Depending on who you ask, BMW either stands for the ultimate driving machine or “breaks monthly or weekly.” Ask a seasoned wrench hand their opinion of these cars and they’ll probably say the same thing they do of most cars. If you treat them well and take care of them, you shouldn’t expect more trouble with a bimmer than any other car.
What you can expect is an engaging driving experience, styling that is instantly recognizable but not obnoxious, and an interior that neatly walks the line between luxury and purpose. For many owners, nothing but a BMW will do, and these cars can be had at very accessible price ranges. So how do you make sure the car you pick is the right one?
Know What you Want
BMW is often credited with inventing the sports sedan, or at least bringing it to the masses. While smallish saloon cars and coupes remain the German automaker’s bread-and-butter, there are so many variants on the used car market it can be difficult to know where to start. You can even choose a BMW SUV, if that’s your thing.
The Three Series, BMW Iconoclast
A good place to begin your homework is with the three series, the car that made BMW what it is today. You could probably plop down for any six-cylinder three series made in the last thirty years with decent maintenance history and mileage and have a perfectly enjoyable car. They’re that good.
This is not to say that four-cylinder cars should be avoided, in particular the latest generation of small-displacement cars are very good, however with the exception of the now unicorn-status first-generation M3, most early four-pot cars were underpowered and not particularly stout.
Z cars typically fall into the 3-series bucket, and while opinions on styling vary, they don’t suffer from any outrageously different ailments than your typical 3-series, and might be described as a generally underappreciated small sports car.
The Five Series, Workaday Warrior
If the three series brought sport sedans to the masses, the five brought sports sedans to the junior executive. Offering slightly more room and plusher appointments than their smaller brethren, five series cars still offer exceptional driving dynamics.
Mid-2000s cars are subject to some questionable styling practices in the form of the notorious “bangle butt”, so if you’re in the market for a premium car, look for later models. If you’re willing to go earlier, a cozy 540i with 15 years or so of patina can be had for less than ten grand, and you get the decadence of a Bavarian-built V8. Just make sure you understand the inevitable costs of maintenance.
The five series was also the original family to launch a BMW SUV, the venerated X5. While there are 3, 4, 6 and 1-series variants out there, all of which are competent crossovers, the 5 is probably your best bet for a used BMW four-wheeler. Aside from the X models, if it’s rocking a roundel and 4wd, and wasn’t made in the last five years, purchase at your own risk.
The Seven, Like an S-Class With Handling Dynamics
About those maintenance costs, add a thirty-percent premium for BMW’s flagship land yacht, the autobahn-cruising seven. Having the best of everything, including particularly cosseting interiors that even included optional water buffalo hides on select models, comes at a price. But few cars dominate the road like a well-kept seven series.
Getting into a later model seven could be difficult as even used cars tend to be exclusively expensive or carry mileage well in excess of 100k. Stick to the V8 cars and avoid the seductive V12 unless you’re prepared to give your first born to keep it on the road. And that’s assuming it doesn’t break.
One-Offs and B-Sides
In addition to the standard three—five—seven lineup, BMW has made a huge number of unique models. In recent years, the brand has also used up just about every one of the digits with the exception of nine.
One and two series cars make a good choice if you’re looking for a compact and can afford a late-model BMW. The occasional six series is approachable these days, and there are some remnants of the old “shark nose” cars from the seventies floating around out there. Both are large, asphalt-leveling coupes on opposite ends of the price spectrum.
Speaking of big coupes, BMW’s attempt at a halo car was the early-90s eight series. Hardcore collectors love these cars, but those new to motoring or BMW should steer clear, if you even spot one, because of preventatively high maintenance costs.
M is for Motorsports
Actually, it probably stands for some German word that means motorsports. M cars are BMW’s homage to the company’s racing heritage. They offer uprated feedback and engagement, and limits that can be unreasonable to challenge without risking a ticket, or worse.
If you choose to go this route, get a full mechanic’s inspection, do your homework on the specific model, know what breaks, and be prepared to pay significant maintenance costs. Also, take comfort in knowing you’ll crack a smile every time you get behind the wheel. Just maybe keep the traction control on for the first week or so.
These are good general pointers about what’s out there, but the best advice I can give you about purchasing a car is to do your homework about that particular car. Find out how many owners it has had, where it came from, and whether important recall work has been carried out.
If you’re buying a BMW for the first time, congratulations. Be smart and you’ll come away with a car that delivers driving pleasure not many can match.