BMW X5 E53 Known Issues – An SUV that Still Looks Good And Only Has a Few Flaws

BMW’s cars were always a symbol of refined engineering, fun driving experience, and reluctance to change. This brand was making sedans and coupes only. You could get a smaller, sportier one or a massive 7-series executive sedan, but that was it. Then came the ’90s and the BMW X5 E53 that changed everything.

We’ve put together this guide to point out the good and the not so good sides of the X5. This model doesn’t have many flaws, but knowing what these flaws are is necessary if you’re in the market for a used E53. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!

The Best X5 Generation

Every car has a story. The one of X5 E53 starts with an airplane ride and one exec’s vision of conquering the US markets. Back in the ’90s, BMW observed an emerging trend. The SUVs were becoming popular worldwide, but the giant from Bavaria could only spectate from the sidelines. The epicenter of this new trend was in the United States.

BMW, a brand that never tried their luck with terrain vehicles, wanted a piece of that pie. Chris Bangle (yes, that Chris Bangle) decided to make something happen. He and Frank Stephenson, a legendary automotive designer, were on a flight together when Bangle asked Frank to sketch out a BMW SUV prototype by the time their flight landed. In other words, Stephenson had 2 hours to come up with something. A tall order for any other designer, but not Frank.

Not only did he succeed, but Stephenson’s initial design was the final design. The BMW X5 E53 as we know it today was born on that piece of paper and only lightly tweaked afterward.

bmw x5 e53 at

A Legend with its Own Flaws

As soon as the BMW X5 E53 went into production in the newly opened (at the time) North Carolina BMW plant, it was an instant success. The design was spot on. Stephenson had managed to envision a car that would bring the SUV market the refinement it so badly needed at the time. He introduced the Hofmeister kink to the world of SUVs the right way.

Design solutions aside, the car was a typical BMW of the era – sporty, reliable, and a joy to drive. That being said, as time went by, the X5 started showing its flaws. Fortunately for X5 owners back then and those looking for one of these SUVs today, none of these flaws were catastrophic.

Sensitive Timing Chain Guide Rails

The BMW X5 E53 originally came with two petrol engines available. You had the well known M54 inline six and the larger M62 V8 (later N62). Needless to say, the V8 was much better at moving the heavy X5 on and sometimes off the road. However, these engines (particularly the M62) had issues with timing chain guide rails, which would wear out after 100,000 miles.

Once worn out, the guide rails could fall apart, causing the engine to drop out of phase, with the chain skipping a tooth or two. The end result would often be a very expensive handshake between the pistons and valves. The guide rails have to be changed every 100,000 miles tops using quality timing chain guide kits to prevent this from happening.

Coolant Transfer Pipe Failure

The late ’90s – early 2000s BMW and coolant leaks – name a more iconic duo. Jokes and E46 3-series flashbacks side, the N62 was nowhere near as bad as some other BMW engines of the era, but it did have a few coolant system issues. Namely, the coolant transfer pipe would spring a leak at the front seal.

Often tricky to fix, this leak could quickly leave the engine out of coolant if left unchecked. The solution would be to use an updated transfer pipe kit to solve some of the original design issues.

Aside from the transfer pipe, make sure to check the entire cooling system for leaks, cracks, and other problems. Depending on the condition of the individual components, repairs could be fairly expensive.

The M54 Cooling System Issues

Okay, now it’s time for full-on E46 3-series flashbacks. The iconic M54 that was offered in the E53 was and still is a great engine. However, it used the exact same cooling components found on the E46 3-series. In other words, plastics, plastics everywhere. Considering the age of these cars, chances are that most of these plastic components have already failed or are close to failing.

If you’re about to purchase an X5 E53 with an M54 engine, pay close attention to its cooling system. If you notice any issues at all, we strongly recommend a preventative cooling system rebuild using quality aftermarket parts.

Driving a car with the original components that are brittle or cracked can lead to a sudden loss of coolant, warped heads, and all kinds of nasty things. The E46 3-series horror stories should be all the incentive you need.

Front Driveshaft Spline Failure

One of the more common issues in cars that have been pushed hard is the front driveshaft spline failure. You’ll find this happening on both the V8 and I6 versions of the E53. That being said, stripped front driveshaft splines are much more common on the manual versions of the car.

