Aug 052010

What Buying a Used BMW Feels Like Today

I’ve been worrying about BMW reliability lately. And not about either my M3 or my 530. It’s how BMW’s quality and reliability have worsened in recent years.

A little background — I don’t buy new BMWs, I like to buy lightly used ones that have been well maintained by their owners. So no one in Munich (or Woodcliff Lake New Jersey, BMW’s NA HQ) cares what I think. Plus, I know and accept the fact that German cars require more preventative maintenance than American or Japanese cars. The payoff is (or at least was) a more engaging, enjoyable driving experience.

But reliability is getting worse, and the word is getting out. The complexity of new BMWs is through the roof, and they are having loads of computer and electronic problems. Consumer Reports ranks the 135i and 335i models as below average for reliability, and Kelley Blue Book ranks the overall value of the current 3 series as “poor” in its Cost to Own index.

Part of the problem is the total lack of maintenance most of the cars receive. Back when owners paid for maintenance, BMW had a long list of items that needed regular attention. You can get that list via an email request to Mike Miller, Tech Q&A columnist for Roundel Magazine, published by the BMW Car Club of America. His email is

Now that BMW pays for new car maintenance, suddenly cars need nothing but oil changes every 15,000 miles! The rank hypocrisy is galling to me. BMW is selling cars today that are disposable after 100,000 miles.

That may be OK for some buyers, who never plan to have the car that long. It’s disastrous for enthusiasts like me, who typically want to own and drive cars well past the end of the extended warranty period — in BMW’s case that’s 6 years or 100K miles, whichever comes first.

BMW might respond hey, our sales are up so we’re giving customers what they want. And you Americans should be thankful our cars don’t cost even more. We have to sell BMWs for less in North America due to the large number of competitors, and we get killed on the exchange rate due to the weakened dollar.

But let’s look closer at those sales numbers. Keep in  mind 2009 was a historically bad year for auto sales. According to, BMW sales in North America were up 12% in July year to year. However, Audi sales were up 17%, Acura sales 44% and Porsche 68% (admittedly from a much smaller base).  The competition has upped their game — what does BMW represent today besides brand cachet and high cost?

Speaking of Mike Miller, he hit it on the head in the latest issue of Bimmer Magazine. There’s no link available, so I include the response below. Mike is responding to a reader writing in concerned about buying a used E90 M3 (the current body style). Even with not including the full reply it’s long – but a good read.

Your letter prompts me to clarify two points: First, few readers write in to Tech Q&A to tell me their BMW isn’t broken; the nature of the column largely deals with broken cars. However, my readership here and in Roundel (the BMW CCA magazine) is large enough, I think, to paint an overall picture of the reliability of a given BMW model over the years.

Second, no one loves BMW and its cars more than I do. I’ve been bleeding BMW blue and white for most of my life. This means I remember the days when BMWs were as reliable as Old Faithful. I’ve been thrust into the unwilling gadfly role by the very company I love.

In my opinion, BMW needs a level of reliability commensurate with its premium position in the over-crowded, over-competitive, globalized vehicle market. They don’t have it right now, and if they don’t get it we could all be in trouble. Look how fast Toyota fell from grace after taking its eye off the ball. Regardless of owner stupidity – shut the engine off if the gas pedal gets stuck, you morons! – the possible complicity of the U.S. government and the fact that Toyota still builds excellent vehicles, perception is everything in the marketplace.

Right now, the perception of BMW is, “Never own one without a warranty,” and that’s unfortunate.

Don't let death by stealership happen to you!

Don’t let death by stealership happen to you!

UPDATE, 12:45 EST — This is cool. Mike Miller saw the post, and likes it. But he emailed me and asked that I add some clarifications from him, shown below:

I think the service life of a new BMW is now considered to be about 120,000 miles, and quite frankly the overwhelming majority of people who buy new BMWs couldn’t care less because they simply don’t keep the cars anywhere near that long. However, some do, and those customers are probably not going to buying new BMWs, at least until they reach an age where their vehicle priorities change.
However, this is not to say a modern BMW cannot remain in service past 120,000 miles. As is the case with every car ever built, it can remain in service indefinitely as long as the owner is willing to continue funding the necessary maintenance and repairs. Is that theory? You bet. But it’s still not accurate to say, “Well, these cars only last X miles.” Not necessarily true.


