COAL: 2008 BMW 328i Sports Wagon — Coming Around Full Circle

OK, pan just a bit to the right from the scene at the end of my last COAL and there’s a fairly full glimpse of this week’s subject. Probably the only time I have managed to get a picture of my daily drivers going, and coming. Meet my current car…the unicorn that replaced the clown car.

Unicorn? Well yes. It turns out that this 2008 328i E91 (BMW for 3-series wagon in 2008), 6 speed manual, rear wheel drive wagon was one of three such cars in my color produced for the North American market in the 2008 model year. There were nine more in “Dakota Blue” but those were all automatics, which is in fact the real story about being a so-called “unicorn”.  My car comes very close to the end of the line for manual transmission BMW wagons available in the U.S.

And for what it’s worth, the aluminum interior trim – actual aluminum on this car versus the painted plastic in the MINI – and lower, stiffer, factory sports suspension (along with the wonderful power sports seats) turns out to make the car even more rare.

Of course once one starts to get into body and interior combinations, it doesn’t take long before the number of cars “just like yours” becomes ridiculously small. So let’s not play that game. Rather, just suffice to say that RWD, manual transmission, and station wagon are three attributes that very few modern cars, let alone BMWs, share.

Since it seems to me that I’ve come a long way from my family background that eschewed air conditioning, radios, and traction assistance as being automotive frivolities, it’s important to note that I essentially sort of stumbled into this car and by no means actually set out to create it.

Rather, in a stroke of dumb luck, I bought it used in 2010 from a Honda dealer that was having a hard time getting rid of it.

Just to recap, by late spring in 2010, the 130K mile MINI Cooper S was definitely getting long in the tooth. I was faced with several significant and expensive repairs, and wasn’t looking forward to having an un-reliable expensive to repair vehicle as my primary car. Plus, the impracticality of having a 1-passenger car was grinding on me. Altogether, it was time for something else.

I’ve always been a wagon fan. Going back to that 1961 Suburban, a station wagon has represented most of what I find appealing and useful in a car. It’s fine to spend time driving alone, but in my opinion it’s even finer to have the option to carry a load of people and stuff. This was the lesson that I learned with the LeSabre years ago. I’ve also always gotten a thrill out of the fact that a traditional wagon looks identical to its base sedan from the front, but then transforms into something different past the b and/or c pillar. I just love that. I don’t know why, but I do. This is one (of many) reasons why I’ve never taken to SUVs or cross-overs. They just don’t look like cars; and I want to drive a car…not a truck or something that establishes its own genre. I want a car. One that’s crafty enough to carry stuff in style.

Here’s my E91 being loaded to carry most of a full interior for another car. In this vein, I’ve routinely used my car to move kids to and from college, all sorts of furniture, a whole manual weaving loom, etc. There’s an honest 36” between the rear wheel wells, 28” of height and more than 5’ of length (allowing you to still close the hatch…although I’ve done it on rare occasions, I truly hate driving with the rear hatch open or partially closed in any vehicle). With the rear seat down, the cargo area is virtually flat. The amount of stuff that this car will hold with the back seat folded is amazing to me. About the only limit I’ve encountered is when items won’t fit through the hatch. Things that big usually require a truck anyway.

Oh, and of course dogs love it. Whether or not you bother to completely fold down the seat.

It’s essential to me that even with all of that extra space that the wagon be able to move as well as its sedan/coupe brothers. The E91 is no slouch in that department with performance the same as the sedan. As long as I’m careful loading stuff, when I’m done hauling I can open the rear seat, dust things off, and I have a nice sedan. Eminently practical car.

I honestly don’t know why I wound up looking for an E91. It was the result of casual browsing that got quickly less casual as the MINI faded. But during this process, I soon learned – I really did not know this before I started research – that finding a pre-owned manual transmission wagon of any sort was not going to be easy. Of course, as always, money was a significant part of the issue. I was only looking to spend about $20K for a car, taking into account what I could get for the MINI. “What I could get for the MINI” was becoming a shaky proposition as it began to look like the MINI needed more and more work just so it could be driven to its next owner. Anyhow, with what I figured was an under $25K budget it was clear that I wasn’t going to be buying anything new or certified pre-owned. In terms of BMWs, my research indicated that the few certified pre-owned manual transmission wagons around the country were all going for north of $30K (if this all sounds ridiculously low today, recall that this was happening in 2010).

Which is how I stumbled upon my car listed on by a Honda dealer in Raleigh, NC. At only 20K miles and just over 2 years old, it still had about half of its original warranty. It had a clean Carfax and essentially looked like a new car. To this day, I’m not sure why BMW did not wind up with the car, and certify it to sell pre-owned. Perhaps whatever BMW dealers saw it at auction felt that it would simply not be an easy car to flip. I don’t know. Their loss, my gain. Advertised at about $26K, I could sense when calling down to the dealer that they were keen to move it along as it had languished for well over a month on their lot.

