A few weeks ago, I read about the initial test of BMW’s new subscription program, Access By BMW. The pilot program is underway in Nashville, Tennessee, and allows users there to swap out BMWs as often as they want for a fixed monthly fee. That fee includes delivery of a clean, fully fueled BMW complete with insurance ($1,000 deductible), maintenance, repair, and roadside assistance. Depending on the subscription level, users can switch between cars like the BMW 4 Series, 5 Series, X5, and M2 for $2,000 per month, or vehicles like the M5, X6 M, or M4 convertible for $3,700 per month.
I bring this up because if Access By BMW gets the green light to go national, it represents the exact opposite of my lifelong BMW ownership philosophy.
Betty and I tend to keep our Bimmers a long time; on the average, they stay with us for just over ten years. Two of our current cars have been with us literally for decades: my 1995 M3 for 23 years and Betty’s 528i going on 21 years—and counting.
If we enrolled in Access By BMW, we could theoretically have a BMW for a couple of days, then swap it for something else, then lather, rinse, and repeat as often as we liked. I don’t know what having a different BMW every few days, weeks, or even months would feel like; it might be great to frequently try different BMWs, kind of like a perpetual ride-and-drive. It would certainly free up time I normally spend maintaining our cars, so there’s that. In the worst case, if we didn’t like a car, a phone call could bring the dealer’s concierge to our door with another model. Who knows? We might discover a BMW that we liked so much we could cancel Access By BMW and order one to buy.
Access by BMW includes 2,000 miles per month, split by however many Bimmers you swap. At the $2,000 tier, that works out to a dollar per mile, with BMW picking up the cost of everything except fuel. These days, it’s not all that easy to operate a modern car for a dollar a mile when you figure in insurance, good car-care products, tires, and other consumables.
With a subscription service, you’d be limited as far as making modifications, trying different tires, or ordering specific options or packages. What you get is what you get. However, with unlimited swaps, you should never get bored with your ride. The cars are all BMWs, after all.
But maybe that’s why we keep our cars so long. We have never been bored by any of our BMWs. (Full disclosure: I admit that driving the 1986 BMW 325es hour after hour on the Autobahn, being passed by faster BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, Porsches, Opels, and sometimes even Fiats, was a little depressing, but at least we could enjoy the lovely German scenery at the lower speeds.)
Betty’s daily driver, her ’97 528i, might seem to some as a candidate for boring car of the year, but guess what? It’s not. Every time I see it, I think, “That’s a good-looking car”—more so than some of Munich’s more recent offerings. (Insert comment on owner’s bias here.) Besides being attractive in a classy way, it’s also very comfortable. Leather wear marks notwithstanding, the interior has held up very well. Everything inside still works. (Full disclosure again: the front cup-holders still work because we never used them. Abstinence may be the only solution to keeping early E39 cup-holders intact.)
Meanwhile the car drives, rides, and performs well, and brakes like it always has. I suspect that this is not news to other E39 owners whose Fivers are creeping up on, or have passed, their second hundred grand. Miles, not dollars.
Our 528i is coming up fast on 198,000 miles. I have occasionally suggested that Betty trade it in for a newer model, but she won’t have it. She loves how it looks and drives, and the fact that she hasn’t made a car payment yet in the 21st century. It also helps that she hasn’t had to drop off the car at a dealer or independent repair shop in at least a dozen years, mainly because she has an in-house mechanic. You know, the same guy who handles snow removal and lawn care.
In the first few years, the 528i had some teething problems, but they were all covered under warranty. The dealer provided a new power-steering rack, glovebox latch, coolant sensor, diverter valve, secondary air pump, idle-control valve, and left front seatbelt latch. Since then, I have become a self-taught service technician, installing a new alternator, belt tensioners, headlights, spark plugs, brakes, and primary timing-chain tensioner, but those were all easy jobs. Replacing worn suspension components took a little longer.
Slightly more challenging were the mostly prophylactic cooling-system replacements: radiator, hoses, water pump, thermostat, overflow tank, and cap. Cooling systems, in my experience, have been BMW’s Achilles Heel for a long time; for me, it dates back to when I carried a spare water pump in my 1976 2002 just so I didn’t have to wait for parts when I needed one.
Investing in the not-cheap-but-very-worthwhile two-volume Bentley E39 5 Series Repair Manual, prudent shopping for good prices on parts—including taking advantage of the BMW CCA discount at our local dealer—and doing the work myself has resulted in lower ownership costs over the life of the car, well under the dollar per mile I would spend with Access By BMW cars.
In 1996, when OBD II came along and BMW kept adding more electronics and computers to its cars, I thought that the days of the shade-tree mechanic were numbered. I was wrong as far as the E39 5 Series was concerned; almost everything I could maintain or fix on older BMWs was still do-able on the ’97 528i. I am certainly no hot-rock mechanic, but keeping the 528i and the E36 M3 race car running have provided me satisfaction that would be virtually eliminated if I only drove Access By BMW subscription vehicles.
While a BMW subscription program sounds exciting, and would make sense for a lot of people, I have to wonder what I would do if I didn’t work on my cars anymore. I suppose I could always spend time polishing the tools that I no longer needed. Come to think of it, I stopped building plastic models about the time I bought my first BMW; maybe I could resurrect that hobby.
Or maybe I should just keep Betty’s 528i running and make everyone happy.—Scott Blazey