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  34 Responses to “BMW’s Quality Crisis”

  1. I’m in complete agreement with you, Chris. BMW has lost it’s way in many respects, although I’m hopeful that they’re returning to tradition after the Bangle era. For now, we all must live by the rule that buying a cheap BMW will be more expensive in the end.

    Found your link on bf.c, btw.

  2. You have hit the nail on the head. BMW needs to get off their high horse and deal with some of the fundamental quality problems they have designed into their cars; cooling systems, Vanos seals, instrument cluster pixel failures, front seat belt retractors, failing sensors and FSUs to name a few. Hardcore BMW fans, myself included, are getting tired of sticking up for the brand. Sooner or later we need to come to the conclusion that if it smells like a rose, its probably a rose. It’s a shame to see what such a great company’s arrogance has led them to.

  3. Sorry, it is what it is. I agree: BMW NA doesn’t really care about second-hand customers.

    The Germans are not very good at electronics, esp when compared with the Japanese. They also don’t seem to be very good at specifying plastic parts!

    The minimal “free” maintenance is certainly a marketing ploy, but it also prevents a certain amount of fluids from getting into the environment (no fluid changes).

    The use of plastic makes cars easier to recycle, too.

    Finally, all manufacturers seek to squeeze more profit out of a product line as it matures. This causes suppliers to squeeze more profit out of parts, and the reliability suffers.

    This is, I believe, the reason we see more failures on later year cars.

    A good example is the ABS/DSC electronics, that, in the ’98 MY, was moved from the cabin, to the ABS valve assembly, in a hot engine environment (right above the exhaust manifold!). This HAD to be a cost-cutting measure.

    An even more scary trend is that DIYers and independent shops will probably get shut out of maintenance tools, and the dealer will be the only game in town. This can come back and bite BMW, since, as the size of the installed base increases, the service capacity at the dealer will be strained, and owners will wait a long time to get their cars fixed, thus enraging them.

    • Thanks for the comments, guys. There’s a lot of frustration out here. Thanks for sharing those good points about the business pressures that contribute to the problem, edjack.

  4. CP. Insightful article but two follow-up questions. Are you saying that (a) survey results show that the average noted BMWs fall apart mechanically around 120k miles, and a good part of this is due to the limited regular maintenance of these BMWs under the BMW warranty plans, (b) that such BMWs at around 120k miles fall apart mechanically even if pampered with a lot of regular maintenance, or (c) that such BMWs on average have a great deal of maintenance problems well before 100k or 120k miles irrespective of maintenance? If (a), couldn’t an owner reduce this possibility – if he or she finds it cost-effective – by simply having BMW supplement its limited maintenance with complete maintenance at the owner’s cost, or simply not pay for the plus 50K maintenance package and pay for complete maintenance 50k to 100k? As you know I have a BMW 328i for three plus years with both 100k maintenance and repair warranty – and the BMW maintenance is indeed limited, and at 65K it has not had a single repair issue (except for replacing two tire wheels due to an unforgiving pothole). Second, you say BMWs are having loads of “computer and electronic problems.” I’m an idiot when it comes auto mechanics issues, but what sort of regular maintenance could be done on a computer or electronics system that would limit or prevent a future computer or electronics system malfunction/breakdown? Mike

    • Mike — thanks for such a thorough comment! Let’s see if I can do it justice:
      a) The 120K number comes from Mike Miller, but yes maintenance very much extends that number
      b) Maintenance plays a huge role, and yes an owner who is willing to go above BMW’s scanty recommendations can improve long-term health of the car
      c) Yes, many BMWs have major issues regardless of maintenance.

      An example – the fuel pump, injectors and software on the N54 twin turbo engine (not your engine) has been a big problem, with many failures. BMW has had to offer a six year, 100K warranty on the replacements to appease angry owners. Or, ask Hagan how frustrating it was when the entire computer system shut down on his old M3 and the dealer took over a month to fix it.

      Re computer and electrical, that’s not a maintenance issue, it’s quality. Pixels on dashboards, radio controls, heating switches, stereo speakers, auto-dim rear view mirrors, window regulators — lots of electrical stuff go bad in BMWs when they last far longer in American and Japanese cars. As edjack says, the Germans just aren’t good at electronics, or maybe more accurately can’t provide good quality without raising the cost of the cars even higher.

