Buying an E65/E66 7 Series. High-tech bargain or unreliable, expensive nightmare? We tell all. A step too far? If you enjoy your creature comforts as well as driving pleasure, and are feeling daring, then something from the E65 7 Series range could be just the ticket, as Chris Graham explains.
Buying guide: E65 7 Series It was a techno-fest in its day, wrapped in a body which few liked. We’re all more used to the shape now, but does this model’s fearsome reputation as a money-pit mean it’s a non-starter?
Designing a new car always tends to be something of a compromise. Engineers have to cooperate with the marketers and stylists, to ensure that the final result not only achieves the mechanical targets set for the vehicle, but also produces a desirable and saleable product. Get the balance wrong and a manufacturer can end up with a model that finds itself at odds with the market, unwelcomed by existing brand customers, or fails to deliver at a practical, drivability level.
BMW prides itself on getting the mix right and launching models that meet the buying public’s expectations in all respects, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing for the Munich manufacturer. One particular hiccup came in the early 2000s when controversial design chief Chris Bangle got his hands on the 7 Series.
Ever since the late 1970s, the 7 Series had been building itself a reputation as an attractive, if somewhat conservative, executive saloon. It was the flagship of the BMW saloon car range and, in E23, E32 and E38 guises, built successively on that image of smooth, dependable solidity. But all that was to change with the fourth generation 7 Series – the E65.
The E65 followed the E38, but was a radically different car. The E38 was probably one of the last, classic-looking BMW models; it had that traditional big BMW saloon appearance and it exuded a sense of confidence and strength.
Bangle’s influence changed all that and, following a five-year design and development programme – plus a massive retooling investment at the Dingolfing production plant in Bavaria – the E65 was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 2001. To say that the reaction to the new model was mixed, is an understatement. There was a fair degree of astonishment among both the motoring press and the buying public. Externally, the E65 was an acquired taste, with its thick-set, slab-sided bodywork, oddly-styled rear and stern, slightly bugeyed front end.
Just about the kindest press descriptions of the new model included phrases like ‘full of presence’ and ‘very striking’. Public reaction was less tactful, though, and there were those who thought the E65 was quite simply an ugly car.
But what wasn’t apparent from the outside was that BMW had thrown the kitchen sink at the E65, in terms of technology. Inside and under the new car’s controversial skin there lurked a veritable tech-fest of innovation and design firsts. It boasted super-efficient fibreoptic electronic networking, Valvetronic engine technology, active anti-roll bars, directional headlights, the first six-speed ZF automatic transmission, an electric parking brake, DVD-based sat nav, smart key and push-button start, soft-close doors and a ground-breaking iDrive vehicle management system.
To be frank, it made the E38 look like a dinosaur, and really took the BMW brand to the next technological level which, of course, had been one of Bangle’s ambitions. He wanted to push BMW into the motoring future, and to showcase the sort of technology that he felt was set to dominate our motoring lives in the future. As it’s turned out, he was pretty much spot-on although, at the time, the consternation and confusion that the E65 caused must have sent waves of doubt through the BMW boardroom.
But, looks and tech aside, the engineering and electrical advances shoe-horned into the E65’s chunky body produced a car that revolutionised the traditionally staid world of executive saloons. It was great to drive; smooth, quiet, comfortable and effortless – everything that a good, executive express should be. The E65 delivered accomplished handling, up-to-date sat nav and infotainment, bright headlights and excellent brakes and, in so doing, shook off the slightly ‘old Jag’ image of the E38 at a stroke.
And yet there were many who still couldn’t get past the vehicle’s awkward looks. It just didn’t have the comfortable familiarity of the E38 and, inside, the iDrive system continued to receive criticism for being unnecessarily complicated to use. It seemed that owners simply weren’t ready for the sort of control-wheel-turning, on-screen interaction that the iDrive system demanded.
BMW was well aware of the step change the new model brought with it, and worked hard to familiarise customers with the car. To this end, dealerships employed dedicated E65 sales staff who had been specially trained to explain and demonstrate everything that the new model had to offer.
One aspect of the E65 that couldn’t be criticised was the range of engines employed to power it. The model was launched with a couple of powerful yet efficient V8 petrol engines, in 3.5- and 4.4-litre capacities. These were followed, in 2003, by the option of a three-litre, straight-six petrol version and a top-of-the-range six-litre V12.
Of great significance, too, was the fact that BMW also decided to make the E65 7 Series available with a diesel engine, which proved to be something of a masterstroke. The torquey, 218hp three-litre straight-six oil-burner was a decent seller from the off, and opened the model up to a much wider potential audience, including chauffeur companies and high-end taxi operators. Diesel sales soon equalled those of the petrol models and, by the end of the model’s production run in 2009, accounted for nearly three-quarters of the E65s being sold.
