FAQ of Commonly Discussed BMW X5 Problems

It is widely agreed that the BMW X5 is a spectacular vehicle. (See for example my page about the outstanding safety of the X5.) Unfortunately, the X5 has suffered from poor reliability compared to the average modern vehicle. According to Consumer Reports in Fall 2003, based on responses of X5 owners in their surveys, the X5 had about twice as many problems as the average vehicle. It's -100% rating was off of CR's chart (-80% to +80%) in the negative direction. Nonetheless, many people are quite happy with their X5s, and CR's owner satisfaction rating for the vehicle is the highest possible 5 out of 5.

Luckily, there is a wealth of information available about X5 problems, and in some cases solutions. This FAQ collects and organizes some of this info for X5 owners and potential future owners. Enough X5s are sold that many common problems have already been identified. Some problems seem to plague only select vehicles, and some of these could easily be observed at the dealer before deciding to pay for a particular vehicle. The X5 has a lot to offer, and having knowledge of the common problems is likely to make the experience of having an X5 even better. There is an old X5 FAQ but that page has not been updated for some time. This is a more up-to-date and more comprehensive X5 FAQ (frequently asked questions list) specifically for problems. For most problems, I provide pointers to the message board threads from the excellent bimmer.org X5 (E53) message board.

If you have a question about a specific problem you are having, please don't e-mail me directly. Post to the X5 board. The people there together know a lot more about the X5 than I do personally. It's a good idea to do a few searches to see if your question has already been discussed before posting. If you have further information on one of the problems listed below or suggestions for this page, then by all means e-mail me. If everyone helps to keep this up to date and thorough, maybe it can be a good resource to make everyone's X5 experience better.

Problems to check for before buying

The items in the top part of the list are things you can check for before taking delivery or when test driving a vehicle on a dealer's lot. These problems don't seem to affect every X5 and don't seem to only develop over time (though perhaps they sometimes do, so not having the problem initially is no guarantee of continued blessing). In addition to this list, the excellent pickup checklist (cached local copy, cached local copy of linked Motley Fool checklist) suggests a reasonably comprehensive list of things to do when picking up your new vehicle.
AM radio reception.
(Update 7/11/2006: One new solution below after problem description.) There are problems with the AM radio receptions in some, if not most, X5s. BMW does not seem to be able to solve the problem for those that have it, though numerous fixes are tried and sometimes help a little. Some people report having fine AM reception, so it would be best to check your vehicle before buying if you ever listen to AM. This is disappointingly still an issue even in Nov, 2002 with brand new 2003 model-year X5s. For more information, see: David Zweck very helpfully sent me a solution by e-mail 7/11/2006. Here are his words: "I have a 2001 X5 that the dealer has been trying for over 3 years to get rid of the am whistle that occurs when I get about 40+ mile from the braodcast towers. I finally started diagnosing the problem myself and concluded the the anttena is too weak. I approached the dealer for information on how to attach a roof mounted antenna to the receiver. At that point the dealer agreed to take another look at the antenna. The am antenna is located in the rear deck lid spoiler. It consists of a length of wire tapped to the inside of the spoiler. They doubled the lenght of the wire and got the highest am antenna signal strength they have ever seen. The am radio has significantly improved reception and no whistle. I hope you can post this and save some other BMW owners the grief I have experienced with this problem." Thanks David!
Excessive vibration.
Lots of X5s appear vibrate a lot more than it seems should be normal for a vehicle, especially when stopped with auto transmission in drive and foot on brake. There are many threads about this. Someone said the fix for the stalling increasing the idle speed and therefore causes a lot more vibration. It isn't clear to me right now which engines and transmissions this is limited to or whether it affects all combinations, but some people don't seem to have the problem. It may be limited to automatics. Here are some threads:
Very noisy brakes.
Many X5s (and a few other BMWs it seems) have extremely noisy brakes that some people complain sound like old truck brakes. Dealers often won't fix these because they are within spec and don't affect braking performance. See thread:
Clutch delay valve and delay in starting from dead stop.
The X5 has a clutch delay valve whose purpose is to make the clutch feel smoother and to protect against damage during some types of agressive driver clutch use. Some people like to remove it or disable it and claim that the result feels more BMW-like. This should affect every X5 and thus seemingly isn't worth checking for on new vehicles before buying them, except one person reported annoying delayed launching from dead stops on his vehicle that he did not detect on the vehicle he test drove. Several people thought it was just the clutch delay valve in action. See thread:
Excessive wind noise.
The sunroof and the front doors seemed to be particular culprits, but also possibly the front windshield. At least some X5s used to come with a part missing from the sunroof and installing the missing part cut down the noise there. The major issue with the doors seems to be not having them aligned with the body tightly enough, but the dealer or a body shop can often adjust them. Should be easy to ride in 2 or 3 different X5s on the same stretch of highway and compare before buying one. See:
Excessive noise from steering column when turning/turned.
A small part may need to be replaced. See thread:
Excessive noise from misc. rattles, squeaks, and creaks.
There are a lot of complaints about rattles, squeaks, and other misc. noises in the X5. It's a good idea to take any car you might purchase for a long test drive where you listen very carefully (with the radio off and no salesperson trying to talk to you) to the noises the vehicle makes. See:
Uneven space between rear bumper and vehicle.
Some people say that their X5 has too uneven of a space between the rear bumper and the back of the vehicle, or at least too much for their tastes given how much money they spent on the vehicle. Should be easy to check to before buying to see if it is noticable to you. See

