BMW 540i
BMW 540i. Photos: BMW. Click image to enlarge

By Chris Chase

I was trying to think up a witty way to start this week’s used car review, but after pondering a couple of ideas that just didn’t work, it occurred to me that I’m writing about a car that really needs no introduction.

In 1996, BMW began selling the third generation of its mid-size 5-series sedan. Dubbed the E39 in BMW chassis-code speak, this new Fiver was an evolution of what had become one of the best all-around cars in the world. In one understated package, buyers got four-door practicality and sprited performance, even in bottom of the line models.

For many enthusiasts, the E39 was the last “true” 5-series, featuring the understated elegance that had become a hallmark of this hallowed line of cars since the introduction of the E12, the first North American 5-series, which debuted in 1974 as the 530i. Many fanatics have shunned the busy looks, “Dame Edna” headlights and electronic driver’s “aids” that festoon the fourth-generation 5-series (the E60), introduced for 2004.

There’s no sense in griping about change, so let’s take a look at the car that set the benchmark for mid-size sedan utility and performance, the 1997-2003 BMW 5-series.

The E39 5-series was introduced in 1996 as an early 1997 model. There technically was no 1996 5-series, as production of the previous generation car, the E34, ceased after the last of the 1995s were built. In many ways, though, the E39 was an evolution of all the things that made the previous model the great car it was. The E39 was a touch bigger in every dimension, but slightly different proportions give it a more compact look.

The E39 still relied on in-line six and V-8 engines for motivation. A 2.8 litre six replaced a 2.5 litre as the base model’s engine (the base model 525i became the 528i as a result), and a 4.4 litre V-8 replaced the E34’s 4.0 litre (though cars using this engine were still called 540i despite the bump in displacement). The 530i with its 3.0 litre six disappeared with the introduction of the E39, but would return later in the generation’s run. In 2001, the 2.8 litre was replaced once again by the 2.5 litre engine (prompting another renaming of the base car, back to 525i) and a 3.0 litre six-cylinder returned to the lineup in the 530i.

Transmission options remained the same. Depending on which engine it was to be hooked up to, the gearbox was either a 5- or 6-speed manual, or a 4- or 5-speed automatic.

BMW 540i Touring
BMW 540i Touring

2000 BMW M5
2000 BMW M5. Click image to enlarge

In 1999, the 5-series wagon, which had disappeared after 1995, returned to the line-up. Dubbed “Touring” models, E39 wagons were available with either the 2.8 litre (and later, the 2.5 litre) and 4.4 litre engines, and were badged 525iT and 540iAT, the “A” in the latter’s name denoting the 5-speed automatic transmission that was the only option for getting the power to the road.

The other 5-series model that showed up late to the E39 party was the mighty M5. It made quite an entrance when it too joined the line-up for the 2000 model year powered by a roaring 400-hp V8.

Considering the level of performance these cars were engineered to provide, fuel economy is actually pretty good according to the typically conservative numbers provided by Natural Resources Canada. Expect a 528i or 530i to consume premium unleaded at a rate of about 12 L/100 km in the city and under 8 L/100 km on the open road. For the 540i line, the numbers vary depending on the year of production, but it’s safe to expect the V-8 powered cars to consumer 14 to 15 L/100 km in the city and 9 to 10 L/100 on the highway, depending on whether the car is equipped with a manual or automatic transmission. The M5 is thirstier still, drinking 17.5 L/100 km of fuel in the city, and 10.5 L/100 km on the highway.

As mentioned, Natural Resources’ fuel economy figures are generally on the conservative side, something that is of particular importance when talking about a driver’s car like the 5-series. As with most cars, don’t expect to replicate those fuel economy numbers if you drive your 5-series in the spirited manner for which it was engineered.

2003 BMW 540i
2003 BMW 540i. Click image to enlarge

Given the cachet that BMW’s spinning-propeller badge holds, you won’t find used 5-series selling for chump change. That said, this is a car that represents a tremendous value on the used market. Canadian Red Book value for a 2003 525i is $42,900 (about 77 per cent of its M.S.R.P of $55,200) and a 540iAT is worth $46,875, or 72 per cent of its M.S.R.P. Opt for the all-out performance of a 2003 M5, and expect to hand over something on the order of $75,400, which is something of a bargain compared to its original cost of $105,500. Go back a little further to 2000 and you might be able to find a 540i or 540iAT for less than $30,000, or an M5 for less than $50,000.

These are well-built cars with no glaring problems in terms of reliability. Consumer Reports recommends watching for trouble with the engine’s cooling system, as well as electrical and body hardware issues, especially in 1999 or older models.

There’s little information to be gleaned about crash safety, as the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never tested the E39. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) named the 540i a “best pick” for front impact protection, but didn’t conduct side-impact tests. Reassuring is the presence of all of the most common safety features – front and side airbags, ABS and traction control – as standard items on the E39 right from the start in 1997.