      Obviously, I hope NONE of this happens to your 328ic!

  5. I recently completed a 2 day M school, driving the E90 M3 at 10/10ths for over 3 hours during the day. Not once did it break down or stutter. In fact the only thing was the engine temperature creeping up a little, and that is only after I was redlining nearly every gear with the A/C on full blast in 95 degrees.

    The reality is every car has problems. It is just the forums and columns reflect only people with problems, not the people with a well functioning car with no stories. I believe BMW owners expect more because of the price they pay, but the car performs well.

    Even a modern day japanese car (ever see what a transmission costs on a Honda Accord these days?) has its problems. It is just underreported.

    I will be buying a E90 m3 one day. maybe new, maybe used–but i found the car absolutely amazing. If only they could cut the weight and improve fuel economy.

  6. Yeah. I agree with a lot of what you say there.

  7. CP. Thanks for responding. A couple of final comments I thought of later. First, BMW has plenty of company in the auto manufacturers sector when it comes to self-serving recommendations on appropriate maintenance requirements for its cars. Now that BMW provides free service for the first 50k miles, its recommended limited maintenance is self-serving – saving it money. However, previously when BMW didn’t provide such an expansive service warranty, it probably overkilled in terms of the recommended maintenance – to make money. But other auto manufacturers do the same, and then require the owner to have the overkill regular service performed at a dealership or potentially void the repair warranty. I recall two decades ago that most manufacturers recommended an oil/filter change every 7 or 8k, then auto manufacturers (and outfits like Jiffy Lube) came up with the bright marketing idea of convincing everyone that oil/filter changes should be every 3k, in the self-serving interest of increasing revenue. For someone like me who in the past averaged 2k miles on my car per month, my car would have been in the shop every other month if I had believed this revenue-enhancing marketing ploy, and doing it only every 8k did not lessen the life of my previous American cars that performed well and with limited repairs up to 210k, 170k and 160k miles, respectively.

    My final observation regarding BMW’s anorexic regular maintenance/service recommendations is this. You indicate that BMW does this to reduce their warranty service costs, and I offer no dispute in regard to the 50K service warranty. But to me this argument does not fly for the extended (51k to 100k) service warranty plan. Since the day I bought my BMW the onboard computer spelled out BWM’s service recommendations up to and beyond 100k. It doesn’t seem like much service is required through and beyond 100k. However, I did not purchase the extended service warranty until the car’s odometer read 49,500. So when BMW established the limited 51k to 100k miles service recommendations for my car, BMW did so before knowing whether I would opt for the extended service plan. I wonder what is the percentage of BMW owners who opt for the extended service plan because it would seem to me if the figure is below 50% then BMW is not taking the usual self-serving approach in recommending limited regular service for the 51k to 100k miles period of its cars’ lives.

    • Mike — thanks again! As I say in the post, it’s the rank hypocrisy that bothers me about the “free” maintenance period, as much as the increasing number of software failures.

      I’m not sure i follow your point about specific recommendations for your car. I think you’re describing the Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) plan at BMW, which extends many (not all) of the original 4 year/50K warranty protections for the car for two additional years or 100K miles, whichever comes first. It’s not tailored to specific vehicles — it is what it is.

      Would you be comfortable sharing these 51K to 100K recommendations you mention? I’m sure my readers would be very interested.

  8. CP. What I meant by the 51k to 100k miles service recommendations is that from the first day I purchased my BMW the onboard computer provided a list of what maintenance services from 1k to 120k that BMW recommended for my car. Each time my odometer hits the next maintenance recommendation (e.g., oil/filter change at 12k or whatever it was), the car notifies me and then II would take it in and get the free service under the plan. My point was that BMW provides every owner of a new BMW with free maintenance up to 50k (or X no. of years), but it only provides free maintenance from 51k to 100k for those owners who opt to buy the extended service plan. I did not opt to buy the extended service plan until the odometer hit 49.5k miles. Nevertheless, whether I bought it or not, the onboard computer on my BMW did not recommend much maintenance on the car between 51k and 100k. In other words, while BMW has an incentive – service cost savings – to program the computer in its new cars to not require the car owner to bring the car in very often for maintenance because the car owner will not be charged for the service, BMW does not have the same incentive to program the computer to not require much service between 51k and 100k miles because at the time of the purchase BMW does not know whether the owner will opt for an extended service/maintenance plan. In fact, assuming less than 50% of new BMW owners opt for the extended service plan, BMW has an incentive (i.e., the revenue from owners bringing in the car to a BMW dealership for non-warranty recommended maintenance service) to program the onboard computers to recommend much more maintenance of the car between 51k and 100k than BMW currently does.

