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My BMW 540i Certified Pre-Owned Experience

BMW 540i 540
Rancho Santa Fe, California, July, 2005

2003 BMW 540i M-Sport, Sterling Gray (click to enlarge)

back to top of BMW 540 review.


This, like everything on this website, is purely my personal experience and opinion. I'm not a lawyer or law enforcement and may be mistaken on some or all of this page.

The good news is that my BMW 540 was the most incredible thing I've ever driven. The bad news is that my experience with the dealer was the worst consumer experience I've ever had. I can't believe these things still go on.

My BMW Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) experience was the very, very, very worst consumer experience I've ever had. I always have great experiences. I was shocked at what happened. I no longer take for granted the way we conduct every business relationship in the developed world after dealing with this example of how not to treat a repeat customer.

I invested months searching out the perfect original collectible car. A 2003 BMW 540 Sport is unlike anything I've ever driven, and I've driven and own plenty of six-figure price tag cars. That's the good part.

After it was completely reconditioned for sale and after I bought it for cash, the dealer, without my knowledge or permission, hijacked it and repainted half of it with an insurance-company quality respray. They refused to discuss what happened to my car that required over a week of intensive bodywork, even when BMW of North America stepped in to investigate. The dealer refused to say anything to anyone. Something really, really bad must have happened to my car. Any decent dealer would have come clean and admitted whatever happened. Their silence, in the words of BMW North America, made this extremely suspicious.

I have it in writing that my car was painted without my permission. There's no question about that. The question was why? They could have said that they simply took it away for more detailing, but they wouldn't say anything. They wouldn't even discuss it. I always have my camera with me, and lucked out because I just happened to make some high-resolution photos of the hood showing in what perfect condition it was when I bought it, clearly requiring no more work. That's why I bought it! When it came back from bodywork the new paint looked worse than the spectacular original paint on my almost twenty-year old 1988 Mercedes.

How would you feel if that dealer refused to discuss what on Earth they could have done to your car after you bought it that required over a week in a body shop after it had already been completely reconditioned before the sale? How would you feel if they then gave you a hard time about it? You'd be ticked, too!

They destroyed my car and then lied about it. It was no longer an original car, and I wouldn't autocross it since for all I know masking tape numbers would peel off the new paint. It's as if they crashed it and gave it back after taking it to the lowest bidder for body work. I'm ticked that anyone would damage a fantastic car like this, and that they then lied about it.

Even my wife, who has zero interest in cars, knows something's very, very fishy if a car has to go away for a week or two of secretive bodywork.

The job looked OK at the time, but wasn't likely to keep looking new as years and decades pass. Every collector knows original paint is far better looking, more durable and far more desirable than a repaint. A car can be restored a zillion times, but is only original once. Original cars (called "survivors") fetch top dollar. Body-work victims don't. If I was going to repaint it I would have preferred to have the whole thing done in candy-apple red with a 7-layer flame job, since that wouldn't be trying to hide anything.

How would you feel if your beautiful new car was held hostage and half repainted after you bought it without your knowledge or consent? Imagine buying a wonderful car, then having someone else crash it, expecting you to be perfectly happy accepting it at full price, and give you a hard time about it! It's a little worse than being robbed or having your child raped. It was fine when I bought it; in fact, the stellar condition of the original paint was a big factor in my decision to buy it in the first place.

If you're a collector you know how important it is to select the right shop, and the right people at that shop, and that's only if you have to do body work as a last resort. If I had crashed it myself that was one thing, but for a dealer to have it repainted without getting my permission is inexcusable.

As a BMW owner for over 20 years I refused to admit I'd become a victim of what appeared to be fraud. I preferred to consider my experience as unbelievably awful and indifferent customer service. Since the value of the apparent fraud was well over $400 that makes it a felony, meaning someone would be looking at at least a year of jail time if I understand the law correctly.

Research any dealer and you'll see whiners complaining about attitudes or abilities to repair pesky mechanical issues. Rudeness or weird electrical problems aren't felonies.

All I wanted was for the dealer to make things right as they should for any repeat customer. Instead all I got was being ignored for over seven months until I finally had to pull out my press card and explain that this article was going to be written and I, as a BMW-phile, didn't want to have to report that I had to go to the AAA, BBB, DMV, DOJ or wherever this was going next.

I'm a car lover like you who loves to drive. Germans call this Fahrvergnügen and BMW calls it Freude am Fahren. I'm not part of law enforcement or a lawyer. This is purely my own personal experience and opinion.


I saw my 540 when it first came in to the dealer. Two weeks later it had been fully serviced, certified, reconditioned and ready for sale. It was more perfect than any other car I'd seen after many months of shopping. It still smelled new. it had been owned by a real estate broker, used for showing clients around, so it had none of the paint pitting common on every other car driven on freeways. Cars driven on local roads don't get sand and stones kicked up at high speeds which chip the paint on most other cars. That's why I bought this one. Of course I ID'd the previous owner from my own investigation.

