The E39 continued and expanded the 5-series wagon’s popularity by bringing bigger wheels, more power and updated looks to the mid-range Audi-challenger. Like the first generation, these were only available in rear-wheel drive in the U.S., so matching the all-wheel drive variants available from…well, everyone else, required a very good looking and potent package. BMW pulled that off, with the Sport versions of both the 528i and 540i wagons thoroughly encapsulating the ethos of the great Euro five doors.
But there was a catch.
If you wanted a manual gearbox, you had to select the lower output 528i model. For all its shouty V8-ness, the 282 horsepower 4.4 liter M62-equipped 540i only came with BMW’s Steptronic if you needed to haul ass and a family. Still, they’re highly sought packages and this has to be one of the nicer examples left out in the wild, or so it would seem at first glance:
Recently, I went on a train ride with my son to the local airshow at Quonset Point in North Kingstown, Rhode Island. The location also is the port which brings in a fair chunk of the Audi and Volkswagen products destined for New England. And, more recently, it’s also become a graveyard.
As the train rounded the corner onto the siding heading towards the port, what used to be an abandoned rail yard of a forgone era – a reminder of when the Navy had a major presence and money in Rhode Island – has been filled to the brim with a new activity. Yet it’s equally as sad as the dusty boarded up military buildings which once lined what has become an industrial park. That’s because it’s the home of all of the local “Dieselgate” buybacks of Volkswagen TDis.
Row after row of (to me) effectively brand new or lightly used TDis greeted us as the train shook on the decrepit rails. So bad is the condition of the track in that area that the train is limited to nearly walking speed; fitting, as it made the procession by the flocks of abandoned Volkswagens all the more painful to witness. We couldn’t just buzz past quickly; it was as if the antiquated rail system was offering a commentary on the VW scandal.
It brought me back to a little over a decade prior when Volkswagen came roaring back to the U.S. with its promise of “Clean Diesel”. A fan of the brand, I – like so many others – felt genuine enthusiasm as the products which dominated Europe were finally coming to the U.S.! Real world mileage was met with manual 6-speed transmissions and even a wagon – and more people than ever were flocking to the brand, happy to identify themselves as budding environmentalists because of their discerning automotive choice.
I told my friend all about it. Her vision of diesel was the noisy, clattering and smoke belching agonizingly slow models from VW and Mercedes-Benz in the early 1980s.
“No no!”, I said, “They’ve finally cracked it! They drive like normal cars, they’re not noisy, and they get great mileage! There are literally no drawbacks except that they’re kind of expensive!”
“There’s no magic bullet”, she said.
Just the other day, I wondered what kind of large wagon you could still buy. The Mercedes-Benz E-Class and recently introduced Volvo V90 seem to be the last two holdouts in what was once a robust market of longroof models. Back up a decade, and you could add the Audi A6 Avant and 5-series Touring/Sport Wagon to the mix, and both are still quite desirable in their last form.
With forced induction and plenty of technology as well as a sport ride, both the Audi and BMW entrants into the marketplace were expensive alternatives to the rest of the now traditional “Sport Utility” lineups. And both sold in very small numbers, giving enthusiasts precious few options to choose from when it comes to the used market. In the case of the BMW, the most desirable models are the M-Sport models offered late in the run, and they’re not frequently seen. So much so, that when this one popped up I was certain it was the same 2010 I looked at recently. The color combination of Tiefseeblau Metallic and Natural Brown Dakota combined with the M-Sport package seemed too unlikely to immediately come across again; yet, here we are, with a VIN only about 100 after the recent example. Is this one a winner?
Good news! I’ve found another “Unicorn” for your consideration. Now, truth told the E91 isn’t a particularly rare car. There are plenty up for sale every day of the week, since they are really just getting to the sweet spot where the first and (for early examples) second owners dump them. And of those that you can find for sale today, the all-wheel drive 328xi isn’t particularly rare, either. But what is not seen very often is the combination of those two factors plus a stick in the center console which can be articulated in 7 different positions. That’s right, we have a unicorn manual! Such is the unicorn status of this unicorn that “Unicorn” is even included in the sales title of the unicorn! You’d be forgiven for thinking that BMW dealers had a special option box that you could select for your unicorn badge.
Salesman: Now that you’ve selected all your other options, I’m going to tell you about one final “dealer special” option we can offer you – but it’s only for select, and discerning customers!
Rich Plebian: Uh, okay, what is it?
S: It’s the not offered to public “Unicorn” option
RP: “Unicorn”? Like, horned mythological beast?
S: Yes, exactly. The Unicorn Package is option code 785.
RP: Okay, what does it get me?
S: You get to tell everyone how unique your mass produced car is.
RP: Wait, it gives me special powers?
S: No, you just get to say that your car is more special than the other cars that are exactly like it.
RP: Well, people have always told me how special I am, so sign me up!
Thus, when it comes time to sell your unicorn package car, you too can tell everyone that this was the only one that’s like it! Except for the other ones that are like it. But don’t mind them. Let’s look at this one!
Perusing the classifieds for interesting wagons this week, I came across quite a few and thought it would be a good chance to look at some sporty 5-doors. To level the playing field slightly, all are automatics. While that may cause some of you to groan, they make up for a lack of manual with distinctive styling, plenty of power and rarity that will set you apart from the crowd. Which is the one you’d choose?
Over the past few years, my wife and I have had an ongoing conversation about what would replace her 2006 Subaru Outback. It’s not that we don’t like the car; in fact, quite the opposite. Subaru really stepped up the quality and look of the fourth generation Legacy and made it close to comparable to the European counterparts. A svelte exterior was matched by a luxurious interior, a great all-wheel drive system, and the theory of Subaru reliability. But there are several places where the Legacy, despite it’s massive popularity, shows its budget origins. The ride is great as long as the roads aren’t rough and are reasonably straight; it doesn’t really like corners much and if there is a bump mid corner prepare for you and your passengers to look a bit like bobble head dolls. Then there’s the transmission; if you went with the Limited spec like my wife originally did, you got the nicer interior wood finish, climate control and leather seats – but the manual was opted out, making them automatic only. Couple that automatic to the 2.5 liter boxer 4 and saddle it with the best part of 4,000 lbs and the result is anemic. But the real thorn in the side has been the reality of fourth generation Subaru ownership; far from trouble free, the Outback has eaten its headgaskets, wheel bearings, batteries and brakes like it’s going out of style. I think when you purchase something like an Audi or BMW wagon, you expect that once it’s outside of warranty there will be a big occasional repair – that’s the trade off for the luxury and performance of the nicer marques. But in a Subaru? It’s then when the other shortcomings really begin to wear on your patience and you begin to think of alternatives. While my natural inclination has been to look at the benchmark for performance luxury all-wheel drive wagons – Audi’s Avants – ironically it’s been BMW who has offered more options in recent years, such as this lovely sport wagon E91 Sports Wagon: