In many cases, a BMW in the garage is a subtle announcement that you’ve made it. From brilliant performance cars under the M division, to modern takes on the luxury SUV and crossover markets, BMW is an automaker with something for everyone, and the one with something everyone wants. If you’ve made it, or are still aspiring, here’s a highlight of the best from BMW.
BMW in Brief
BMW (the English translation of the acronym is Bavarian Motor Works) historically built everything from cooking pans to airplane engines. After WWII, BMW started manufacturing bicycles, then motorcycles, and finally cars, but they didn’t set up dealers in the United States until 1956. Originally high-end focused, BMW shifted to sporting luxury in the 1960s with grand tourers like the 3200 CS and 3.0 CS. Sales took off in the 1970s with successful introductions of models we know today, like the 3 Series and 5 Series. High powered “M” models followed in the ’80s, securing the brand’s performance image. BMW opened their first assembly plant in the U.S. in 1994, and today makes everything from performance SUVs, a hybrid supercar, motorcycles, and the Mini and Rolls-Royce brands.
Covering a wide price spectrum, from entry luxury to world class, BMW likely has something for you no matter your budget. Looking over their model lineup, they have a few standout examples offering the most value.
BMW Z4 – $20,000 to $30,000
Is it just you at home, or maybe you’re looking for an awesome second car? The ultimate expression of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” is this soft-top roadster. The beautiful design turns heads while the driving performance will make you smile every time. This price buys a Z4 around five years old, with about 50,000 miles on the odometer.
BMW 3 Series – $15,000 to $25,000
The car that can do it all. With four or six cylinder engines, manual or auto transmissions, rear or all-wheel drive, and even a convertible, you can find a 3 Series that fits your life. The low end of this price range offers a 3 Series around six years old, generally with 70,000 miles. The high end of this range finds them only a couple of years old, with 20,000 to 30,000 miles.
BMW X3 – $24,000 to $34,000
The cool looking SUV that shouts BMW design cues, the X3 is also a practical everyday driver. Even though it has dramatically more cargo than the 3 Series, the X3 is still easy to drive, offers excellent visibility, and a choice of efficient drivetrains even when you select all-wheel drive. This price range easily finds a two-year old X3 with AWD and only 30,000 miles.
BMW X5 – $30,000 to $40,000
With gorgeous looks and the popular mid-size body style, it’s no wonder the X5 is a strong seller. With the full-time AWD, heated and leather everything interior, and even a 6,600-pound towing capacity, the X5 is a winner. For this price range, expect to see X5s a few years old, averaging 40,000 miles.
BMW i3 – $16,000 to $24,000
If you’re torn between luxury and hybrid efficiency, BMW has already built your car. The fun and funky exterior mimics the fun to drive nature of this compact, and both qualities are something very rare in the world of hybrids. This price will find plenty of i3s only a few years old, averaging 30,000 miles.
BMW reliability is anecdotally above average, thanks to famed but vague “German engineering,” and the large amount of 30+ year old Bimmers still on the road. You don’t want to buy based on your co-worker’s comments about a car they owned in the ’80s, so here’s the unbiased info.
Looking into BMW’s reliability, there is some science-based evidence of them building “bulletproof” engines. The straight-six engine configuration BMW commonly uses instead of a more modern and compact V6 design does lend itself to longevity. The straight six makes the hoods longer (which is a nice design touch), but it’s also a “naturally balanced” engine design. This means the internal components spin with less engine vibrations, directly leading to less wear and tear on the engine. BMW has been on Ward’s 10 Best Engines List every year since 2006, usually for their 2.0-liter four cylinder and 3.0-liter inline six engines.
RepairPal rates the brand as overall average reliability, a 2.5 rating out of 5. Their data shows an annual repair cost of $968, an increase over the $652 average annual repair cost. Still, that’s only an extra $26 a month. RepairPal says the BMW X1, 328i, 528i, 128i, and Z4 all rank earn above average reliability ratings, while the X3 and 535i rank average for their class.
BMW is usually a reviewer’s and driver’s favorite, for many reasons. There’s the “ultimate driving machine” driving dynamics that can make commuting enjoyable. The tech is usually top notch, and high-end interior design and build quality make for an interior you don’t want to leave.
Car & Driver loves the 3 Series, saying “the iconic and perennially popular BMW 3-series remains one of the more dynamic luxury sedans available.” Highlights include powerful and refined engines, plenty of interior room and luxury appointments, and large lists of standard and optional features. Final verdict: “The 3-series is larger and more luxurious than ever, but it remains a proper sports sedan for those who love to drive.”
