The smart money's on the older model

Choose the right 5 series model. Ask the right questions. Get a sophisticated used BMW you can trust
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When yuppies outgrew their BMW 3 series, what did they do? They bought the bigger 5 series. Clever people BMW, with a range of cars to suit every size and almost every budget. What the BMW buyer gets is superb build quality, easy resale and a decent driver's car, which is rare among executive-class models. And that is exactly what a used BMW buyer gets, too. The 5 series in particular always depreciates a little quicker than the smaller model and so becomes affordable even faster. Whereas old executives such as the Rover 800 or Ford Granada look a little tired after a few years' service, a 5 series BMW still looks the prestigious pre-owned part.

A five-year-old 5 series might be a class act now, but back in the Seventies, this mid-range model was just a staid family four-door. The six-cylinder engines were nice, the build quality could not be faulted, but the image just wasn't there. Even a restyle in 1982 did not help much. By comparison with the new 3, the car was big on the outside, but hardly roomy inside, and the equipment levels were on the mean side of spartan. BMW addressed the problem by introducing SE (special equipment) packages which had all the essential electric extras, and boosted the image with high-performance variants such as the M535i and M5. The M stood for motorsport and today prices hover around pounds 5,000-pounds 6,000 for these sought-after models. More ordinary 520i and 525i models inhabit the BMW netherworld at less than pounds 2,000, and the most you could pay is pounds 4,000.

The big problem at this level is buying a BMW you can trust. Finding any car more than 10 years old with a full service history is difficult enough, but some of these survivors cost a fortune to put right. Engines can chew up camshafts and sound very rattly, disc brakes wear quickly with abuse and even exhausts and shock absorbers soon tot up. Anyone can buy an old 5 series, but it takes someone with deep pockets to pay for proper parts and servicing.

The arrival of the all-new 5 series in 1988 was a revelation. Compared to the aging 3 it looked contemporary, specification on SE models was almost generous and the well established range of engines provided excellent performance. If there was any criticism it came from the slightly cramped back-seat passengers. Starting with the 520i, 530i and 535i, the range kept on growing, and largely improving. In 1990 the high-performance M5 more than compensated for any remaining image shortfall. At the other end of the spectrum an entry-level 518i meant that more people could afford a 5. Later in the year the 520i and 525i received new, more flexible 24- valve engines. Further updates gave 1992 models side-impact protection and immobilisers.

The range kept on growing. Firstthere was the superfluous four-wheel drive 525iX. More practical was the Touring (BMW-speak for estate car). Although it wasn't in the Volvo league for capacity, the cargo area was big enough and it was still fun to drive. The 525td proved that an executive car could get away with turbo-diesel power, so smoothly that most drivers could not tell the difference. Finally, the installation of V8 power into the 530i and 540i questioned the sanity of any buyer who might consider the bigger and clumsier 7 series. The 5-series package must be the most complete and accomplished range of quality cars ever offered.

Prices for an early model start at around pounds 6,000, pounds 8,000-pounds 9,000 for 24 valves and around pounds 13,000 for a K registered 525i Touring, which is very good value since they cost pounds 25,000 new. Avoid the 518i model which has only four cylinders and is not as smooth or powerful as a BMW should be. If you're after power, an M5 with reasonable mileage is around pounds 18,995. The very competent 535i starts at pounds 8,000, but V8s are still around pounds 20K. The key to buying wisely is SE specification, a strong colour and a full service history. The ideal buy would be a 520i SE automatic with the 24- valve engine because it will be easy to resell. These cars have few design flaws, but the wrong sort of seller won't help. Those digital dashboards are no longer tamper-proof, so unless there is a full history and few owners, don't believe the mileage. Check the dipstick for honey-clean oil as proof of regular maintenance.

Most dealers don't stock the old 5 series anymore. Most can now be found in the seedy small ads and back streets, which is where I came across most of mine. That is a shame because, if looked after, these are fine, reliable and sophisticated cars. The 5 series I saw were rather sad, neglected and often expensively wrong. I drove a 525i with a disintegrating gearbox, although the pounds 1,295 price might have covered the repairs.

If you don't fancy taking any chances, then pay for the privilege of buying at a main BMW dealer. You pay for a BMW-backed warranty that's one of the best offered by any manufacturer. At Hexagon in Highgate I looked at a 535i Sport finished in diamond-black metallic which had covered 48,000 miles. The cost was pounds 14,495. At First Front in Wimbledon a similar model, but two years younger and finished in brilliant red, with the added benefit of air-conditioning, was offered at pounds 16,995.

Independent specialists are safe places to buy. John Warren Cars near Aylesbury always has a large stock of guaranteed BMWs. In the 5 series department prices started at pounds 8,995. I had a choice of two 525iSEs, a 1990 example with a full service history which had covered 73,000 miles and a '91 24-valve model which had racked up 86,000. Provided there is a service history, never be put off by what seem like high mileages - BMWs can take them. Both these 525is had complete records. I had even more of a choice at the top of the Touring range. Either a 1992, 35,000- mile 520iSE at pounds 12,795, or for just over pounds 1,000 more a '93 525i version with four-wheel drive but double the mileage.

The Wimbledon Carriage Company proved me wrong by having an old-shape 5 series for sale which they described as "possibly one of the nicest early cars". It was. Finished in white, this 520i Lux had the right specification and an asking price of pounds 4,295. They also had a thoroughly modern 5 series, a '95 model 520i, at the heftier price of pounds 16,995. Like anything else in life, and BMW 5 series in particular, you only get what you pay for.

John Warren Cars 01296 651040

Hexagon of Highgate 0181 348 5151

First Front 0181 542 6000

Wimbledon Carriage Company

0181 540 9581

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