Class of 2003, Episode 1: Cheap and Sporty

2003 BMW 540i e39 for sale

In the last 3 years I had two kids, bought a house and turned 30. My day job title even contains “Sr” (and no I don’t work for a Spanish language TV station). Needless to say my youth is dead. This process of grownupification also changes our perception of time. Most notably, things from the early-to-mid-2000s don’t seem that long ago, when in fact they are.

To illustrate the point, (here’s what I was listening to in 2003) we’ll run a little series on cars entering the dead zone between their first lives in regular service and (should they survive) classic status. Today we’ll take a look at bottom(ish) of the barrel: sup $10k sportscars. These would make great candidates for barely street legal track beaters or daily drivers for teenagers whose parents don’t like them very much. Let’s dig in…

First off, we’ve got an example of a breed only recently coming back with a vengeance  the lightweight FWD sport compact (shut up, VW people). This RSX type S sports 200hp and a 6 speed manual (both impressive in their day), decent blue paint and is relatively free of dumbass aftermarket modifications. 102,000 miles for $9,800:

 [sc:ebay itemid=”271143354452″ linktext=”2003 RSX Type S” ]

Ok, fine VW people, I’ll throw you a bone. Here’s a New Beetle Turbo S with a host of go-faster bits applied. It’s safe to say that an early-’00s turbo VAG product is the early ’70s Vega of our generation. “Never again” say so many. These made 100 hp for each of the 1.8Ls from the factory and this guy’s done some upgrades. Possibly worth it just to embarrass the occasional sleepy 5.0 owner. 126k miles and $7,200 asking price

[sc:ebay itemid=”251218165029″ linktext=”2003 New Beetle Turbo S” ]

Next up is a 2003 WRXagon. It’s nowhere near as original or clean as the RSX (has “lots of extras!”), but offers a notch more utility and power. At 105,000 miles, it’s headed right into a costly ownership season (clutch, timing belts, valve adjustments, turbo, etc), after which things should level off…right? Asking $9,500.

[sc:ebay itemid=”111002417269″ linktext=”2003 Subaru WRX Wagon” ]

I’ll be honest, I never really liked the 350z. The overall shape is too geometric and not organic enough and the VQ sounds like ass. That said, for somewhere between $7,500 and $9,900 you can treat yourself to 287hp, six gears and rear wheel drive. Like the others, it’s just a notch over 100k miles.

[sc:ebay itemid=”251218039679″ linktext=”2003 Nissan 350z” ]

As a counter-point to the Z, here’s a drop-top Mustang GT, surprisingly rarely equipped with a manual transmission. We’re talking about cars from ’03, but that interior screams 1997 to me. This one’s black on tan and the seller goes out of his way to highlight you’re bidding on a 10 year old black car from Arizona…be sure to budget for a buffer if you pick this one up. Lowest mileage so far: 89k and $7,900.

[sc:ebay itemid=”370738865806″ linktext=”2003 Ford Mustang GT Convertible” ]

In the future we’ll do a Kings of Depreciation episode, but this BMW 540i is just too good to pass up for now. Clean black paint, nice tan interior, 6MT and…hail damage. Ugh…why do people live in places where large balls of ice fall from the sky? Anyway, this one reminds me of a girl I briefly dated as a freshman in high school…whole package, minus the Acutane prescription. 111k miles and $8995.

[sc:ebay itemid=”150982815973″ linktext=”2003 BMW 540i Sport 6MT” ]

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64 responses to “Class of 2003, Episode 1: Cheap and Sporty”

  1. Sam Avatar

    2003 Saab 9-3 viggen convertible, 5 speed 230hp tons of torque

  2. Metric Wrench Avatar
    Metric Wrench

    My new daily dragger – 2004 Volvo V70R. Kid seat friendly, plenty of room for all the latest kid accessories, 6 speed manual, 300 horse. Depreciation has made this ride possible in the sub 10k budget, but have a second car and be ready to wrench…

    1. Scandinavian Flick Avatar
      Scandinavian Flick

      Hah, I was just about to suggest an S60R, which was introduced in '03.
      Here's a 2004 that I found for a BIN of $8900:

      1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

        I've always wanted to try one, but I heard the suspension in the R is hard enough to shake your tooth fillings loose.

        1. Metric Wrench Avatar
          Metric Wrench

          It's not bad. The suspension has three settings, floaty, firm, and teeth be gone; all accessible through buttons on the dash. It still pushes like a front driver at the limit, but that might be the all season tires the previous owner left me. Never going to be a track star, but it's fine for street duty.

          1. topdeadcentre Avatar

            I only wish that Volvo had figured out enough with the S60R/V70R suspension so it could deal with potholes and big bumps. My V70R runs out of suspension travel quick, and the rubber bump stops are loud and uncomfortable.
            However, it's still full of wagony goodness!

