$5000 crash course in BMW transmissions

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.


55 Replies to “$5000 crash course in BMW transmissions”

  1. Impressive research! Sorry to hear about the tranny work, though.

    How were you able to find out that Caddy’s used the same transmission?

  2. The transmission on our 2000 323 wagon just boycotted reverse. If you make any headway or have any further suggestion, please notify us.

  3. Mine just went too. Have 1999 323. Sad thing is that I went to Munich and toured the factory (impressive), and they touted how supportive they are of their cusomters and how they value loyalty. There is a problem when the only solution is replacement. Shame on BMW and GM for both abandoning their clients.

  4. Actually they STOPPED using GM transmissions in 1999. They went to the German ZF ones after that. Funny thing is, BOTH transmisisons had the same issue, just different things causing them! My 5 series went on me, my buddys 540 went on him last month, and ad naseum. BMW claims they have no idea these are bad and have rarely had to work on them at all! Of course, why work on them when you can stiff the owners and REPLACE them instead? Luckily the GM trans is the cheaper of the 2 to repair, got mine fully redone with a 36 month 36k warranty for 1950 dollars. But I feel your pain, I truly do.

    1. Actually you’re wrong I have a 2000 323i BMW with a GM transmission in it not trying to butt heads or anyting

  5. My car still backs up when I put it in reverse but if I try to back up faster the engine will just Rev High. Sooner than I know my car will not back up at all. I’ll be speaking with a lawyer next week and see I’m trying to compile as much information as possible. Shoot me with any info you have. Thanks.


  6. The worst thing to do is authorize a BMW dealership to have your transmission fixed at your expense; you will be screwed twice. Contact ZF for a local shop who will fix it for ruoghly 1/3 of the dealer price.

  7. The transmission on my son’s 2000 323i is about to go. I starts running in 3rd gear, skipping 1st and 2nd gear when leaving a stop sign, red light, etc…

    Any suggestions on what to do? The BMW dealer has already said it would be around $4,000 for them to do it, which is kind of stupid for a car worth about $8,000-9,000. But my kid loves the car and all the extras he has added like tint, sub woofers, etc…

  8. I bought a 1999 325i YESTERDAY and the transmission went out today. I tested it in reverse when I checked it out, of course, although I have to say that I was unaware of this particular problem. All the Kelley Blue Book reviews were positive for the first number of pages, so I decided to go for it. Anyways, I’m in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, so I’m wondering if there’s any solution at all for me or if I need to scrap it (or nail the guy who sold it to me). Anyways, I’d also like to try to contact ZF, though it may be impossible to get parts shipped over here! Thanks for all your research.

  9. Sometimes it takes us time to learn….first I had GM…actually two in a row…things broke but it was fixed under warranty….then I went on to BMW and my mechanic friend told me to stay away from the crappy 3 series (2000 and up) and not to buy any BMW made in the 90’s ….he had a 2000 540i…and previoulsy owned a 1992 525i that he said was a nightmare….this guy used to work at Marinello BMW or one of those Northern delaerships..but I didn’t listen but again the warrantly fixed it so I wasn’t that upset and I got to kick the shit of a new loaner and although I didn’t kick the shit out of mine it broke again and again…I like the 323i cause it has almost as much power as the 328i with a better insurance rate…the 323i is apparently closer to 190hp opposed to the advertised 167hp but I guess it would make 328 owners kick themshelve since the 323 has as much power and is less on insurance…so from now on I’ll buy a Honda…but then again I figure Honda would just become like GM and try to live of previous reputation…but then again GM never had a good reputation in the last what 30-40 years?

  10. 2001 330I, 88,500 miles, reverse failed suddenly and completely without warning. My car has the ZF 5HP-19 transmission. This seems to be a common problem for this transmission. Turns out the D-G CLUTCH DRUM fails. A local mecanic will do the repair for $2000-$2500. Check out, NOREVERSE.ORG – 100% about BMW transmission failures.

  11. I just took my 2000 328i in also to see why my car would just become idle when in reverse sometimes. However, sometimes it works. My mechanic told me that my fluid levels were fine, BUT I need to replace the transmission. Replacing a transmission and planning for a wedding is just not in the budget!!!!!!! I will definetly ask my mechanic about the replacing the valve body work if I have the 5L40E transmission. Thanks for the information.
    I am willing to participate in any class action lawsuit. Let me know what I can do to help.
    [email protected]

  12. Today my 2000 323i wagon with 51,000 miles reverse failed suddenly without warning… I’m not sure what transmission is in my baby. What can we do as a group of BMW owners with such a common problem that thousands are dealing with? Please help [email protected]

  13. Yes!!! I am about to get this dish served to me. I almost fell off my chair when I got the news from Buds BMW in Oakville Canada. How can you build a car and call it a BMW when the parts are from GM. A company that makes the worst kind of cars. Had I known this I would have never spent the 50K on this car. and how can it be allowed to fail so soon when the car never saw anyone other than the dealer’s techs. I am mad. No I am really MAD!!!!!


