What is the most reliable used BMW M car?
Reliable Used BMW M Cars Guide Highlights:
- EngineBiscuit spoke to expert shop BMW Enthusiast Auto Group about reliable used M cars
- For maximum reliability, EAG recommends naturally aspirated BMW M cars from 1997 through 2010, especially cars with 2003 and later S52, S62 and S54 engines.
- Although maintenance is often more expensive, these “analog” M cars are fairly simple to set up and you can avoid costly headaches with pre-purchase inspections and buying examples with full service histories. .
If you ask the average car enthusiast, they’ll probably tell you that the best BMWs wear M Division badges. And because even these high-end, high-performance sports cars aren’t immune to depreciation, used M cars can be surprisingly economical. However, “high-end” doesn’t always mean “reliable,” and cheap to buy doesn’t always mean cheap to own. But even so, there are reliable used BMW M cars. And here’s what you need to look for to get one.
The Most Reliable Used BMW M Cars Come From the ‘Analogue Age’
Within the BMW M community, few names carry as much weight as Enthusiast Auto Group. The Cincinnati, Ohio-based store is a BMW expert where Hagerty calls it “the analog era, 1970s to early 2000s”.
Now, that gap technically covers models over 25 years old, the typical minimum for classic status. But it also includes cars from what many BMW fans consider to be the “golden age” of the 1990s and early 2000s. And when I spoke with the EAG representative Mike Kent confirmed that the most reliable BMW M cars are from that era. Assuming the 25 year rule, that means 1997 to around 2010. The ‘big’ is because the E9x 3 series, which ran until 2013, is from that era, but the contemporary F10 M5 is not.
There are several reasons why Kent recommends getting a used BMW M car from the “analog” era. First, these cars have little to no computerized components, which makes them easier to repair if something goes wrong. Second, these M cars have naturally aspirated engines, rather than turbocharged ones. A turbocharged engine may be more powerful, but it is also more complicated and expensive to repair and puts more strain on its components. For example, the NA N52 straight-six is less problematic over time than the turbocharged N54.
Get a straight-six or an S62 V8 if you want the most reliable used BMW M car
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Speaking of straight-sixes, that’s the best kind of engine for a reliable used BMW M, Kent told me. BMW spent decades and countless hours refining its straight-six design, much like GM did with the small-block V8. And this effort is reflected in the robustness of these engines.
In terms of specific straight-sixes, Kent names the S52 and S54 as the toughest engines. The S52 in particular is one of the most “configurable and forgettable” M engines, says Kent. BMW used the S52 in the E36 M3 as well as early Z3 M Coupes/Roadsters. Later Z3 Ms use the S54, as do the E46 M3 and E86 Z4 M Coupe/Roadster. However, if you buy a BMW M car with an S54, get a post-2003 model, as 2001-2003 E46 M3s often suffered from connecting rod bearing failures.
While Kent and EAG praise the M-touched straight-six, it’s not your only option. The S62 V8 of the E39 M5 is also quite robust provided you update its VANOS system. However, while the E9x 3 series belongs to the analog era, if you value reliability, don’t get the E9x M3. Its S65 V8 is essentially an S85 V10 minus two cylinders. And among other issues, it shares the V10’s connecting rod bearing issues, BMW Tuning said.
In short, if you want a reliable used BMW M, get one of these models:
- 1997-1999 E36 M3
- 2004-2006 E46 M3
- 1999-2002 Z3 M Coupe/Roadster
- 2006-2008 Z4 M Coupe/Roadster
- 2000-2003 E39 M5
Is maintaining a used M car expensive?
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While the used BMW cars listed above can be reliable, they are motorsport-derived vehicles, Kent notes. Their engines are very nervous and have higher quality parts because of it. The S54, for example, spins at 8,000 rpm, but only because it has mechanical tappets. So you have to regularly adjust the valves – familiar territory for motorcycle owners, not so much for modern car owners. And then there are the M-specific suspension, braking and drivetrain components.
However, more frequent servicing is not unusual for high performance vehicles. That doesn’t make them unreliable; it goes hand in hand with their performance. “It’s going to cost more from a property perspective, just from a maintenance perspective. [standpoint], if you drive from mile to mile,” Kent says. If you can’t stand it, don’t buy a used BMW M car.
However, it should be noted that these “analog era” cars are easier to use at home. Plus, “a lot of these cars just don’t drive like [often] as they did because [values] continue to grow,” Kent notes. And not driving a car can also damage it, often in costly ways. Also, some used BMW horror stories come from people who buy depreciated cars and don’t expect high maintenance bills (for them). Thus, maintenance is postponed and the next owner now has an even higher repair bill.
Additionally, Kent says, “BMW just has a huge community when it comes to solving problems and finding solutions.” As with Porsche IMS fixes, aftermarket parts can eliminate what could have been an expensive nightmare waiting to happen. Kent told me that E46 and E39 cars typically get between $10,000 and $15,000 in proactive maintenance alone.
That’s why, for those who buy used BMW M cars, “the service history is number 1 [and] finding a BMW technician who knows what they’re doing is number 2,” Kent says. And a pre-purchase inspection will reveal problems before they become your problems.
How much do these reliable used M cars cost?
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As stated earlier, used BMW M cars are often surprisingly affordable, which is why budget-conscious enthusiasts find them appealing. Notice that these “golden age” models are starting to appreciate for the same reasons EAG recommends them. And that especially applies to cars refurbished by EAG – a 3,000-mile E39 M5 they looked after, which sold for almost $200,000.
However, this car was in mint condition with a capital M. Usually the cars you will see are what Hagerty considers in good condition: drivers in good mechanical condition that could use some cosmetic touch-ups. And as of this writing, Hagerty Consider these average market prices for used BMW M cars recommended by EAG:
- 1997-1999 E36 M3: $20,000-$30,000
- 2004-2006 E46 M3: $30,000 – $40,000
- 1999-2002 Z3 M Coupe/Roadster:
- S54: $25,000 (Roadster), $45,000 to $52,000 (Coupe)
- 2000-2003 E39 M5: $30,000 – $40,000
At the time of this writing, Hagerty does not have a market guide for E86 BMW Z4 M Coupe/Roadster prices. But the navigation Autotrader suggests that mint examples are usually between $25,000 and $35,000.
So if you want to splurge on a reliable used BMW M, at least that’s what you’ll need to save up. Don’t forget to budget for maintenance.
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