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gearheadmb Reader
9/30/15 1:40 p.m.

So I have learned that bimmers are kind of the sub answer around here. As in "what car" when a miata doesnt have enough seats. They seem to be well liked and popular in this little corner of the internet. But theyve always kind of had an air of mysterious and dangerous joojoo to me. There are very few european luxury cars in my area, and that lack of exposure makes me wary.

So I see these things all over the list of craigs for dirt cheap. They seem great in theory. Fun, fast, affordable, and room for my minions in the back. But what are bargain bimmers really like to live with? Im talking about 1995-2005 with high mileage. The idea would be to buy one, fix up the issues, and enjoy. A quick scan of rockauto shows that parts arent too terribly expensive. I do my own work, how are they to work on?

So how is the typical ownership experience, a non stop laugh riot, or unending despair and misery?

Grtechguy UltimaDork
9/30/15 2:16 p.m.

I was honestly surprised how cheap parts for the E36 318is I had were. My Olds Aurora was easily 2-3x more expensive to repair and maintain.

rcutclif GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/30/15 2:17 p.m.

depends on the bimmer. 3 series (e36/e46 in your year range) non-M are in general pretty simple and easy/cheap to fix cars. 5,6,7,8 cars go up in complexity and expense really fast. No idea about the suvs, though I would tend to guess that they are closer to 3 series levels. not many things on them during that year range that require a dealer computer or other super special tools to fix.

also, depends on if you want 'perfect' or 'good enough'. No matter what BMW you drive, if you want the highest quality oe parts they will be expensive.

I wouldn't be any more scared of maintenance or parts cost of a 3 of that era than any other similarly old car. But a higher-lux model will be more expensive than your average car. A common way to think about it in the BMWCCA is that the maintenance costs are related to the original MSRP of the car, not the price you bought it for. Meaning even a 30 year old 7 series will need maintenance like the $100,000 car it once was.

Fueled by Caffeine
Fueled by Caffeine MegaDork
9/30/15 2:22 p.m.

watching this thread...

What about a used audi... They are AWD and turbo and cheaper than a subie around here.

gearheadmb Reader
9/30/15 2:31 p.m.

In reply to rcutclif:

I was definitely thinking 3 or 5 series and "good enough"

Brett_Murphy GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
9/30/15 2:35 p.m.

It is true of many cars, but more so of BMWs: Taking a beat example of any BMW and making it reliable is going to cost tons more money than just paying more up front and getting a better example out of the gate.

pointofdeparture PowerDork
9/30/15 2:35 p.m.

In reply to Fueled by Caffeine:

IME, Audi products are an order of magnitude more complicated and expensive to maintain than similar BMWs.

I would agree that any pre-E9x 3-series is shockingly cheap to run, especially so with pre-E46 cars. Pre-E60 5-series aren't too bad but the suspension and body electronics are more complicated. And you wouldn't find me dead in a post-E32 7-series.

Avoid any BMW with an automatic transmission...not just because they are lame, but because they are garbage. If you get lucky you'll get a GM auto box that is at least well-understood, or more likely you'll get a ZF that drinks unicorn piss fluid and is considered untouchable by almost every transmission shop in the country.

EDIT: Brett nailed the bit about buying a decent one vs trying to fix up a beater. I gave away my unicorn E39 5-speed wagon for the same $3200 I paid after dumping almost five grand into the thing. They aren't bad at all if you start with a decent one, but catching up on deferred maintenance is NOT a fun process on these.

cdowd HalfDork
9/30/15 2:40 p.m.

I have an 03 X5 with a 5 speed manual that i have had for a little over 5 years. Mechanically I love the 6 motors and would lean that way for any 3 or 5 that you are looking at. Mine seems to eat front end parts every couple of years (contol arms, ball joint etc.) I do them myself not really a big deal. 100k cooling system rebuild. I have had issues with door handles and window regulators. I have replace all of the regulators at least once, and 3 of the 4 door handle carriers. parts for all those a cheap and i can do quickly now, but the first couple required alot of cursing. if you have any specific questions just ask.

racerdave600 SuperDork
9/30/15 2:40 p.m.

My experience has been that most of the issues out of the ordinary with BMWs tend to be electronic, and the newer the more frequent and costly. Mechanically they are long lived and mostly easy to work on. Issues also tend to center around cooling as many had plastic radiators and water pumps that fail over time. Some of the interior pieces don't hold up well on E36 cars, but replacements are available.

drdisque Reader
9/30/15 2:47 p.m.