Even if the prospect of a new BMW has never been a possibility, your chance to own an example of one of the best sedans ever built is as close as your local used car classifieds. Sure, new cars have warranties, but for about $35,000, no new car will return the same kind of sheer driving enjoyment that a well-maintained four-year-old 5-series will. So do yourself a favour and introduce yourself to a car that needs no introduction.

On-line resources – this is one of the most comprehensive BMW enthusiast sites on the web. With close the 50,000 members, the forums here are a veritable encyclopedia of BMW knowledge with sections dedicated to the company’s many models, past and present. Membership is free. – DTMPower calls itself “the future of BMW tuning.” As such, it caters to BMW owners interested in modifying their cars, of which there are apparently many: more than 50,000 members call this site home. Like BimmerForums, this site’s discussion area is split up into sections for each BMW model, plus sections dedicated to other car-related talk. Membership is free. – With just over 10,000 members, features a polished layout and gives more attention to general BMW news and updates than some other BMW sites. Despite a smaller member base, there’s still a lot of good information here. Membership is free. – The membership statistics for are deceiving, listing more than 200,000 members. This site is run by Vortex Media Group, which also manages, a huge Volkswagen enthusiast community. is actually one of the lesser-populated sites in the Vortex empire, but a free membership here also gets you access to The Car Lounge, a very active general automotive interest community that’s full of knowledgeable members. – this rather cumbersome URL takes you to’s E39 discussion forum, one of many run by this site. The layout is simple, and the forums use an antiquated style of displaying member’s posts and threads, but there’s lots of information here. Membership is free.


Transport Canada Recall Number: 2004122 Units affected: 1239

1996-1997: On certain vehicles, the front spring strut plate could develop cracks. Over time, the crack may propagate. In extreme cases, the strut plate could break and contact the tire. This could lead to a sudden loss of tire pressure or tire failure. Correction: Dealer will install a retaining clip to the underside of the front spring strut plates.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2003259 Units affected: 1135

2001: On certain vehicles, a microprocessor in the airbag control module could cause one or more airbag(s) to deploy when placing the key in the ignition ON position, or when starting the vehicle. In this case, unexpected deployment of the airbag(s) could cause serious injury if an occupant is too close to the deploying airbag(s). In addition, the Battery Safety Terminal (BST) may also be activated. It this happens, the starter cable would become disconnected from the battery, and the engine could not be restarted. Correction: Dealer will replace the airbag control module.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001271 Units affected: 105

2002: Certain passenger vehicles built with standard (non-sport) suspension and equipped with continental ContTuringContact CH95 EcoPlus tires in the size 225/65R16 95H, having dotted codes 4001, 4101, or 4201. During the tire mounting process, the outer sidewall surface may have been cut by a sharp edge. Operation of the vehicle over a long period of time could lead to a reduction of inflation pressure. Continued driving with low inflation pressure in the tire could ultimately result in damage to the tire, affect vehicle handling and control, and could in some cases result in a vehicle crash. Correction: dealers will inspect all five tires for a possible cut in the sidewall, and if a cut is found, the tire will be replaced.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2000065 Units affected: 1132

2000: On certain vehicles, the brake light switch capacitor housing may be cracked and in high humidity conditions the capacitor and switch housing could become overheated and deformed. As a result, a short circuit or an open circuit could occur in the switch. This could cause the switch to remain either in the “brake lamps off” position or the “brake lamps on” position. If the switch remains in the “off” position, the brake lamps will be rendered inoperative. Conversely, if the switch remains in the “on” position, the brake lamps will be continuously illuminated when the ignition switch is in the “on” position. Correction: Brake lamp switch will be replaced with an improved switch.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998135 Units affected: 141

1998 528iA: The transmission gear position switch sealing material may in time develop leaks and allow water ingress. This could eventually result in incorrect indication of the transmission gear position, which could also cause the vehicle not to start or allow it to start in a drive gear, such as “drive” or “reverse”. Correction: Transmission gear position switch will be replaced with an improved version.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2002049 Units affected: 284

2002 530i: On certain passenger vehicles during the strut mount manufacturing process, the thrust bearing was not properly positioned and secured. If the suspension is fully unloaded, the front strut could separate from the upper mount. This could affect vehicle handling and control, increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: Dealers will replace both front spring strut upper mounts.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 1998134 Units affected: 75

1998 540i and 540iA: The differential pinion shaft in the differential case assembly was not properly surface hardened. This condition will result in premature wear, which can lead to noisy operation and ultimately to a lack of drive capability through the rear axle. Correction: Entire differential assembly be replaced on affected vehicles.

Transport Canada Recall Number: 2001301 Units affected: 208

2000-2001 M5: Certain passenger vehicles equipped with 18-inch tires. (18-inch tires are standard equipment on the M5 and optional equipment on the 7-series models). The machine used to mount and inflate the tires on the wheels at the assembly plant may have damaged the sidewall of one or more tires. The damaged area could weaken to the point where a sudden loss of air from the tire could occur. Handling and control would be drastically affected increasing the risk of a crash. Correction: dealers will inspect the tires and if damage from the mounting machine is found, the tire will be replaced.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site,, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site,

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see

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