One of the few complaints I hear about BMW is that they are unreliable. No one wants to be stuck with a luxury vehicle that has reliability problems and is going to cost you thousands of dollars a year to maintain. But do BMWs really deserve a reputation for being unreliable or it is just a bunch of hot air?
In general, BMWs are relatively reliable if they are well maintained. BMW parts are more expensive and labor prices are higher, but their drivetrains are close to bulletproof and if they are maintained properly they will drive well beyond 200,000 miles.
But there is a caveat. There are reliability variations among different types and generations of BMW that you should be aware of, and even though BMWs are typically reliable with proper maintenance, that maintenance is higher than most other brands.
I also have a video explaining BMW reliability issues at the bottom of this article if you would like to watch it!
Why are BMWs “relatively” reliable?
BMWs are “relatively” reliable because although they have the ability to last 250-300,000 miles, many of them do not. Why not? Because as they age they frequently have a number of issues with luxury electronics and minor mechanical components that rack up the cost of maintenance. Sometimes the maintenance gets to a point where it isn’t even worth keeping the car.
What are these luxury electronic issues that plague BMWs? Consider this: cars are built and designed differently from one another depending on who the target consumer is. BMWs are built on the luxury side and they target consumers that will spend more money on a more comfortable ride. So BMWs typically feature lots of bells and whistles, complicated electronics, and more expensive parts. Newer model BMWs also have all kinds of sensors, switches, and onboard controls that make them look more like a supercomputer than a car.
The idea behind all of these bells and whistles is to make the vehicle as user-friendly and comfortable as possible, but the downside is that each additional electronic component added to the vehicle creates another part that will malfunction eventually and make the vehicles more difficult to repair.
Bells and whistles like the iDrive system, xenon lights, seat-pad sensors for airbags, and turbochargers are really nice to have while they are working. But when these different components start having problems after your warranty expires, that is when maintenance costs begin to explode.
BMWs have minor mechanical issues that compound as they age
BMWs infatuation with installing luxury electronics in its vehicles is a problem for reliability because it increases maintenance costs. But another cause of reliability issues is the minor mechanical problems that emerge. I call these mechanical issues “minor” because you will rarely have a drivetrain problem with a BMW, but because BMW parts and labor are expensive, these issues can be very costly.
There are some mechanical issues that are pretty universal among BMW. I have owned several E36s, E46s, and an E90 3 Series BMW. Every single one of them had coolant system issues that had to be addressed preemptively in order to avoid a more serious problem. Window regulator and door handle failures are par for the course with 3 Series BMWs.
Many of these mechanical failures can be classified in the “annoying inconvenience” box. A faulty door handle or sticky door panel might be annoying, but it does not really impact the “reliability” of the vehicle getting you from Point A to Point B. On the other hand, an exterior door handle replacement can easily cost you several hundred dollars, and coolant system replacement can be in excess of $1,000.
All of these minor issues add up to a very big bill over time. I have seen this happen especially where a previous owner did not maintain his BMW properly, and then the new owner is plagued by maintenance problems that make the car extremely unreliable.
BMW maintenance is costlier
Not only is labor on average more expensive on BMWs, but the replacement parts often cost considerably more than what you would pay for a domestic vehicle. As a high-end performance vehicle, BMWs require more maintenance than a Honda, and that maintenance has to be done properly.
It’s a bad idea to go to the local Walmart and save a buck by getting the discount oil for your BMW. It’s a bad idea to stretch the maintenance schedule on oil changes, spark plug replacements, etc. Saving some money by filling the tank with 87 instead of 93 is also ill-advised.
When BMW owners do not stick to the maintenance schedule or skim on the repairs, that is when they start having serious problems compound, and this contributes to their reputation for not being reliable.
Consumer Reviews rates BMW reliability poorly
BMW has not scored above average with Consumer Reports since 2007. Consumer Reports has consistently ranked several different BMW models in the top ten least reliable vehicles in recent years. Consumer Reports has also noted that BMW in recent years has shifted from a focus on the driver to a focus on technology and comfort. The BMW 5 Series frequently takes hits with consumer reviews, including on Consumer Reports where the Series recently dropped to a below-average reliability rating because drivers reported electronic failures.
