Reader Question: Buy a Used BMW?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Jacob asks: So, I’m a large guy and I’m looking to purchase a used vehicle for around $10,000. I’d like to opt for a medium-size SUV, preferably one that handles well and has good gas mileage. I was looking at vehicles from around 2008 to around 2012 and I noticed that I could get a used luxury SUV for not much more than a used Ford Escape. But my hangup is the reliability and maintenance cost of an older, premium-class vehicle. In particular, I’ve been looking at a 2008 to 2011 BMW X5. I’ve seen a number of these vehicles listed for around $10,000, some as low as $8,000. They generally have around 100,000 miles on them. Now, I understand that BMWs are the most expensive cars to maintain. Would I be insane to consider a 10 year old BMW with 100,000 miles? I’m not wealthy and my career is a bit up in the air at the moment. I can’t guarantee what financial position I’ll be in in six months or more, but I do have over $20,000 saved to allocate towards buying and maintaining a car.My fear is that I’ll purchase the BMW X5, then it’ll be an endless money pit.  I don’t mind if it’s a little more expensive to maintain, I just want to see if I can mitigate these costs somehow or accurately estimate what it’ll take to own this vehicle. I’d like to have it for around five years at least. I’d also like to compare the cost of owning and maintaining the X5 to something like a used Lexus RX350 or even a Ford Escape. Then I could judge whether the premium is worth it. Any advice you offer would be really appreciated.

My reply: I don’t think you’ be insane to consider a ten-year-old BMW with 100,000-plus miles . . . I think you’d be insane to consider any ten-year-old luxury-brand vehicle with 100,000 miles. The odds of such a vehicle being a money pit are high. Luxury cars have more complex systems – it’s one of the selling points when they’re new – and these tend to be more vulnerable to wear and tear than less complex systems and often cost much more to fix when they fail. Particularly if the component(s) that needs to be replaced are electronic and proprietary (i.e., you can’t buy a generic aftermarket replacement; you have to buy a “factory” replacement). Even things you might think would be relatively benign to your financial well-being, such as brake work and other routine maintenance, can hit you with sticker shock that would fell a Clydesdale.

One of the reasons a large percentage of luxury-brand vehicles are leased is precisely because of high repair (and maintenance costs). It is also one of the reasons why luxury cars depreciate so steeply and so quickly.

I understand it’s tempting but – for my sake (I need to sleep tonight) – please don’t do this!

I do, however, have a suggestion about what you might consider doing.

You mentioned several mid-sized crossover SUVs. I italicized “crossover” to highlight – for those not hip – that a “crossover” is basically a car that’s been jacked up off the ground a bit and made to look like an SUV. But SUVs – properly speaking – are based on pick-up trucks (for example, the Chevy Tahoe is based on the Chevy Silverado 1500).

Crossovers – being based on cars – ride and handle better than SUVs but are usually less rugged; they usually have a light-duty AWD system without Low range gearing and aren’t really designed to go seriously off-road or pull very heavy loads.

SUVs – being based on cars – are clunkier in the curves but they usually have 4WD and Low range gearing and can go seriously off-road and (usually) pull much more than a crossover of about the same size.

Here’s the thing… because they are based on trucks, SUVs are tougher and last longer. For this reason, I would not hesitate to buy a ten-year-old Chevy Tahoe or similar SUV with 100,000 miles – assuming the price was fair and the vehicle checked out (by which I mean, a mechanic you trust inspected it and gave it the green light).

So, that’s the direction I’d like to steer you in. I think you’ll be much happier with a non-luxury-brand SUV rather than a luxury-brand crossover, given your budget and other criteria.

The Tahoe or Ford Expedition would be my first choices in a medium-large SUV. I’m a big guy, too – and I can tell you from personal experience you’ll appreciate the room inside.

If you still prefer to go the crossover route – and prefer something smaller – here are some suggestions:

VW Tiguan – it’s based on the VW Golf and has excellent leg and headroom. Very peppy and fun to drive, too.

Subaru Forester – These go forever and come standard with more ground clearance than most as well as a superior AWD system.

Honda Pilot – Blue chip; very hard to go wrong.

The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV-4 are also solid as a bar of Swiss gold, just about.

But whichever direction you end up going, my main advice is to take your time and buy when you don’t feel pressured to buy. Have the vehicle checked out as per above – and (if it’s being sold by a dealer) try to get them to include an extended warranty as part of the deal.

Keep us posted!

. . .

Got a question about cars – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. Eric,
    I’m going to have to disagree with your recommendations. Jacob, you do not want to buy a VW Tiguan with 100k on it, unless you can get it real cheap. I agree that the Tiguan is a blast to drive, provided it has a warranty. I work on VW’s every day and the EA888 engine is just too failure prone. It’s the same engine that’s in the GTI and Jetta, which are lighter cars. When used in the Tiguan they have more turbo failures, perhaps because you’re on the pedal more, and it’s not an impeller bearing, oil seal failure, but a wastegate linkage bushing where it goes thru the housing where it doesn’t seal completely, you can’t even tell that there’s a problem, just a check engine light. The next issue is the retarded glued on rear main seal. There is a company that makes a new flange that uses a standard tap in seal, but the labor to install is…
    Next is the retarded plastic water pump housing buried under the intake manifold that if it gets a little oil (that leaks from the so called “valve cover”, or, that someone spilled adding oil) past the o-ring it swells the o-ring and starts spewing coolant. Next issue, the oil leak mentioned above, there is no “valve cover”, the top of the engine is a casting that has the upper cam journals cast into it, and it’s glued and bolted to the lower section of the cylinder head, and they start to leak. The last big problem is timing chain tensioners, and when they go bad, it’s all over, put a fork in it. VW improved them lately, but I don’t trust them. In my opinion, overhead cam engines are better with timing belts.
    You know, I can’t say that all Tiguans with 100k on it are a bomb ready to explode, but if you have no idea how it was driven (mostly freeway or city) and how well it was maintained, don’t buy it.