    • Ah, the green lights. Those only signify the need for an oil change, not service in general. and at overly long intervals of around 15K miles. Re-program the interval for customers who purchase the extended warranty plan. Hmm, would be pretty obvious to any owner paying attention. But who knows, you may have just given BMW a business idea.

  9. hai,
    Nice post dude!!

    I found a great article related to your post. Check it out at


  10. I agree wholeheartedly. My experience bears this out. I bought a new X3 in February 2007. The car strted having trouble towards the end of the warranty. At 51,000 miles it broke down. The transfer case blew and had to be replaced as well as one of the differentials. It was towed to a garage who could not fix it who then had it towed to BMW service. They did some repairs (never gave a completed work order because I didn’t bring the car in, the towing garage did) and sent me on my way. The car was not performing well so I took it back to BMW who basically told me if there isn’t a light on there’s nothing they could do with regard to warranty repairs. 20,000 miles later I find at the transfer case has to be replaced again and both differentials (it’s a four wheel drive) for approximately $8,000 with parts and labor. This is a 3year old car with 70,000 miles. If it had be maintained properly by BMW when it first experienced problems it definitely would have turned out differently (a technician actually made this admission.) I’ve pretty much given up on them after corporate (BMW na) gave me the run around and offered to give me 50% off on parts bridging the cost down to $5,000. I already spent approximately $10,000 trying to fix my car. It’s not worth it to me. It’s driven like crap for the last year. My solution was to trade my x3 in for a Audi Q5. The sad part is I’ve owned bmws for almost 20 years. The decline in quality, when looking back was clear since 2000. But their service was always pretty bad. Seemed better when you paid for it though…

  11. To add insult to injury I subsequently learned that the transmission in the x3 is the same one in a bunch of chevy models. Chevy warrants this power train for 100,000 miles. BMW: a paltry 50,000. They really are a shadow of what they once were as a company, brand and more importantly, product.

  12. Great article. My relationship with my E46 M3 has been a love and hate one. My first car was an Isuzu Impulse that probably saw daylight half of it’s life under it’s 2 years warranty. It was in the shop every month for different reasons. So I learned my lesson and bought a 91 Integra and later a 96 Integra GSR. No onto my E46 M3, which I bought new in 2002. The maintenance was taken cared of by the dealer and I did the subsequent fluid changes after that. It only has 41K miles to this date so Inspection II hasn’t been done yet. But man has this car proven to be a challenge to own. From the rod bearing recall to numerous SMG software upgrades to cold start issue, rear view mirror leak, premature wear on the cam position sensor, premature wear on the tensioner and idler pulleys and belts, broken head unit, leaking CPV, musty vent, peeling interior trim, failing door and window trim, little interior squeaks here and there, premature ignition coils, and other small but niggling issues. Now, I’m worried about the rear and front subframe mount failure and the dreaded VANOS failure, which includes the cam gear bolts shearing themselves off. I still love this car and I really want to keep it for a long time but It’s so hard to enjoy it without worrying about what’s going to break next.

  13. All great posts; I gotta tell ya. BMW lost my business today. I just picked up a 2011 Infiniti M. After driving both and reading EVERY write up, blog, and report Infiniti got my business. As a former BMW owner, I will never go back. I think they are a sleep at the wheel. Competition such as Infiniti is making a better handling, more power, better interiors, and fir and finish. BMW is simply holding on by a thread on their label.

  14. Here is some food for thought, The hp fuel pump and direct inj on the 335i is this sytem speced out by bmw ? or Bosch? or whom ever. Who designed the system and how was the manufacting spec determined? I know that it is BMW responsabiltiy but some much is develpoed and designed by other. Cars now have so many things made by out side sources that every manufactors use all the same sources all around the world. Just make me think where is it all going.

