The BMW 520d is the base of the base of the E39. It’s the smallest displacement engine of the E39 era and aims to be the most economical by being a turbo-diesel. They’re the base end of the 5-series line and it shows.
Note that BMW wanted me to drive this car so much that they mass produced it in Europe and made them reliable enough so that many survive to this day and that they are dirt cheap to own. This is our first car here, and is a true beater.
The BMW E39 5-series was a stellar design for its time; some would say the pinnacle of approachable design for the late 90s and early 00s. It’s solid, well proportioned and looks like a station wagon. It’s large by European standards although I think it still qualifies as a mid-size in the USA. For the most part there are no obnoxious panel gaps and build quality is pretty good. These things are tanks.
I’m dinging a few points here for an extreme lack of usable cupholders. The cupholders on E39 BMWs are notorious for breaking and mine are no exception. Plus they don’t even hold European drinks, let alone an American 32oz soda. I had the same problem in my 2000 E39 M5. The interior of the 520 is less appointed than that of my M5; the seats are manually adjusted and are not heated. They are not supportive seats, they are mushy, like sitting on grandma’s old couch.
Going from a 400hp E39 M5 to 136hp in the same chassis has made me a sad panda. The car will still pull ahead of a Micra when I floor it and roll coal. Being a true F/R car, I can actually get the tail to slide when I want. When the turbo is in full boost mode around 2750rpm it feels like the car can move some. Then you hit the redline around 4500 and your fun ends.
The brakes aren’t quite as good as the massive ones on the M5. At the same time they are standard disc, anti-lock brakes. They were not good enough to keep me from rear-ending the i30 Hyundai I hit. They do stop reasonably well in the wet, the ABS still works and the pedal isn’t mushy. It’s probably due for a full fluid flush.
The ride is good and got much better after I replaced the original suspension which had 290,000km on it even though the suspension was OEM spec. It’s still a passenger car, though. It can seem mushy but it is consistent.
The E39 chassis is solid, and even in utilitarian, station-wagon form it’s still sold. There is much less body roll than you’d expect from a station wagon, especially if you are comparing it to a Ford Taurus or 1980s/1970s family truckster.
It’s a 5-speed with ratios made for a diesel engine. After I had the clutch replaced the shifter was serviced and it moves much more smoothly. Even with 300,000km on it, the throw is more assured and solid than one of the Peugeot rental cars I’ve had.
The car came with a stock 6-CD player and AM/FM radio. It worked pretty well, except for the fact the pixels on the display burned out. Audio quality is good, and when you have kids around, it’s not like you can really enjoy something that is high-end.
The car is pretty bare bones, but I went ahead and put an Eonon Android dash unit in. This makes the car much more fun; Full radio, sat-nav, and steering wheel controls for whatever you’re streaming over bluetooth. It does have cruise control and AC, which many EU cars do not have.
I bought this pile of bolts for 2250 Euro. It’s lasted over a year and half in my care. Other than serious wear-n-tear (needing a clutch and tires) it’s been a solid car that continues to run and run. We’ve had it for many trips to Paris, London, Brussels, Aachen and the Hague.