COAL: 2011 BMW X5 xDrive35i — Cursed Wheels

2011 BMW X5

This time, we backtrack a bit, because I owned this car concurrently to another. You’ll recall the 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen that I purchased brand-new in April of 2015. Well, July of that year rolled around and I began thinking about the BMW X5.  As I write this, I’m actually sitting in a restaurant within BMW’s homeland of Munich, Bavaria, which is fitting. I’d always liked the X5, ever since it came out at the turn of the century, when I was very young. No way I could get the then-current “F15” model, that was only in its second model year in 2015, but a previous-generation model? Certainly doable.

The second-generation X5, code named E70, rolled out in 2006 as a 2007 model, and ran through 2013. While the original “E53” X5 was more or less a 5 Series wagon on stilts, the E70 is decried by Bimmer purists because it shifted the balance firmly in the direction of comfort buyers. Wider, longer, taller, heavier, and taller than the X5 it replaced, and now with optional third-row seating, the E70 relied on motors, servos and electronics to counteract its heft and make good on BMW’s Sports Activity Vehicle (SAV) moniker. Gone was the manual-transmission option, too, and in fact the 2007 X5 might have been the first BMW to feature the brand’s joystick-shaped monostatic gear selector (a similarly-operated column shifter had first appeared on the 2002 7 Series and 2003 Phantom). At the same time, the E70 preserved the X5’s sporty, wide-stanced look and was more popular than ever.

The E70 X5 debuted with two basic powertrain. The 3.0i came with a 3.0-liter N62 I6 engine that made 260 horsepower  and 225 pound-feet, while the 4.8i got a more-potent 4.8-liter V8 with a round 350 hp and 350 lb-ft. Both got the company’s advanced xDrive all-wheel drive system, which by default sent 40 percent of the torque to the front axle and 60 to the rear. In subsequent years, these powertrain packages were renamed xDrive30i and xDrive48i, respectively. All engines latched up to a ZF 6-speed automatic transmission. At some point, you were able to select an M Sport package, bundling sleeker aluminum roof rails, unique front and rear bumpers, and body-color cladding, as opposed to the standard X5’s matte unpainted plastic.

The first big change came in 2009, when BMW added a 3.0-liter turbodiesel option (M57). This version was called the xDrive35d, and got you 265 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque, the latter available in full at a low 1,750 RPM. In 2010, BMW quietly replaced the  “CCC” iDrive system with the then-new “CIC” system, featuring crisper graphics, faster response times, and a more-advanced center controller.

Then, in 2011, the E70 X5 got its facelift, which BMW calls a life-cycle impulse, or LCI. The front and rear bumpers were completely redone (for both the standard and M Sport looks), and there were new partial-LED taillights and new powertrains all around. The xDrive35i became the new base powertrain, with a 3.0-liter single-turbo I6 (N55) producing 300 hp and 300 lb-ft. The xDrive50i then became the top option, with a 4.4-liter twin-turbo V8 (N63) that put out 400 hp and 450 lb-ft. Both the xDrive35i and xDrive50i came with a ZF 8-speed automatic, while the xDrive35d carried on with the 6-speed. Finally, the last batch of 2011 models and all subsequent model years benefitted from revised headlights with white LED coronas in place of the previous orange halogen ones.

Pre- vs. Post-Facelift X5

On the left: the 2007-2010 pre-facelift E70 X5. On the right: the 2011-2013 post-facelift (LCI) version of the same

Can you tell I’m a fan of this car yet?

Knowing all of that, I decided that my ideal E70 X5 would be an LCI (facelifted) model, so a 2011-2013. I knew better than to get the V8 and the diesel was rare, so mine needed to be the gas I6 model. The xDrive35i Premium trim would get me that, along with the panoramic sunroof, a power tilt-telescoping steering wheel, a garage door opener, a power liftgate, four-zone climate control, keyless access and start, and some other niceties. I also wanted the iDrive with Navigation system, which would come with a wider infotainment screen instead of the narrow one that didn’t fill the whole bezel. And, most importantly, I wanted the umpteen-way Multi-Contour front seats. I immediately nixed red- and gold-exterior cars from the candidacy, but was open to all others. After some research, I figured I could get all of this for around $30,000.