  15. My 2000 BMW 323i began slipping in reverse this evening. Sometimes it engages a bit, other times it just revs. Car has 59,000 miles. Went online and did the research. So much for the ultimate driving machine. My old Toyota lasted longer. This thing has been babied. I’m disgusted. I’m willing to shell out cash to keep a good car running, but a new tranny at 60,000 miles? On a BMW? Will try BMW USA and the dealer on Monday but I’m not optimistic. Guess I have to start hunting for a good transmission shop.

  16. I posted on Dec 7, 2007 because my 2000 wagon would not go into reverse. Soon after that I took my car to Does BMW in El Cajon (San Diego) and for $2000 had it fixed. It’s been over a year and 20,000 miles and is still running great. Thier master mechanics are ZF factory trained. Thanks Does BMW.

  17. Lisa, The research you did and your website has saved the day with our 1999 BMW 328i! We started having the same no-reverse problem at about 180,000 miles, and got ridiculously high quotes for rebuilding the transmission or replacing it with either a new one or a used one. Researching the alternatives, we read about Sonnax and their repair kits on your site. We went to the links you provided, called Sonnax and found that the 2 kits they sell to repair this problem with the GM 5L40-E model transmission, which our car has, only cost $171.50 ($100.91 for 55211-11K and $70.59 for 55211-04K). However, the specialized tools to install these kits cost another $1029.41 ($252.42 for VB FIX, $508.32 for F-55211-TL, and $268.67 for F-55211-TL4). So we asked Sonnax if they had sold these tools to any transmission shops in our area, and sure enough they had. They referred us to Chino Hills Transmission in Chino, CA (909-591-0449). We took our car there and in less than a week they had obtained the kits from a local Sonnax rep (Sonnax doesn’t sell to the public, but has reps everywhere who stock these kits), installed the kits, and changed the transmission filter and fluid, all without removing the transmission from the car. The total bill was only $450! And by the way, this shop recommended that people should have the fluid and filters changed on these transmissions every 30,000 miles, due to their inherent problems. That’s a far cry from the “lifetime fill” that BMW is telling owners of these cars. We recommend the course of action we took to everyone who sees this site as being by far the cheapest alternative. And Sonnax says that their kits were designed to make the transmission better than new, so with regular fluid and filter changes, it should solve the problem.

  18. I for one am laughing at all you fools that thought since it wasn’t an American car that it would last forever. Funny, my Chevy truck has 180k miles without any major problems, just wear and tear items. Don’t worry you’ll look “cool” in no time (minus 5k) in your overpriced elitist-mobiles.

  19. My 2000 BMW 323 on exactly 82k miles got no Reverse shift. Damn looking for solution to avoid the 5k fixing this damn car.
    Wonder why there has no Lawyer picking this case?

  20. My 2000 323i suffered the no reverse problem too. BMW North America offered me $1000 off of their replacement price of $5354.00, and I told them no thanks. If BMW didn’t know there was a defect in their transmission, why would they have changed it in their newer cars? They know about the problem and contrary to what they say in their new advertising campaign about “Responsibility”, they are not acting honestly. There was a class action suit filed in New Jersey which has mysteriously disappeared, and would lead one to wonder if BMW “paid off” some angry customers to close the lawsuit with the understanding that they would accept no guilt, and no further responsibility and the records would be sealed.
    The best thing to do in any case is to tell everyone you know that BMW doesn’t stand behind their product and that they are not worth the money. Bad investment for a big paperweight.

  21. 2000 323i Touring, 124.5K miles. Reverse failure. This may help some people out: If you encounter any reverse gear problem, definitely find out which transmission you have. If your car was made before 2/2000 it’s likely the GM. If it is made after that (mine is 4/2000) we have the ZF. (Evidently this doesn’t always apply, but is usually the case.) If you’re still unsure, get your car on ramps or jack up (safely) the driver’s side and look at the rear tailshaft area of the transmission. There is a green metal plate the says “GM…France” if it’s the GM. If this plate is not there it’s the ZF and you can verify this by seeing a small cast “ZF” on the triangular looking shift linkeage cover.
    Like stated above, the GM reverse failure is likely a cheaper fix that does not require the tranny being dropped, especially if your reverse works sometimes and then doesn’t work other times.
    The ZF suffers failure of the reverse drum (a c-clip or the drum itself) where reverse never comes back, yet with a cold car you may feel it ever so slightly nudge the car back, but never enough to move it or hold any throttle. The ZF requires getting into the transmission to replace this with an updated version (www.bavauto.com has these kits for $350), of course there is a lot of labor involved in this repair.
    Don’t get mad at GM for making a crap transmission, when clearly it is superior to the German made ZF, though they both suck! GM Hydramatics in most vehicles are very durable transmissions, as are ZF’s in many other vehicles. Unfortunately for us, this happens when a certain span of vehicles is affected. The very shameful part is BMWNA’s opinion that they should not help out in some manner.

