Should you buy a used BMW 3 Series?

BMW hasn't won its laurels based on anything related to reliability

Published: December 10, 2015, 10:05 AM
Updated: August 2, 2016, 6:13 PM

2008 BMW 3 Series - 2008 BMW 3 Series

Most of the cars on Canadian Black Book's 'most searched' vehicle values list can be found among the country's mainstream best sellers. But there's one notable exception: the BMW 3 Series.

Whether those searching it are potential buyers or just dreamers doesn't matter. They've zeroed in on the 3 Series as a car they'd like to own. For good reason.

While Detroit’s engineers were busy stuffing monster V-8s into compact cars in the late 1960s, the Bavarians were giggling maniacally over a Frankenstein of their own.

BMW arguably invented the compact sports sedan segment in 1968 when it shoehorned a 113-hp, 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine into its well-mannered 1600 sedan, creating the 2002. Two whole litres – 120 cubic inches – of displacement. Sheer madness!

Lightning struck twice when the car received a further power infusion – up to 130 hp – with the addition of mechanical fuel injection in 1972. Dubbed the 2002tii, it was the antithesis of everything Detroit understood about making fast cars.

2010 BMW 3 Series - 2010 BMW 3 Series

But the appeal of a light, compact sedan with an independent rear suspension and willing engine endured long after America’s muscle cars blatted into oblivion. The 2002’s successor arrived for 1976 using the 3 Series nomenclature. And it's set the bar for others to match ever since.

Often imitated, but never duplicated, the 3 has earned a warehouse full of awards over the years. Now the fifth-generation (2006-2011) models are becoming relatively affordable, with typical asking prices ranging from less than $10,000 to the mid-$20,000s, depending on year and trim level.

They're sparkling driving machines and deserve the accolades they've amassed – but don’t presume BMW won its laurels based on anything related to reliability.

Fifth-gen evolution

The fifth generation (E90) of BMW’s premium compact 3 sedan went on sale in mid-2005 as a four-door sedan. A station wagon appeared not long after, while the coupe and convertible arrived for 2007. The sedan was 3.5 cm longer in wheelbase, 6 cm longer overall and almost 8 cm wider than the outgoing model.

2006 BMW 3 Series - 2006 BMW 3 Series

Its new rear-drive platform featured a five-link aluminum rear suspension and struts up front with double-pivot control arms. The car retained ideal 50/50 weight distribution over the two axles. Engineers specified run-flat tires for all models to make them unfettered by a spare tire.

Being BMW’s entry-level product, its instrument panel looked a little Spartan but the materials and assembly were above reproach. The longer wheelbase provided slightly more rear legroom, but it was still not considered spacious.

Every model used a version of BMW’s inline six cylinder – an inherently smooth engineby design. The new N-series engines featured lightweight magnesium-aluminum composition, an electric water pump, Valvetronic (variable valve lift) and Double-VANOS variable valve timing.

The 2006 330i sedan featured ae 255-hp, 3.0-litre six with Valvetronic, while the bottom-rung 325i used a smaller 2.5-litre six with a simpler induction system, good for 215 hp. A six-speed manual transmission was standard, with a six-speed automatic optional.

Safety gear included traction/antiskid control, front torso side airbags, and head-protecting curtain airbags all around. Active Steering, which electronically varied the steering ratio and assist, was optional.

The 2007 engine lineup included a 200-hp 2.5-litre variant in the 323i, a 230-hp 3.0-litre in the 328i and all-wheel-drive 328xi, and a 300-hp, twin-turbo 3.0-litre in the 335i.

2009 BMW 3 Series - 2009 BMW 3 Series

The 2007 coupe got its own swoopy styling and available all-wheel drive for the first time. It benefited from a firmer suspension, seats with extra side bolstering and steering-linked xenon headlamps. An updated convertible arrived in spring 2007 with a retractable steel hardtop in place of a fabric lid.

The 2009 sedan and wagon models earned some styling updates as well as a slight increase in rear track width. Released later that year, the much-anticipated 335d was powered by a 3.0-L turbocharged inline-six clean diesel rated at 265 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque and tied to an automatic transmission.

The range continued virtually unchanged through 2011.

Driving the 3 Series

The 3 continued its tradition of operating with a precision seldom experienced in many other automobiles. Owners marveled at its smoothness, athletic reflexes and stability at speed.

“Driven hard on a twisty road, its purpose comes into focus. Unflappable, big-time fun,” reads one happy post.

2011 BMW 3 Series - 2011 BMW 3 Series

Zero to 97 km/h came up in 6.1 seconds in the 328i with 230 hp; add almost a full second for the automatic transmission. Need more haste? The turbocharged 335i coupe could do it in a fleet 4.9 seconds.

Some drivers disliked the 3’s run-flat tires immensely, as they magnified pavement imperfections and delivered a somewhat rough ride. (The aftermarket offers alternatives.)

Owners raved about the cars’ stingy fuel use, although every iteration of the inline six requires premium grade. The diesel 335d provided fantastic economy, along with its glorious torque.

The online chatter

While many drivers are pleased with their 3 Series, an unsettling number of reliability complaints should raise the alarm for used BMW buyers who see the lease returns lined up on dealer lots.

“Rear bearings replaced at 8,000 km, trunk latch broken, rear suspension unbolted itself out of the frame, right rear brake caliper replaced, added one litre of oil every month, power window switch defect, interior panels shook loose, wiper motor burned out…” reads one owner’s litany of problems with an ’07 model.

2008 BMW 3 Series - 2008 BMW 3 Series

The run-flat tires topped the list of complaints, with many owners grumbling about their replacement cost and their short service life, as well as the aforementioned stiff ride.

Drivers also saw numerous warning lamps lighting up to indicate airbag issues, engine problems and more. Faulty sensors are often the culprit.

The 335i’s high-pressure fuel pump is notoriously unreliable but, fortunately, it is covered by an extended warranty.

Disconcertingly, some owners discovered their engines burn considerable quantities of engine oil between changes. A few have had their engines replaced.

“Ultimate driving machine? More like a mechanic’s dream,” posted one disillusioned owner.

Other common maladies include overheated engines (water pumps can check out early), faulty power seats and windows, leaky sunroofs and convertible roofs, transmission woes, short-lived batteries and annoying rattles.

No question, the 3 is a coveted driver’s car – but it's not one for the uninitiated. If you haven’t owned a German car before, don’t start with a used Bimmer without a solid warranty.

2006-2011 BMW 3 Series


  • Impeccable road manners
  • Lusty engines
  • Available torque-rich clean diesel model


  • Demands premium fuel
  • Mandatory run-flat tires
  • Expensive parts and maintenance

Watch out for:

  • Fuel pump failure in 335
  • Short-lived water pump
  • Alectrical faults
  • Worn idler pulley
  • Differential whine
  • Bent and damaged alloy wheels