So you’ve decided to buy a used BMW X5? While a Japanese make such as Lexus would bring more peace to your life, you’ve decided to eschew logical adult reasoning and take on the challenge of owning heavily depreciated German steel to enjoy all of the pleasures it will bring. The driving experience, heated surfaces, envy from the neighbors. Your idea of the spice of life is not knowing when the next water pump or window regulator failure will hit, sucking up your only free time on weekends for the foreseeable future.
All kidding aside, the X5 is a good SUV if you are an enthusiast who enjoys performing a good deal of DIY work. After all, if you’re reading this blog, you are likely a BMW enthusiast. Besides, the initial purchase price of a used X5 is going to be much less than that of a Lexus GX or some comparable Japanese suburb-crawling baby-hauler.
My best advice for owning a used X5 is as follows:
You MUST own your own BMW specific diagnostic scan tool such as the one I use today, the Creator C310 available here for $55. This allows you to scan your own Service Engine Soon lights and diagnose issues without a trip to the dealer.
As soon as you buy the X5, begin using maintenance parts from FCP Euro in Milford, Connecticut. Their lifetime warranty on everything they sell is 100% real and 100% awesome. I regret not purchasing parts from them from the beginning, as I would have saved a lot of money in years 4 and 5 on our X5 as items are replaced continually. Those guys are friendly, honest and I love going into their showroom parts pick-up to chat about cars and collect my goodies.
Find a used example that has been kept with service records. Whether those are enthusiast owned DIY receipts for parts purchases, or extensive dealership invoices, that is what you want to see. If someone can’t find the records, or ignores your request for service records, move on. You want to find an example that has been well maintained and loved – this will save you money in the long-run.
Here’s my 5 Year Cost of Ownership on our used X5.
If you’re considering buying an E53 generation X5, check out my buyers guide here:
As we enter the beginning of year 6 of ownership this month, we are still working on some maintenance issues and engine trouble codes. The P1093 code for rich fuel bank has persisted, despite replacement of both pre-cat oxygen sensors. This may be a failed idle control valve, that may be our next replacement item.
We’re at a spot now that it might be time to consider looking into upgrading to the E70 generation X5, built from 2007-2013. The newer and greatly improved F15 X5 came later in 2014, but is still too expensive for us to consider at this time. The 2012-2013 X5 35i is what we are considering, and it looks to be a great balance of value for the money in today’s 2020 market. As soon as we can pick one up, my E70 used X5 buyer guide will be posted here. Stay tuned.
The BMW X3 and X5 are known for their incredible x-drive all wheel drive systems that power through stormy winter conditions and keep you safe on the road. They’re also known for being incredibly robust, rarely having any major failure of the transfer case systems, as they are typically overbuilt by design. The X5’s ATC 500 transfer case is particularly robust.
However, one small detail was overlooked on the design by BMW mechanical engineers: the small plastic gear inside the transfer case actuator motor. This small gear typically fails between 90,000 -120,000 miles in the X3 and X5. When it does fail, it throws the car’s computer systems into disarray and will show the trifecta of lights: Brake, ABS, and 4×4 DSC lights will all illuminate on the gauge cluster.
Perhaps this is a planned failure, kind of like BMW’s version of planned obsolescence. If millions of X3 and X5 suffer this failure, that means millions of new reasons for customers to either pay heavily for dealership repair services or trade in for a new model BMW. Perhaps this is too cynical, who really knows.
Sometimes, when this gear has failed, an audible clicking may be heard from under the driver side of the car when turning the ignition off. This is the transfer case actuator trying to work but it can’t as the gear’s teeth are stripped by the metal worm drive gear that rides against it. The factory plastic wears down over time causing the failure. When the position of the actuator is no longer known, this throws off the rest of the computer systems that rely on that position as an input signal.
My Experience with my X5 transfer case failure
In 2016, shortly after purchasing our E53 X5, we experienced these warning lights, the intermittent clicking from the actuator and saw the BMW fault code 5F39 or 5F3A. We brought the car in for some inspection at a local Fairfield county Connecticut BMW dealership. Here is where we were delivered the bad news: “Sorry, you’re going to need a new transfer case, the cost is over $4,000 USD.”