I walked in and paid cash in June 2005. We filled out the DMV transfer forms and it was mine to take.

I had no second driver with me so I planned to come get it the next day. This dealer was an hour away from my home in the next county. I wasn't going to leave the better car in which I arrived there overnight, and it's a very good thing that I didn't!


Instead it was held hostage until July 2005 during which it underwent unauthorized bodywork at a completely uncertified body shop!

To my horror as a collector, half of it was repainted without my authorization to hide whatever happened. Remember that it had already undergone a full reconditioning and detailing for two weeks before I bought it. I've got before and after photos of course, and even on those it's obvious to see overspray that wasn't there when I bought it. I have it in writing from the dealer that they repainted it without permission.

This is highly unusual as this suspicious bodywork happened after I bought it. It's not a question of what I bought; it's what was done to it and why after I owned it, and what the dealer was going to do to make things right. Every reasonable business would have said "whoa, we did what?" and would have offered whatever it took to make things right. It was their fault and their problem to clean up, not mine.


Everyone and every organization makes mistakes. What sets winners apart from losers is how they handle these mistakes.

The dealer blew me off. No one wanted to talk about it.

The BMW Car Club of America, of which I'm a member, was helpful but got me nowhere.

I got a form letter from the general manager (GM) thanking me for my purchase and inviting me to contact him with any issues. I did, two business days after I picked up my car. He was out and I explained a little to his secretary. She was very concerned that this happened and promised to investigate.

A week or two later a got a voicemail telling me they weren't going to do anything. I was out of luck and they were washing their hands of the matter. The GM wouldn't even discuss it.


I had never been so angry in my life, but retained the patience of a saint thinking they really didn't want to be treating me this way. In all the years my wife has known me this is the first and only issue which has ever gotten me angry. I'd been incendiarily angry ever since I first wasn't able to retrieve my car the month I bought it. I couldn't believe any business would behave this way, but a quick Googling of the dealer and GM's name showed so many other complaints that I realized I was getting treated the same as many others. Googling decent dealers, like my Mercedes dealer, show none of these complaints.

A reader from BMW Sweden got someone from BMW North America to give me a call and investigate. BMW North America investigated from October 2005 through January 2006.

They also got nowhere, with over three months of continuous investigation and personal visits to the dealer!

BMW NA usually gets fast resolution from this dealer, yet in my case it was apparently a very sensitive issue and no one wanted to say anything about it. BMW NA observed that with all my written and photographic documentation that I ought to have an easy time getting the BBB to get the dealer to discuss this. BMW NA gave up and gave me the phone number to the BBB. Great.

I still couldn't believe this. I didn't want to think that I was a victim of fraud and was going to have to pursue this elsewhere. The more the dealer wanted to keep this a secret the more it told me that there was a very dark story behind it that the dealer didn't want uncovered. Every legitimate dealer would have discussed it the day it happened.

Any other consumer would have been stuck here and have to have taken civil and/or criminal legal action and started to work thought the alphabet: AAA, BBB, DMV, DOJ and so on. 99.999% of customers would have been stuck.


I had one secret weapon up my sleeve. I decided to pull out my press card and ask BMW NA's press department if I was understanding all this correctly. Was my treatment typical for a CPO customer? Is this what the program is all about? BMW's ads in car magazines about their certified pre-owned program are nice, but my actual experience had been quite different. Would someone from the corporate CPO department please comment? I copied the dealer's general manager on my email.

I didn't want to have to pull this trick, since at this point it no longer shows you how a customer really gets treated. It shows you how someone who gets over 1,000,000 readers every month (more than the combined single-copy circulation of Road & Track, Motor Trend and Car & Driver combined) gets treated.

For the very first time I heard back from the dealer's GM himself. He should have resolved this over six months ago when I first called him. When I finally got him to discuss it all he would offer was to buy back my car. I didn't buy it to resell for what I paid for it. It wasn't for sale, and he certainly didn't offer any compensation for my storage and other costs, or anything to make this right. All these months I hadn't been enjoying the 540. It sat locked in my garage awaiting resolution of this issue. I didn't drive it other than to keep the battery charged and fluids circulated. I needed to keep the body clean in case I had to to show law enforcement and other investigators what happened. I was kept so clean locked in my epoxy-coated storage facility that it never needed to be washed with soap. It cost me money to store this vehicle for them for seven months. They didn't even offer me interest on my money they had for over half a year.

The dealer only offered a simple refund. My wife, far smarter than I am, suggested just getting rid of it since this issue had caused me so much distress. Within two hours we were at this dealer, an hour away from our home, and got a simple refund. We got nothing to compensate for our other expenses or material losses. My wife was right: regardless of our loss, this felt great to be out of. It was like waking up from a seven-month bad dream.