  15. BMW still makes vehicles in their previous tradition. Unfortunately they are made by the ///M division. Not factoring reliability (S85), these vehicles are made the way all BMWs should be made. It’s a real pity that these manufacturing processes are not made standard throughout the line-up.

    • M Division- no automatics, no turbos, no SUVs. Oh wait, X5M & X6M.

      • @Ryan – Don’t forget the M double-clutch sequential auto trans (which rocks, by the way, at least 2010 MY & after). And the 2013/14 M3 is probably going to be a turbo 6.

  16. I’m a former BMW owner. I had a 2003 328i. At first I was impressed with the car then the long journey of problems began. After spending over $7,000 in repairs after the warranty went bye bye, it was time to say bye bye to this piece of &*^% car. I surely don’t miss the 328i’s harsh ride and all of that road noise either. I now own a 2010 Lexus LS 460. The Lexus makes my BMW seem like a tin can. I was just one of those sheeple who took the bait and purchased a BMW. We all make mistakes in life, but that’s water under the bridge now. Just being in the serenity of my quiet, smooth riding and INCREDIBLY RELIABLE Lexus makes it all worthwhile. By the way, my Lexus has 30,000 miles on it now and never a problem. By The time my BMW had that much mileage it had been in the shop ten times for quality issues.

  17. I couldn’t agree more. I have a 2011 550 and it has consumed 7 quarts of oil in 14,500 miles. BMW’s response is to say “that is normal”. Absolutely absurd. I have gone round and round with them and not only will they not admit there is a problem, but their customer service people won’t call you back. I guess is it like everything I read….they will deny, deny, deny you until you force them to pay money by filing a lawsuit. Summary, horrible, quality, horrible customer service for a premium price.

  18. […] Found this article from a google bearing search and you start to wonder with all the SMG/clutch, and now bearing posts that dominate repair threads. As these cars approach 100K on mileage, you might find this article interesting. I did. BMW's Quality Crisis – […]

  19. I bought a 2014 BMW 550i Grand Tourism. It was a great car for a few days. At 600 miles, the radio did not held the selected stations after I turn the car off. The the computer decided I need to change oil and I received a note from BMW. Also there were a series of small strange messages that were all false. The dealership asked for BMW help and they told that they new the issues but did not have a solution. Eventually they would have. I returned the car and without any argument BMW accept the car back. This was nice but tells me that BMW is lost in terms of electronics and how to fix the programs.

  20. S85 V10’s now have a serious issue on rod bearings. Even 30K mile motor show unusual wear. Any S85 with >75K miles needs new bearings else there WILL be engine failure. Most of the Vanos pump and solenoid issues are due to debris from the bearings!

  21. I have 91k miles on my 2004 E46 and it is still going strong and I have it served regularly by an independent shop. Though I’m a bit pissed off at BMW and the selling dealer for knowing about the tendency for the valve seals/gaskets to leak shortly after the warranty expires and not telling anyone or doing anything about it. Because of that and other issues with the selling dealer, I have vowed to never again buy a new BMW from a dealer.

  22. I found this post after searching for others that have noticed lower quality on the 2008 and up BMWs. I had a 2001 330i that looked and ran great after 8 years and I sold it for a good price. My 2009 335i is already showing and sounding premature aging. The paint and suspension quality seems lacking and other little things that I notice compared to my 2001. I think it was due to the efforts to lower production costs at the height of the recession. Does anyone else have any comparison data like mine?
    Thanks for any input.

  23. Very resourceful and good comments out there, I was always fascinated by the classic BMW looks, strength and assumed you need to pay down the road for such high performance. I drive an e39 / 1998 bmw that is one of the few cars left who carry “made in Germany” tag. For me, the minute these words are gone, BMW is not the same as we knew it. The car has been keeping me happy so far, has less than 100 k miles, but just want some tips of what major issues an E39 is been notorious of ? Another thing I found, is that even when I take the car to a BMW local dealer, I am not sure if they are knowledgable on how to diagnose and repair a 16 years old car. Or whether or not it’s worth their time to fix. I am so in touch with the E39 agile look and lines and want to last long with this car, can you please advise where is the best, most reliable shops in the U.S where I can take my bimmer for a complete make over and upgrade ?
    I am fed up with dealers advises , get me something better

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