series if you’re capable of doing at least some of your own maintenance. The M5? Sure, that’ll cost you, but there’s nothing at all exotic about the plain jane 528i. They’re about as reliable as anything european and parts prices online are on par with VWs. You’re going to be stuck doing a 5 or 6-speed swap, though, ’cause MT cars are rare as hen’s teeth.

  • avatar

    2004-2007 Volvo V70R has a better interior and will spank those Bimmer choices ALL DAY and CARRY MORE! All manuals are 300HP, 295LB of torque and stage I ECU upgrade (IPD) will take you to 340HP, 338LB of torque and there are upgrade kits (bigger turbo, intercooler and tune) that allow these engines to achieve 400HP+

    Plus you have electronic suspension settings to adjust the ride.
    Sense when is AWD a POS ? Look at the Youtube video of the Bimmer (5 Series) nut during last winter’s heavy snow in Atlanta GA spinning his tires for minutes on end, going no where, until his Bimmer catches on fire and burns to the ground !

    • 0 avatar

      All AWD will help you do is get moving. It won’t help you turn (except in some very rare circumstances), and it won’t help you stop. It will give you a false sense of security because it will get you moving, though.

      If poor-weather traction and safety is an issue, winter tires and the presence of stability control are more important than which and how many wheels are putting down power.

      • 0 avatar

        Tires ? Tell that to the Bimmer NUT in Atlanta that burned his 5 series to the ground spinning his wheels on ice OR tell me something I don’t know already. The S60 and V70R has TC, DSTC, Brake Based Torque vectoring, Electronically controlled AWD, Electronically controlled transmission and ABS of course.

        I drove my Volvo C70 with ABS, TRACS (low speed only brake based TC) and electronically controlled transmission set to Winter mode to negate wheel spin RIGHT PASSED people’s stuck SUVs, RWD Bimmers and RWD Mercedes – I had new Continental ContiExtreme DWS (Dry Wet Snow) Tires on my 18 inch BBS wheels.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        I’m taking a wild-ass guess, but my guess would be that in a once-in-every ten years Atlanta snowstorm, there were more than a few AWD/4WD SUVs and the like off the road . . . who found out that, advertisements to the contrary, AWD/4wd does nothing to improve braking and very little to improve handling (unless you’re a moron with RWD). That certainly was my observation in the 10 years that I had a mountain home in the highest part of West Virginia, that receives something like 140 inches of annual snowfall. On every drive that I made during the winter between that place (Canaan Valley) and DC, I would see several SUVs that ran off the road somewhere. I never saw a 2wd car, despite the fact that lots of people take 2wd cars up there in winter (including me).

        Sure, in really tough conditions AWD/4WD with (proper snows!) will keep you going when other 2wds are stuck, with or without snows. But the number of places in the U.S. where these conditions occur more than once or twice a year is extremely small.

        Everywhere else, it’s just a feature that adds weight and complexity . . . and uses more gasoline. It’s worth remembering that modern AWD systems (as distinct from bone-simple part-time 4wd systems on Jeeps and the like) were developed by Audi to deal with the torque steer problem as Audi kept putting increasingly powerful engines in its FWD cars. At the time, one of the car mags took otherwise identical Audis — one with FWD and one with the “Quattro” AWD system and raced them on a track, both wet and dry, using both expert and non-expert drivers. IIRC, the Quattro car was just a tiny bit superior on the wet track.

        Psarhjinian, who is Canadian (and therefore deals with more snow that lots of people in the U.S.) is absolutely correct, IMHO. I have an AWD Honda Pilot and an old Saab 9-5 wagon. Given the choice, I’d rather drive the Saab in snow (unless its very deep), even with both vehicles equipped with true snows. The extra 600-700 lbs. in vehicle weight with the Pilot is very noticeable and does not inspire confidence when turning or trying to stop. The Pilot is my wife’s car . . . she wanted it; I didn’t. Back when we had 3 kids at home, we had an AWD Previa, which was a much more confidence-inspiring drive in the snow even though, unlike the Pilot, it did not have stability control.

    • 0 avatar

      AWD may help, but it takes away from the experience of RWD. Besides, the right tire changes everything.

  • avatar

    For the price of importing and federalizing an E39 wagon you could get a base CTS wagon, which comes with a warranty already. Probably handles a whole lot better too.

