The Bayerische Motoren Werke, or BMW as we in the non-German speaking world call them, is one of the most iconic car brands in existence. Even those who know absolutely nothing about cars know what a BMW is, and what it represents. To some, its cars represent a status symbol to show that they’ve made it in life. For others, BMWs are desired for their dynamic performance and athleticism. Then, there are those that seek top-notch Teutonic build quality. But on that note, is BMW reliable?
Surely, if you’re paying the amount of money that BMW is charging its customers, they must be good cars, right? Good, absolutely. But are they reliable enough that you can keep on driving past the factory warranty’s expiry date without getting anxious? After all, there have been some very pretty terrifying horror stories of BMWs costing entire arms and legs just to repair, let alone maintain them. Well, we’re going to take a closer look at answering the question to, “are BMW reliable cars?”
Why Are BMW So Popular In The First Place?
Before looking at whether or not as to are BMW reliable, we should know why this has been such a hotly debated issue. The underlying reason is simple enough, and that’s the fact that BMW makes some of the most desirable cars on the planet. With such commonality in mind, it’s no wonder a lot of people are curious. In fact, BMW is among the holy trinity of the prestigious and luxury brands from Europe, which includes Mercedes-Benz and Audi. BMWs have a lot of appeal.
As we mentioned earlier, its cars are renowned for their sporty handling and performance. Thanks to its M-tuned cars, BMW has been a highly acclaimed brand among enthusiasts. For regular folks, the legendary BMW white and blue roundel badge is a sign of success. In fact, a survey done by Consumer Reports showed that BMW came second place as the best car brand when it comes to driving enjoyment. They even came second place for overall ownership satisfaction.
There’s also the subject of choice. BMW’s line-up of cars is highly diverse, making everything from large executive sedans such as the 7-Series, to the more attainable X2 crossover. In between, there are very racy M-spec BMWs for the enthusiasts. Alongside them are their more toned-down siblings, with as much tuning and engineering refinements trickled over. Therefore, it’s easy for consumers to get into the BMW brand, as they could practically buy any vehicle that suits their lifestyle.
Are BMW Reliable Cars That You Should Consider?
However, these high-end German cars from the marques of BMW, Mercedes, and Audi have also caught the reputation of being somewhat unreliable. This may have changed over the years, though. According to Consumer Reports once again, a 2021 survey has seen BMW move up five places on the reliability score. This is thanks to improvements made to their newer models to better ensure as few faults reported per car as possible. Mainly, this is attributed to the most recent 3-Series and X5.
Therefore, we could make the argument that BMWs are indeed comparatively decently reliable, so long as you get the newer ones. According to data from UK-based Which?, BMW owners have reportedly had an average experience in the 12-month period before taking part in its 2020 consumer survey. A quarter (25%) of owners with a BMW younger than three years needed to send it to a workshop at least once. The most common problems found related to electrics and software.
The proportion of problematic BMWs naturally increase as they get older. With BMWs that are between three and eight years old, 40% of those UK owners have had at least one major issue. Mostly, these problems are related to exhaust or emissions defects, as well as some mechanical troubles. Even older BMWs have more complex worries, such as the suspension. This is serious enough that some drivers have not driven their BMWs due to concerns over safety.
Old Vs. New BMW Reliability
Speaking of age, this is an important topic to delve into when discussing are BMW reliable. Older BMWs, generally made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, are often found to be more reliable than newer BMWs. Note, this isn’t always the case. This doesn’t just happen for BMW, but for most other brands. Earlier cars from that period are engineered and built simplistically. This lack of mechanical or electronic complexity means that there’s less of a chance that things might go wrong.
Even if they do, the costs of fixing them are relatively small. In contrast, newer cars are very high-tech. BMWs, especially, have a lot of electrical components, from the iDrive infotainment system, external safety sensors, as well as the vast web of wiring, computers, and electrics running across the entire length of the car. Combined with the new-age engineering under the hood, and newer BMWs can prove more fault-prone. Not to mention expensive too, especially once the warranty runs out. Also, MOT history check is very important especially for older cars.
Realistically, most of the parts and work required to maintain and repair BMWs are no different than other brands. Inevitably, certain components need to be replaced. While a typical Honda or Toyota might undergo the same problems, BMW’s high performant parts will cost more for its raw materials alone. Plus, there are the higher labor costs, thanks to mechanics having to spend more hours on BMWs than the average. Overall, expect a repair bill for your BMW to cost $1,000 or more easily.
What Are The Most Common Faults On BMWs That You Need To Know?
In discussing whether or not are BMW reliable, we should also understand exactly what are the most common faults that are found on BMWs. Admittedly, there’s no doubt a huge and exhaustive list of problems that owners have reported over the years. We can’t simply cover them all and in great depth for each model, variant, or model year. However, we can at least aggregate some of these widespread issues that occur across the entire model range, and ones that owners hate most.
