I once had dinner with Ryo Yanagisawa, Mazda’s young design maestro, whose most recent work is the fabulous looking Mazda CX-30 and before that, the Mazda 2 and Mazda BT-50.
I asked what he thinks is the best looking non-Mazda car on sale today (then), exotic cars aside. Without skipping a beat, he candidly answered the F30 BMW 3 Series. To be fair, the conversation took place in 2015, long before the current G20 3 Series’ debut.
Still, the acknowledgement meant something. After all, Mazda makes much better looking cars than BMW these days. Brand snobs will find it heretical but let's not digress further. Back to the 3.
The F30 has a very timeless design that has aged very well. Even when parked next to a G20, the F30 doesn’t look dated at all. More familiar looking yes, but dated, no.
In the context of Malaysian driving conditions, the F30 3 Series represents a high point in the 3 Series lineage, as it strikes the best balance between comfort and agile handling, something which is lost on the newer G20.
Although the latest G20 handles a lot sharper, it is not as comfortable as the F30, and have poorer ergonomics too, especially the ones with digital instrument panel.
The good thing about cars of this class is that they depreciate a lot, to the benefit of bargain hunters in the used car market.
We have now reach a sweet spot where out of warranty 5-year old F30s can be had for around RM 100k, while others with a year or two left in its warranty can be had for slightly more money. Remember that an F30 320i used to sell for RM 238,800 when new.
The general rule of thumb applies – no two used units are the same, buying directly from the owner is preferred, walk away if there’s no full service history (it’s a red flag that the odometer has been tampered), and lastly, exercise the usual due diligence to avoid badly wrecked or flood damaged cars.
Also, just because you are buying a used premium car cheap, doesn’t mean that it’s cheap to repair/maintain. Of course, cheap/expensive is relative but if you can’t afford to maintain a 3 Series when new, you still can’t afford one used.
A car’s value will depreciate over time but spare parts prices will remain.
Which model to buy?
The later (LCI) facelift models (launched in Malaysia in November 2015) are preferred, as it benefits from additional technical updates and improvements. The facelift models get a new 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged B48, replacing the pre-facelift N20 ones.
The pick of the F30 3 Series LCI range are the 330i M Sport and 320i M Sport. These are rare, as they were sold for only a short period of time before being replaced by the 330e and 318i respectively.
Avoid cars that have been tuned or re-chipped, and no, the 320i’s engine is not the same as the 330i, even though they may look the same and have the same engine code. The respective engine’s internals are different.
An inspection at an authorized BMW service centre will reveal if the car has been tuned before.
There’s also the 1.5-litre turbocharged B38 3-cylinder 318i and despite the lowly specifications, it’s actually a pretty decent 3 Series.
Sure it lacks the punch but sitting inside, you can hardly tell it’s a 3-cylinder and the ZF 8-speed transmission does an excellent job of masking any torque deficit. For most regular drivers, it’s more than good enough.
As for the 330e. It’s still too early to make a verdict on BMW hybrids as it was launched in Malaysia only in August 2016. However hybrids are the way forward as diesels are losing popularity even in Europe.
BMW Malaysia is committed to rolling out more plug-in hybrids in Malaysia, as you can see from the launch of the G20 330e, so there’s little to worry about post-warranty after-sales support.
Majority of F30 3 Series LCI models on sale now are the 330e. However, most owners bought them only because they were cheap, thanks to tax deductions, and didn’t bother to charge them regularly. Plug-in hybrids are meant to work with regular charging and cars that were used the way it was intended to will last longer, so cars of owners with a dedicated charging space at home are preferred.
If you want to weigh your options post-warranty, there are plenty of independent hybrid specialists but most of their experience centre around Honda and Toyota hybrids, as these have been around a lot longer and are well understood.
Over time, you can expect more specialists to expand their service to include plug-in hybrids as more post-warranty cars require specialist care, following the same trajectory when Japanese hybrids were introduced here 10 years ago.
Also, make sure the charging cables are passed to you. The 3-pin domestic socket A/C charger comes with the car, but many units were sold with an A/C fast charger (thick blue cable ones) bundled for free.
What about the 320d turbodiesel? Diesels are the most reliable of all BMW engines. Turbo diesels are what the Germans do best, but this is contingent on it being regularly fueled with low sulphur Euro 4/5 diesel.
The 320d is not the most refined 3 Series nor is it the best to drive, but it’s an excellent car for travelling sales people who spend a lot of time on the road.
However not many units of 320d were sold here, so these are relatively rare.