  • avatar

    I would recommend downsizing to a (new) 328i wagon. You can have RWD and a manual transmission for 36k, add the sport package and leather seats for another 3.5k if you have the budget. You’ll have to find a dealer to order one for you, because most Americans don’t drive stick, and dealers won’t have them on the lot.

    If you’re working on a tight budget, you’re going to have an extremely hard time finding a manual transmission wagon worth driving. I recommend going for a sedan, or the afore mentioned extremely fun but much smaller WRX hatchback, or the very utilitarian but much less exciting Jetta TDI wagon.

    I faced the same dilemma and went with an a4 sedan. It doesn’t have the utility of the wagon that I wanted, but Audi dealers occasionally have manual trans cars, and they tend to sell them at cost just to get them off the lot after 4-5 months of collecting dust in a warehouse.

  • avatar

    The lower dash on US E39s is also different than Euro counterparts – it’s thicker so morons not wearing seatbelts will theoretically submarine under the dash rather than get launched out the wind shield. Not sure if you would have to change this to make an import legal in the US.

    Anyway, I do see manual 528iTs on autotrader occasionally. You can also find them in BMWCCA classifieds. It might take a nationwide search to get a clean sample, but they are out there.

    An E39 is not the bottomless money pit Sajeev makes it out to be. It certainly isn’t cheap to own, but it isn’t ridiculous. This depends on where you live, but most cities have plenty of independent shops that can repair them for reasonable labor rates, and there are lots of resources for buying parts online.

    I am afraid of the E61 and E65 though.

  • avatar

    2004-2005 SAAB 9-5 Aero wagon! There, fixed it for you.

  • avatar

    Unless your doing track days and fuel bill is picked up by your workplace, the E39 is not the most efficient tool in the shed. The US version Saab 9-5 Aero will see 30+ mpg has full leather, sunroof, and power windows. Tunable to 300+ horsepower.

  • avatar

    BMW don’t sell wagons anymore in the U.S., don’t they? Perhaps as an attempt to spur the sales of the GT version. Looking for used wagon version with manual? Good luck with that. Might want to start you search right now.

  • avatar

    If Saab makes a comeback, 9-3 SportCombi or 9-5 SportCombi if you want some more room. At least the 9-3 is available in a 6 spd manual.

  • avatar

    Would an out-of-warranty Saab 9-5 Aero actually be cheaper to own?

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve owned both E39s and 9-5s and I would say yes. There are some common failure points on a 9-5 that can be expensive (DI cassettes, throttle bodies), but overall 9-5s are surprisingly (at least in my experience) reliable and reasonably cost efficient to maintain. I also live in New England, where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some old timer who works on SAABs for 60 bucks an hour.

    • 0 avatar

      No worse than an in-warranty 9-5, considering the state of Saab.

      That said, I’ve driven both and the GM2900 9-5 is not in the same league as the E39 5-Series. The former is a (very nice) hopped-up riff on the Saturn L-Series, while the latter is probably one of the best cars ever made, holistically speaking.

  • avatar

    I’m very suprised Sajeev didn’t mention it: CTS wagon. The big butt is utilitarian.

  • avatar

    I find the words of doom about BMW by people who have never owned one rather amusing.

    There is nothing terribly exotic about an E39. Same basic stuff as every other European car. No, they are not as cheap to run as the ever-TTAC-beloved-Panther, but it is not a Lamborghini either. And they are CERTAINLY cheaper to run in the US than in Europe for the simple reason that we do not have VAT on everything at 17-25%! Certainly the secret is to avoid the dealerships, there are plenty of good BMW independents out there who will take good care of one for reasonable money if you can’t DIY.

    As to manual wagons. They are out there, I have had a standing search on eBay that turns up 3-4 a month, and that is just eBay. But I decided to buy new for a variety of reasons.

    Suggestions of an e91 3-series are all well and good, it is a lovely car, I am on my way home from doing European Delivery on one (typing this on the Thalys train from Paris to Schiphol at 300km/hr). But they are MUCH smaller, especially in terms of load space.

  • avatar

    Here you go. Done and done.

  • avatar

    Another alternative is the previous generation Mazda6. It was available as a wagon with a 215hp V6 and manual transmission. I think it was only offered for a couple of model years though, and may be even harder to find than a 528iT.

  • avatar

    Can’t you get a BMW Alpina (cf., I haven’t heard any bad things on Alpina cars, although they are usually driven by car enthusiasts, and definitely not only on Sundays.