The only solution here is to either get a new driveshaft or cut the stripped out portion off and weld on a fresh part with longer splines. One way to check if this part has failed is to jack the car up and rotate the front wheels. If a wheel spins freely and you hear a metallic noise coming from the transfer case (sounds like someone dragging a metal pipe over asphalt), walk away.

Front Control Arms

Control arms, more specifically front control arm bushings, wear out over time on any car. However, the X5 likes to eat these up more often on average. The fix is to either get new control arm bushings or complete new control arms. Either way, you can expect the factory bushings to last up to 60,000 miles on average, at which point you’ll need to swap them out.

Rear Subframe Bushings

Another set of components that often fail on BMW X5 E53 are the subframe bushings in the rear. Granted, this isn’t an issue unique to the X5, but it’s a costly job if you choose to have a shop do it for you.

On the other hand, if you’re doing rear bushings by yourself, you could do it on the cheap. All you need is Sidem’s rear subframe bushing kit, which is both durable and affordable. That being said, you will need a special press to press those bushings in. It’s not a difficult job as there is more than plenty of room under there.

Air Suspension

If you decide to get a high spec model with BMW’s self-leveling air suspension, it’s in your best interest to thoroughly check the entire system. Air suspension on older German vehicles can be iffy on a good day.

We generally recommend that you go with an X5 that has regular suspension, as it just makes more sense. Sure, the spring rate on the standard the X5 is a bit rough, making the ride stiffer than many like. However, you’re saving yourself from a major headache.

Transfer Case Actuator Motor Failure

Although it’s common knowledge that BMW uses plastics in places where it really shouldn’t, many think the older BMWs are spared of this decision. The E53 X5 features a plastic transfer case actuator gear that will wear out over time. When that happens, you’ll end up with an actuator motor that won’t engage.

The best fix we can suggest is getting an aftermarket actuator gear made of stronger materials that will last longer.

Door Handles

With the more serious mechanical issues covered, a few ‘superficial’ problems plague this model. For one, the headlights will dim over time. If you find a car that looks pristine, chances are the previous owner has already polished the headlights. That being said, you can restore the headlight yourself fairly easily on the cheap.

Foggy headlights are an inconvenience, and broken door handle carriers are a problem. For some reason, the door handle carriers, the exterior ones, on X5 love to snap. Worst of all, it’s not the plastic cover that snaps, but the aluminum chassis underneath.

When it goes, you won’t be able to open the door from the outside. The only solution is getting a new one. Fortunately, aftermarket replacements are pretty cheap and durable.

Is an X5 E53 a Good Buy in 2020?

It’s 2020, and the first-gen X5 is pretty affordable nowadays. You can get a decent one for a few grand. That being said, these cars are nearly two decades old now. The age alone brings several issues that can become costly in the long run.

If you find a clean, reasonably priced E53 with known service history, it’s a good purchase. More so if you’re passionate about DIY because the cost of labor on these cars hasn’t become cheaper, despite the cars themselves being relatively inexpensive.


16 thoughts on “BMW X5 E53 Known Issues – An SUV that Still Looks Good And Only Has a Few Flaws
  1. Don gana

    Should a person replace the rear shocks & subframe to body mounts by buying your tools and find a place to buy the mounts & schocks and DIY. I was quoted to replace all four schocks and subframe to body mounts at around $3000. I can do the job if I know the steps and right tools but I have not priced everything out yet. Do you have to cut the rear muffler bar as I have seen. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Adam Goral

      Hi Don, many people have done this job by themselves, but depending on your suspension setup it may be easier or harder because some of these X5’s use air shocks (we have them in the high quality Arnott brand). We also carry the bushings, which are not on the cheap side either, around $500. We do now offer payment plans on these parts should you attempt the job yourself, so you don’t have to pay all at once. I am not sure about having to cut the muffler, but I assume this is only the case if the system is too rusty to disconnect with the standard hardware. If you need to replace your exhaust pipe, contact customer service with your VIN and we will find the right part for you, fast.

  2. Biola Orekoya

    At 5600 miles my 2006 X5 4.4i developed total electrical problems. The source was BST cable from the battery. Cost about $3000 not from a an European cars specialist. I don’t have any confidence in the vehicle anymore.

