I'm sure we've all heard the various acronyms for BMW - "Big Money Waster", "Broke My Wallet", "Broken Motor Works", and "Barely Moving Wreck", just to name a few. Everyone in the world knows a guy, that knows a guy, that knows another guy who once owned a BMW for a year until it drove him broke. It seems many people believe BMW's are among the least reliable cars in the world, and equally as many dream of one day being able to afford a BMW and its maintenance. Before buying a BMW you may begin to wonder: Is all of this true? Am I buying a car that will turn into a money pit?
Are BMW's Reliable?
Searching through the various websites that provide reliability data will surely agree with the consensus that BMW's are unreliable cars; many show BMW as under average, costing more in annual repairs, ending up in the shop more often, and a higher likelihood of severe, costly repairs as compared with other car brands. While it would be ridiculous to completely disregard these reports, we - along with many other BMW owners - refuse to believe the general perception that BMW's are money pits.
There are certainly BMW's that have been plagued with frequent, costly issues. It is not hard to find horror stories and complaints about reliability. However, on the opposite end, there are also plenty of BMW's that surpass 100,000 miles with no issues, or few minor issues. Our 2008 BMW 535i has experienced more than its fair share of issues, while our 2007 335i and 2008 135i have been reliable cars overall. Keep in mind - these are all 12-13 year old N54 engines, commonly known as one of the least reliable BMW engines. Yet we have a positive reliability experience with 2 out of 3 of them.
This is a small sample size and 2 of 3 may not sound excellent on the surface. However, the point we are making is this: it is tough to measure overall reliability, and it really comes down to a case by case basis. One BMW may be poorly maintained yet eclipse 100,000 miles with no issues and another may be meticulously maintained but experience countless issues. BMW is not alone in this; you can find similar examples with any car brand.
BMW Standard Maintenance
We believe standard maintenance is an important factor that contributes to the perception that BMW's are unreliable. There is no question BMW has more demanding, and more expensive standard maintenance than the average car. You can likely drive a Toyota Camry to any one of the million oil change shops at any street corner that offers $20-30 oil changes. Meanwhile, a BMW oil change with synthetic oil can run over $100. Additionally, as compared with an average car, most BMW's come with larger brakes, wider wheels and tires (staggered setups with tires that cannot be rotated), performance inspired tires, and more aggressive, sportier suspension.
All of these factors contribute to the fun, sporty feel of a BMW but also come at an additional cost. Brakes may need to be replaced more frequently along with new rotors. The staggered high-performance tires in the rear cannot be rotated leading to replacement as early as every 15,000 miles, or sooner if you enjoy the power on hand. Sportier suspension setups typically wear down quicker leading to costly maintenance around 10 years or 100,000 miles.
As the old saying goes, "you gotta pay to play." Without a question this is true of BMW's, especially sportier models such as the 335i, 340i, M3, M4, M5, etc. Standard maintenance may add up quickly and become overwhelming for unaware owners. Sprinkle in a $1,000 repair right after an $800 set of tires, and it is easy to understand why some owners may become frustrated and forever deem them unreliable cars.
BMW Repair Costs
Yet another factor that likely contributes to the poor perception of BMW reliability. It is tough in the US to find a reputable, knowledgeable, quality BMW repair shop that will work for under $100 labor an hour; plenty of shops charge amounts in excess of $150/hour. Combine high hourly labor charges with a compact, crammed engine bay designed to barely house the elongated design of BMW's gorgeous inline-6 engines, and you have a perfect recipe for expensive repairs. For example, the BMW N54 valve cover gasket is a common area that develops oil leaks. A mere $50 gasket and bolts can add up to a repair that costs $1,000+ due to the 7 hours labor.
Not a challenging repair for even mediocre DIY'ers; grab a few tools and spend a night out in the garage to save $1,000. As mentioned, BMW's do have generally compact engine bays that may be intimidating, but overall they are not overly challenging, or too complex to navigate with some basic knowledge and patience. Even the most novice DIY'ers can replace spark plugs in their driveway in under an hour; a job some shops may charge $100-200 for. If you enjoy or can tolerate the occasional DIY repair then you will likely find your BMW to be a relatively cheap, reliable car. For those unable or unwilling to DIY basic repairs - understand BMW repairs are typically more expensive than the average car.
BMW Common Problems
Although we believe BMW's are reliable cars there are a few primary issues that plague a vast majority of all BMW's and BMW engines. A lot of these problems start to develop somewhere in the ballpark of 80,000-120,000 miles. Conveniently, there are tons of used BMW's on the market that fall right around this mileage and they become much more affordable up-front. Some consumers buy these cars unaware of the issues and understandably become frustrated when they are slapped with $1,000 repair bills right after buying their BMW. A few things to look out for include:
- Electrical Issues
- Oil Leaks
- Cooling System Issues
This is not an exhaustive list and some specific BMW models may have other common issues while other models may not have all or any of the above common issues. However, electrical and cooling system issues and oil leaks top the list of some of the most well-known common problems.
