One Year of Owning an E60 BMW 525d

Let’s rewind back to 2004 for a minute. You had a Nokia 3310. If you were cool, you had a Motorola flip-up phone. And if you were an automotive journalist, you were almost certainly shitting on the styling of the new BMW 5 Series.

When I first saw an E60 as a car-obsessed five-year-old, I thought it looked cool and futuristic. That’s the stance BMW took when defending Chris Bangle’s work- they said it was ahead of its time. And you know what? They were right. It still looks great today, and more importantly, it’s great to drive.

My car is a 525d from 2005, with 188k miles. It uses a six-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, and as you’d expect, it’s RWD, with the six-speed manual transmission being the icing on the cake. The first owner seemingly had good impulse control, with the only options being 18-inch MV2 wheels with 245-width tyres all round, and a flip-up phone (which the car no longer has). This means that it has cloth seats, silver plastic trim instead of wood, and no sunroof, though it still has iDrive, (which isn’t nearly as bad as reviewers made it out to be when it was launched). But there’s a flip side to this basic spec- it doesn’t have Active Steering, which I’ll talk about later.

Let’s talk some more about the engine. It’s BMW’s M57 engine, which came to the US in the E90 335d. But whereas the 335d uses a 3l twin-turbo variant of the M57 engine, the pre-2007 525d has a single turbo and only 2.5 liters of displacement (the post-2007 525d’s are 3 liters). This means instead of 286 hp, it only produces 177 hp. So, it should be really slow, right? Wrong. With 295 lb ft of torque (the same as a Porsche 911 GT3 of the same era), it gets from 0-60 in 7.9 seconds. Not fast, but not too slow either.

But the numbers only tell part of the story. Before the 525d, I had driven many diesel cars, including BMW’s with four-cylinder diesel engines. In these other diesels, there’s always a small but noticeable amount of turbo lag, followed by a surge of torque, then nothing throughout the rest of the rev range. With the 525d, it’s almost like a gasoline engine. There’s very little turbo lag, and it pulls all the way to redline with a growl, albeit a slightly muted one.  

If you’re used to Honda transmissions, the manual transmission in the 525d won’t impress you. Its smooth and reasonably precise, but has relatively long throws, as with most BMW’s. But it’s still more fun than an automatic will ever be, and heel-and-toe downshifting is easy thanks to the floor mounted throttle.

But the highlight of the E60 5 Series is how it handles- this car is from a time when BMW marketed their cars as “The Ultimate Driving Machine” and actually had the cars to back it up.  There is masses of turn-in grip, the rear end doesn’t step out unless you provoke it, and body roll is well controlled. The way the E60 rotates into a corner under trail-braking belies its size, all while the steering wheel provides ample feel and feedback. That is, provided you have the standard steering. With the optional Active Steering, there are two steering ratio’s- one higher steering ratio for low speeds, and a lower steering ratio for higher speeds. And which one is being used at any given time is determined by a computer, which often chooses to increase the steering ratio during turn-in, which has known to be a factor in on-track spinouts.

But without Active Steering, the car is fantastic to drive- you really have to drive it hard to make the tyres squeal. Not that it’s perfect. The electronic throttle isn’t the most accurate. And although the car does a good job of hiding its size, its ultimately a bigger car than a 3 Series so if you want to build a track car, the E60 isn’t for you.

But if you want a fun car that’s also a comfortable daily driver, the E60 525d is one of the best cars you can buy. It sounds like a diesel at idle but is very refined once you’re moving. At 60 mph, it’s so quiet that if you listen closely, you can only hear the valves opening and closing, with no other engine noises. At 70 mph, its only at 1800 RPM, which means not only that its quiet, but also means that it gets exceptional fuel economy- in real-world highway driving, I regularly get 55 mpg. Take that, Toyota Prius.

The ride quality isn’t as good as rivals such as the Mercedes E Class though, a trade-off made in favor of superior handling. It probably doesn’t help that my car is on 18-inch wheels- for maximum ride comfort, 17-inch wheels are the best. 16-inch wheels are also available but look ridiculous on a car of this size. Most people have swapped out 16-inch wheels out in favor of larger wheels by this point anyway.

Throughout the time I’ve owned the car, its been reliable. Who says cheap BMW’s (mine was £2100) are expensive mistakes? The only thing I’ve had to fix is the handbrake (the ratchet mechanism broke, and couldn’t hold the lever), and replace the battery after it stopped charging. I also had to fix an electrical issue that was caused by water draining into the trunk, which cost me £400 ($490) to fix. The worst thing is that about a month after getting this done, BMW announced a free recall for this exact issue in the UK.

A relatively common fault with diesel BMW’s from this era is swirl flap failure, where swirl flaps in the intake manifold get sucked into the engine, causing complete engine failure. However, my car has had the swirl flaps replaced with £40 ($49) blanking plates- if you have a diesel BMW and only do one modification, make it this one. Overall though- its not the money pit that the internet would have you believe.

So overall, it’s a good car. But is it the best version of the E60? No. The 2.5 liter diesel engine offers decent performance and excellent efficiency. But the 530d offers the same fuel mileage, and noticably improved performance. Meanwhile, the gasoline six-cylinder versions have similar performance but improved throttle response, an even better soundtrack, and have no fatal flaws. If you’re looking for an E60 5 Series as a daily driver, look for a 530i with a manual transmission. The six-cylinder diesels are good, but if I was to buy another E60, I’d go for a gasoline six-cylinder version.