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.
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.
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.
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.