BMWs do not have the greatest reputation for reliability, and therefore many people believe that BMWs don’t last for a long time. I have owned a number of 3 Series BMWs, and I can honestly say that this could not be further from the truth.
3 Series BMWs can last over 250,000 miles if they are maintained properly. They have bulletproof drivetrains and are remarkably durable if their maintenance schedule is adhered to. However, 3 Series BMWs that are not properly maintained frequently become ticking time bombs after the 100,000-mile mark.
I have had a 3 Series BMW last nearly 250,000 miles and I have had one last only 150,000 miles. There are a number of factors that go into getting a 3 Series BMW to reliably get you from Point A to Point B past the 250,000-mile mark. There are a number of things owners can do to get the most longevity out of their 3 Series, and there are a number of pitfalls to avoid.
If you are interested in viewing a video on 3 Series BMW reliability you can check it out here.
3 Series BMW longevity when maintained properly
BMWs overall are well known for their drivetrains. Their engines, transmissions, and differentials have historically been near bulletproof. Times have changed to some degree with the 3 Series AWD models having more drivetrain issues, but overall a BMW’s drivetrain is excellent.
Basically, if you stick to the recommended fluid intervals and you put the right oil in your engine than you should not have any substantial drivetrain issues until very late in your vehicle’s life.
My first BMW was a 1995 318i, and I used it as a daily until it was just shy of 250,000 miles. I never actually swapped it out for another daily, in fact, the only reason I changed daily’s is that someone rear-ended my 318i and it was totaled. It certainly was not the fastest car, but I never had a drivetrain issue out of it, and repairs were usually inexpensive and simple on that 4 cylinder engine.
On the other hand, 3 Series BMWs may be known for excellent drivetrains, but they do have their downfalls. These vehicles pretty much universally have coolant system problems. The water pumps, thermostats, and plastic reservoirs all fail earlier than they should. In addition, you need to replace these components preventively because if a water pump or thermostat fails on you while you are on the highway or in bumper to bumper traffic you can quickly blow a head gasket.
I’ll tell you about my last BMW to illustrate the 3 Series BMW’s shortcomings. I owned a 1996 BMW 328i for several years and had maintained relatively regular maintenance on the vehicle. One day I planned on moving to Washington D.C and decided to leave the E36 at home with my little brother. Before I left though, I swapped out the entire coolant system except for the reservoir (the wrong reservoir came in).
Within two weeks of moving to D.C I got a phone call from my brother notifying me that the reservoir had sprung a leak on the interstate, and the head gasket had blown. One year later I was back in my hometown, parting out my old E36.
I am not mentioning the coolant system to convince you that a 3 Series BMW is an unreliable car, far from it. In fact, if you keep up with the maintenance schedule it is one of the most reliable vehicles you could own.
I just want you to know that when considering the longevity of a 3 Series BMW, drivetrain components are not going to be your fail point, it’s usually a combination of smaller issues that drive these vehicles into the grave.
Newer vs. older 3 Series generation longevity
I mentioned that the AWD 3 Series model introduced drivetrain issues into the 3 Series line-up, but I have also noticed a big difference between the F30/G20 generation 3 Series and the E90s and older. It’s not that the newer 3 Series generations are less reliable than the old stuff, it’s only that the newer BMWs have far more electronics/bells and whistles than previous generations. These newer generation BMWs have more complex electrical systems with more sensors, and therefore they also have more potential failure points.
These electronic components usually don’t start failing until after the vehicle is out of warranty and then you are left to foot the bill. This is why newer model 3 Series BMWs suffer from an enormous amount of depreciation in the first few years of ownership compared to other vehicles.
Maintenance on certain models can make it cost-prohibitive to keep for the long haul
BMWs are not unreliable vehicles, but they do require a certain amount of maintenance, and some models require more than others. I’m talking about twin-turbocharged engines (terrible), and single turbocharged engines (not as bad). There are certain 3 Series BMW models that require considerably more maintenance and repair than others. Some models have a reputation for simply being too costly to maintain past 100,000 miles.
3 Series BMW longevity when maintained poorly
If you do not keep up with scheduled maintenance and let bad parts go unchanged for lengthy periods of time your experience with a 3 Series is going to be entirely different. How different? I see poorly maintained BMWs for sale every day. They are the cars with only 150,000 miles going for less than $3,000 on Facebook Marketplace.
Why on earth would someone sell a 3 Series for less than $3,000 with that kind of mileage? Because it has been treated like shit, and the vehicle will need thousands of dollars sunk into it to get it back in decent shape.
These are also the kind of vehicles that you see either parted out or at a junkyard. The cost of restoration is often not worth the value of the car.
What do I mean by “poor maintenance?” Poor maintenance doesn’t just mean that you are failing to keep up with the maintenance schedule. It also might mean things like your struts starting failing 10-15k miles ago, but you keep driving on them because you don’t feel like paying for the replacement. That is exactly what the previous owner of my BMW did to me, and I ended up having to replace a wheel bearing as well because of the previous owner’s negligence.
Poor maintenance can also mean that you are using low-quality oil or filling up your BMW with low-grade fuel. I know that the cost of maintenance is high on BMWs, but trust me the cost of maintaining a BMW in poor condition is astronomically higher.
Overall, 3 Series BMWs are excellent cars and in general, if you take care of them they will take good care of you. I know people keep E46s and E90s well past the 200,000 mile marker because I see them for sale all the time on Facebook Marketplace.
My advice is to do your research on the particular model you are interested in. If the vehicle checks out you can’t go wrong with a good quality 3 Series BMW.