This was a really stressful experience, and I was shocked that this happened to us so soon after buying our first X5. Being responsible for the car buying and repairs in my family, this was the worst car news I could deliver to my wife about her new SUV. I decided to do a little more research and more digging. First, I bought myself a BMW specific scan tool so I no longer needed the dealership for diagnostic troubleshooting work. I chose the Creator C310 here on Amazon.
As it turns out, many owners have experienced this transfer case actuator failure which throws these lights and trouble codes. I was determined to try to repair ours or at least remove the actuator for inspection – we had nothing to lose.
First, you need to diagnose the issue by scanning the car’s computers and inspecting the gear. Here’s how to diagnose a potential failure in the transfer case actuator gear system.
Once you’ve established this is likely the cause of your X3 or X5 issues, you will need to order a new updated gear. You can order a carbon fiber reinforced nylon gear which is virtually indestructible here: new transfer case gear.
(photo of gear here link to my shop)
E53 X5, E70 X5, E83 X3 Transfer Case Gear Replacement DIY
Next, you can begin replacement of your transfer case actuator gear once you receive it. You will need the following tools and special socket sizes in order to perform this job:
Micro flathead screwdriver for removal of the transfer case actuator resistor harness connector plug bolted to the side of the motor.
Female torx sockets size E10 for removal of 4 torx bolts holding on motor
Female torx socket size E7 for unbolting transfer case resistor if necessary
C-clip retaining ring removal plier for removal of circlip on gear shaft
Knife for assistance in prying up small metal cover on housing of motor
What to look for when buying the first generation BMW X5 SUV
In 2020, even the newest E53 X5 is 14 years old. The E53 production ended in 2006 which makes BMW’s first generation SUV almost a classic. This is the SUV or “SAV” as BMW likes to call it, “Sport Activity Vehicle” that started all of BMW’s US manufacturing of SUV trucks that dominate the roads today.
In 2019, SUV’s outsold cars 2:1; meaning that for every one car sold, two SUV’s were sold. BMW is no exception as buyers have chosen to abandon cars and wagons in favor for gas-guzzling high-riding safe trucks for their commutes. BMW now makes an X1, X2, X3, X4, X5, X6 and recently launched an even larger X7 to satisfy every demand of the global consumer today.
So where does that leave BMW’s original SAV that started it all? Well, these cars still provide a great value relatively speaking, if you can handle the maintenance and repairs yourself. The 3.0i with straight six cylinder M54 engine is the best option for reliability, as the 4.4 liter V8 models are problematic and expensive to repair.
In this video I outline some of the things to look for when inspecting a potential candidate for your next family hauler. The 3.0i M54 powered car is predictable and relatively easy to work on compared to V8 models and the more modern BMW motors. Parts are also much cheaper for the M54, many maintenance items are a fraction of the cost for the same item on a more modern X5. For example, the water pump. The E53’s 6-cylinder M54 water pump is $47 where the later E70 X5’s 6-cylinder N52 water pump is $275!
In fact, to get a better picture of what it takes financially to take an older X5 from 120k miles to 180k miles, check out my 5-year cost of ownership video here. This video details with spreadsheets how much repairs cost even when doing the majority of repairs myself at home for my BMW repair channel Bimmerzeit on YouTube.
Keeping your classic E53 X5 on the road
If you’re considering buying one of these first gen X5’s you’re going to need a few specific tools to keep it going. At minimum, you’ll need to buy the following to DIY repairs at home:
First, you’ll need to buy a BMW specific OBD-II scan tool so you can access fault codes and diagnostics in all of the modules and computers. Generic scan tools won’t cut it. I recommend buying the Creator C310 for BMW here.
You’ll also need to purchase a set of fan clutch tools for about $40 USD here. The fan clutch wrenches allow you to remove the viscous coupling clutch from the water pump so you can then access a myriad of other repairs that require its removal. To see how to remove a BMW viscous fan clutch, see my video here.
Apart from those tools, you’ll also need a good set of Torx bits and sockets. I recommend the Lisle brand here. Lisle stuff is so good I’ve been using the same set I bought 16 years ago. They’re made of heat-treated alloy steel and made in the USA.
Should you buy an E53 X5 as your next car? If you’re looking at an X5 for sale, send me an email here with a link to the listing and I’ll take a look at it for you and share my opinion.