Top Gear wondered if the 7 Series is still the pinnacle of BMW with recent releases of the X7 and 8 Series vehicles. If you’re looking for an S-Class competitor, you can’t beat the 7 for a “world class limo.” Top Gear criticized modern BMW’s exterior design aesthetics, but loved the interior design, heavy luxury cues, sporty handling, and summarized, “Superb V8 power, or a well-integrated hybrid. And it’s – illogically – pretty brilliant to drive.”
Edmunds called the X5 one of the very best SUVs on the market, noting powerful 6- and 8-cylinder engines, an extravagant interior, and spacious cabin for passengers. While the X5 is a mid-size, it does have an available three-row configuration. Edmunds‘ complaints were minor, with the hot design limiting cargo room and the small size of the exterior mirrors. Still, “just because you need a family hauler doesn’t mean you can’t have a little fun while you’re at it. If you’re in the market for a luxurious family SUV, the X5 is certainly worth a close look.”
Motor Trend said the i8 just might be the best BMW they’ve ever driven. The interior looks to be from 10 years in the future, while the carbon fiber body shows the future of automotive construction, and the acceleration is on-par with Tesla. “Once you get inside this car, you won’t want to get out. Whether it’s too much fun on a twisty road on a Sunday afternoon or the last time you drove in to work, the BMW i8 is a carbon-fiber car that is just too beautiful to hate.”
BMW is nearly a true full-line manufacturer, only missing the pickup in the U.S. market. While they offer minivans and hatchbacks to the rest of the world, we get a limited range of their best, a collection that probably still offers something for everyone. The current lineup in the U.S. is:
3 Series – For over three decades, the 3 Series has been THE benchmark for the class. It looks great, the high quality interior feel and loads of tech, nice handling, good power, and it’s even efficient. Arguably the best all-around car you can buy.
4 Series – Formerly known as the 3 Series coupe, BMW decided to spin it off as its own model due to appealing to different buyers than the 3. The 4 certainly looks sportier, and it’s backed by a more sport oriented suspension and drivetrain options.
5 Series – The mid-size sedan you want to own. On the used market, you can search for whatever configuration you desire, from practical six cylinder engines and convenient all-wheel drive, to lunatic V10 models.
6 Series – A mid-size fastback sedan, think of this as the grand touring alternative to the 5. A more aggressive front fascia and headlight design, with that swept and aerodynamic rear, suggests what the turbocharged six delivers. The 2011+ models are wonderful cars.
7 Series – Forget the Audi A8 or MB S-Class, this is what you want to drive or be driven in. The 7 is a superbly comfortable and quiet cabin, cutting edge tech, and a surprisingly agile and enjoyable driver’s car. There’s a reason James Bond chose a 750iL in Tomorrow Never Dies.
8 Series – This is the ultimate road trip car, or if you just want to look like you’re in the NBA. This gorgeous car has everything: 20-inch wheels, a heads-up display, Bowers & Wilkins Diamond surround sound system, laser headlights, and yes, Microsoft Office.
X1 – Small, but fun and capable, the X1 is the smallest “sports activity vehicle” offered by BMW. Not a great off-roader, it does make an excellent urban vehicle, with tons of character, generous interior space, in an easy to park footprint.
X2 – Similarly sized, but more traditionally styled, the X2 is the upscale version of the X1. It also offers turbo engines, AWD, iDrive, superb leather, and all the other features you’re expecting.
X3 – Like the 3 Series, the X3 is nearly the benchmark for the class, offering a hard to beat combo of cargo and passenger space, in a package that is fun to drive, yet still efficient. This is likely your bet for a do-everything SUV.
X4 – Around the same size as the X3, the X4 offers an aggressively slopped hatchback rear end, looking more like a lifted sport wagon than an SUV. That rear hatch does decrease the cargo capacity, but you’ve gotta admit it looks cool.
X5 – The mid-size SUV for the ultimate in flexible utility. With arguably the best aesthetics due to the swept design over the just-right sized body, the X5 also delivers a grand experience from the driver’s seat.
X6 – Like the X4, the X6 is more towards the “sports” descriptor than “utility.” That muscly sheetmetal hides a powerful turbocharged six cylinder engine, making quick work of onramps while performance suspension eats up corners. It’s like a sports car wearing SUV clothes.
X7 – The biggest way to get into a Bavarian design, the new X7 delivers German style on an American ideal. BMW says it embodies “comfort, luxury, and powerful living,” the X7 is when you want uncompromised luxury with your cargo and towing ability.