They're not too bad to work on. The lower power models (e36 318 and 325, e46 325) are more reliable but obviously don't give you the same kick in the pants, but they're good handlers and well thought out and well built. The biggest problem is cooling system. E36 and E46 had issues with differential mounts but those problems are less common on low power models. 318 will obviously give you the most space to work with under the hood.

Joe Gearin
Joe Gearin Associate Publisher
9/30/15 3:12 p.m.

They have their issues, but as long as you stay on top of them maintenance-wise, they can be fairly inexpensive to own and drive. All of the problems are very well documented, and there is a wealth of knowledge available on the inter webs. Huge aftermarket support gives you the freedom to modify them to your liking. They are also well built--- logical and easy to work on.

I'll be changing the subframe, diff, engine and trans mounts on my E36 soon and will let you all know how it goes. These cars (especially the E30 and E36) are older, and as such will need bushings, cooling systems, and suspension refreshening. They are some of the best driving cars ever made though......so the added maintenance over say...... a Camry..... is worth it!


Furious_E Reader
9/30/15 3:21 p.m.

I had an e36 through my last couple years in college and beyond. It was actually a very cheap car to run, but that's basically because it was well kept up at the time I got it and kinda rode it down into not-quite-beater status. I'll speak to the E36, since that's where my experience is and what are most plentiful in the lower price bracket (though the E46 has become very affordable as well.)

The cooling systems are basically considered a PM item on a ~5 year replacement schedule. As mentioned above, lots of plastic bits like the water pump impeller that tend to get old and brittle over time and can cause catastrophic failure.

Interiors fall apart and some bits feel quite cheap for a "luxury" car. Headliners sag, door handles can break, leather delaminates from the door cards, almost none have all pixels functional on the OBC. But the ergonomics were pretty good (IMHO), seats are supportive and comfortable, and its generally not an unpleasant place to spend time.

The super duper multi link rear suspension works great. Until every one of the roughly million bushings rots out, that is. Then they tend to get a little sloppy. Replacement gets a bit pricey when you add everything up too. Also, mounting points for the subframe are weak and need to be reinforced if you plan to do serious track work. There are kits out there for this. But when everything is relatively fresh and working as intended they really are great handling cars, predictable and easy to toss around with good feedback and tactile response.

The BMW sixes are wonderful motors, smooth as hell and quite torquey. At this point in time, the naming scheme of the model actually did match the engine displacement, i.e. 325=2.5 liters (known as the M50), 328=2.8 liters (known as the M52.) Intake manifolds from the 325s flow better and swap onto the later cars for a cheap ~20 or so peak hp gain. Cams from the S50/52 (E36 M3 motors) are a popular upgrade as well. The later motors were single VANOS (IIRC), BMW's variable valve timing system. VANOS actuators can fail at higher mileage and make noise, although I forget how bad they're supposed to be to replace. Mine had a noise that may have been the VANOS, however it was assassinated by a rogue Tacoma before I could diagnose the issue. At 207k mine did not burn or leak any appreciable amount of oil and I am confident it could have lasted well past 300k.

So, in summary, yes they can be cheap to run, if you pay up front and buy a decent one in the first place, however I would strongly recommend against buying a cheap one and attempting to rehab it. That being said, I would wholeheartedly endorse buying one. My Bimmer probably endeared itself to me more so than any other car I have owned, and this post is really making me miss it. Fantastic all-rounder that gets so many of the details just right. I will own another E36 (or maybe an E46) some day.

92dxman Dork
9/30/15 3:22 p.m.

I'd get as little options as possible=less things to go wrong.

WOW Really Paul?
WOW Really Paul? MegaDork
9/30/15 4:13 p.m.
Fueled by Caffeine wrote: watching this thread... What about a used audi... They are AWD and turbo and cheaper than a subie around here.

Unless it has an I-5 under the hood, the simple answer is "AWW HAIL NAWWWW"

dherr New Reader
9/30/15 4:50 p.m.

My wife has an E36 convertible (318IC) 1994 that we are about to sell cheap. She drove it as her daily driver and now it sits most of the time. I put a new battery in it, has recent front brakes and tires. I was detailing it to sell and now it won't start. Cranks over strong, but won't catch. I got it to run on starter fluid, so I know it has spark so it may be the fuel pump, but not completely sure. I plan on fixing it, but running out of time and need to sell as I start my new job in two weeks. Might be a good project for you if you looking to get into these cars inexpensively. Contact me for details. Mileage is 139,xxx

Streetwiseguy PowerDork
9/30/15 5:00 p.m.

Any Euro car gets stupider the newer it is, from an electronics standpoint. By the early 2000's, something as simple as replacing a power window switch may involve a dedicated scan tool, and perhaps a subscription to the factory service info. At least, having some sort of Euro shop in the neighborhood is nice for those occasions.