That proved not to be the case, at least not in my local market. The thing about Oklahoma City is that we have relatively few luxury cars compared to larger cities. That means that when they come up on the used market, their scarcity drives the prices up. Especially for SUVs and crossovers. I was just getting ready to think about Dallas, when I remembered CarMax. The nice thing about CarMax is that they have a nationwide inventory, which normalizes their prices, and they’ll ship most cars to your local store for a reasonable fee. The not-so-nice part is the no-haggle policy.

We live in a world of Internet commerce, but sometimes the best way to shop for a car is simply to stop by the actual dealership. I needed to do so anyway, because I wanted to make sure I actually liked the X5. It would be the biggest thing I had ever owned, by far. When I arrived at my local CarMax store, I was greeted by a lovely salesperson named Celia, and she found an X5 on their lot that had all of the options I wanted and then some. It was a blue-on-black low-mile 2013 model that was well outside of my price range, but it was a good demo.

And I did like it. I liked how it drove–to me–like a sports car on stilts. I liked the heavy hydraulic steering. I liked all of the buttons and features, and the fancy iDrive system. It felt like the luxury car purchase I had always wanted, and felt entitled to, in my younger pre-career years. I even thought the BMW “gong” chime (which appeared in 2002, and lasted until very recently) was the impressive indicator of quality presentation.


Celia and I walked back inside, where I noticed a BMW key on her desk that didn’t look like it was part of the store’s stock. It turned out that she and her husband owned a 2012 BMW 335i Convertible, also purchased from this CarMax, and were very happy with it. We began looking through CarMax’s inventory, and I quickly zeroed in on a 2012 X5, silver with a black interior, and with about 40K miles, that had everything I wanted. It was in Dallas, too, which meant there was no transfer fee, as it was so close to OKC. But would I get it? Should I? Celia gave me her business card and I told her I’d call her if I decided to pull the trigger.

It only took me the afternoon to decide that I did in fact want it. But when I texted Celia, she said someone else had already begun purchasing it in another location, and it was locked. She advised that we could wait it out and see what happened, or we could find another candidate. I asked her to keep an eye on it, but also look at others. And then I listed off the features I wanted, with specific indicators for her to watch for. The small ridges on the door handles would indicate it had keyless access and start. The wide center screen meant it was one with navigation. And the front headrests with the aircraft-like headrest butterflies let you know it had the Multi-Contour seats.

The seat choices for the E70 X5. Left: Base Seats (leatherette). Middle: Sport Seats. Right: Multi-Contour (aka Comfort) Seats


The next day, Celia had found one. It was a 2011 with just 33,000 miles on the clock, which sounded promising. BMW called the exterior color Sparkling Bronze Metallic, and it was indeed a gorgeous bronze color. I had always wanted a brown car. The inside was Sand Beige Nevada, with beige carpet. It had all of the features I wanted, was located in Houston, and CarMax wanted $29,499 for it. “That’s the one,” I said.

The week spent waiting for the car was excruciating. I didn’t remember being this excited since I was a child, waiting eagerly for a horde of toys under the Christmas tree. When it did come, during the first week of August and exactly a week later, it looked better than in the pictures. We went for a short test-drive to make sure all was good, and it was, so we went inside to complete the deal.

Salesperson delivering X5

Celia delivering my car


That’s when I asked Celia to show me the MaxCare warranties. This X5 was outside of BMW’s 4-year, 50K-mile warranty by age. But, having read Doug DeMuro’s entertaining tales of his 2006 Range Rover Supercharged and all of the things that CarMax’s warranty covered, I was more confident about getting one. When she presented the options, she also told me what I already knew. The warranty had exclusionary coverage, which is what you want, since it just lists the few items that aren’t covered. In the case of the MaxCare warranty, that was mostly consumables like brake pads, tires and wipers, and breakables like glass. They wouldn’t cover a battery either, unless its failure was caused by something else that was covered, like an alternator failure or electrical short circuit. I selected an option that cost about $2,900 upfront and that carried a $50 deductible for each visit, and would get me up to 100,000 miles and 8 years from the original in-service date.

And I’m so glad I bought that warranty.

I called Austin as I was leaving the dealership in the X5 and told him I needed him to come back to the CarMax with me, so that we could pick up the Golf SportWagen. He’d had no idea I’d spent all this time planning to buy a new car, and told me so in a wounded voice. But he agreed. His request was that I go with him to the bar that night and be his designated driver, and I agreed. The X5 proved comfortable transportation for that task, as it should have.