Usually, many of the typical faults start appearing after a mileage of between 80,000 and 120,000 miles. However, some owners have happily had their BMWs drive without much difficulty for at least 200,000 to 300,000+ miles. It goes to show how some proactive and prudent maintenance (with a bit of luck) can mitigate reliability woes. For the most part, technical hiccups on BMWs can be summarised with electrical niggles, cooling system issues, and oil leaks.
Nonetheless, there’s a lot more than just these three which can give you a lot of headaches. For the question of ‘are BMW reliable’, here is a roundup of the most common BMW problems…
1. Electrical Issues
Electrics have been a familiar theme with many cars, as they can be troublesome after some time. On BMWs, the restraint system is talked about often in forums regarding their unreliability. The restraint system, or SRS, relates to the belt tensioner, belt-force limiter, and the airbags. Error lights for the SRS could come on for no reason.
Usually, this is caused by a faulty clock spring (which connects the steering and airbags), and the seat weight sensor. The latter of which tells the car if someone is sitting in the passenger or driver’s seat. A lot of the time, there’s not actually an issue with the restraint system, but with the sensors that keep it informed.
Other frequent electrical problems that appear in BMWs are the door locks that won’t lock or unlock properly. Then, there are the power windows, which might not wind up or down. Oh, and there’s also the tire pressure monitoring system that can flash warnings despite the tires being in good shape.
2. Leaking Oil
One other recurring failing that we’ll peer into as we try to assess are BMW reliable cars, is oil leaks. It can happen as early on of mileage as 50,000 miles, though they usually appear at around 100,000 miles. Despite the fact that the powertrain (i.e. the engine) of BMWs are fairly robust in comparison to other brands, certain components within it can fail.
This is what causes those aforementioned oil leaks. The repeated offenders are the gaskets or seals that could give way. These are the valve cover gaskets, oil pan gaskets, and oil filter housing gaskets. They can wear out prematurely. Though they might appear simple, the repairs can be complicated and expensive. There are other places in which oil might spew out from, too.
It could be around the timing cover gasket, front and rear crankshaft seals, or just a poorly oil pan drain plug. If you take care of those seals well enough, a good BMW could drive along for at least 150,000 miles before oil leaks start to happen.
3. Cooling System Problems
The cooling system as a whole on BMWs has been known to be rather fragile and can start showing signs of issues before it even gets to 100,000 miles. Oddly enough, this has been pinpointed to the fact that a lot of the cooling parts are basically made from composite plastic. As they undergo intense changes in temperature, these plastics can weaken and break.
Aside from that, another key failure point within the cooling system is the water or coolant pump, which could start leaking. In fact, some owners have mentioned that their water pumps gave out with a mileage as low as just 30,000 or 40,000 miles. Since you’re going to replace the pump, you’re recommended to shell out more for a thermostat, too.
Other than that, accompanying bits and pieces within the cooling loop can wear out. For example, the coolant hoses have been known to split or crack over time. High heat can cause the radiator itself to crack and leak, while the cooling fans are weak spots, too.
4. Battery Safety Terminal
BMW introduced the BST, or ‘battery safety terminal’ at the turn of the 2000s. The main purpose of the BST was to prevent the car from combusting in the event of an accident. It manages this by automatically disconnecting the battery – more specifically the positive cables – in the event of a crash.
The BST also connects to both the alternator and starter motor. However, the major flaw was that the BST could disconnect (thus activate) even during a minor impact, such as hitting a curb. When it does activate, it means that you could be left without being able to start your car. The only way to solve this is by having a qualified technician clear those error codes, and replace the $500+ sensor.
BMW uses a specially-designed variable valve timing system called, the VANOS. It works by varying the timing of the valves by adjusting the position of the camshafts. This ensures that the engine can perform more efficiently, reduce emissions, as well as provide increased torque and improved performance.
A lot of owners of older BMWs have noticed that their car’s VANOS would start rattling. The sound is more audible at higher RPMs. While it may be subtle at first, the rattling can get louder and louder over time if it’s not fixed. Replacing the VANOS can cost you at least $500.
6. Ignition Coils Failing
Ignition coils are one of the more robust parts in your engine bay, and shouldn’t necessitate a replacement until at least 100,000 miles have passed. But these can fail prematurely in many BMWs, sometimes with as little as 60,000 miles on the clock. A single failed ignition coil can cause the whole engine to misfire, and it needs to be replaced.
What Are The Most Unreliable BMWs That You Should Avoid?
Thus far in trying to find an answer to “are BMW reliable”, we’ve found that BMW is by no means the most unreliable brand ever. Compared to some other marques, BMW is actually not that horrible in terms of ownership and maintenance. Granted, spare parts are superbly expensive, and its complex engineering does make repair jobs that much harder. However, there have been lingering technical failings that have stuck around for a while.
The more common issues that we’ve highlighted previously trickle throughout their entire line-up, from the most expensive to the cheapest model they have on offer. But let’s say you’re planning to buy a BMW, which ones are the ones that you should absolutely avoid? To find out what owners are saying, we’ve dug around CarComplaints.com to find out what owners are saying. Here, we can filter down and which BMW models, in particular, are causing nightmares for their human companions.
