"What a ripoff!" — I said to my soon to be former boss. He had taken his then near-new 1996 BMW 325i convertible to the dealership for maintenance. The cost back in 1997? Over $500, which was more than what I recently paid for an 11 year old Camry I got from an impound lot.
Thankfully the guy could take a joke. At least until he fired me. Like my once reliable weekly paycheck, that beautiful red BMW convertible and that spiteful yuppie who owned it are long gone, and therein lies the bigger tale of the BMW brand over the last 20 years.
The good news about buying most BMW models (not all) is that the powertrains are unusually stellar for a modern day German brand. For all the hemming and hawing about German cars falling apart like a pile of cards after the 8 to 10 year mark, BMW actually ranges when it comes to long-term reliability from well above to... well....
After 625,000 data samples from all over the country, and over 24,000 BMWs that have been inspected and appraised by mechanics and professional car buyers, we're finding that the more popular and less expensive models are holding their own — at least on the surface.
If you click on the bar graph above, you will find that there appears to be a truism for the long-term quality of the average BMW.
The fewer the electronic doo-dads for a BMW, the better the long-term quality.
For example, a lot of folks at Jalopnik love to say, "The answer for everything is a Miata!" I happen to own a 2003 model at the moment so I definitely don't mind echoing that choir of content
However, two alternative answers may be the BMW Z3 and Z4...
Both Zs compare favorably to the Miata which leads the pack for all Mazda models. In the older used car market (8 years and older), a Z will go for about $2000 more than a comparable Miata. But at the times of year where convertible sales aren't so hot such as October thru February, this margin shrinks dramatically.
Another surprise comes in the form of the BMW 3-Series.
If you look at the black lines which show the average level of powertrain issues for each model year versus the BMW average in pink, you'll find that the 3-Series has been consistently at or below the industry average defect mark for most of it's recent history.
This is quite an achievement given that in North America alone BMW has offered a mind-boggling array of engine, transmission and powertrain combinations for the 3-series.
However there is something that lurks far deeper beyond that surface of powertrain quality, and that is cost. Lots of maintenance and repair costs.
When you buy a BMW, any BMW, you are pretty much enlisting a willingness to invest in the vehicle. Long story short, BMW's have a love for premium parts and premium care. Your tires? Don't even think about buying the cheapies. Maintenance? While any brand will bite you for neglect, a BMW will turn you upside down, spit in your face, and then piledrive you right into your crippled savings account.
Here's a list of what frequently goes wrong on the E36 generation of the 3-Series which stretches from 1991 to 1998. The E46 has a nice list of it's own, and the E90 has the misfortune of offering even higher maintenance costs and unusual electrical issues.
The little issues are usually the big issues on older BMWs so long as you do everything else to the letter. Parts that were made with plastic instead of metal. Sunroofs that aren't water tight. Fuel pumps. Electrical issues for the wipers, locks, turn signals and other power features.
A lot of the quality issues with a BMW 3-Series as it ages are strangely similar to what you will find on late 90's and Y2K era GM models. Except with the BMW, if you don't wrench it yourself, or have it subject to a recall, you will pay through the nose and then some.
That's what gets a lot of former owners off the BMW Roundel and onto less costly vehicles. A BMW may be the ultimate driving machine when it's new. But when they become older, one bad owner or a series of them along with the wrong powertrain can turn them into the ultimate payment machines. For example, the 5-Series has average long-term quality for the most part. But there are a few serious flashes of concern within the higher end of the model range. Specifically the BMW 550 and certain years of the BMW 540.
The issues that come with a BMW that is equipped with the larger engines are, well, just click on the graph and see what models wind up below the average mark. Mind you, I'm not saying that a BMW V8 is going to be less reliable for you than a Cadillac Catera or a Lincoln LS. Except maybe if you buy the wrong BMW 7-Series.
The 7-Series is pretty much BMW's one weak hand in the marketplace. These models typically get clocked with a 40% decline in value after the first year, and then it will eventually become a Tavarish topic of the day for cheap hellish wheels by the time it reaches the 11 year old average age for an American owned vehicle.
I have seen 7-Series models have anniversaries at the dealer auctions. In otherwords, they have been stuck in what we call "wholesale heaven" for over a year with no buyer in site of what the seller needs to get out from under it.
I have a friend who has worked as a BMW mechanic at a dealership in San Francisco who has seen 7-Series go into limp mode because the prior owner had an aftermarket stereo system installed that blew out a relay, which lead to another issue, and onward until the transmission was told that something dire was wrong.
Why do I offer these anecdotal examples? Because it appears from the data we have collected that a used Audi A8 or Mercedes S-Class will offer the used car buyer a far better long-term return for the money. Whether it's software issues, transmissions smashing between gears, or repair costs that run well into the four figures, a 7-Series is really only for those with a serious DIY orientation and a desire to have a used car that is akin to a 7 to 10 year old rolling computer on wheels.
Then again, an older BMW 3-Series trumps an Audi A4 from the same year in much the way as NATO offers more military firepower than the the island of Cyprus. Then again, the powertrain isn't everything. Which is why I am emphasizing the fact that as used cars, all of these German cars require a willingness to invest in them.
You want a premium car? It will require a premium investment for that premium return. A BMW is better than many, but make sure you keep a keen eye for the little problems before they get big. Because once a BMW gets too big, all hell breaks loose.
The Long-Term Quality Index is a collaborative project between Steve Lang and Nick Lariviere, designed to give the average car buyer a picture of what the long-term reliability of different makes and models are based on real-world used vehicle data. Our goal is to provide used car buyers accurate reliability information that will be available for free, forever. For right now, here's a compilation of how each BMW model has performed. Want to look at other brands and market segments? Feel free to click away. By the end of 2015, we will have nearly a million data samples to help consumers find those used cars that are worth keeping.