Note that diesel engines’ exhaust smell more than petrol ones. If you park under your porch, and start a diesel engine, your neighbours, or people inside your house, can sometimes smell the fumes.
The pre-facelift 3 Series range had 316i, which was powered by a 1.6-litre Peugeot built turbocharged engine that’s shared with early MINI models. Not many owners have good things to say about this engine though, so be vary of it.
What are the common problems?
Generally speaking, the F30 is a pretty reliable car. There are some common ‘problems,’ but most of it has more to do with high mileage wear and tear rather than a specific problem. Being a BMW, carrying out these maintenance jobs are not always cheap.
Most of the problems mentioned here are related to the older pre-facelift, N20 engine ones, but this is also because most of the cars that are past 100,000 km are the older N20 ones.
It is still too early to give a verdict on the newer B48 4-cylinder and B38 3-cylinder engines fitted on the facelift models, but all indications point it being more reliable than the older N20 engines.
We spoke to Jason, who runs independent workshop M One Performance, to find out more about common problems for the F30.
There have been many reports of oil leaks (mostly N20 engines) but Jason says this has more to do with driving habits (more common in aggressively driven, high mileage cars), and not all his F30 customers face this issue.
In his opinion, cars put up for sale will most likely have had oil leak problems fixed, as it’s a visibly obvious problem to any would-be buyer.
Fixing oil leaks will cost you about RM 1,500. It’s rather labour intensive as the engine will need to be lifted out, replacing all gaskets and oil seals.
He recommends would be buyers to also inspect the engine oil cap for sludge and lookout for signs of water contamination in the engine oil.
Like many electric power steering racks, the F30’s biggest problem is steering rack rattle. Replacing it with a new part will cost you close to five-figure, but Jason is able to refurbished it for as little as RM 1,300.
Cars that have crossed 100,000 km will likely require replacement of the crankshaft pulley (harmonic balancer). These will cost you about RM 900 with German-made OEM parts, RM 1,600 with original BMW parts.
Many cars have also experienced water pump failures, usually at around 150,000 km, and fixing it will cost about RM 1,500.
Of all the engines, Jason says the diesel is the most reliable, as he has worked on models clocking over 350,000 km with minimal repairs. If you do a lot of highway driving, consider the 320d.
However, he cautioned that the diesel engines might also face oil leak issue at some point in its service life, and fixing it will cost more than equivalent 4-cylinder petrol engines, but that’s about the only high cost maintenance job needed.
The trims on the inner door handle don’t age well in our weather, so cars that are parked in covered parking are preferred. But replacing all four inner door handle is easy and costs about RM 250 for each door.
What other things you should know?
BMW says its automatic transmission fluid lasts the lifetime of the car. This is of course rubbish. ZF, which makes transmissions for BMW, have already said that the service life is only 100,000 km and the oil needs to be replaced at some point.
Don't believe the lifetime service message by BMW, see it for yourself what ZF says in the video below:
Jason recommends that buyers of used F30 to change the ATF as soon as they take ownership of the car, unless the previous owner has receipts showing that a similar work has been done.
Since BMW don’t have a recommended service interval for its transmission, Jason recommends to change the ATF every 30,000 km. Of course, and different people have different opinions on the matter, but Jason prefers to operate under the philosophy of preventive maintenance.
Rear differential oil is another job that is often overlooked, or skimped by previous owners. So get it replaced as well.
Modification options, especially chip tuning is easy for the 3 Series. Many cars have had ECU tuning done. Stay away from these modified cars, unless that’s what you’re looking to do.
Jason advised that the modification/tuning world is a very different world from the vehicle maintenance world, and if you are using it as a daily car and long-term reliability is important, stick to stock specs cars.
Some of these modified cars have been reverted to standard specifications before they are sold, which is also why it’s beneficial to buy directly from the owner. Getting to know the previous owner will allow you to better gauge how the car was used and cared for.
Alternatively, we suggest that you look at certified pre-owned (CPO) cars sold by BMW Premium Selection dealers. These cars come with full service histories, have undergone inspection by BMW themselves, and are backed by BMW’s warranty (depending on age, coverage might be less than new cars).
Of course, prices are higher than regular used cars, but that’s also because CPO cars tend to be newer, and the warranty cost has been included into the vehicle’s price. Another benefit of buying CPO cars is the wider variety of financing options available (from BMW Credit).
M One Performance is located at 43, Jalan SS 23/15, Taman Sea, 47400 Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Contact details can be found here.