Other Current Issues

The following problems don't seem like they should be easy or worthwhile to check before taking delivery of a vehicle, either because they are intermittant or because they would be inconvenient to check or because they are not worth checking for since they seem to affect everyone or can be easily avoided (e.g., by configuring not to use key memory).
Trapped in the vehicle or doors won't open/close.
There are reports of people becoming trapped in their X5s when the doors fail to unlock or fail to open. Often this seems to correlate with extremely cold temperatures, so it is possible something is freezing. People have had to climb out the back or out a window to get out of the vehicle. People have also reported not being able to get into their vehicles (doors won't open but they are on the outside). A couple people have reported that their doors sometimes freeze such that after opening them, they won't latch shut when closed and thus won't stay closed. Some people said they drove around holding the door closed until the vehicle warmed up enough for it to stay closed. It's unclear whether these are all related. See:
Won't start.
Evidently, X5s occasionally do not like to start, but often will start on the second try after removing and reinserting the key. Check if this happens with both your keys, as it might be a bad key. See threads:
Excessive oil usage.
Some X5s reportedly consume oil at a rate that seems a bit high. A little bit of oil consumption in the first 5000-mile break-in period is normal, but consensus seems to be that regular consumption of a quart every 1000 or so miles is not normal, though many BMW service people will claim that such behavior is normal for the X5, so it may take some pushing to get a dealer to investigate and fix this. There are reports from plenty of people that their X5s don't consumer any oil. See:
Service Engine Soon light.
This light often comes on as the result of leaving the gas cap off after filling with gas (and is thus often reported as a problem though it often is not). In some vehicles, it appears that a bad part causes the light to come on when it shouldn't, even if the gas cap is replaced properly. See thread:
Trans Fail-safe warning.
See threads:
Problems with self-leveling suspension and/or adjustable ride height.
The self-leveling suspension option uses air springs on the two rear corners to insure correct height and balance of the rear of the vehicle even under heavy loads, such as when towing another vehicle or carrying heavy objects on the tow hitch or in the back. Adjustable ride height uses air springs on all 4 corners to allow the vehicle to adjust its height up or down by a small amount. The air springs on both are fed by an air compressor, and the whole thing is controlled by some type of electric control module. Various parts of these systems appear to fail somewhat more frequently than simple coil springs that don't have any compressed air parts. In X5s, an "Inactive Self-Levling Suspension" error message often appears. Restarting the vehicle often makes the light go away. Sometimes dealer visits and new parts are required. Air spring in other non-BMW vehicles (such as the Range Rover) have a reputation for having reliability probelms too. (FYI, for 2003 X5s, the self-leveling suspension comes standard on the 4.4i and is an option on the 3.0i. ARH is an option on both, and on the 3.0i it includes the self-leveling suspension. Packaging has been different in the past, however.) See:
Steering wheel won't telescope or tilt (or noisy doing so).
The steering wheel commonly breaks and will no longer move. Normally, it is both a tilt and telescoping steering wheel. It can be adjusted manually either up/down or in/out. In addition, it retracts automatically when turning the vehicle on/off to give more space for getting in/out. When it breaks, it won't move automatically or manually. The dealer can fix it (but the fixed one sometimes breaks eventually too). You can still turn it and drive the X5 when broken, just not tilt it to your liking, so hopefully it breaks in a convenient position. Sometimes it semi-breaks and just won't move all the way, and sometimes it is just extremely noisy when moving. One person says it can sometimes get stuck in a certain way and adjusting the tilt can free up the telescoping. Some threads:
Dead battery.
Some X5s seem to suffer from inappropriate dead batteries due to fixable problems (usually inappropriate drain on the battery while the car is off). Some dealers seem better than others at fixing this, at least a while ago. Hopefully they've all caught up by now. It seems that a common culprit is the radio, which strangely can come on by itself in cold weather (below 40 degrees F) even when the car is off, and will then drain the battery. Some say there is a recall for this that even affects 2002 X5s, but I didn't see it listed at NHTSA. See:
Rear hatch issues: pops open, doesn't close right, or rattles.
The rear hatch has problems in some vehicles. See:
Problems with 4-way flashers (hazard lights) and/or turn signals.
Some people have experienced the 4-way flashers flashing inappropirately, during which time the turn signals do not work, and others have experienced the turn signals just not working (or not indicating their behavior on the dash). In some cases at least, dealers have been able to fix this. Haven't seen a report in a while, so maybe this isn't a problem anymore? See:
PDC false alarms.
The park distance control (PDC) sensors that detect objects close to the bumpers using sonar sometimes give false alarms when there are no objects close by. If the bumpers are wet, sometimes the water causes this, and drying the bumper will fix the issue. Some people experienced this problem due to a poorly adjusted front license plate holder. See:
Key memory problem (seats, temperature controls, or mirrors act erratic).
There appears to be an intermittent but frequent problem with the key memory not remembering settings correctly and generally making the car seem haunted. The key memory, when enabled, is supposed to restore various settings (such as seat position, temperature, mirrors) to the last positions they were in when that key was removed, making it easy for different drivers with different keys to each have their own settings restored quickly upon entering the car. The memory seems to get screwed up a lot and this causes mirrors, seats, and temperature settings to behave somewhat randomly. BMW does not seem to have a working fix at the moment. This is one of the features that can be turned on or off by dealer programming, so some people recommend having your dealer just disable this feature altogether (and pretend the X5 just doesn't have this feature in the first place), at least until there is a fix. See:
No sound from radio.
Several X5s have had problems with occasionally not getting sound from the radio. Often, turning the radio off then on, or turning the vehicle off then on, fixes the problem temporarily. Replacing the radio head unit or some other part may fix the problem. See:
Side mirrors moving by themselves.
The side mirrors seem to have a mind of their own sometimes, but this seems to just be the key memory issue above. Many people reported that the problem went away when they had key memory disabled. Also, the passenger mirror is supposed to tilt down when in reverse to aid in parallel parking (in some vehicle anyway, not sure if all X5s have this feature).
Door handle interior paint chipping.
The paint on the door handles chips after several months on many vehicles. BMW will replace it under warranty, but the replacements have the same problem so far. See:
Ease of theft (lock drilling) issue.
If the car is programmed to allow the key in the driver's door to disable the alarm system, then it is particularly easy to break into the car by drilling the driver's side lock, completely bypassing the alarm. The fix is to have the car programmed (can be done at the dealer) so that the remote is needed to disable the alarm. Older X5s may need a software update to make this fix work. I believe that if the vehicle is programmed to require a keypad code to start the ignition, that this security feature still works even if the lock is drilled. I neglected to put this info in this file for a long time when I didn't know if a fix was available, but now that it seems to be an easily solvable problem, it deserves to be here. Thieves are more likely to have this info already than the average X5 owner.

