Piston Slap: Blinded by the E39 Wagon's Light?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta

(from motoringconbrio.com)

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 sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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  • Overtheroadracer1 Overtheroadracer1 on Aug 17, 2011

    Sajeev, 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: 540iT LS 430 V70R 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

    • 540fastwagon 540fastwagon on Aug 18, 2011

      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.

  • Outback_ute Outback_ute on Aug 18, 2011

    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.

    • Sportyaccordy Sportyaccordy on Aug 20, 2011

      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

  • Rando [h2]Coincidentally, the Rolls-Royce Cullinan is more than $41k as well -.-[/h2]
  • Ajla "Gee, wonder why car (as well as home) insurance rates are much higher in places like Florida..." Severe weather is on the list but even if a benevolent genie reverted the climate to circa 1724 I think FL would still have high cost. Our home insurance rates have increased 102% since 2021 and I don't think weather models account for that much of a change in that period. Florida's insurance assignment of benefit regulation meant that it had ~80% of the country's of the insurance lawsuits on ~12% of the nation's claims and litigated claims can be expensive to insurance companies. The state altered some regulations and is having some success on getting more companies back, even with the severe weather risks, through relatively bipartisan efforts. With car insurance just beyond the basic "Florida" stuff, the population increase of the past few years is overwhelming the roads. But, I think the biggest thing is we have very low mandated car insurance levels. Only $10K personal injury and $10K property damage. No injury liability needed. And 20% of the state has no insurance. So people that actually want insurance pay out the nose. Like I commented above my under/uninsured coverage alone is 2.5x my comprehensive & collision.
  • Juan Let's do an 1000 mile drive and see who gets there first.
  • Eliyahu CVT needed for MPG. Outback is indeed the legacy of, err, the Legacy.
  • Gayneu I can comment on these. My wife always thought the Minis were "cute" so I bought her a used 2005 (non-S, 5 speed) for one of her "special" birthdays. She loved it and I kinda did too. Somehow a hole developed in the transmission case and the fluid drained out, ruining the car (too expensive to fix). A local mechanic bought it for $800.We then bought a used 2015 S (6 speed) which we still have today (80k miles). Her sister just bought a used S as well (also manual). It has been a dependable car but BMW-priced maintenance and premium gas hurts for sure. I think the earlier generation (like in the article) were better looking with cleaner lines. The 2015 S rides too stiff for me (Chicago roads) but is a hoot on smooth ones. It does seem to shift weird - its hard to describe but it shifts differently from every other manual I have driven. No matter how hard I try, so won't let go of her Mini.