As we drive through the peak July heat of Summer, one question I’ve been hearing a lot from my subscribers is about your BMW air conditioning system issues. There are three really common issues across all BMW’s with respect to inoperative or weak AC problems:
The center control knurled stratification wheel knob is poorly adjusted
The electric auxiliary fan behind the front bumper has failed
The first place to start diagnosis is the easiest: check your center control knurled stratification wheel knob in the center of the dashboard. Every BMW since 1980-something has one. And it may be the most misunderstood HVAC control knob of any German car out there – even today!
Here’s a background on how this HVAC control knob works and why it could be causing you to have warm air blowing in the Summer and air too cool blowing in the Autumn and Winter.
The often overlooked stratification knurled wheel for the center vent is often the cause of heating and cooling issues. These are erroneously adjusted one way or the other until the season changes, and you forget to adjust it properly for the season.
Before taking your car in for a look at deeper HVAC issues as described in the list above, be sure to check this adjustment first.
Another extremely common reason why AC may not be cold is due to a failed auxiliary electric fan. The electric fan is responsible for pulling cool air through the air conditioning system’s condensor which is really just a mini-radiator for the AC system. When this fan fails, you may notice AC is cold only when driving at speed; this is because air flow from driving is cooling the system. When you come to a stop or idle, the AC air blows warm again. This is when the electric fan would normally kick in to aid in cooling, but since it has failed, it is not pulling in that air.
The E53, E46 and E39 generation are notorious for auxiliary or aux fan failures. Fortunately the fans are relatively easy to replace as a DIY and can be found under $200. Here is a DIY replacement I did last Summer on my E39:
Finally, the third most common reason for warm AC symptoms is due to a leak or component failure. Sometimes a system will have a micro leak that has allowed freon to leave the system. If you’re low on freon or it is empty, the air will blow warm 100% of the time. To start, you can use an inexpensive 134a kitto refill your refrigerant and begin diagnosis. It’s important to use one with a gauge and to never overfill the system beyond BMW’s pressure specifications dependent on your model.
So you’re in the market for a used BMW? In this post I’ll share with you what I think is an incredible undervalued buy on the used luxury German market right now. This car also happens to be one of the best BMW’s ever made: my all-time favorite BMW, the luxurious and reliable E39 530i. In this post I’ll go over why the E39 is the best used BMW to buy today in 2020.
First, let’s chat about the glorious piece of engineering that is the E39. I have created over 100 DIY videos on this fourth generation 5 series sedan over the last five years of creating on YouTube, so it is fair to say I know them pretty well.
My E39 buyers guide here outlines exactly what to look for when considering the purchase of one of these fine machines. A midsize sedan, this five series was available in 525i, 528i, 530i, 540i and M5 configurations here in the US. Manufactured from 1995 to 2004, the model years available in the US began in 1996 and ended in 2003.
I would argue the best option for balance of power, reliability, cost of ownership and initial purchase cost is the 530i. This has the 3.0 liter gasoline M54 six cylinder engine with both manual and automatic transmission options available.
Going with the sport package over a base model gets you an M-tech sport steering wheel, M-tech sport suspension, 17” two piece BBS wheels, shadowline black exterior trim and sport seats. All together this creates a wonderful package that can be had for anywhere from $1,500 USD to $16,000 USD for the finest examples on Bring a Trailer. On average though, expect to pay $3000 to $5000 USD for a nice example.
The 525i has a smaller 2.5 liter engine which has slightly better fuel economy, but much less power. The automatic transmission on these is more troublesome and known for dropping the ability to reverse due to a defect in the design. I would avoid all 525i’s unless it is a rare 5-speed manual transmission, like the one I rescued in July 2019 here.
The 540i has the M62 V8 which is again more powerful, however maintenance is more difficult to perform and the V8’s of this generation have wear issues with the timing chain guides. It’s only a matter of when, not if, they begin to fail, requiring thousands of dollars and many hours of work to tear down the engine to repair correctly. This is not an experience you want to have. The V8 models also suffer from an antique style steering box setup with recirculating ball setup akin to the model T Ford of yesteryear. No one wants this either. However, the 530i has a wonderful rack and pinion steering that is just sublime to steer through your favorite local apex.