Past Problems

The following problems are old and have supposedly been corrected (e.g., by recall and manufacturing changes) and thus should not affect newly produced X5s. I'm really no authority on what is a current vs. a past problem, so treat the difference between the above list and the list below as just a very rough split.
Fire (aux. fan problem).
A small number (3-4?) of X5s caught fire under the hood when an auxilliary fan malfunctioned due to a defect. There was a recall. Many vehicles evidently could have eventually caught fire. This problem affected many other BMW models besides X5s. According to the recall information available from the NHTSA, vehicles produced after 9/2001 should not have this problem. BMW issued more than one recall about this, however, recalling the vehicles that had already supposedly been fixed, so you never know. Here is more info:
Stalling (especially in turns, especially tight turns).
Some X5s (I think just 3.0s, and maybe just automatics?) had a stalling problem, especially in turns, and especially with the air conditioning on. There seems to be a fix that works. See:

Non-problems

The following are not really problems, but are sometimes perceived to be.
Poor traction in the snow (with the 19" performance tires).
The 19" performance tires available with the X5 are not for use in the cold, and are especially bad when there is snow or ice on the road. The rubber used in these tires becomes hard and loses traction in the cold (below about 40 degrees I believe), even in dry conditions. BMW clearly states they are not for use in the snow. No matter how many safety features (anti-lock brakes, stability control) you have, the car is going to be unsafe if your connection to the ground isn't able to get traction. If you have to drive in cold weather and you've got the 19" tires, get a second set of 17" snow tires or all-season tires for the cold.
Speedometer reads high.
BMW has intentionally set the main analog speedometer to read higher than the true vehicle speed. You can see the true speed by using the on-board computer. See:
Excessive brake dust builds up.
The X5 has excellent brakes. The softer material used by BMW causes the vehicle to stop quickly, which is good, but creates a lot of brake dust build-up, which is bad for the wheels and should be cleaned regularly. All X5s do this. Some people install different brake pads which shed less dust. See:
Closing doors locks tailgate.
Closing the doors locks the tailgate (at least in some situations), but this annoys some people when they have just unlocked the tailgate, then gotten out, closed their door, walked to the back of the car and find they have to unlock the tailgate again.
Gearshift indicator light stays on.
See thread:
Click heard when gas pedal depressed fully.
This is a normal feature. When the gas pedal gets to the point where the click happens, it stops trying to figure out exactly where the gas pedal is and just tells the engine to fast right now. See the following threads:

Dealing with Service and Loaners

Remember that not everyone has a lot of problems with their X5. But many people have some problems, and it's good to be able to deal with them calmly and quickly and then get back to enjoying your vehicle. There are a couple important points to keep in mind when dealing with X5 problems and as a result dealing with dealer service departments and BMWNA (BMW of North America). Let me know if I've missed any of the important points and I'll add them to this list. All of these points have been discussed repeatedly.
Dealer variability and loyalty.
Dealers vary a lot in quality of the service they give you once you've bought a vehicle and begin to have problems with it. They vary both in how good they are at fixing the problems and at how pleasant they are to deal with. While any BMW dealer will service your vehicle under warranty, most dealers will treat those customers who actually bought the vehicle from them a little bit better than they treat other customers. For instance, they might only give loaner cars (see below) to those customers who bought from them. This makes the choice of where to purchase the vehicle a bit more complicated, for those who have enough dealers close to them to have a choice that is. In some ways, buying from the dealer that has better service guarantees and reviews from others makes a lot of sense even if you have to pay a bit more, rather than buying from the cheaper dealer and then just taking the vehicle to the place with better service. One thing that is for sure is that if you realize after the fact that your dealer's service is very poor, it is worth considering switching to another dealer for service. Many people have done this and found it made a world of difference for them. Post to message boards and ask others about their service experiences. Search the archives for mentions of the dealers in your area. Most have been discussed before.
BMWNA.
If you are having problems dealing with a service department or getting them to do what you know needs to be done from this FAQ and others on the net, don't hesitate to bring in BMWNA. This can often be helpful. But also note that there is a persistant feeling amongst many X5 owners that BMWNA doesn't really care about the small fraction of X5s that have repeated serious problems because the vehicle is selling so well. Many people feel that BMW is leaving them out in the cold and isn't doing a good enough job to solve the persistant problems that have no known fixes yet.
Availablility of parts.
Desipite the reliability problems, the X5 is a popular vehicle. The factory is producing them as fast as it can and this still isn't meeting demand, which is why many people have to order their vehicle rather than buying off of the lot. Often, when a problem affects a lot of X5s, the parts required to fix it cannot be produced fast enough to meet the demand and it takes a while for everyone to get the fix. Also, there have a couple reports of people whose vehicles were in accidents requiring lots of repairs to fix, and thus lots of parts, and they were stuck without their vehicle for a long time because the factory is too busy making new vehicles that it isn't producing many parts. It's unclear whether this is still a problem today, but it is worth checking with your dealer and your insurance company to find out what would happen if you got into a major accident but the parts for the necessary repairs were not available for a long time. How long Will your dealer and/or insurance company cover your loaner car or rental?
Loaner cars.
Many dealers supply you with a car (a "loaner") while your car is being serviced, at least if you bought the vehicle from them, but dealers vary a lot in how well they implement this policy. Often there will be no loaners available and then you are out of luck, but some dealers will reimburse you for a rental car (or even arrange for one for you) if they have no loaners available at the moment. Some dealers make sure to give at least a BMW 325i as a minumum loaner, and often supply better vehicles. Some people have even mentioned getting other X5s or BMW M3s as loaners (rare). One person paid extra for a written contract for red carpe treatment, wherein her dealer will pick up her X5 from her home and drop off a BMW loaner for her and when her vehicle is ready again they will return it to her home. Because of the great variety, it is best to check what your dealers policy is and to find out if there are any guarantees for how long it will stay that way, etc. And thus, it's just a shame if you have to move to another area and lose out on the free loaners, especially if your vehicle ends up in the shop for several weeks out of a year.
Lemon laws.
Most, if not all, states have reasonable lemon laws that allow you to return a vehicle and get a refund (discounted for wear and tear, or use) if there is a problem affecting an important component that can't be fixed under warranty or if the vehicle just spends too much time unusable because it is being serviced. Be familiar with your state's lemon laws, as they vary a lot from state to state (see links below, or try a Google search for lemon law plus the name of your state). It seems from postings that several X5s have been returned under the lemon law. Note that your chance of needing to do this is very low, but it's nice to know that there is a bound on how long you'll have to wait while your vehicle is out of commission before you can get rid of it and get another vehicle without just losing the money you spent. (For example, in many states, 30 days in the shop in the first year to year and a half is the limit.)


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Karl Pfleger
kpfleger@cs.stanford.edu
Last update: March, 2002 (except for July, 2006 addition of AM radio solution).