  22. Here is my little luck story want to share with you guys. I have been searching through internet but found no solution to fix my damn 2000 325i ‘NO Reverse’ at 73k miles.So I drove this damn car back to BMW and have them explain before I am getting another New one, well they said, I am sorry to hear that but ….da la da la.., well I could take your for $15000 as a down payment on a new one.Ha ha ! couple days later, I figure that for BMW to order a new trans only cause them $1,300 well then I drove the damn one to one of the BMW Use Car Department and had them look up mine, Guess what, they take it for $4500 as my down and I got a 2006 325i with 40k miles. Next day I got a call form the BMW used car sales person, and ask why the damn car has no reverse, I ask him, yet? why would a BMW with no reverse? I drove the new 325I for a month them sell it out. Guess what, I got 7500 in cash now. Damn it BMW, I wish everybody will got luck like me and have the sale person ask WHY.

  23. My Auto Transmission Reverse also failed in January 2010 at about 65,000 miles. My 2000 BMW 323 had its transmission just replaced by Hans Art Auto in San Francisco, CA. The cost was over $5,000. I had to get a rebuilt transmission installed. The warranty on it is 2 years, I would like to get my money back from BMW. Please keep me informed. Thank You.

  24. I have a 94 540i no revers I found a mechanic to fix it for $530.00 labor and what ever parts will cost in Fort Wayne, IN 260-489-9783 but thats taking the tranny out yourself and taking it in dont know what it costs if they take it out.

  25. I have a 2000 323i BMW and the reverse is broken. I had parked my care in my drive way on a friday and left it parked over the weekend, but on Monday morning I tried to back up from my drive way and just my luck it would onot engage into the reverse gear. I have found a mechanic that has can take a look at it but he says it would be around $1800-4000. Ouch! i just cant afford this to expensive. So right now i just have my car parked. while i can save money to afforde the repair. I have made some research and some people say that they have gotten the same problem, and the problem was that the TCC PMW Solenoid. I just dont know any ideas..

  26. 2002 BMW 325i. Won’t go into reverse. Will drive in 3rd/4th only. Dealer wants to replace transmission. I called BMW North America and they said they can be of no assistance. Would not even give me the name of supervisor to talk to. Something has to be done about this. If anyone knows of a class action suit, let me know.

  27. I was backing out of my driveway last week headed to work when reverse, in my 2000 323 i. just quit. The short of the long story is $5500. to replace my transmission with a BMW remanufactured one. I bought the car almost new -24k miles, and have promptly had all the scheduled maintenance and repairs done by the dealership. My car has 90k miles… No warning from my car or BMW, nor was I aware of all the other angry people out there complaining about this same issue. Why hasn’t this problem been corrected / recalled???? I have researched and talked with management at my BMW dealership in Bellevue, WA and BMW NA… with no help.

  28. Same story here… got up to go to work about 1 month ago and to my surprise my car would not go in reverse. I played around with it a little bit and found that first of all in the cold morning is worse. Second, if I shift from reverse to forward a couple of times, it gets the gears catching and i’m able to reverse. Even then, my X5 2001 102K miles will not reverse fast. It is a slow turtle like reverse. After reading so much about the problem and seeing that i’m not alone I would appreciate if anyone knows if BMW is gonna do anything about this.. which I doubt.. anyways,, I will look into seeing how much i can get it fixed for and if affordable will post it and hopefullly help somebody’s pocket out.. :) [email protected]
    I am even thinking of learning how to rebuild my own transmission and if so can help out my fellow BMW comrades… good luck everyone..

  29. My 2001 BMW 325 Ci Reverse Gear just died yesterday.

    I put the car into reverse, I felt the car buck and then caput…no reverse gear – forward gear only.

    The car has 321,000 KM on it.

    Now I just have to get rid of it and I’m trying to figure out what is the value of the BMW in it’s present form.

  30. Basically, the same problem as others only my car 325I 06 just started making a sluggish thud noise when trying to shift gears. 128,000 miles and I have pampered this car. I’m very disappointed and will probably not buy another BMW though I loved driving it. So sad, but I have never had a transmission go out on any of my American made cars and I bought BMW because of their long lasting reputation… Please contact me if there is a class action suit concerning this problem. And…Beware to future BMW customers! My car is probably worth zip now… Will check out the Sonnax repair kit I guess. Thanks for your research Ms. Brewster!