The E39 build quality is also the high point in the golden era of BMW design. The doors are heavy and close like the door of a bank vault. This analogy is often mistakenly used on lesser, inferior models like 90’s and 00’s Mercedes. The slam of a closing E39 door is worthy of the bank vault analogy. Furthermore, dual sets of inner and outer door seals on each door seal out virtually all road noise and wind. Quiet conversation via hands-free phone is possible in its cocoon-like interior.
The 530i is relatively inexpensive to maintain and easy for the DIY enthusiast to repair without needing to lean on his local mechanic too much. This keeps overall repair costs low compared to newer models. The parts are 1/3 or 1/2 the cost of E90 maintenance items, for example.
For those reasons, you should be looking into buying an E39 530i right now in 2020 before they begin going up in price. Many sellers tend to be long term owners who want to trade up to a newer model, only to realize they’ve made a huge mistake and regret giving up the E39.
The E39 was also imported into the US in small quantities in the touring model, also known as the family wagon. Though wagons have long since lost their appeal in the US market in favor of giant SUV’s, the wagon is still very popular across Europe. This is primarily due to VAT tax structure and the very high cost of fuel abroad relative to the US.
The E39 touring model was available in 525i, 528i and 540i models. Again, the 99/00 model year 528i is the one to look for, in my opinion. This has essentially the same M54 engine (M52TU) double vanos motor with robust transmission and powerful 2.8L engine. Again, I would avoid the V8 model with the issues it would have, and same issues with the underpowered 525i with failure prone transmission.
The only downside to the early pre-2001 model year 528i touring is that it will not have facelift updates to the bumper and headlights with angel eyes. Though, the engine and transmission combo more than make up for this as headlights are easily updated to later units.
Is the E39 a good first car?
Today the youngest model E39 is at least 17 years old, which is about how old my first E30 was when I purchased it in 2003. While I wouldn’t recommend an E30 for a first car today due to lack of safety features and the amount of maintenance they need, the E39 is a great modern classic for a first car. It will fit the budget of most young people looking for a car and is relatively reliable as far as classic BMW’s are concerned.
While my first car was an E30, I would definitely suggest looking at the E39 platform for first time drivers with a lower end budget of $1,500 to $4,500 USD. You’ll find some fixer uppers at the low end, and clean daily drivers at the upper end of that price estimate. With about 230 horsepower and four doors, these cars are very versatile and have enough power to be safe getting on the modern freeway.
Many young people look to the 335i twin turbo E90 3 series for a cheap first car, but that is a bad idea for two reasons: no young person needs a 330-380 horsepower car to learn the limits of driving while decision making with an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex. As a 32 year old new dad, I can say that the need for speed does slowly fade over the years. Secondly, the complexity of repair and cost of parts in a 335i will slowly bankrupt all but the wealthiest owners who can pay for constant repairs.
So there you have it, the E39 is the golden goose for most German car enthusiasts out there, young and old. Get yours before prices start climbing; Bring a Trailer auction data suggests they’re already on the rise.
Not long ago BMW offered four years or 50,000 miles of free maintenance when purchasing a new BMW, which included free oil changes. They did this in part due to the reputation their German engineering had earned over the years for being costly to maintain; with ownership came frequent trips to the local BMW dealership.
They eased this pain point and reinforced the idea that they stand behind their vehicles – reliable vehicles- so much so that four years of service was included. The most expensive BMW’s tend to be leased at a greater volume than they are purchased outright. In fact, more than half of all BMW’s sold are leases.
For high rolling BMW lessees, knowing the total monthly costs and keeping them at a fixed amount without enormous service bills popping up was a great draw. This was a strong marketing pitch for BMW to sell and lease new cars.
Sadly, BMW announced in 2016 (for 2017 model year cars) their maintenance plan was reduced to 3 years or 36,000 miles and would be named the “Ultimate Care” program. New car owners will still benefit from 3 years of free oil changes, but what about the rest of us?
You can now benefit from free replacement parts, filters, and yes even oil changes for life so long as you purchase the items for the first time from FCP Euro. This makes more sense for those of us who DIY our own BMW maintenance and repairs, but of course you could provide the parts purchased from FCP Euro to your local repair shop as well (if they accept that kind of thing).