BMW Electrical Issues
Just to name a few, you may notice issues develop with the door lock actuators, window regulators, faulty tire pressure monitor system, or driver or passenger restraint systems. Not all BMW's succumb to electrical system issues, and it is certainly more common in the luxury models or any models with additional electrical features. For BMW's that do develop electrical issues, many may not even require any true repairs. Our 535i frequently displays a message stating there is an issue with the passenger restraint system, but there is not an actual fault with the restraint system. Similarly, our 335i has a brake light that has been on for the past two years, but there is not an issue with any part of the braking system.
While two of our BMW's do technically have electrical issues the problems are not at all concerning to us. Everything functions properly on the 335i and 535i apart from the lights that we cannot get to go away for whatever reason. Issues like these are not worth spending the time or money. Obviously, you want to ensure nothing is actually wrong with the car that may diminish safety, performance, or reliability. This leads some BMW owners to throwing thousands of dollars at the car to track down an issue that is not as issue at all. Check the basics and ensure there is nothing seriously wrong with the car; if things check out, don't spend too much money or effort trying to track the cause of a light that can easily be ignored.
BMW Oil Leaks
Ahh, the notorious BMW oil leaks. Every BMW owner should write this down to have some ammo the next time your friends make fun of your smoking BMW - "It's not leaking oil. It's sweating power". Chances are any long-time BMW owners experienced oil leaks first hand, and maybe even multiple leaks. Oil leaks tend to develop around 100,000 miles, however, they could pop up as early as 50,000 miles or the car may make it past 150,000 without any leaks. A few common areas for BMW's to develop oil leaks include:
- Valve Cover & Valve Cover Gasket
- Oil Pan & Oil Pan Gasket
- Oil Filter Housing & Gasket
There are definitely other oil leaks that may develop, but the above three are among the most common BMW oil leaks. Often times, the brittle gaskets are the cause of the oil leaks but the labor costs to replace any of the above gaskets can be extensive. Due to the cost of labor you may consider replacing the full part and not just the gasket alone, especially if your BMW has 100,000+ miles.
Another thing to note - some of these oil leaks can potentially be left alone for a while as they typically do not pose risks to the longevity of the engine. However, be cautious of oil leaks dripping onto extremely hot engine parts such as turbochargers and exhaust manifolds. Oil filter housing oil leaks may also drip onto or in the area of the belt & pulleys, which could cause premature wear or failure.
Unfortunately, oil leaks are a part of BMW ownership. Repair costs for oil leaks may cost a pretty penny if you have the work done at a shop. However, gaskets are cheap so DIY'ers can save a lot of money with a night or weekend in the garage.
BMW Cooling System Issues
When thinking of common BMW cooling system problems, water-pumps probably jump to the forefront of BMW owners minds. It's almost impressive to see how many BMW water pumps actually give out before 80,000. Unfortunately, water pumps may only be the start of the cooling system issues with other common problems popping up around 100,000 miles. A few cooling problems to look out for include:
- Waterpump & Thermostat
- Coolant Hoses
- Cooling Fan
Sound like the entire cooling system? Yeah, it pretty much is. With BMW's recent change to a mostly turbocharged lineup, these new turbo engines generate significant heat and put serious stress on the BMW cooling systems. Still an issue on non-turbo models, but more prevalent in the hotter running turbo engines. A few of the newest BMW engines have moved to more advanced cooling systems that should hopefully resolve or at least improve these problems.
BMW Water Pumps
Due to the nature of their electric design, a lot of BMW water pumps use a composite (basically stronger plastic) impeller that is prone to cracking and failing. Easy - just get an aftermarket water pump with a metal impeller, right? Not quite. An electric water pump needs a light weight composite impeller, otherwise the heavier metal impeller wears down the electric pump. If your BMW features this electric water pump design be prepared for that sucker to go out as early as 30,000 miles. Our three N54's all use this design and all three N54's are on new water pumps. The 535i required replacement at 50,000 and another around 80,000, the 335i lasted a whopping 95,000 miles (I'm not kidding - 95,000 is impressive), and the 135i required replacement around 40,000 miles. It is always recommended to replace the thermostat along with the water pump.
Other BMW Cooling System Issues
Coolant hoses become brittle and may split or crack over time leading to coolant leaks. Research any hoses in the area of the one that requires replacement and have them replaced as preventative maintenance to avoid additional labor down the road. High heat may lead to the radiator cracking and developing coolant leaks over time. Lastly, the BMW electric cooling fans are prone to premature failure.
Thoughts on BMW Reliability
BMW's are, in our opinion, more reliable than the general perception leads one to believe. Regardless of reliability, BMW's are without question more expensive when it comes to general maintenance and the actual cost of a given repair. Standard maintenance items such as oil changes, brakes, and tires are more expensive than an average car. Likewise, replacing a water pump on a Hyundai or Toyota is probably cheaper than replacing a BMW water pump.
Cost savings may be massive for those willing to spend a few hours here and there out in their garage DIY'ing basic repairs. Proper maintenance should help with overall reliability and longevity, though some of it purely comes down to the luck of the draw. Understand what you are getting in a BMW; it is generally sportier and more demanding than your average car. After all, BMW's are the "Ultimate Driving Machine", not the "Ultimate Cost Saving Machine."
More engines to come soon!
Let us know your experience with BMW's.