    2. ramLlama Avatar

      I have an 04 S60R myself, and I have to say that these are good, reasonably quick, family cars. The V would be better though, as the rear seat of the S gets small quick.
      Congratulations on the new car, and do come and join us over on Swedespeed if you have not already!

  3. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

    I'll vote for the BMW here.
    My Dad has the visual double of the above car; Black Sapphire metallic, '03 540iA Sport. Yeah, "iA" signifies the "fuzzy logic" slushbox, but it really doesn't suffer for it. In my honest opinion a very reasonable substitute for an M5 (that ordinary mortals can afford to run).
    Since he bought his from me (way back when I hawked Bimmers for a living) I have taken myriad cars to show him, and not one has tempted him from the E39. It now has 70k miles on it and is close to showroom clean (bar a couple of kerb kisses). I'm very much hoping to take it from him and run a Rover / BMW fleet.

    1. synchromesh Avatar

      I've driven a few 540i 6MT cars. They're fast and fun. Reliable – they certainly are not. A coworker had an early 2000s 540iA a few years back. It snapped the timing CHAIN and required a new head and stuff to the tune of over $4K.
      VP of Engineering at my current company still drives an early 2000s 530i (automatic). That thing does have almost 200K but it only runs because he dumps ungodly sums of money into it. So thanks but no thanks. I'd take an RSX/350Z/WRX over anything German of this vintage any day.

      1. Rust-MyEnemy Avatar

        I guess reliability never occurred to me. My Dad has had a split radiator as the sum total of issues. But I can imagine a bad one being a money pit.

        1. ars3nic Avatar

          I used to have an E39 540i 6MT, awesome car. I got it for 8k with 134k miles, in pretty good shape. I put close to 40k miles on it in a year and a half, and the only problems I had were a broken coolant expansion tank, a warped front rotor, and a dead [$500 liquid-cooled] alternator. I sold it last winter after I hit some ice and had a tough talk with a highway guardrail, but I swapped it for an E36 M3 sedan 🙂

  4. Tim Odell Avatar
    Tim Odell

    Bonus Candidate that was arguably too horrible to include (and I spent too much time lost in a see of musical nostalgia to make thos links)
    <img src="$T2eC16J,!)cE9s4PsNKSBQ93o9r49Q~~60_3.JPG" width=500>
    '03 S-type R. Vandalism damage. $5500

    1. Jay_Ramey Avatar

      Those are some trend-conscious vandals, they've spraypainted the wheels black…. and that's it?

    2. JayP2112 Avatar


  5. Scandinavian Flick Avatar
    Scandinavian Flick

    How 'bout an '03 XJR? In the same way the 540i tends to sell for less than the 530i, the XJR sells for less than the XJ8s of the same year. This example is only $4450, leaving plenty in your budget for inevitable repairs.
    <img src="; width="500">
    <a href="” target=”_blank”>

    1. Tim Odell Avatar
      Tim Odell

      That's…wow…I need to talk to The_Missus…
      Edit: Man, there's a lot of mid-90s Ford in that interior…lust abated for now.

      1. Scandinavian Flick Avatar
        Scandinavian Flick

        These things pop up in the $5K area all the time, and believe me, they've been on my radar. The problem is, there's no information on them anywhere. They're fast, but they aren't enthusiast cars, so nobody works on them themselves. Thus, I'm not sure exactly why they're so cheap. Yeah, Jaguar… But what specifically breaks? What are the issues?
        First time I ever went to the drag strip, a guy in a full 3-piece business suit had one of these completely stock, sporting DOT slicks, running 12s without breaking a sweat with a trunk full of crap…

        1. Tim Odell Avatar
          Tim Odell

          Ben W, formerly of Jalopnik, currently of Popular Mechanics ( has/had one. Was told they're "not that bad" when it comes to maintenance.
          I remember in my tire monkey days working on one with like 18k on it, the owner somewhat surprised and slightly proud he'd managed to wear out his rear tires so quickly. They were heavily vulcanized and there were bits of molten rubber all over the rear fenders.

        2. Syrax Avatar

          IIRC the only thing you have to really look is the Mercedes transmission. Everything else is what you expect.

          1. Distraxi Avatar

            Nah, the Merc tranny's good, it's the ZF on earlier non-R cars which gave trouble.
            This and a few other changes make the R more reliable in general than the NA version.

        3. Distraxi Avatar

          There's a lot of info and support on…. There's a good buyers guide in the stickies there too.
          Basically, buy an 02-03 car (which had a bunch of issues sorted), look for hidden tin worm in a few (known) spots, and expect to spend a lot of time sorting minor niggles. The AJ V8 runs for ever, but like any luxobarge reaching the end of its economic life, bushes, joints, and electronic bits start to go. Probably no worse than a 540 though. Avoid cars with the optional Brembo brake upgrade – no end of grief with warped disks. Which is a pity because they were matched with some pretty BBS split rims.
          Expect also to chew through tyres – the torque is addictive!