Part of the problem perhaps was the fact that my car is RWD, and these cars are a lot more popular (and therefore common) as AWD. It also doesn’t have BMW’s iDrive/navigation system. For many, no automatic transmission, no AWD, and no iDrive is a three-strikes you’re out situation. So I’ve heard. For me, that’s the ideal combination. Not to mention that it’s what makes my car an actual unicorn, for what that’s worth.

The dealer actually didn’t know that my car had the sport package (nice folks, but rather clueless on matters BMW). For me this was another plus. The stiffer suspension was still more sophisticated than the suspension on the MINI. I already knew that I’d be getting rid of the run flats (a decision made easier by the fact that the rear tires – the original tires from the factory — on my car were pretty much toast when I got it). The sports suspension E90 series cars also sit a bit lower than standard suspension RWD cars and all AWD cars (regardless of whether or not they have the sport package).

All told, my car is just a bit over 6” off the ground. That’s its totally stock ride height. I absolutely love it stiff and low like that, although some passengers may disagree. Bah! They’re not driving. It also tends to make potholes a memorable experience.  (Not that we have those here in New England. Riiiiiight.)

Speaking of low, here’s my car next to a Clubman S. Shorter in height and longer (with a little more space inside), the E91 actually looks smaller than the MINI. Which I think says more about how MINIs have inflated than about how small my car is.

So in June 2010, over the course of a weekend, I negotiated an entirely asynchronous trade-in and purchase, and arranged to drive down from MA to Raleigh to do the deed. This necessitated a hasty appointment at Greasy’s to get some manner of work done to the MINI so that it would a) make it to NC and b) represent as a fully functional car. Several hundreds of dollars later, we were off to NC. And to the picture that opens this article.

The MINI made it just fine to NC, with about the only recurring issue during the 17 hour/700 mile trip being the flimsy glovebox door that no longer latched, thereby exposing our hoagies and chocolate bars to the elements. Emergency application of a piece of EZpass Velcro took care of that.

For what it’s worth, the E91’s center console is cooled and heated too. Although I now prefer to actually wrap the grinders before I put them in there.

In fact, the hardest part of the whole transaction came in the week in-between committing to buy the BMW and then going to get the BMW. Massachusetts has archaic rules (really???) related to car registration and somehow this extends to the fact that it is one of the few states that does not issue temporary plates, and technically does not recognize the legality of temporary plates issued in other states. This no doubt connects to some Puritan policy established by auto dealers shortly after the landing of the Mayflower. But to make a long story short(er), the upshot is that it’s impossible for a MA resident to drive home in a car that was purchased out of state unless you want to fully register that car out of state and then transfer to MA registration once you get here. Alternatively, if you live close to where you buy the car, you can buy it, go back to MA and register it, and then go back to where the car is and put on your MA plates. That doesn’t work so well when the purchase site is 700 miles away and you can’t get title on the new car until you pay for it.

Illegal for me to have in Massachusetts, because I live in Massachusetts.

Here’s where I learned that the basic idea is to ignore the law and drive your new car into MA with its state-of-origin temporary plates…and hope that you don’t attract the attention of a nosy cop who could legitimately stop you, discover that you are a MA resident who is driving with out-of-state temporary plates – which is illegal in MA — and then impound your car.  Since MA insurance agencies generally have no problem selling you a policy for a car that’s not yet registered anywhere, I would be driving a fully insured car that was legally registered in 49 states, just not in MA because I am from MA. The only illegality I was committing with the temporary plate thing was…the temporary plate thing. Which is just dumb.

Having now done this twice – the first time with the BMW – I have learned to suspend fear, drive carefully, knock on wood, and hightail it to the Registry a.s.a.p. upon returning to MA.

Since then, the BMW has seen roughly 200K miles. It’s a true day in, day out, daily driver. I commute (pre-COVID at least) in it. I’ve driven it up and down the East coast dozens of times in all kinds of weather. It’s great in snow – with dedicated snow tires — mostly due to the legendary 50/50 BMW weight balance. It’s too low anyway to drag through deep snow where having AWD would be most useful in a vehicle like this.  And I don’t live on top of a mountain.  (Can you tell that I have many opportunities to explain why I am insane enough to drive a RWD car in the 21st century in New England?)

Absolutely not a pampered device, it honestly looks like this several months out of the year.

It’s always ready for a road trip to lord knows where…and that’s really the car’s forte. Going back to what I had said and learned about the Bavaria, this car excels at long highway trips. With a highway range of at least 350 miles between gas stops, it’s not uncommon for me to do 500 miles a day in this car. I did 800 in 12 hours back in March 2020 to pick up and bring home a kid for COVID college evacuation. Piece of cake. It has the smoothness of the Bavaria with the safety, refinement and reliability of a modern car. To me, this is what automotive transportation ought to be.

