2003 BMW 3 Series Wagon 325xi sport - Used Car Info?

I’m in the market for a used wagon, with about a 10K budget.

Being able to take the car on road trips and going camping, etc. is key, so we’ll need something with a strong engine, but also a reliable everyday vehicle that will last a long time. Previous car was an 80s era Volvo that was still going strong after 22 years and I loved it…before it was drowned in hurricane Sandy.

I’ve found a 2003 BMW 3 Series wagon with 90K miles that’s right in the price range and I would love some pointers on what to look for in a test drive, what to ask the dealer, and what kind of warning signs I should look out for in terms of previous maintenance. I know the BMW engines are built to last, but they have to be taken care of.

Any pointers would be most appreciated!



While BMWs are fun cars, I wouldn’t put a 10 year old one with an unknown history in the ‘reliable everyday vehicle’ category. That’s right about when some significant maintenance and repairs start appearing. Cooling system in particular. I’d be looking at a Highlander or a Pilot.

I have been a BMW car guy for 30+ years and still have a 328i. Mine have all been the most reliable cars I have owned.

Since you posted your question here on cartalk, I assume you are not a BMW aficionado but rather looking for basic transportation. As with any used car, buy one with a complete service history, from the original owner, no accidents and a clean PPI. Your $10,000 buys a nicer, newer and lower mileage Asian wagon instead of a BMW. Drive as many as you can and buy the one that fits you best. Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, etc. all offer a number of choices.

A BMW that old isn’t particularly reliable. The problems that come up probably won’t be cheap to fix. Unless you really love this car, I think there are better choices out there for you.

There aren’t many wagons in that price range unless they are quite old. You might look at a 2007 Subaru Forester or Impreza. The Impreza is about $1000 less, and the last year was 2007.

True wagons are a rare breed these days. That BMW was/is a nice car, and Consumer Reports generally rates the 3-Series as reasonably reliable, but I don’t have any info on one that old. The awd versions of most cars are slightly less reliable (more to break). Of European wagons that and the Jetta would be my choices. The Volvos and Saabs have dismal reliability and Audi not much better. The Mercedes wagons seem better, but they’re rare, expensive, and likely expensive to keep running. The BMW will also have expensive to parts, though they’re a little more common, so maybe not as bad. The Jetta will certainly be the cheapest.

Not many Japanese models to choose from beyond the ubiquitous Subarus. They have their known problems, but can be kept reliable. A good friend just bought a clean ten yo one, but his brother is a Subie mechanic and had already made it good as new. I really like the Acura TSX wagon, but it has only been made for a few years and is rare, so not cheap. Mazda made a beautiful Mazda6 wagon about eight years ago. It was gorgeous, but only available with a Ford V6 that wasn’t nearly as reliable as the Mazda four available in the sedan. Still, a rare beauty if you can find one. There were also Accord and Camry wagons years ago, but those are pretty old now. The Toyota Venza is pretty close to a Camry wagon, but might be outside your price range. Hyundai sold an Elantra wagon until a year or so ago. It’s a good, practical car, though closer to a hatchback in size than the European models. Kind of plain, but very practical and well made.

Of domestics, the Focus had a wagon version in its earliest years, and they’re certainly cheap enough. The Chevy HHR is effectively a Cobalt wagon. Kind of plain and simple, but basically OK, roomier than you might expect.

Hope that generates some ideas. I wish more wagons were available as it’s such a practical configuration.

The Focus is not only cheap in price, but cheap in build quality . . .

A fine car, but not what I’d call a nice car

A 10 year old BMW with 90K miles is a pretty low miles per year car. What I’d look for is hard evidence of previous service history. Actual receipts in the glove box is the best evidence. You can get the VIN number and go to a BMW dealer to see if there are computer files with the service history. If the previous owner did the regular maintenance on schedule the car could be fine. But if they didn’t do the services the car could be a “lemon” for you.

If you drive the car and it feels tight, solid, no rattles, smooth, good power, and shifts tight on hard acceleration, and shifts smooth in moderate normal acceleration - then you get a good BMW shop to do a pre-sale vehicle inspection for you. This should include a compression tests, and other tests to make sure the heads, valves, and head gaskets are all good.

I’d prefer a manual transmission, but expect this is an auto transmission. Evidence of regular transmission service is a real positive. BMW used a “lifetime” fluid and didn’t recommend fluid changes on many models. At 90K miles with no transmission service the auto transmission could be prone to failure. You should find out the cost of a replacement auto transmission. I doubt you’ll keep this BMW for 20 years and lots more miles without needing a new or rebuilt auto tranny sometime in the future.


This may be a little off topic

When I worked at the Benz dealer, we had no way of looking “in the computer” to see if maintenance had been performed at another dealer.

We could check if any work had been done at our dealer

We could also check if any warranty work had been done at A dealer.

Like you said, the best thing is to have the maintenance records in your hand.

Word of mouth aint worth squat

Back in the old days (early 1960s) a mechanic friend of mind advised me to stick with the Fords and Chevrolets in buying a used car. His reasoning was that parts were less expensive and if I ran into a problem I couldn’t handle myself, most mechanics had worked extensively with these cars.
If he were alive today, my mechanic friend would probably have to say “stick with the Toyotas and Hondas” for the same reason as to parts availability and most mechanics have worked on them. Would a Toyota Matrix or the equivalent Pontiac Vibe fit your needs?