Mechanically, they are fine. Electronically, they suck donkey balls.

racerdave600 SuperDork
9/30/15 5:00 p.m.

As I read this post, it still reminds me that MINIs have the same issues and everyone says they're junk and to run away. Not to derail the thread, but it always strikes me as funny. I know, I know, I'm a trouble maker.

glueguy GRM+ Memberand HalfDork
9/30/15 5:27 p.m.
Streetwiseguy wrote: Any Euro car gets stupider the newer it is, from an electronics standpoint. By the early 2000's, something as simple as replacing a power window switch may involve a dedicated scan tool, and perhaps a subscription to the factory service info. At least, having some sort of Euro shop in the neighborhood is nice for those occasions. Mechanically, they are fine. Electronically, they suck donkey balls.

E36 is very simple from a modern perspective. E46 starts the weirdness, like the odometer is stored in the headlight switch so you have to code the headlight switch to the car (else you get a dot next to the odometer which you'll see in plenty of CL ads). Even so, it is old enough and DIY enough that the software is on eBay to do all of this at home.

I'm a huge fan. I bought one twelve years ago, and stayed hooked through about six of them now. The parts are cheap, the online support is phenomenal, and they are so easy to work on and so nice to drive as an old car.

E36 is the most simple. E46 is a huge upgrade in interior feel, but it comes at some expense of being newer and more complex. Beyond E46 starts to get more complicated (battery change requires a software registration for the smart alternator to charge most efficiently). The interior on an E36 doesn't wear well. They all have plenty of known problems, but they are well documented.

And the BMW inline 6 is one of the best all around engines, ever.

Harvey HalfDork
9/30/15 5:43 p.m.

I think a non-M E46 3 series is a good buy at this point. The E36 either M or regular is getting a bit long in the tooth and probably presents bigger problems just due to age, but obviously you could find a really well kept up E36 that compares favorably to a beat up E46.

The main advantage I find to sticking with the 3 series of those vintages is that all the problems are well known and fixes are well thought out for whatever application you have for the car, whether it's autocross, road racing, track days or just daily driving.

In addition every maintenance task for those cars is well documented online. Sticking with a non-M E46 leaves you in a better position IMO because the drivetrain and suspension for just about all the non-M E46 cars is quite similar whereas the M car changes a lot of things up. When it comes to the E36 M car I think it's a bit closer to it's non-M counterparts, but finding an E36 M3 that hasn't been beat to hell can drive the price up quite a bit.

ebonyandivory UltraDork
9/30/15 6:36 p.m.

See if my similar thread helps:

Tyler H
Tyler H GRM+ Memberand SuperDork
9/30/15 7:08 p.m.

E36M3 or E46 330i are almost identical in specifications. The benefit of the E46 is a decade newer, better interior, and cheaper. They have flaws, but are inherently good cars. Just pay a premium for one that has a 3-ring binder full of stuff already done. They need a bunch of crap, but it's all well-documented. Rear subframe failure is a big PITA and fairly common, but also 'easy' to fix by GRM forum member standards.

Edit: Or...what everyone else already said. Anecdotally, I just turned in a nearly new Maxima rental and hopped back in my 150k E46 330i ZHP and thought, "ah....this car is still spectacular to drive with 10x the miles."

EastCoastMojo GRM+ Memberand Mod Squad
9/30/15 7:33 p.m.

I will just chime in to say that I am reading/watching this thread with interest, as I have just bought an E46 this past week. I am impressed at the ride, it is by far the nicest car I have ever owned.

AngryCorvair GRM+ Memberand UltimaDork
9/30/15 7:36 p.m.

I just bought an '07 525xi, autotragic, non sport, with very little documentation, for stupid cheap. Dealer PPI said it needs typical stuff. It runs and drives great, so my plan is to check off all the PPI stuff (except the oil pan gasket, LOL) and enjoy driving the nicest car I've ever owned.

Edit: ECM and I have great minds.

gearheadmb Reader
9/30/15 7:54 p.m.

In reply to dherr:

Thanks, but I don't really like convertibles, and I think if I get one it will be with the 6 cyl.

mad_machine GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/30/15 8:40 p.m.

I drove a 318ti for ten years... car only left me broke down once.. and that was for a bad fuel pump.. and even then, it started one last time to actually get me home. Unlike an American car.. replacing the pump was easy peasy.. pull up the bottom of the backseat.. unscrew a couple of screws holding a plate tight to the floor.. and there was the top of the tank.

Parts were cheap too.. like cheaper than the Hyundai it replaced

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