By week one, I had nick-named my X5 “The Pig,” because it was brown, heavy, and drank a lot of gas. A lot. I was never able to get over 19 miles per gallon even on long highway stretches, and the fuel tank wasn’t all that large. 320 to 370 miles between fill-ups was common, a far cry from the 550-plus I enjoyed with the Golf SportWagen.

My earliest modification was a simple one. I ordered a Bavarian license plate and mount and attempted to install them at the front of the car, since Oklahoma doesn’t require its own front plates. However, it kept setting off the front parking sensors, so I quickly removed them.


Bavarian license plate


The first issue came just a few days after I’d bought it. Suddenly, The Pig refused to recognize its keys some of the time, no matter how I tried to use it. I was told I could take the car anywhere for warranty coverage, so I arranged a visit to the local BMW dealership. They took The Pig in and gave me a then-new 2015 X3 as a loaner, which I didn’t like so much. I was happy to get my X5 back, whose keys had both been replaced, at a cost to the warranty company that I don’t remember. This is also when I found out that the MaxCare warranty was underwritten by one of two companies, depending upon the make and model. Mine was from a company called The Warranty Group.

When I’d had my eyes on the 2012 X5 that someone else purchased before I could, I got used to the idea of the white halos LEDs instead of the earlier orange ones. So I scoured the forums and quickly found and ordered a LUX H8 180 kit, which would give my headlights the newer look. Installing them was difficult because there was limited access to remove the stock halo bulbs, even if you removed the headlight housings altogether. That should have been my first clue that BMW didn’t design The Pig for DIYers or shade-tree mechanics. Also, when locking and unlocking the car, the halo lights flickered on and off instead of fading as they had done before. This, I read, is because BMW’s programming for the halogen bulbs toggled the power in rapid succession to achieve the fading effect. However, the LEDs were more responsive and so the same programming on those resulted in a visible flickering symptom. The car would need to be reprogrammed (coded in BMW parlance) to think that it had the LED halo rings. I either neglected to attempt or failed to succeed at that, so the flickering remained for the entirety of my ownership.


One system I never managed to use properly, no matter how much I tried, was the voice command system. It always failed to parse my commands. Meanwhile, a couple of features I enjoyed were the electronic parking brake and auto-hold feature. The latter let you completely take your foot off the brake pedal at a stop, and the car would remain in place. When you wanted to drive off again, you just needed to apply the accelerator. This is technology that was cutting-edge in 2007 when the E70 X5 debuted, but in the intervening years, it’s proliferated to such everyday cars as the Honda Civic and Toyota Camry.

Speaking of stops, The Pig decided to exhibit some truly funny behavior during those times. At least once a day when I stopped, the liftgate would randomly open. I knew I wasn’t hitting it, so the car was acting of its own accord. But I ignored that issue until the day I started it up from cold and the automatic tilt-telescoping steering wheel dropped all the way down to an uncomfortable level and refused to move. Both of those landed it back at the BMW service center, and I went home in a 428i Gran Coupe, which I remember as uncomfortably low-slung at the time. When I got it back, the service advisor let me know that some module had been reprogrammed, to the tune of several hours’ labor, or about $700.

Rubber floor mats

At some point, I bought these rubber floor mats. They worked well


Sometime in the fall, I decided to get the running boards. I’m not sure why I was fond of the X5’s running boards from that generation. It didn’t sit high enough to necessitate them and in fact they were known for being more hindering than helpful, but I always admired the look. Still, they were a rare enough option that when I was shopping, I knew better than to even make it a criterion. I located an unused OEM set on eBay from a Polish buyer, and set about installing them. I don’t remember how much they cost, but they weren’t cheap. This involved removing the wheel flare trim and plastic rocker panel trim, then installing thick plastic cores and finally the decorative running board covers over them. It was an afternoon spent with me on the ground. Also, somehow I ended up schlepping to the dealership to buy extra plastic tabs for re-securing the wheel flare trim.

2011 BMW X5 with running boards

My X5 with running boards installed


One thing I noticed was that The Pig’s iDrive screen’s anti-reflective coating had been scratched up when I got the car. At some point, BMW had quit providing a protective shield from the factory, so this wasn’t uncommon. I would have to either gently polish away the rest of the coating or replace the screen in order to remedy that. However, I didn’t have to do either because before long, half the screen went dead and it was replaced. This time, I ordered a protective plastic screen from Amazon that was custom-made to fit iDrive displays. Later, a frequent freezing issue caused the dealership to swap out the main iDrive module itself.