    Alpina may also give you advice on adapting any BMW car according to US regulations.

    On the down-side, they cost more but in the long term…? At least you may get a V8, ample speed & 8-speed Switch-Tronic (c.f

    As others above, I simply can’t imagine that there are no knowledgeable and willing BMW service people available in the US.

    BTW: That “European consumers don’t seem to care about quality as much”, as psarhjinian suggested, is not a “dirty secret” but a myth, IMHO.

  • avatar

    2005 manual Subaru Legacy GT Wagon will fill the bill. Mine has few thousand dollars in exhaust/intercooler/tuning work plus JDM Bilstein struts/lower springs/sway bar. Goes like hell and never a problem. Well, I did blow out the original crappy intercooler. How could that have happened?

    The Mazda 6 is really small inside and a manual will be harder to find than the Subie. I could never even find one to cross shop when I bought the Subie.

  • avatar

    Having worked on the Volvo, Saab, Benz, and BMW wagons and driven them – you’d be hard pressed to find a more engaging wagon than an e39 touring with the stick shift. Whether 528i or 540i – there’s no wrong choice. As for working on them – they’re pretty straightforward to work on. The big problem with european cars in America is that the majority of non specialist technicians don’t completely understand them. On an american or japanese car – ground is black. On a german car – it is brown. There are a lot of little differences. If you are good with a wrench and willing to get your hands dirty – pick up the bentley manual and an e39 of your choosing and you are golden. Parts costs for BMW’s aren’t *that* bad – dealer parts for a BMW are often cheaper than the same dealer parts for a Ford. Granted, I drive a ford as my daily driver – but that’s because it was inexpensive, fun, and good on gas. Budget and wife’s understanding willing – I’d grab an e39 wagon in a heartbeat.

    • 0 avatar

      People who suggest that BMW parts are expensive obviously have never tried to find American and Asian parts. Not only there is far more supply, prices are often lower and are generally very reasonable. Genuine BMW parts are of excellent quality and at often very reasonable priced at online retailers. I have had to deal with repairs on a variety of cars and European makes have been by far the cheapest and most readily available. Just recently I had a hell of a time trying to buy a CV joint boot kit for a Buick. Really had to run around to get a good one. Ended up with a Chinese made one because the American made one I got via special order was missing a clamp!!! A lot of them where also “universal fit” — yeah, right. BMW, SAAB, Volvo, Mercedes — a boot kit any of these would have been on my door step next morning, Made in Germany. Very likely for less money.

  • avatar

    I’m baffled why noone is suggesting the CTS wagon, it handles better than an E39 (I had an 03 M, the steering is awful and it’s too heavy) and comes with a warranty and a comprehensive dealer network. Plus I think it’s about the best looking car on the road today. Doooooit!

  • avatar


    Thanks for your answers and all of the suggestions. I have quite a few cars to test drive when I return home. Right now the (not so) short and not so focused list looks like this:

    LS 430
    9-5 Wagon
    CTS Wagon
    Legacy Wagon
    Jaguar XJR

    My e39 has been very reliable. I put a new clutch in shortly after buying and had to replace a traction control component. I do most of my own wrenching and have found the car easy to work on. Car repairs are much more expensive here and I don’t think the techs are particularly skilled. Europeans just seem desensitized to the higher prices and customer service as we know it, just never took off here. They also don’t seem to hold on to cars too long. Each car older than 4 or 5 years goes through a very comprehensive, yearly, government inspection (brakes, bearings, suspension, headlight aiming, emissions, etc). Expensive repairs to make cars compliant seem to pressure people into buying new cars. – Kurt

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve got a 540it and love it, perfect car. I was looking for a manual 528 but came across an impeccable condition 540 and fell in love with it. Not great mpg’s but it’s worth it and I’m averaging over 18 so not too bad. I don’t miss the manual BMWs sport mode is much more aggressive in gear selection than I would be on the road anyway.

  • avatar

    E39 plus LS V8/6sp conversion??? Or bring all the parts you need for a BMW manual conversion back with you, to widen the range of cars available to you, including cars with a blown auto trans.

    • 0 avatar

      This is one of those ideas that stays on the internet

      For all that work and $$$ you could have a 1st gen CTS-V.

      No swipes, just saying.

      As far as the PS conundrum… why not a 325i wagon? Not much less room, prob about the same performance, better gas mileage yadda yadda. Or the weird X5 3.0 manual. Just some other options

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