  31. I’ve had the same thing happen I have a 98 740i w/ 111,000 miles transmission is out car goes in reverse not forward.. don’t have the monies to replace it!~ I live in Sunnyvale too.. repairs of this car have been murder I just replaced the brakes all away around- 3 weeks later trans died..

  32. I started looking at a 2001 330i and I asked the sales guy was the tranny OK…he admitted that the tranny may have a problem he wasn’t sure.LOL……at this point I had read a bunch of stuff online and I was really ready to not even look at the one I was considering…then the sales guy called me back and offered to drop the price down to almost have of the Blue book retail value….i guess to compensate for the tranny possibly going out any minute…I suppose….are these cars worth it? I could sock the savings of what I was gonna spend away till the tranny goes….but maybe thats a crap shoot….. Now what type of tranny does the 330i have is it a ZF? can anybody help me and tell me what kit Id need to fix thie tranny on this model with out replacing the whole thing when and if it goes…

  33. If it is the GM tranny used in the 328, or in the 323 before March of 2000, the fix is a $75 TCC solenoid that can be replaced without removing the tranny. Google for more.

  34. I have a 2000 323 ci bought sept/2012 with 97000kms. have since put another 20000 on her 95% highway and last night same thing as you guys. it will idle in reverse still tho but when I give it gas it doesn’t want to go any faster. im still driving it for now and contemplating either a 6sp manual swap or use the backup motor/tranny I already have for my pickup. 00 LS1/4L60E swap, but instead of Mpower on the decklid I would add a G in front lol 325hp bmw :-) . first I will look into what D Z ^ is talking about though with my fingers crossed. BTW thanks bmw I had hoped for better.

  35. I have a 1999 325I BMW and I was at work and went to move my car and it would not just would not move. I pushed it so I could put in drive and drove it home. I then got back in it the next morning and it worked. Took it to the shop and they wanted to replace the whole transmission. I am now driving my car and will not pull in where I have to back out. I as so disgusted with this. I have driven BMW’s all my life and never had such a problem.

  36. BMW and Mercedes are awful cars. BMW’s are so bad now they offer free maintenance for 4 years, otherwise they could never sell or lease a car. NEVER own one of these cars out of warranty, and then have a good second car, because you will be using it a lot.
    I found this website by Goolging “BMW 323 problems” lots came up… before you buy any car Google “xxxxx problems.”
    Im a mechanic, when I see a BMW or Mercedes limp or towed in I hide in the bathroom until its assigned to someone else.
    You seem like a nice lady, remember, ‘experience is what you get, when you don’t get what you want’
    Good luck.

    1. I have a 2000 e46 a 5l40e transmission with reverse issues it’s not the reverse drum the tranny it still good it’s a $60 part called a tcc solinoid witch allows fluid to accuate the reverse drop the pan and replace sounds like a lot of you have had transmissions replaced for no reason

  37. I have a BMW 328i 2000 – will not go into reverse. This is by far the worst car that I have ever owned! BMW could not give me one off of the show room floor to have–if so –I would be trying to sell it to the first buyer! 7/26/2015, 12:10am.

  38. I have a bmw e46 330ci. With a 100.000 no gears at all no wonder peopl . Are plenty pissed off I will never use bmw. Again Blown My Wagon it should stand for steve from the UK.

  39. I have a 2001 bmw 330ci, its the biggest piece of shit ever made nothing but problems
    I also had the transmission fail to go into reverse It cost me $5000 now last week the torque
    converter went, I am constantly changing gaskets it has been the biggest nightmare…..
    I will never buy another bmw and will advice everyone I know to stay away from bmw,s
    there quality has gone way down and the cost to repair these lemons is crazy, by
    American or Japanese way better values for your dollar and the last longer

  40. BMW.= Wallet burner. Every last one of them. Fault codes are not accurate to fix any problem. Like Jaguars they fall apart first year. P.O.S. all the way around. Don t drive in the rain. Transmissions, sensors, computers, modules even a FREE 100% lifetime bumper to bumper Million mile Factory Warrantee would convince me to buy another one. Never get to drive the frickin thing. It would always be in the shop or be towed to one. Take that to the bank. Then BMW lies to us and gives all of us a backhanded slap across the face. That’s real German Engineering. Thank God I still have my old Chevy. 200,000 miles. Plus. Just change the oil and filter once n awhile and put gas in the tank.

  41. Existing without the answers to the difficulties you’ve sorted out through this guide is a critical case, as well as the kind which could have badly affected my entire career if I had not discovered your website.

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