Other issues included the power seats failing, the transmission skipping gears, the fog lamps turning on and off when they felt like it, and the power windows and sunroof becoming stuck; these incurred thousands of dollars in warranty claims, but the MaxCare warranty dutifully paid them every time without incident and the BMW dealership’s service was immaculate. I didn’t spend all that much time with The Pig. Meanwhile, I was working my way up BMW’s contemporary portfolio of cars as service loaners. During one afternoon, I’d just had the rear blower fan replaced, because it was making an awful buzzing noise, and as soon as I pulled out of the dealership and tried to merge onto the highway, The Pig went into limp mode and displayed 4×4, traction control, and chassis stabilization errors all over the place. It turned out that the steering-angle sensor had suddenly failed. Worse, the rear fan motor failed again, but the part and labor were warrantied on the new one, and so I didn’t have to go through MaxCare or pay a deductible for its replacement.

Instrument cluster errors on 2011 BMW X5

Instrument cluster errors due to failed steering-angle sensor


iDrive errors on 2011 BMW X5

Errors on iDrive screen due to failed steering-angle sensor


One of the last upgrades I made to The Pig was the steering wheel. My car had the base steering wheel design, but there was an available Sport wheel that looked much better, to my eyes. It had been on the blue 2013 X5 that I’d test-driven at CarMax, so I knew it felt meatier and more ergonomic too. I read that the wheels were plug-and-play and perfectly interchangeable, as long as you matched the options your car had. If you bought a wheel that was heated and your old one wasn’t (mine wasn’t), you would need coding. Likewise, if your new wheel included paddle shifters and your old one didn’t (mine didn’t), these too would need to be coded. Also, the airbag cover itself was completely different. I found a new steering wheel on eBay. I’m sure the underlying airbag was the same for both models, so I could have replaced just the cover, but that seemed a dumb idea where safety was concerned. Thus, I got a brand-new airbag-and-cover assembly from a dealer across the country and had that shipped over. Before starting, I was sure to remove the car’s battery and give it a couple of hours to drain any electricity in the system. Assembly was a cinch using standard household tools. Surprisingly, the paddle shifters even worked without coding. Score.

E70 Steering wheel

E70 Steering wheels. Left: Premium Sport Wheel (without paddle shifters). Right: Base Wheel


I don’t remember what the final issue with The Pig was, but around mid-December of 2015, it was back in the shop. The dealership had given me one of the new X5s to drive. The same day I got it, Austin called me, distraught. Remember Minnie, the elderly poodle I mentioned in the previous article? Well, she had declined quite a bit since our trip and was in a lot of pain, so he had made the decision to put her to sleep. Of course, I told him I would be there, as would his grandmother. The good thing, Austin later remarked, was that we had the loaner X5 to transport her on that final trip to the vet, so we didn’t have to taint the memories of our own cars with that somber event.

However–as soon as I got The Pig back, I decided I was done. Given its trend for throwing up electrical issues at every turn. I didn’t see the point in keeping it, especially when I had the reliable Golf SportWagen. There were several other failures that I didn’t mention here, and that’s because I don’t remember them. It was one after the other, often without a break. Eventually, I’m sure the dealership would have diagnosed that the main wiring harness was bad and was the source of all of these issues, but I didn’t really have the patience for that. And anyway, I didn’t need two cars to begin with. So, the day after it was returned, I removed all of my upgrades and sold it to a different dealership for about what I paid, with just 4,000 more miles on the odometer. CarMax even refunded 70 percent of the warranty cost, despite the car racking up a whopping $7,000 or so in warranty repairs. Even if you consider that dealership labor and parts aren’t always the most economical option, that’s an absurd figure for four months of ownership.

Do I regret buying the X5? No. It was a car I’d always wanted, and I loved it dearly when it could be bothered to work. I know BMWs aren’t the most reliable cars out there, but there’s no way the company would survive if all its cars were this failure-prone. Mine was clearly cursed beyond all measure, and I was fortunate to come away having spent just a handful of $50 deductibles. Would I get another one? Perhaps. But I’d lease it new or get a healthy warranty.