      2. Hatchtopia Avatar

        Is that a…
        <tilts head to side>
        Ford RANGER steering wheel?

        1. Tim Odell Avatar
          Tim Odell

          It's a Ford everything steering wheel.

    2. JayP2112 Avatar

      What a tease.
      For that, I'd buy it and park in in the lawn. Look at those wheels! Damn!!!
      Hell, I'd live innit. And for the five to ten minutes it ran, those would be a glorious five or ten minutes.

    3. Jeb Hoge Avatar
      Jeb Hoge

      Oh, I so would.

  6. Bob Avatar

    What about a first gen Lexus IS300? Easy sub 10k, stupid reliable, rwd, and a blast to drive.

    1. 0ToTuttiFrutti Avatar

      I've always been tempted by the IS, all the generations of this car look nice. Are they as sporty as they look though?

      1. Bob Avatar

        I've got a 2002. Its a blast to drive! Typical Toyota, do the maintenance and it will run. I've got 195k miles, no smoking, no issues, and it will get sideways whenever I push for it. The only thing I don't like is that it is a timing belt and not a chain. But its a 2JZ!

  7. sohc Avatar

    I'm curently looking at celica gt-eses cause they are cheaper than rs-xx. Love front drive manual cars that are light and sporty! (and cheap) (just like I like my women)

  8. Preludacris Avatar

    Ha! I laugh at your notion of cheap and sporty! (And I never get sick of posting photos of my car!)
    <img src="; width="600">
    Okay, so it's not a sports car… it's FWD with an unhealthy penchant for understeer. But it is a fun ride, it's old, and it's not classic. If I had to choose from the options presented, I'm not sure if I'd go with the RSX or the WRX. And I'd still regret not spending the 10k properly: <a href="” target=”_blank”>

    1. mnm4ever Avatar

      That is an awesome Prelude, never apologize for it. I love that generation, always have. I used to date a girl with a white one, was a big deal, that was the first time you could get white in a Prelude. I dated her for her car… lol

      1. Preludacris Avatar

        Can't blame ya…
        <img src="; width="600">
        (pic from member 89lowlude)

    2. synchromesh Avatar

      Nice RPF1s!

      1. Preludacris Avatar

        Drag DR-21, actually. I hate intellectual property theft, so I reduce the cognitive dissonance by thinking of them as "nice looking, semi-lightweight, very affordable wheels" instead of "Enkei ripoffs." I still feel guilty.

        1. Bob Avatar

          I've got Drag wheels on my IS300. They're a great deal!

    3. MrHowser Avatar

      Is there a Honda that RPF1's don't improve? That looks great.

    4. Jeb Hoge Avatar
      Jeb Hoge

      Ooh, that is nice.

  9. mnm4ever Avatar

    You shafted the VW fans… for the same price as the Acura you could get a Mk5 GTI that is worlds better than the crappy New Beetle with Mk4 chassis.

    1. wunno sev Avatar
      wunno sev

      the RSX really hangs onto its value
      i've got a coworker who bought an 03 type S brand new, still has it. it was a great investment. he could probably get 7-8k for it if he wanted to sell it. ten years down the line, for a car that wasn't luxury-priced to begin with, that's hard to argue with.

      1. mnm4ever Avatar

        Well after I posted I realized what a dumba$$ I was, I didnt catch that the deal here was only for 2003 model cars LOL. So my VW comment is null and void. That being said, I love my GTI but I would never buy any VW product from 2003. And I know the RSX holds it value, I wasn't really saying the GTI was a better option, just that it would be the same price as the Acura which was the most expensive car he quoted in the article.
        And all Acura/Honda products tend to hold significantly better than average resale value, especially as they get extra old. As a used car, if I had a choice between an RSX and a GTI (even an Mk5) priced the same, same condition, same miles, etc, I would literally run from the VW to the Acura. our CRV has over 200k miles and still drives like new.

      2. lincoln Avatar

        I just bought an '05 RSX Type-S (after the front and rear styling refresh, and with the 2.0L bumped up to 210 hp) 61k miles
        its a blast to drive, classy as f*ck (stock) and economical to own (31 mpg, honda reliablity)
        I'm pretty happy with my purchase.

