Cars and Bids Bargain of the Week: 1997 E39 BMW 540i

Used BMWs’ affordable prices can be tempting, but many potential buyers worry about how reliable these German luxury cars truly are. After all, just because a car is cheap to buy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheap to own. But with enough care, you can find an inexpensive model. This week’s Cars and Bids featured bargain is one of those: a modified 1997 BMW 540i.

The E39 BMW 540i is “peak BMW,” Road & Track says

For Road & Track, the 1995-2004 E39 5 Series “represented BMW at the peak of its powers.” To quote The Drive, “[m]any consider it to be the best 5 Series of them all.” And while it’s not quite an M5, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the E39 BMW 540i, Hagerty reports.

Like the contemporary M5, the E39 BMW 540i has a V8 under the hood, albeit a 4.4-liter one, not a 4.9-liter one, BMWBlog reports. Still, it makes 282 hp and 310 lb-ft, and could be ordered with either a 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic, MotorTrend reports. And for the 1999 model year the torque increased to 324 lb-ft, Autoblog reports.

A red 2001 BMW 540i with M-Sport Package
2001 BMW 540i with M-Sport Package | BMW

But, while the E39 BMW 540i doesn’t have the M5’s power, it shares similar “delightful driving characteristics,” Automobile reports. That’s thanks in part to the 50:50 weight distribution, excellent chassis, and also to the lightweight cast-aluminum suspension, ECS Tuning and MT report.

And starting in 1997, E39 540i buyers could upgrade the handling one step further with the “must-have” M-Sport Package, which added “tauter” shocks, lowering springs, stiffer anti-roll bars, and sportier tires, MT reports. It’s basically the 5 Series version of the 330i ZHP.

Yet for all that, the E39 BMW 540i is still a luxury sedan, with all the requisite contemporary accouterments. It offered heated seats, a heated steering wheel, and adjustable lumbar support in the seats, Car and Driver reports. Leather upholstery and walnut trim are standard; a navigation system with voice commands was optional, MT reports. And when you’re not carving corners, the E39 BMW 540i is a comfortable, spacious, and quiet commuter, MT reports.

The 1997 BMW 540i on Cars and Bids

A silver modified 1997 BMW 540i M-Sport
Modified 1997 BMW 540i M-Sport | Cars and Bids

The 1997 BMW 540i currently listed on Cars and Bids has the M-Sport package as well as a manual transmission. It also comes with a power sunroof, the optional upgraded audio system, automatic climate control, and rear-window sunshades. But it’s also not exactly stock.

This particular 1997 BMW 540i has an air intake and ECU tune from famed BMW tuner Dinan. The sedan also has an Eisenmann sports exhaust and a short-shifter kit. Plus, the wheels, while factory originals, have powder-coated centers.

The gray-leather front seats and walnut-trimmed dashboard of a 1997 BMW 540i
1997 BMW 540i interior | Cars and Bids

Admittedly, this 1997 BMW 540i isn’t cosmetically perfect. Cars and Bids reports that the hood, roof, and trunk lid have been repainted. There are also a few stone chips in front, and the front bumper has a crack. Plus, the front seats have some inevitable wear. However, it only has 101,600 miles on the clock.

Also, this 1997 BMW 540i has an extensive service record. The current owner replaced the engine oil and filter as well as the starter, alternator, drive belts, hood and truck struts, the cabin air filter, the cooling fan blade, and the lower oil-pan gasket. This sedan’s intake manifold gasket, valve cover gaskets, water pump, thermostat, control arm bushings, power steering pump, and tires were all replaced within the last 3500 miles.

It’s a bargain, easier-to-live-with E39 M5

The rear 3/4 view of a silver modified 1997 BMW 540i M-Sport
Modified 1997 BMW 540i M-Sport rear 3/4 | Cars and Bids

As of this writing, this 1997 E39 BMW 540i is listed on Cars and Bids at $3540 with three days left in the auction. That’s noticeably below the average sale price on Bring a Trailer, which hovers around $10,000. And it’s significantly cheaper than an E39 M5, which typically goes for $20,000-$40,000 on BaT.

As we’ve said before, even with the M-Sport package, the E39 BMW 540i isn’t as fast or as sporty as the M5. But it’s the easier car to live with on a daily basis for a number of reasons, Jalopnik and Gear Patrol report. Firstly, besides the initial purchase price, the 540i is more fuel-efficient and doesn’t require specialized synthetic oil. And secondly, this particular 1997 540i is arguably more reliable than the contemporary M5.


Which Used BMW Is the Most Reliable?

The 540i’s power increase in the 1999 model year coincides with the introduction of BMW’s infamous VANOS system, E39Source and BMW Tuning report. It’s a noted age-related failure point in the E39 M5 as well, R&T reports. However, the 1998 and earlier models avoid it completely.

Admittedly, the 540i’s M62 V8 isn’t fault-proof, but most of its known issues—increased oil consumption, valve cover leaks, engine mounts, and cracked radiators—are because of age, not built-in flaws. And apart from the timing chain, the 1997 540i listed on Cars and Bids has seemingly already had these issues addressed.

So, a comfortable, reasonably sporty luxury sedan with most of the major service out of the way? Seems like a bargain to me.

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