The E65 was facelifted in 2005, for which engine power was tweaked, xenon headlights were introduced and changes were made to the front-end styling. As far as buying an E65 today is concerned, there’s good and bad news and, for the practical low-down, I consulted expert and experienced independent specialist, Andy Walker, who runs Sussex-based Walkers Autotech (walkersautotech.co.uk). On the positive side of things, Andy was quick to point out that, overall, the E65 has stood the test of time reasonably well and that, from a body corrosion point of view, there are still no signs of this being a problem.
Despite the earliest cars now being 16 years old, shabby, down-at-heel examples with rusty sills and arches don’t exist. However, this isn’t to say that there aren’t neglected E65s out there, because there are. But the neglect typically shows itself in aspects such as scruffy, kerbed wheels, mismatched and/or cheap tyres and badly-repaired car park scratches and bumper damage.
These cars were very well put together, so the chances of finding one that’s falling apart, are slim. It’s also not the sort of car that will have attracted previous owners intent on ragging the life out their car and, for this reason, buying these days tends to be a simpler process than it might be with the more performance-orientated models.
As you might imagine, the initial depreciation on the E65 was pretty horrendous. With the top, well-optioned models costing nearly £100,000 when new, combined with the car’s ‘distinctive’ looks, secondhand values plummeted at a quicker rate than they had with the E38. This meant that even the best E65s halved in value in just a handful of years, and continued to tumble steadily so that today, it’s possible to buy one of these complex machines for under £2,000.
Admittedly, these entry-level examples are likely to have only the basic specification and the mileages will be high. But the opportunities are out there, nonetheless. Of course, the downside of crashing secondhand values was that second, third and fourth owners felt increasingly reluctant to invest money in the upkeep and repair of their cars, and would often opt to sell a vehicle rather than start pumping money into rectification work. This tendency went hand-in-hand with the ageing E65’s natural inclination to throw-up niggling electrical issues which, more often than not, proved to be very time-consuming and expensive to sort out.
The model’s inherent electrical complexity provides another stumbling block for many independent repairers who, because they lack the confidence or skill to deal with the sophisticated onboard electronics, can shy away from the model altogether. The E65 was also one of the first to be subjected to BMW’s condition-based servicing schedule, and the reduced maintenance levels associated with this have undoubtedly contributed to the condition in which many examples now find themselves, 15+ years down the line.
The E65 also ushered in the era of programmed components, where virtually every significant electrical part on the car is burnt with the vehicle’s chassis number, and linked electronically to the central processor system. This makes any repair work much more involved – even changing a flat battery requires a reprogramming procedure.
Back in the days when internet links were still relatively slow and unreliable, a software update could take 14 hours. Dealerships had to install dedicated programming bays, and one interruption to the connection during that entire 14 hours would halt the download and require it to be started again from scratch. The problem was that an update had to be undertaken to make any new component work, however minor it was.
GOT THE GEAR?
So, a significant issue for any E65 owner today can be finding a suitably-equipped and experienced specialist workshop to look after the car. It’s a very real problem, especially as the model’s growing reputation for awkward-to-fix electrical problems continues to limit those who feel able to tackle the work.
Another point that Andy was keen to stress was that repairs on the E65 are likely to be expensive, and that’s something that all prospective owners need to appreciate.
While routine, wear and tear items such as brakes, worn suspension components or a tired battery, aren’t going to break the bank, some of the more specialised items may well do so.
If your new purchase turns out to need a replacement adaptive cruise control module, for example, this is only available from BMW, has to be bought new so that it can be coded to the car, and will cost several thousand pounds for the part alone. Fitting and then making it work will add considerably to an already nasty bill. And, with so many other electronic control units dotted all around the car, the potential for serious repair costs is unfortunately great.
The situation is worsened by the fact that, due to the E65’s sheer complexity, the diagnosis of electrical problems can be a lengthy and involved process, making repairs of this sort an inevitably expensive business.
Fortunately, things aren’t quite so bad as far as the engines are concerned, although there are issues to be aware of. The N62 range of V8s has proved to be reasonable in terms of reliability and durability, but one of their most common failings is valve stem seal wear. Andy believes this is one of the problems likely to have been promoted by the switch to long-life service intervals, and it’s an expensive one to put right.
The way to check for worn seals is to get the engine up to its normal operating temperature, leave it idling for about five minutes then give it an aggressive rev and see what comes out of the tailpipes. If there are clouds of blue smoke, then the valve stem seals will be worn and you’ll be looking at a repair bill of at least £2,000. Coolant issues can arise on the V8s, too. There’s a particular coolant pipe that runs down the valley between the two cylinder heads, which has an unfortunate tendency of springing a leak. Fluid can escape quite quickly so the loss will be obvious.
Putting it right is simply a matter of replacing the pipe; but the trouble is getting at it. The official solution, from BMW, is to remove and strip the engine so that the damaged pipe can be replaced. This job will take about 40 hours, so is not something for owners on a tight budget. Fortunately, there’s a more cost-effective fix using a collapsible N62 coolant tube that can be bought from the United States, which allows the repair to be made with the engine in situ. Nevertheless, the inlet manifold will still need to be removed, so even this approach is likely to cost around £650 at an independent specialist.