It cleans up nicely. Who wants to drive to Bivalve? Let’s go!

And it has fulfilled its responsibility around helping to train new drivers how to “really” drive.

Insuring that at least someone in his high school class of 2019 will know how to drive a standard.

Has the E91 unicorn been all sunshine and rainbows? Well, of course not. It’s real life after all. And as some naysayers might point it, we are talking about a BMW here. I’ve certainly had my share of service issues, but these were somewhat moderated by my decision to purchase BMW’s extended warranty once the 40,000 mile original warranty expired. Having the factory warranty and maintenance program extended to 100,000 miles, it affordably kept me going to the dealer for things such as brake fluid flushes and brake jobs, dealer oil changes, and a wealth of miscellaneous warranty repairs. It also got me a new cylinder head around 70K to address the “ticking lifter” issue that this generation of N52 engines had. That job of course also provided a valve cover gasket replacement which took care of at least the first run of fairly constant and expected oil leaks.

At least in my case, having encouragement (financial and otherwise) to maintain the car very well during its first 100K miles has had absolute payoff for later ownership. It also helped that I was quite diligent in pressing BMW to cover the maintenance I had paid for (yes, some dealers will perform oil changes more often than the car’s computer calls for, if you ask them to). For example, it took several months and several trips to the dealer to get the lifter ticking addressed via a stellar repair.

Once my warranty expired – now over seven years ago – I obviously started using independent mechanics and have fully stepped up to spending the time and effort to DYI an increasingly complex array of tasks. By myself I’ve done a (second) valve cover replacement, plugs and coils, suspension work, a variety of electrical issues (numerous sensors of one sort or another), cooling system (radiator) work, brakes more often than I can readily recall, and of course all fluids regularly…including the BMW-described “lifetime” fluids such as transmission and differential. Frankly, this is all stuff that most anyone with patience (not that I’m one of those people) and a willingness to learn can do.

It also helps to have a Windows-based PC for the car’s diagnostics software plus a willingness to at least partially understand German.

Yay! We live to drive another day. After I clear those short circuit counter errors in the footwell module and get back my front parking lights…

It cannot be over-emphasized though that if one were to rely on dealer service post-warranty, you’d quickly reach the point where it made more sense to buy another car than to keep maintaining this one. Learn though to take care of routine stuff yourself, and there’s no reason why this car won’t go on relatively indefinitely. I think that this is true with any car…it’s just that you don’t want your relationship to go on “indefinitely” with many cars.

200,000 miles after getting it, many bumps and scrapes (nearly all in parking lots…this car picks up scratches like crazy), and the fact that I have had to accept that a laptop computer is necessary to keep my car on the road, I continue to love this car. I look back at it when I leave it in the parking lot. I fully intend to “drive the wheels off of it”. Properly maintained, and with some luck – I can control the first but not the second – it should be about mid-way through its useful life around now at 215,000 miles. I read reports from other N52 E90 owners that are farther along down that road than am I, so my goal seems plausible. My biggest concern right now with a 13 year old car is getting hit by an inattentive driver and having the car totaled for what would otherwise be a relatively minor accident. On the other hand, if I were to stop regularly driving it out of that fear, then there would really be no reason to have it at all because it’s the driving of it brings me joy.

So that’s where things stand right now, having driven the cars covered in this series enough miles to make a round trip to the Moon and back to the Moon again (For the record, that’s roughly 717,000 miles…how can you keep them down on the Earth, once they’ve seen the Moon?), I’m hoping that the 2008 E91 unicorn carries me the next 200K miles (and change) back to Earth. At that point, I may need to think about something all electric. I’ve been reading about these Tesla drivetrain swaps. Maybe there’s a Tesla crate motor in this BMW’s future. Or perhaps better into some other even older car that I’ll no doubt still be messing with by then.

There probably aren’t too many BMW versions of this sticker. I’m just saying.

It also occurs to me that with my E91, I’ve in a way come full circle back to the ’61 Suburban from my first COAL. I started my ideas of what a car was with a smallish wagon with an inline 6 that was most memorable for transporting me on road trips…and now here I am in a much-improved version of the same idea. Along the way, I’ve learned the joys and merits of shifting for myself, likely due to my developed over time need for feeling manually engaged with the car. That “engaged” thing is admittedly purely emotional and there are likely many rational reasons why we humans should trust the machines…at least that’s where things seem to be headed at this time. I’m not so sure that this particular human will ever evolve to that point, but future generations most certainly will.

Still, if I go back to the idea that opened this series – a love for transportation and the devices that enable it – I can probably make room somewhere in there for the idea of autonomous driving cars. So long as they have seats for me to sit up front and watch the road.

And a place for the dog.