Getting stuck in park is never a fun situation to be in. Unfortunately, BMWs are not perfect vehicles and sometimes malfunctions do happen. With years of experience working on used and abused BMWs, I have seen my fair share of vehicle mishaps, and a BMW stuck in park happens to be one of them.
A BMW can be stuck in park for several reasons, it could be due to (i) a weak battery, (ii) a faulty shifter cable, (iii) a bad brake light switch, (iv) a bad transmission solenoid, or (v) low transmission fluid. Fixing a BMW that is stuck in park is typically relatively inexpensive and requires little mechanical skill, however, in some situations, a BMW stuck in park can be caused by a more significant problem with the transmission.
There are a lot of problems that could be causing your BMW to be stuck in park, but luckily these issues are relatively simple to diagnose even if you are not a trained mechanic. In this article, we will discuss the various issues that could be causing your BMW to be stuck in park and we will go over how you can diagnose and fix your vehicle. First, let’s briefly discuss how your vehicle shifts so that we can better understand the problems and solutions to when your vehicle refuses to shift.
How Does a BMW Shifter Work?
We take for granted the fact that we can expect our cars to operate reliable enough most of the time to get us anywhere we need to go. Sometimes it takes an incident like your BMW getting stuck in park, to notice that these seemingly simple car components (like a shifter) are actually quite intricate and loaded with moving parts, electronics, and wiring.
Take your shifter for example, in the old days’ cars used to use mechanically operated shifters, but nowadays shifters are electronically controlled and if you were to remove your shifter you would notice that it has an ECU underneath all of that plastic.
Your car begins the process of changing gears when the driver pulls the shifter to change between P-R-N-D. There is a shifter cable attached to the shifter which comes out of the firewall in the back of the engine bay. The cable runs underneath the vehicle until it reaches the transmission where it connects to a lever on the side of the transmission. The lever itself will operate to shift the gears on the inside of the transmission whenever you pull on the shifter.
That is about as much detail as you need for the purposes of this article, there are some excellent videos you can check out here if you want to learn about the intricacies of how your shifter operates in conjunction with your transmission. Let’s find out the causes of a BMW stuck in park.
What Causes Your BMW to Get Stuck in Park?
Let’s start with the simplest and easiest to fix possibilities before we get to the potentially more complex and expensive causes. This is how you typically want to do a diagnosis in the first place unless you have already identified a cause.
Your Battery is too Weak
The battery is an extremely simple and quick starting point for a BMW stuck in park. If your battery is weak, your shifter may not operate correctly (if at all). Old BMWs (E46s and older) use mechanical shifters and will be unaffected if your battery is dead. Newer BMWs, however, with electronic shifters, will not operate if your battery is dead.
A battery can be dead due to leaving the car sitting for a long time (think leaving a convertible garaged over the winter), a malfunctioning alternator or your battery may no longer be able to hold a charge.
A few simple things that will indicate that you have a weak battery include: car won’t start, headlights are dim/not working/or working erratically, and side LED door lights won’t work.
Fixing a battery problem is typically very low on the difficulty scale, simply head over to the auto store and have your battery tested. If it test’s bad then you should go ahead and replace it. The total cost should be around $200 (although batteries vary in price significantly).
Low Transmission Fluid
Low transmission fluid typically will not prevent your transmission from shifting at all, but it will cause a delay in shifting. If your transmission fluid is low then the reduced fluid pressure will create up to several seconds of delay before your transmission actually shifts gears.
Extremely low transmission fluid or none at all can cause your BMW not to shift out of park, but again this is less common unless you just put a hole in your transmission pan.
Other symptoms to look out for with low transmission fluid include transmission slipping, hard gear shifts, and loss of power. One really obvious one that will happen if you own a newer BMW is that the vehicle will go into “limp mode”. Limp mode is a last-ditch safety feature in your BMW, it is designed to protect your BMW’s engine and transmission. When your BMW is in limp mode you will notice a check engine light, reduced engine power, a reduced RPM limit, and your transmission will not go past third gear.
You can find a detailed article on other possible causes of limp mode here.
The good news is that if you have a low transmission fluid problem, filling it is relatively simple and inexpensive. You will need to get under the car, however, which may necessitate a trip to the mechanic. The total cost should be around $300 if you pay the mechanic.
Brake Light Switch
No one intuitively thinks that a bad brake light switch can cause problems with your shifter, and you might be surprised to find out that a bad brake light switch can cause a whole host of issues. The brake light switch is also an extremely common culprit of a BMW being stuck in park.
Here are some symptoms of a bad brake light switch:
- Brake lights stay on, don’t work or work erratically
- Shift wont move from park position
- ABS light stays on
- Cruise control does not work
You can check out this video below on locating and replacing the brake light switch.
The good news is that BMW brake switches are both cheap and easy to replace. The DIY cost for a brake light switch replacement should not be above $80 and it should not take longer than an hour.
The shifter cable is an extremely important component of your BMW’s ability to shit because it connects your shifter to the transmission. Typically when someone refers to that their “shifter cable is bad”, it really turns out to be a shifter linkage problem. The linkages connect the shifter cable to the transmission and shifter. The linkages sometimes snap over time. Alternatively, the linkages also have clips that can back out, thereby disconnecting the linkage.
A shifter cable can also stretch, break, or even bend overtime. If any of these things happen, they may prevent the cable from moving the shift lever enough to put the transmission into the desired gear.
Diagnosis of this issue simply requires checking the linkages, getting under the car, checking that the linkage and cable going to the transmission are intact, and then confirming that the linkage attached to the shifter is good.
Transmission Park Solenoid
The park solenoid is a more difficult culprit to your no-shift problem but it certainly is not a death sentence. The park solenoid is located inside of the transmission so replacement is a little more involved than the other potential causes previously listed.
Here are some symptoms of a bad transmission park solenoid:
- Stuck in park (or another gear)
- Check engine light
- Transmission Warning Light
- BMW Limp Mode
- Skipping gears
Be aware, that by far the best and easiest way to diagnose a bad solenoid is with a BMW scanner. A scanner tool will be able to deliver a quick and reliable answer simply with the press of a few buttons.
Replacing the park solenoid is more of a medium-difficulty repair, however, the good news here for anyone willing to take on this replacement is that you will typically not need to remove the transmission valve body to replace this solenoid. The valve body is a large unit of interconnected pipes that sits right above the transmission fluid pan.
The cost to pay a mechanic will typically run you around $300-$500, however, be aware that this price will increase dramatically if the valve body needs to be removed and additional solenoids need to be replaced.
How to Release the Shifter
If you are in a tight bind and simply need to get your vehicle into neutral, there is a way. BMW has this “in case of emergency” method so you can get your vehicle into neutral and onto a tow truck.
Stick your fingers around the shifter plastic bezel and remove it (there are a few plastic tabs that hold it in place).
Take your car key and remove the mechanical key, there should be a place to insert the key. Insert the key.
This will reveal a small hole, insert a screwdriver into the hole and push it towards you. This will put the transmission into neutral.
You can also check out the video tutorial below.
Note: You won’t be able to drive your vehicle after this temporary fix, but at least you can get it towed somewhere to have a mechanic take a look.
We have covered the various causes of a BMW not shifting out of park. This certainly is an annoying problem, but luckily it is also a very solvable one. Many of the likely culprits are relatively simple and easy to diagnose and repair. A bad transmission park solenoid could result in a significantly higher repair bill, but still, it would not be too expensive where we would consider throwing out the car.
We also covered how you can get your vehicle out of park if you are in a tight spot and need to have the vehicle towed.
I hope this article has been helpful, you can check out more BMW articles here.