At the top of the engine scale, the V12 is generally a difficult engine to work on, expensive to repair and the number of mechanics happy to touch one is diminishing all the time. Even something as apparently simple as changing the spark plugs is an expensive and awkward job. The three-litre M57 diesel straight-six is a pretty reliable unit. Timing chains can break on 150,000+ mile examples and, if this happens, it’ll cost a fortune to put right. So rattling chains should always be dealt with before disaster strikes. Turbochargers and injectors can throw up issues, too but, once again, this only tends to be on really high-mileage examples.
One area where it’s unlikely that owners will have to spend any money is the six-speed ZF automatic transmission, which has proved itself to be brilliantly reliable from day one. The same applies to the rear axles which are typically trouble-free.
Being a big-engined, heavy car, the E65 can consume front shock absorbers, suspension arms, brake components and tyres at an alarming rate. Replacement suspension parts can be especially pricey if the vehicle is fitted with any sort of electronic control in these areas. Assessing the condition of suspension components during a pre-purchase inspection is difficult and, unless there’s an appropriate warning light on the dash, it won’t be until the car’s up on a ramp and being properly inspected by a knowledgeable technician, that any problems might come to light.
Inside the car, it’s worth taking your time to make sure that everything works, especially the iDrive unit, as replacing this will cost a fortune. Generally, though, the car’s quality means that what switchgear there is tends to be durable, as is the rest of the interior trim. Despite the low prices now being asked for ageing E65s, it’s certainly not a car that should ever be regarded as a cheap luxury car bargain. This car is one that needs to be bought with care, and plenty of appreciation for what expenditure could be around the corner. While you may be lucky for the first couple of years of ownership, the reality is that you’ll be living on borrowed time in terms of big repair bills. Sooner or later you’ll find yourself facing the sort of expenditure that is likely to have you weighing-up whether to pay the price or throw the car away.
Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the model’s dynamic qualities. The E65 is a car that will cosset and please drivers and passengers alike and, provided it can be kept out of the workshop, represents an interesting option for those enthusiasts seeking a full-on executive experience. Maybe it was a model that was ahead of its time, but the E65 certainly served to raise the bar both for subsequent BMW saloons and the luxury models from other manufacturers. It was state-of-the-art in its day, which means that taking one on a decade-and-a-half later can require something of a leap of faith.
As such, it’s important that prospective buyers are under no illusion about the fact that the purchase price is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of expenditure. While it’s not guaranteed that every E65 will develop wallet-crippling ailments, experience tells us that, sadly, a great many will.
WHAT TO PAY
Interestingly, one of the quirks of the current E65 market is that – excluding the 760i V12 – the model doesn’t seem to have a dramatic effect on sale prices. Entry-level cars, be they 730ds, 730is, 735is, 745is or 750is, can all be found for under £4,000. Granted, mileages will by 100,000+ and the previous owner count might be higher than you’d like but, considering these cars probably all cost at least £50,000 when new, it’s a pretty remarkable situation.
The cheapest V12 model I saw recently was a 2004, 90,000-mile 760Li for £5,750 while, for £1,000 more, I spotted a 62,000-mile, one-owner car.
It’s generally the Sport and the long-wheelbase models are the most desirable and, of course, diesel-engined cars remain very popular among buyers. In practice, the latter probably represents the best, all-round bet.
You’ll struggle to pay more than £15,000.
These cars were very well put together, so the chances of finding one that’s falling apart, are slim.
The purchase price is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg, in terms of expenditure. To say that the reaction to the new model was mixed, is an understatement.
It was when on the move that the real-world, dynamic benefits of the E65 7 Series came to life, compared to its E38 predecessor.
Far left: BMW’s glorious N73, six-litre V12 was the first petrol engine to feature direct fuel-injection technology. It was also used by
Rolls-Royce. Left: The facelifted E65 arrived in 2005, with better-looking front and rear light and a revised kidney grille design.
The E65 V8 engines represented a marked improvement on those that had powered the E38.
A 760Li; the long-wheelbase E65 made an excellent limousine, and these models are quite popular now as a secondhand buy.
The iDrive system came in for much criticism soon after its launch, but the technology really was the trail-blazer for what we all consider completely normal nowadays.
Gears were selected using this steering column-mounted lever – it was a revolution!
It’s under the skin where the E65 really shines; this flagship model bristled with technological innovation.
No gear lever, no conventional key, no handbrake lever and a central, rotary iDrive controller left many onlookers flummoxed at the E65’s launch in 2001.
Bangle’s influence is clear to see on the E65, with the boot ‘bustle’ being one of the car’s most controversial design features. The distinctive body shape of the E65 is quite sensitive to wheel design and paint colour; darker colours can work well to minimise the car’s bulk. Perhaps one of the E65’s best viewing angles helped, in this case, by a good colour/wheel combination.