    • Keith Russell

      i suggest you get it investigated by an experienced bmw repair specialist as soon as possible. Cars like these burn to the ground quickly with wiring falure. I am not kidding. I am an auto mechanic of 44 years and have come across many late model vehicles with these complaints.

  3. Keith Russell

    I’m going to replace the rear air bags or shocks on my bmw x5 m e53 WBAFB32050LN89299 what is cost of air bags sugest anything of note. Also need a dashboard or rebuild the leds are failed. Maybe a new radio satnav pack and rear camera.Timing chain kit and tool.I have re[placed waterpump and alternator.
    Kind regards keith russell

    • Adam Goral

      Hi Keith, since we don’t officially sell parts for non US model cars, you will have to provide us with exact part numbers. We do carry these parts for US market cars but our software cannot verify if they are the same.

  4. I have a 1996 bmw 750il the problem I have is my park indicater light will not go out and it is draining my battery mechanic can’t find the problem modulators have been tested and still no solution any suggestions about repairs

      • Marco De novellis

        Please help with my 2006 x5 4.4
        I keep getting error codes
        There is a flat spot on acceleration around 1800rpm
        engine goes into failsafe mode
        Also low vacuum at oil cap
        Also no vacuum at fuel regulator

        Error codes are

        I replaced the leak detection pump
        The code still comes back

        I replaced fuel filter
        Codes comes back after I clear it

        Codes keeps coming back after I clear it

        Somebody please help solve these problems

  5. David

    I have bmw x5 i3.0 . I was turning into a drivethrough window when I started hearing a noise coming from the engine. It wasnt real loud, kinda a rumble.Then all the sudden something popped, I immediatly seen a puff of smoke come from front drivers side under hood.Then I realized my battery light was on.The vehicle didnt appear to be overheating and the smoking stopped but when I pulled out of the drivethrough I had no power steering and I did smell a brief smell of what I thought was antifreeze.I was only about a mile from my house so I drove home shut it off and haven’t started it again.Odd thing other than no powersteering it drove home great. But when I popped the hood I seen a fluid of some sort, maybe powersteering fluid,it was light brown,all over everything under my hood and I’m talking everywhere.I see no hoses busted.I checked my oil, level is fine color is good.My car is parked and closest bmw repair is an hour away. Please let me know if you have any idea what has happened.Thanks

    • Adam Goral

      Hi David, it sounds like a belt came off or broke. Gain access to the belt area and see what kind of misfortune you are looking at. With the 3.0 N5x engines (I’ve seen this on many 3 series and 5 series) the oil filter housing gasket leaks onto the belts, which degrades them substantially. Eventually the serpentine belt breaks and if you’re unlucky, they jammed between the main crank pulley and the engine, and subsequently gets sucked THROUGH the main seal into the engine. So thoroughly inspect the belt area and see what you can find down there. DO NOT drive it until you find the problem without question of a doubt, and make sure that the main oil seal is OK. Here’s a photo of this happening.

  6. paul

    hi there, my problem is when I go to overtake on the motorway and kick down the car revs but doesn’t move up the gears until I ease off on the gas. any ides guys?

  7. Chris Case

    Can anyone point me in the right direction. 2001 bmw X5 e53. After installing new battery as the old one was tested and was bad. Car started right up. I let it idle for a few minutes as I just added coolant. The car completely shut off. No power completely. I couldn’t open the rear hatch to check the battery because it was locked and no power. My year doesn’t have key access anywhere other than the driver side door. I went in the house for probably 10 mins came back outside and everything was working perfectly again. 2 days later and the same issue is happening. Using a battery/alternator tester shows the battery as being good. However still no power. Using the positive/negative battery terminal contacts under the hood with a jumpstart booster pack do nothing as well… Total darkness? What’s happening?

    • Adam Goral

      Since BMW’s battery registration protocol didn’t start until 2002, I don’t think that’s the problem here. The only time I’ve run across issues like this is because the battery cable wasn’t actually tight, even when it felt like it was. Double check the integrity of the battery cable, make sure it’s not frayed or has internal breaks, and is connected tightly with some dielectric grease. Hope you can find out what’s going on!

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