    • Hi Mooeing,

      Back in der tag, I had the good fortune to test drive a brand-new twin-turbo RX8… hot zig! I loved that car; who gives a damn whether it burned a quart of oil every 500 miles?

      I liked the smell…

  2. A friend bought a used BMW for his GF back in the early 80s. Even though it was relatively new, I never saw it do anything but take up garage space.

    I’d occasionally inquire into its status. Always saving up money for that several hundred dollar water pump job or some other things that you wouldn’t even have to screw up on a Ford or GM product. It was a nice looking money pit, sorta like owning a boat, the thing some describe as a hole in the water you throw money into.

  3. I understand how luxury cars are more complex, but a GM product at 100,000 miles would more than likely nickel and dime your budget, while a well maintained and cared for foreign brand luxury car might not. But whether someone decided to drive their leased BMW or Mercedes like a Porsche (which they are not designed to do) and avoid extra service like changing the transmission fluid is the big question for a vehicle with 100,000 miles. Having a competent, fair, private mechanic that would first do a pre-purchase inspection and take the car in for future service is key and should not be avoided with these kind of cars.

    • ” while a well maintained and cared for foreign brand luxury car might not.”

      True for a perhaps a Honda, but I would be very concerned about a 10 year old BMW. They are generally cheap because of the cost to keep them going. Given from what I see on the road BMWs reach a point where most people give up on them best that I can tell.

    • Hi Peter,

      It depends. I suggest the Tahoe because the V8 under its hood is exceptionally durable and the design is relatively simple. These engines at 100,000 miles are usually good for another 100,000 miles. A turbocharged BMW 2.0 or similar, on the other hand…

    • Strange you mention GM. 100,000 miles on the ones I’ve owned has simply been the first of triple digit mileage milestones I’d see on it

      Sure, I’ve had to replace a water pump or alternator eventually. The wife’s 95 Cutlass won’t get a water pump…..ever….since she’s destroyed both sides on guardrails that’s fairly much ruined the doors and hit countless large animals. At 285000 miles it needs an intake gasket it won’t get. The cars been damned tough but her driving is tougher. In her defense, I can’t think of anything. Her vehicles can go decades without her seeing the need for a wash job.

    • The average car on the road has around 130,000 miles on it, currently the highest its ever been.

      Anecdotes are not data. If you want to see how many BMW’s are on the road, you would need to notice them. There are so many 3 and 5 series at least 10 years old driving around here, one doesn’t notice them any more.

      Perhaps there is data available on their longevity and cost of ownership, but I haven’t found it.

      As for BMW’s specifically, you are getting first class bodywork, excellent brakes and pretty good steering for what you pay. The engines and electronics are a bit “progressive” and can be less reliable due to the risks BMW takes to be cutting edge. In the past, BMW’s were known for their head gasket failures, which you still occasionally hear about. Nowadays its usually valve-train or fuel pump issues. Most BMW posters know that their “bread and butter” inline 6 engines are usually the most reliable, but there are glaring exceptions.

      It behooves a future used BMW buyer to be familiar with which engines are to be concerned about. Easily found out on the numerous BMW web boards.

      As to the cost of repairs and parts, most European cars are about the same in my experience. Perhaps if you are so worried about it, buying a new Corolla (a fine car IMO) is in your future.

      • I notice when cars go from being common to uncommon. That includes cars like my Mazda Protege. Used to see them constantly. Now not so much. Mine is currently going from one failure to next. Cheap stuff because I fix it myself, but I work on it more than I drive it now. I currently in the middle of another time consuming $10 repair.

        Anyway when did BMWs come with what I call sea shell shaped tail lamps? Ten years ago or so? They used to be quite common and now I don’t see them much. Same is true for just about every BMW in my area. People buy them then replace them. Very few of them turn up in parts of the Chicago area where luxury cars go as they move down the used car food chain. I don’t know where they go, just that they are gone.

        I considered a couple BMW models when I got my second Mustang. A couple things I learned. BMW has been actively fighting owner maintenance and repair and parts prices are much higher. And then there is the thing about the Germans and special fluids, such that my newer Mustang has a special transmission fluid because it’s from a German supplier. At that time some BMW owners were buying Mustangs to take pressure off their BMWs. It was their comments that in part steered me away from a BMW. It was clear I was too spoiled with Mustang’s aftermarket, low parts prices, and relative ease to work on.

  4. I’d avoid any Subaru with a naturally-aspirated EJ25 engine. They’re prone to head gasket failure and piston slap. I’d consider a newer model with an FB engine, though.


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