BMW 3 Series (E90) used car buying guide

BMW 3 Series (2009) buying guide

If you're looking to buy a E90-generation BMW 3 Series (2005-2013), it's worth getting familiar with its common problems so that you can avoid being caught out by them. Read on to get the full expert view on these classy and well-made family cars.

BMW 3 Series (E90) known faults and common problems

Launched at the end of 2004 the BMW 3-Series, known internally as the E90, was an evolution of company’s compact medium sector model with a heritage going as far back as 1975. As you would expect of a BMW, the platform comprised of cabriolet, coupe, Touring and saloon variants with accents on image, quality and engineering. All models drive well and have that certain brand image few rivals can touch.  

The usual expansive range covered all budgets suiting the user-chooser fleet, the man on the street and those looking for a serious sporting grand tourer in the form of the legendary M3. However, this model did not show BMW in its finest form in terms of reliability. Bought in a rush or without a little know how means the self-styled ultimate driving machine can be the ultimate headache.

Top 10 problems

Buying guide – common issues, and what to look for if you're looking at getting one:

1 – Driveline vibrations

As with most modern cars, the 3 Series is known for vibrations coming from an expired or worn dual mass flywheel on manual cars. Listen and feel for chattering on idle, a pulsating sensation through the clutch pedal and or a metallic chatter when turning off the engine.

2 – Excessive brake wear

These cars seem to be harder on the brakes than its rivals. Check for deep wear lips on the disc edges, blueing of the rear discs and juddering when braking from high speed. Avoid the temptation of fitting cut price unknown aftermarket friction parts – this is false economy and bad news.

3 – Washer jets or pump not working

Beware of a trade or dishonest private vendor telling you the bottle only needs topping up. The washer pump and jets are prone for blocking up if poor quality or no screen wash additive is used. Unblocking the jets is a simple task but replacing the pump can be quite fiddly and expensive.

4 – Turbo failure

BMW 320 diesels with the M47 engine can suffer from premature turbo failure at often very low mileages. If the engine makes a loud ghostly whine like a vacuum cleaner on initial start-up or when under load – walk away. Also, be very wary of cars with a sluggish power delivery, this is often the same cause.

5 – Noisy cam chains and gears

There was a manufacturing defect on the 177ED model with poor quality timing sprockets.  Total failure can cost you up to £5,000 so listen out for a distant whining sound from the front of the engine. If the chain snaps, the engine will be destroyed.

BMW 3 Series (2009) interior

6 – Noisy whining alternators

Keep a keen ear open for a metallic whirring or whining sound that varies in pitch within the area of the drive belts. This can indicate failed bearings inside the alternator assembly. If ignored it will seize and snap, or in some cases, set fire to its drivebelt.

7 – A1 paperwork

A good used BMW will have been looked after by either a main dealer or one of the many independent BMW garages. A car with fast-fit, sporadic or zero service history spells trouble. Some specialist independants operate to an even higher standard than franchised
dealers.

8 – Smelly interiors

Some early cars had issues with sunroof seals and drainage points. If the carpets smell or the roof-lining is stained suspect this and budget a few hundred pounds to get this put right properly. Ensure the hood works without fault on the cabrio as a fix will work out expensive too.

9 – Wayward handling or noisy suspension

Front ball joints and wishbone bushes are susceptible to wear. Be wary of knocking/thumping noises or a reluctance to keep a straight line at speed. All 3 Series should handle pin sharp and drive arrow straight. Check for broken coil springs too.

10 – Panels and paint

These cars, like all other BMWs, are famed for their exterior build quality. Any squiffy panel gaps, cloudy paintwork or poorly aligning trim is your perfect excuse for simply walking away. Don’t accept vendor patter either, they really were built with care and precision from new.

BMW 3 Series petrol engine options

• 1.6 – 115 or 123hp
• 1.8 – 129 to 143hp
• 2.0 – 150 to 173hp
• 2.5 – 177 to 204hp
• 3.0 – 305 to 340hp
• 4.0 – 420hp

BMW 3 Series diesel engine options

• 2.0 – 115 to 184hp
• 2.5 – 198 or 204hp
• 3.0 – 235 or 286hp

Transmission options

• Rear- or four-wheel drive
• Manual, Auto or DCT gearboxes

Model timeline

2005: E90 saloon and Touring (E91) goes on sale
2006: E92 Coupe introduced
2007: New M3 launched
2007: Hard top E93 Cabriolet launched
2007: 177hp Efficiency Dynamics 320d launched
2008: Model range facelift
2010: Additional trim levels added for saloon and touring bodystyles

Main Dealer UK Coverage

• Good

Best Places to Buy

• BMW Specialists
• Enthusiast forums

DVSA Recalls

Check vehicle recalls online

You could also try...

Mercedes-Benz C-Class (2007-2014)
The obvious Germanic rival. Go for the W204 or W205 if you can run to it because the 2000 to 2007 (W203) build quality was dictated by the accountants rather than the engineers. Later cars  are sublime cruisers and put MB back on form when it comes to quality. However, be aware that main dealer servicing is eye-wateringly expensive.

Vauxhall Insignia (2017 onwards)
If you want the comfort without the kudos, then the new Insignia is worth considering. Up there with the best for straight line touring and well equipped. The hatch (Grand Sport) lacks rear headroom but the estate (Sports Tourer) offers near limousine levels of space and comfort. It’s a great looker too and a previous Parkers long-term test car.

Get a car valuation from Parkers
Browse cars for sale on Parkers
Sell your cars with Motorway

Further reading

BMW 3 Series owners' reviews
• BMW 3 Series full review

• BMW 3 Series prices and valuation
Search for BMW 3 Series cars for sale

BMW 3 Series (2009) buying guide