  10. Maymar Avatar

    For the record, if I were a teenager, I'd thoroughly appreciate my parents buying me any of these. They would've just passed down their sensible and reliable econocar du jour (I ended up taking them up on that offer in college though).
    I have trouble accepting that the new Mini's been around more than ten years, but they have been, and they're definitely sub ten grand.
    <img src="; width=500 /img>

  11. Livermoron Avatar

    I chose the 540i6 – mostly after seeing this video – I did what I thought was thorough research (common problems, typical wear items, typical parts costs, etc.) before picking one up. I never thought to ask anyone about it – but the E39 (non M5) does not have a LSD(!). Imagine my surprise and ultimate disappointment. You can obviously put one in – about $3-4K for after market or $1-1.5K for a used M5 LSD and some drive shaft work (my plan unless I put it off long enough to get a Gen 1 CTS-V). Although I could easily spend 2 days fixing all the little crap that has gone wrong and have collected the parts for it still gets me to work and is one of the most reliable cars I've owned (previously 1st gen Legend, 95 and 96 Maximas, and an 02 V8 Dakota – all manuals).

  12. JayP2112 Avatar

    Out of the original group, the Mustang is the only one which would not become a disaster movie in repairs. By 2003, the engine was pretty well sorted and the TR3650 would have failed by now if it was going to tank. The 90's plastic interior holds up but realize this is not an Audi. You are paying for the engine noise.
    And forget the convertible. The coupe is it.

    1. ptschett Avatar

      I'll grant that the convertible probably drives like an overcooked noodle compared to the coupe – but I'd still rather have that Mustang than the rest of this field.

    2. Maymar Avatar

      The 350Z should actually hold up pretty okay, as long as the previous owner wasn't a jackass. Of course, it's almost as nasty inside as the Mustang, and sounds worse.

      1. JayP2112 Avatar

        I agree. The Z car followed the same formula- you get a great chassis and drive train. Everything else is 2nd.
        My last DE student had a NISMO 350Z. Honest to God, this car was a kickass DE car. A rear seat has weight with me (and the kid). Otherwise the Z would be right there for cars to screw around with.

        1. Maymar Avatar

          I'd rather buy an IS300 (or maybe a Jag X-Type, because I might not quite be right in the head), but I can't tell someone they're wrong for wanting an Infiniti G35.

  13. trhyne Avatar

    I know we are talking '03 specifically here, but since the RSX is brought up, an '04-'05 TL's are going for the ~10k range, at the ~100k mile mark, and while they are no 5 series they are a pretty great car with the super reliable Accord for a cousin, and arguably better than a Lexus IS in my opinion, other than they are FWD and not RWD. And the 6spd – If you can find one – comes with Brembos..

    1. Maymar Avatar

      If we run this question for the class of 2004, the Mazda RX8 is unequivocally my answer.

  14. 0ToTuttiFrutti Avatar

    10 years? WTF happened?
    Tim Odell is definitely right, I catch myself looking at craigslist thinking "anything newer than 2000 is still pretty new."
    Then I remember, in 2000 my raver friends were still wearing enormous pants. And this is what a new car looked like:
    <img src="; '="" width="600">
    BTW Tim, I have some serious questions about your musical taste..Except for that Darkness song, which is pretty awesome in that the band clearly knows how ridiculous they are.

    1. Tim Odell Avatar
      Tim Odell

      I readily admit I have awful taste when it comes to just about anything.
      I think I still have a glow-in-the-dark Adidas visor somewhere…

  15. mr. Smee Avatar
    mr. Smee

    This series is right in my wheelhouse. I'm too poor to buy new, and too much of a snob drive a Camcord. Hence, my future collectable 2000 Lexus GS400, which before I bought it, I considered about half the cars in this list.

  16. YouDriveWhat Avatar

    This has to be one of the worst written pieces of garbage I have ever read.

    1. Preludacris Avatar

      You must be new around here.
      <img src=""&gt;

    2. Just wanted to say Avatar
      Just wanted to say

      I agree completely. Terrible writing.

      1. Tim Odell Avatar
        Tim Odell

        Your case would be more convincing if you weren't logging in under a separate account to agree with yourself:
        <img src="; width=600>
        (click to see full image)

    3. MrHowser Avatar

      Do you have anything productive to say?

  17. duurtlang_ Avatar

    Class of 2003 you say? 2003 was the last full year of my DD, so I'd pick that again. This time with the V6 with 210 ponies. Preferably with the 1997-2003 front bumper, and not the ugly 2003.5-2004 shark mouth bumper. It's more GT than sports car, but I think it qualifies.
    <img src="; width="600">

    1. faberferrum Avatar

      That's a nice looking car, what's the model?

      1. duurtlang_ Avatar

        It's a Pininfarina designed Peugeot 406 coupe.

  18. MrHowser Avatar

    I think this series has potential. So often, I get excited about a certain car, and forget what else the same money would buy. I'm looking forward to the next one.

  19. spatula6554 Avatar

    How is this even a consideration? BMW 540i…plus lots of time in the garage with an open checkbook!

  20. schigleymischke Avatar

    The BMW – What's with the hail damage? Insurance covers that, why not get it fixed? Suspicious.