CarComplaints.com catalogs customer complaints filed both on its own site, and with the NHTSA. Overall, the BMW brand as a whole has accrued 777 complaints at the time of writing from CarComplaints.com’s users. Note, those 777 complaints don’t count the ones from the NHTSA, so the real dissatisfaction is a lot higher. So, what else are they saying…
1. BMW X5
Of the 777 complaints, a whopping 127 of them are for the do-it-all BMW X5 SUV. This is quite a large portion given how many specific BMW models there are in CarComplaints.com’s databank. More specifically, it seems like you should avoid the 2011 model year in particular. This model year of the X5 suffered from a lot of engine-related problems.
Some owners have reportedly stalled their X5s while driving, and not being able to start it back up again. The average mileage where this fault can occur is only around 64,000 miles. The cause has been narrowed down to the weak points we’ve mentioned earlier. Primarily, this relates to the coolant water pump, thermostat, as well as gaskets and the transmission seals.
Overall, the average cost of repair for engine troubles with the 2011 X5 is around $7,000. Nonetheless, other model years suffered badly too. One owner who had a 2008 X5 said that water leaked into their interior and inner workings of the car. During a heavy rainstorm, they suspected that it seeped into the cabin and flooded all the electrics.
At a lowly mileage of only 36,000 miles, they were quoted $10,000 for a replacement of all the damaged electrical and electronic components. The newer 2013 X5 had some owners report transmission failure. After just 53,000 miles, it required a replacement of several sensors which totaled to a repair bill of $5,500.
2. BMW X3
In continuing the trend of unreliable BMW SUVs, we now have the X3. In general, the pattern here is quite similar to the prior X5, coming in second place on CarComplaints.com with 87 complaints. The worst model year for the little X3 is 2013. Back then, more than a few owners have noted their X3s stalling dangerously while driving. This time, however, fingers have pointed towards the timing chain.
For some owners of 2013 X3s, they had to replace both the now-broken timing chain and the oil pump. Altogether, the total repair bill was at least $7,000, though one owner was quoted more than $12,000. All of this happening on a car with a mileage of just over 70,000 miles. The 2005 X3 echoed another of the X5’s flaws, and that’s a leaky paneling.
The sunroof on that year of the X3 can start leaking, which results in a $4,000 replacement. Usually, this happens when the mechanism for closing and opening the sunroof fails. This can happen often, as the parts for that mechanism are made from sub-standard plastic. Meanwhile, one owner of a 2004 X3 had transmission failure, costing them around $3,500.
3. BMW 3-Series
According to data from CarComplaints.com, it appears that BMW’s 3-Series as a group has the third most number of complaints. It sits marginally lower than the bigger 5-Series, and the lux 7-Series. Lumping them all together into one, the BMW 335 still sticks out for its poorly reliability. The 2007 335 especially suffered from the chronic BMW cooling system failures from before.
As you should be well acquainted by now, the water pump (and its accompanying thermostat) are prone to premature wear, and will eventually break and leak. Replacing both on the 335 is not cheap, with an average repair bill of around $4,500. Meanwhile, the later 2008 model year of the 335 is known for not one, but two very distinct problems. The first is the serpentine belt.
One owner reportedly had their car stall in the middle of an intersection, as the serpentine belt in their 335 snapped and melted in the engine bay. A typical repair bill for this problem is around $3,700. Meanwhile, 2008 335s are notably gullible to their turbocharger’s rattling owing to a known design flaw. The only fix is a replacement of the entire turbo, costing upwards of $4,700.
Are BMW Reliable… Somewhat, Just Be Wary
So, what can we draw for a conclusion of the question, “are BMW reliable”? The answer is somewhat rather murky, as there is a period of time – mostly since 2007 – where BMW has scored below average in Consumer Reports’ reliability surveys. 2012 saw two BMWs, the 3-Series Convertible and 5-Series named as the most, and second-most unreliable car respectively. So then, not a good track record for BMW so far. But if you’re still keen to join the BMW owner’s club, here are some tricks.
If the car you have in mind is a newer BMW model, you can consider leasing it instead of buying it. Lease agreements, usually at least 12 months or more, often have some maintenance package thrown in to partially or fully cover the cost of repairs. This is a great deal if you’re sensitive about the cost of owning a BMW. In short, the goal here is to minimize your period of lease to a brief few years. Usually, new BMWs come with a four-year, 50,000 miles bumper-to-bumper warranty.
If you’re dead set on buying an old, second-hand BMW, then be very cautious around the problems that we mentioned above. Getting a pre-purchase inspection done by a qualified mechanic is a great way to spot problems before putting your money down. In summary, BMW has made some fantastic cars over the years, and they somehow just keep getting better. Either as a flex or a track toy, they’re great fun to have. Just be careful of which BMW that you choose to get, or it will cost you dearly.