Of course, consumer surveys should be taken with a grain of salt because negative reviews can be based on very minor or even nonexistent issues, but on the other hand, consumer surveys can be indicative of the vehicle’s overall reliability.
Below is a table of BMW reliability compared to other vehicles in the luxury vehicle class (Infiniti more or less). As you can see, BMW performed the worst in reliability rankings. This data was compiled from Repair Pal.
|Car Manufacturer||Reliability Rating|
BMWs are reliable where it REALLY matters
So with everything you have read about BMW reliability problems how could I possibly still suggest that these vehicles are relatively reliable?
BMWs are relatively reliable because they rarely have seriously debilitating issues, and their reliability is rock solid when the owner sticks to the maintenance schedule.
In all my experience of working on my family’s BMWs and personally owning several, I have never once seen a serious drivetrain problem. I have never witnessed a serious engine, transmission, or differential problem on any of these vehicles. Now admittedly, I have had to replace valve cover gaskets, oil housing gaskets, rebuilt the variable valve timing unit, and performed service fluid replacements on the transmission and rear end.
Now ask yourself what car doesn’t need this kind of work done after 100k + miles? A Honda or a Toyota? Nope, they need this kind of maintenance just like every other car. The biggest difference is that the parts and labor just cost more on BMWs, sure there are certain additional components on a BMW that you wouldn’t find on a non-luxury vehicle, but part of owning a luxury car is also accepting that maintenance will be costlier.
One of the things that I love about BMW is that if you take care of the car and have the scheduled maintenance performed, you are going to have very few issues to speak of concerning the drivetrain. This isn’t a guarantee that you’ll never have a problem with your engine, but I promise the way they are making American cars nowadays, a BMW will blow an American drivetrain out of the water.
Recent BMW vs. old BMW reliability
BMW has changed just like any other car brand over the years. They have changed so much that I sometimes think of newer model BMWs as a different car brand entirely. The older model 3 Series E36 and E46 were far more reliable in terms of annual maintenance costs, and they were made to be driver-focused. Although a common gripe has always been that BMW is a little too comfortable with putting plastic parts in its coolant system, it is now only one out of many maintenance concerns.
Newer model BMWs have so many electronic parts, some designed for safety and performance, and others designed for luxury. As I mentioned above, these electronics inevitably fail, and unfortunately, it’s not unheard of to pay a mechanic to diagnose an electrical issue within the first 20,000 miles. You’re dealing with different kinds of problems with newer BMWs and they are arguably more expensive.
It’s clear that BMW certainly does not make the most reliable vehicle, especially when considering more recent models. However, they do make top-notch performance cars, and most people that own or have owned them for a few years are satisfied with what they bought.
Below is a table we constructed giving you a general idea of reliability amongst different 3 Series generations. The information in the table is not an exact science, but it is borne out of our years of experience repairing these vehicles.
|BMW 3 Series Generation||Reliability|
|BMW E36 (1990-2000)||Most reliable, few electronics, coolant system problems|
|BMW E46 (1997-2006)||Second to the E36, coolant system issues, some transmission problems in early production.|
|BMW E90 (2006-2011)||Close to the E46, twin turbocharger failure, and high-pressure fuel system problems.|
|BMW F30 (2011-2019)||A little early to pass judgment, but complaints concerning electronic failure are not unheard of.|
Reliability differences among BMW models
Every auto manufacturer has constructed some low-quality models before, and it’s no secret that BMW has done the same. The 3 Series Models are typically recognized as being more reliable than the 5 and 7.
Why is the 3 Series considered more reliable? Because it has traditionally been considered BMW’s starter model. The 3 Series has fewer bells and whistles than the 5 and 7, and smaller engines. Therefore, they have considerably fewer problems than the 5 and 7 Series.
Nowadays though, things have gotten more complicated given the fact that BMW has added a number of additional models to the lineup. BMW has added a 1, 2 and 4 Series to the mix. How do all of these models compare from a reliability standpoint?