Z4 – “Powerfully precise,” the Z4 is the ultimate in open-air driving. Built on the same world-class chassis as the Toyota Supra, the Z4 has been winning fans for nearly 20 years. The roadster has perfect 50/50 front/rear weight balance and a beautiful interior.
i3 – The small car that looks like nothing else at this price range. The playful design spreads to the interior where you’ll find thoughtful ergonomics, impressive sightlines, and remarkable fuel savings. There’s an EV or range-extending gas hybrid drivetrain, so say goodbye to range anxiety.
i8 – BMW debuted their supercar back in “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol.” The public reaction was so positive, BMW had to build it. The production i8 lives up to the concept car with wild looks and heroic performance that will make you think you’re Tom Cruise.
BMWs are typically loaded with standard features, and an even longer list of options.
Too often, manufacturers build a nice looking vehicle, throw some leather and tech at it, and call it a day. That’s how we ended up with everything from Buick and Mercury, to Acura and Infiniti. While all of those brands have made nice cars, none of those brands are on the level of BMW, and it’s simply because of the way they drive. With superb steering feel and feedback, you get a sense of what the vehicle is doing, how it’s connected to the road. With high cornering grip and excellent brakes, you have the confidence to push it just a little harder in those corners, just drive it a little more. BMW really is a step above competitors when it comes to the drive.
Cadillac makes some awesome cars. Know what holds them back? The interiors. Every time the magazines compare Caddy vs Bimmer, the reviewers can’t help but comment on how far ahead the fit and finish, quality feel, and smart design of the BMW is ahead of Cadillac, Lincoln, Acrua, and the rest. It’s like the quality of Lexus got with the smart design of Volvo. The stylish interior designs also don’t impede passenger room, so you often have class-leading space too.
High tech options
Do you like the current infotainment tech found in today’s vehicles, how you can seamlessly connect your smartphone? You can thank BMW for that. Launched in 2001, initially with some quirks, the iDrive system quickly became an infotainment leader. The current “NBT” generation iDrive offers an intuitive learning curve for controlling more than just the usual radio and nav. There’s also voice command, gesture control, and even handwriting recognition.
Luxury vehicles tend to score well in crash tests, often because expensive new tech like active safety features show up in these more expensive vehicles before hitting the mainstream. That’s why BMW is a safe bet for a safe vehicle, with high safety scores going back well over a decade.
BMW takes home several safety awards from the IIHS. Rather than settling for a handful of their highest Good ratings, BMW set out for maximum scores. The Top Safety Pick+ award goes to vehicles that score highest in every test category, including the new headlight and active safety features tests. Rather than having one vehicle meet the high standard, BMW has five. The 3 Series, 5 Series, X2, X3, and X5 all received the rare and coveted “+” award.
Looking around the Fed side at the NHTSA, everything from the 2 Series through the 5 Series shows an overall five-star rating (more expensive luxury vehicles, like the 7 Series and X7 don’t get wrecked on the taxpayer’s dime). The SUVs see similar results, with the X3 and X5 receiving five stars overall. Interestingly, the X4 isn’t tested yet, but the EU’s NCAP test gave it five stars.
Just because you want a lovely interior or superior handling dynamics, that doesn’t mean you want to light your money on fire with poor gas mileage. BMW can assist here, offering surprising mileage across their lineup.
For conventional engines, you have two choices for maximum fuel savings. First is the 2 Series coupe with the eight-speed auto. It can see 35 MPG highway according to the EPA. The manual is more fun of course, but takes a slight hit to 33 MPG. The convertible loses another 1 MPG due to the aerodynamics of the soft top. Oddly, this still beats the rating of the smaller and older 1 Series by a few MPG. And bringing things back to the benchmark 3 Series, the current 330i can hit 36 MPG highway. Impressive.
On the crossover/SUV side, you’ll want to stay small for the highest fuel efficiency. The X1 crossover manages 32 MPG highway, a figure matched by the similar sized X2. The X3 is taller and heavier, so with the 2.0-liter four cylinder, it dips into the high 20s, at 29 MPG highway. That’s still impressive for an SUV with all-wheel drive.
For maximum efficiency, look to a hybrid. The wildly styled i3 gets 124 MPGe in the EV variant. Selecting the hybrid i3 with its small range extending gas engine still gets you a very respectable 39 MPG once the battery runs low. If you need outrageous looks with your fuel savings, look to the starship-inspired i8. This supercar hits 70 MPGe on the battery, and high 20s on the turbocharged gas engines. Reviewers say that figure is low, and after driving aggressively all day they still managed mid-30s. Keep in mind that all modern BMWs are direct injected and turbocharged, so you’ll need to run higher octane premium fuel. Like BMWs in general, the extra cost is worth it.