Last Monday morning I got in my car to drive to work same as any morning, only to discover that my car wouldn’t go in reverse. I could feel it catch, but it wouldn’t actually go anywhere. I called my regular shop and told them I would be towing it in. They called me the next day and said the transmission was shot and would have to be replaced, and quoted me $6000 to do it.
Ok, so…I admit I learned a few months ago that in 1999, BMW started using GM transmissions in the 3-series. And that they’re all crap and mine would need to be replaced soon. But spending $6k on a car that’s worth $10,000 max is asinine, so I did some calling around to see if I could get a better price. Dave actually helped me out a lot here, too…he was able to find a used transmission in LA for $1300 (my shop was quoting me $4500 for the factory transmission alone). They said they’d be more than happy to install whatever transmission I brought in, but there would be no warranty whatsoever. I thought about this for a few more days (we’re talking about a lot of money here, and I absolutely hate spending money), then eventually decided to call some transmission places to see what they could do for me. I found a super nice place in San Marcos who quoted me $1600-$3500 to actually fix the problem instead of replace, so I had the car towed a second time over to them.
The transmission shop inspected the car and informed me that 1999 is a split year for the 323, and the first half of the year used a 4 speed transmission, and the 1999.5 through 2000 models used a 5 speed. Their quote was for the cheaper 4 speed model. The mechanic told me he’d worked on three of these in the past year, and those costs ranged from $3600-4800…but he’d have a better idea of what it would cost me after he pulled the transmission out and saw what actually had to be replaced. I also mentioned that I’d found a Consumer Affairs website on BMW transmissions, and casually commented that I was actually surprised that there hasn’t been a class action lawsuit against BMW. Anyway, end result of this call is me sucking it up and telling him to go ahead.
Here’s where I started really getting my education. Shop called me back this morning and said he COULD fix the transmission, but neither BMW or GM will sell him all the parts he needs to do it. BMW just doesn’t offer them (only whole transmissions), and GM won’t warranty the parts if they’re to be installed on a BMW. He said he would supplement with used parts and still guarantee the work since he has no other option, and I’m ok with that. He also said he’d done some research on my concerns with the 1999 transmission from the Consumer Affairs site, and that there were no technical service bulletins from BMW on it. There was a bulletin on the 2000 “ZL” model transmission but not on mine (which he said was a 5L40-e model), so he doesn’t think there’s a widespread problem with this transmission.
At this point, however, he’s done the worst thing any manufacturer could fear that he would do…he’s given me something to research.
BMW in fact did start using the 5L40-e transmission halfway through 1999 when they changed the 323 over from the e36 to the e46 chassis. And although there is a new complaint on the Consumer Affairs page almost daily regarding failure to go in reverse, BMW has not issued a single service bulletin. This same transmission, however, was also used in the 2003 Cadillac CTS, of which there are over 30 technical service bulletins regarding the transmission. TWO of these specifically mention failure in reverse.
According to the Consumer Affairs page, BMW denies any knowledge of known problems with this transmission when asked directly. But since it’s almost impossible for mechanics to get parts to fix them, most cars are repaired using a rebuilt transmission ordered from the factory. I expect that’s a fairly significant number of transmissions being rebuilt and shipped back out. SOMEBODY at BMW is keeping track of this number.
Why will Cadillac at least admit to the problem, but BMW makes no mention of it in a vehicle that’s been on the road four years longer? I know a bulletin won’t have any effect on my now $5000 repair bill, but I thought I had done my due diligence in researching the 1999 323i, e46’s, and BMW in general before I bought the damn thing. I knew repair bills wouldn’t be cheap if something did go wrong, but I believed BMW produced one of the best performing and longest lasting automobiles provided they are maintained properly. If I’d have known the transmission in this car was both non-serviceable and prone to failure, I’d have bought a Kia.
In some respects, I feel better now that I’m armed with knowledge. It’s a lot easier for me to accept something if I at least know why I have to accept it. Acceptance is not recourse, however, so I still feel screwed over. I’m certainly not powerful enough to take on BMW about my poor little used car, but I can at least provide my research for others to use to make a more well-informed decision. Disclaimer, though…I really am a car noob. Everything I’ve posted here was either told to me by my mechanics or found on google, and is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge. I highly advise anyone doing anything really really important to do their own fact checking (and please make me aware of any errors or omissions).
Edit 7/16/07 – I’ve been contacted by Horwitz, Horwitz & Associates. I’ll update if I get any new info.
Edit 10/8/08 – New comments have been trickling in to this post regarding other failed transmissions, but I haven’t heard anything new regarding a class action suit. I did, however, submit a complaint to the NHTSA. The more complaints they receive, the more likely they will initiate an investigation. Complaints themselves can also become public record, so I highly encourage everyone who has had a transmission failure to submit a report. My favorite site to check service bulletins and complaints is mycarstats.com.
I just checked in on the Consumer Affairs page for fun, and saw this tip by Charlotte of Linton, IN:
Concerning the 5L40E Transmission made by GM and used in several BMW automobiles. There are a couple of problems that this transmission has that can be fixed with a repair to the valve body that BMW is ignoring. BMW’s service department chooses to only replace the transmission thereby making it a huge expense to fix the vehicles. Please BMW owners who have this transmission in their vehicle who are having this reverse problem, there is a company called Sonnax that makes a kit to repair the valve body to fix this problem. The kit is several hundred dollars and the valve body can be removed and worked on without having to remove the entire transmission.
I found the company’s website and a list of parts she might have been talking about, but I can’t verify this claim is valid. Still, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to run this by your mechanic. If anyone has any more information, please update in the comments.