Here’s how to get Free Oil Changes for Life:
Order your oil, filter, drain plug or any other maintenance parts from FCP Euro here. The first one will not be free. You have to pay for it.
The next oil change, order the same items and parts from FCP Euro again. Drain your old oil into the collection container, and fill up the new jugs with the old oil once your oil change is complete.
Return oil, filter and items to FCP Euro.
Receive a refund for your most recent order.
Rinse and repeat, forever, or until at least FCP Euro is inevitably acquired and the program is ended.
This is not just some sneaky way of abusing a warranty program either. FCP Euro actively promotes this warranty and I was first made aware of it by the guys at the parts desk inside their Milford, Connecticut location. Great guys down there, very friendly and helpful.
One caveat to this FREE oil change for life plan is that many of you reading will have to pay for return ground shipping. I live under 10 minutes from their warehouse, so it makes sense to just drop it off in person and avoid the costly return shipping. If you do need to ship, create an account or use your employer’s business account for heavily discounted shipping. We’re talking $9 to return oil vs. $25 or more charged to the retail facing consumer.
FCP Euro marketing department promoted this Lifetime warranty including oil and filters in a July 2018 video on YouTube here.
What do you guys think? Will you be switching to ordering BMW parts and accessories from FCP Euro? Let me know in the comments.
Last week while researching German to English translations and brushing up on my German I had an epiphany that took 17 years of BMW ownership to realize: the correct way to pronounce BMW is not how I’ve been saying it! That’s right, for the last seventeen years of fanatical BMW ownership I’ve been saying it completely the wrong way. In fact, the official BMW website now has a page dedicated to pronouncing their brand’s name so you don’t have to make the same mistake I did. They share video pronunciations in a variety of languages from French to Mandarin and everything in between. You can visit that page here.
While working on translations and designs for my new brand, I realized that the W in BMW is actually spoken as “Vee” in Germany. I knew that the W was pronounced as a V as part of the entire word, but hadn’t previously considered the individual letter itself or the letter as part of a name such as BMW. Therefore, everyone in Germany, Austria and most parts of Europe pronounce our favorite car maker as “Bee Em Vee”. To make sure we don’t have any embarrassing moments at the next cars and coffee, I’ve made a short video this week on how to pronounce BMW, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche here:
So, what do you think? Should we pronounce our favorite car maker brands by their German spoken names or by the way they’re marketed to us in the US? Personally I think it would be hard to start saying “Bee Em Vee” instead of “Bee Em Double U” after all these years. Besides, we just don’t hear that pronunciation here in the US. Let me know in the comments below.
There are a ton of choices available when it comes to wheel cleaner detailing products and sprays. Everyone has a favorite, and they are without a doubt an essential part of BMW ownership thanks to those dusty factory organic brake pads stuffed into every production BMW out there.
Ceramic brake pads are known for their low or zero dusting, coupled with excellent braking bite under spirited driving at high brake temperatures. I have tried several aftermarket brands of high performance ceramic brake pads over the years, and never really liked any of them more than the BMW factory pads. The factory pads dust a ton, but their bite is excellent for a daily driven car and they’re also very quite. Read More
One of the most common wear points in a car is the steering wheel, since it sees a ton of use and abuse over the life of the car. The M tech sport steering wheels in particular have a way of wearing and peeling badly that BMW didn’t really plan for. Original versions of the sport steering wheel trim have a black coating that peels and scratches off over time, revealing the white bare plastic beneath it. Updated versions now available seem to be from a black plastic, which should wear better instead of peeling over time. Updated trim is available here.
One of the cheapest and best upgrades you can make is to replace this trim piece, which is about $75 or so online here. I recently replaced the trim piece specific to the E53 sport models, and detail the steps on how to remove the steering wheel so replace the trim in this new video below.
Most sport package cars require the airbag and steering wheel to be safely removed before the trim can be replaced. It’s always important to disconnect the battery and use safety precautions while working near an airbag.
The procedure for steering wheel removal on the M-technic wheels is pretty much identical as the video above here. While you’re replacing that trim, go and check out BMW’s website to see if your airbag needs to be replaced under the latest recall. Click here to check, have your VIN number handy. BMW will replace Takata airbags free of charge under this recall program.