Below is a table indicating the predicted reliability of 2020 BMW models. The data has been compiled from Consumer Reports.
|2020 BMW||Predicted Reliability Rating|
Amazingly, the 3 Series was by far the worst in Consumer Reports reliability ratings. This can partly be explained by the fact that the 2020 3 Series has already had a number of recalls this past year. A larger point though, and something that is taken into account is that the 3 Series has had more significant reliability issues over the past few years than it had in the past.
Still, I would take these numbers with a grain of salt as they are predicted reliability ratings. The 5 Series and the 7 Series typically does far worse than the 3 Series in terms of reliability, so it will be interesting to see if that changes with the 2020 BMW.
BMWs that are uniquely unreliable
There are also some specific model years and vehicles that are uniquely unreliable within the BMW lineup.
One of my least favorite BMWs is the V8 X5. My family owned one for several years until (thankfully) it was totaled in an accident. It was by far the least reliable BMW I had ever owned. I was far from the only one to have a poor experience with the V8 X5.
The pcv, valve cover gaskets, and valve stems would frequently go out within the first 60 – 80k miles. What made this even worse is that BMW stuffed the 4.8 liters into the engine bay with little room to do anything more than stare at it. Since then BMW has improved its X5 lineup, but after my experience with one, I will never buy another.
Another uniquely unreliable BMW was the early model twin-turbo E90s. When BMW first came out with stock turbos there were reports of the turbos failing on the highway. If that does not scare you enough, the early model twin turbos were well known for failing prematurely and requiring replacement. Twin-turbo replacement can easily cost thousands of dollars.
I have only listed a few BMWs that are notorious for reliability issues, there are other models with unique problems. To avoid these duds, a knowledgeable consumer should take a closer look at the model year vehicle they are interested in and identify if there have been any serious recalls.
BMWs that are uniquely reliable
So now we have gotten through some of the BMW models that were uniquely unreliable, I want to tell you about some of the models that I have found to be uniquely reliable. JD Power and U.S News gave the 2011 and 2007 BMW X3 a high rating for reliability. U.S News gave the 2011 BMW 3 Series, 2013 BMW 1 Series, 2016 BMW 2 Series, and 2014 BMW 3 Series high ratings for reliability. With the 2013 BMW 1 Series receiving a 5 out of 5 for reliability.
My first car was a 1995 BMW 318i, I drove it well into the 200k range until it was wrecked in a car accident. The vehicle rarely needed any repairs besides regular maintenance, and it was an extremely reliable car until the day it was wrecked. I owned a 1996 BMW 328i well into the 150k mile range and used it as a daily until I moved for school. I rarely needed to do any repairs on it, and most of the maintenance I performed was only preventative.
In my experience, the 3 Series E36 and E46 are extremely reliable cars, even well above 100,000 miles. Maintenance is relatively inexpensive because they simply do not have as much “stuff” inside the interior and in the engine bay. There are simply far fewer parts to worry about compared to a new model BMW.
The E90 3 Series is also a very good car, however, I suggest that you stay away from the turbocharged models. Even the late E90 single turbo engines require far more maintenance than their non-turbo comparisons.
My recommendation if you are interested in a BMW
There are a couple of different ways to play the reliability game with BMW.
If you are interested in purchasing a new BMW, consider leasing it. You’ll be in and out of it in a few years, and you will not have to deal with the headaches of long-term BMW ownership. What is even better is that you’ll be able to enjoy your BMW’s performance in the prime of its life.
Another option (but not as good) is to purchase a new BMW and sell it relatively soon after the four-year mark. New BMWs come with a four year, 50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. This makes the cost of ownership very inexpensive for the first four years, but after the warranty period ends the maintenance costs commonly spike above most other German brands. The problem with this option is that you will end up taking a major depreciation hit during the course of ownership.
If you’re interested in an older BMW, be a knowledgeable consumer. Old BMWs are generally excellent cars, but a P.O.S owner can turn a great car into a pile of junk. Do your due diligence and have a mechanic check out the vehicle before you make a decision to purchase. There are certain things to look for and ask when checking out an old BMW, do some research before buying!
BMW is not the most reliable vehicle by any means. But it certainly is not the dumpster fire waiting to take your money like some people would have you believe. Even though you might pay a little more for a BMW, I believe that the performance, comfort, and attractiveness of the vehicle outweighs the fact that they are only “somewhat” reliable!