Irvine BMW Refund Check

The dealer certainly hasn't done anything to make good on this. All they did was a buyback seven months later and presumably sold the car to someone else, and BMW blesses this behavior by continuing to renew this dealer's contract to represent BMW.


This dealer is still out there selling a lot of cars and causing more problems for more people. More importantly than slamming this one bad dealer is that I learned things from which we all can benefit. That's why I wrote this article.

1.) Pick your dealer as carefully, or more carefully, than you pick your car. Let this be a guide also in your choice of car brand. A good dealer would have made this right immediately instead of trying to avoid the issue. I found this site, DealerRater.com, to echo my experiences at this and other dealers. Don't pay too much attention to which dealer can or can't fix weird electrical problems, but do pay rapt attention to dealers who don't pay their bills, forget to process DMV paperwork or calling credit customers back three days later with the old scam claiming their credit app didn't go through and that they will now have to renegotiate their loan at a much higher rate.

2.) Be sure to research the quality of your dealer today, not last year. If they change management they become a completely different dealer. My wife bought a car from this dealer a few years ago and all was great. We figured that they could be trusted when the red lights went off in my head when my car wasn't available the next day. I was off my guard and was hoping everything was being done in my best interest. I was working off old information. Otherwise I never would have accepted this and would have run up there immediately and demanded to see my car. Some time between our 2002 purchase and the 2005 purchase all had changed. My wife felt really bad that she had suggested them. The name stays the same while the people come and go.

3.) If you have any suspicions for the well-being of you car while it's out of your hands, immediately show up and demand to see it. If it's off-site for sublet repairs go there and demand to see your car. It's your car and you're entitled to see it. The more a dealer tries to brush you off and tell you it's inconvenient or at some other location awaiting parts, the more likely that something has gone sour and that you need to see it now. It's not uncommon for a car to get dented on dealer lots and for it to go away for some midnight bodywork about which you'll never be told. I have two friends to whom this has happened. One other time in the 1980s I was suspicious and another one of my classics, my 1970 GTO convertible, got shafted and I should not have taken any verbal reassurances that all was well. I had to retrieve it from a motel in the shady part of town after the shop owner lost my keys and was unsuccessful having locksmiths make a new key. That's an advantage of the custom Medeco lock I had installed.

3a.) You must go see your car, even if it seems inconvenient. Take the day off work or travel the hour out there. The time spent today catching a dealer in a midnight offsite boondoggle will save you months of hassle later. Sometimes you never discover the midnight bodywork until you go to trade in your car at some other dealer years later. You'll have no recourse and no way to pin the deed on the dealer who did it that far down the road. Trust your instinct: if you feel something is suspicious it probably is.

A classic's (or any car's) value drops significantly after any paintwork. You may sue the dealer for that, presuming you catch them. They'll tell you repairs are taking longer than expected if your car goes bye-bye for a few days for some fast dent repair.

Sometimes your car really does have to wait a week for an odd part to repair a problem for which you sent it in, but it never has to wait a week for an oil change. If you show up asking, politely yet firmly, to see your car hopefully it's fine and all is well. I was smart enough to have taken my own advice while my 540 was gone I would have found it in a body shop in the shady part of town covered in masking tape with the lights are pulled off waiting to be painted. The spare in my trunk was floating in three inches of water when I picked it up. I was told that was from the daily washes the car gets. Further inspection showed it was from the wet color-sanding it got after the right rear quarter panel was painted before the tail light was put back on. All the electrical parts inside the right wall of the trunk, including most of the fuse panels, were covered in powdery abrasive polish. My 540 ran great, but this didn't build my confidence in the long term reliability of any of the electrical connections now covered in rouge.

4.) Take the car the instant you buy it. Don't leave it for later pick up. If I had done that all would have been great. Of course my real car might have been damaged sitting wherever the 540 did, and that would have been a lot harder to cover up (keeping my Mercedes hostage for bodywork) than this. Next time I'll bring my wife if I expect to drive it away. A good dealer like Hoehn Mercedes can work out a decent price in five minutes. I had to wait around for three hours while these BMW turkeys pretended they were doing something to get a decent price. After that I wrote a check and the car was mine, but it would have been tough negotiating a discount with the wife waiting.

5.) I already knew that price is always negotiable. Sticker supposedly was $47,000 and I paid $42,999, and the car had just hit the lot for sale that day after weeks of reconditioning and servicing. It would have gotten more negotiable if it had waited around on the lot a few weeks or months. Certified pre-owned prices are as negotiable as any other used car, and far more negotiable than a new car. If you pay anywhere near sticker price or buy any extras you've been had. That's not the point of this article. Expect a 10% discount from sticker on certified pre-owned cars. You'll never pay less that you expect. I got less than 10% off because I didn't expect to get it on a car so new to the sales floor.

6.) Get everything done to your satisfaction before you pick it up if you can't trust the dealer. With a good dealer, like my local Hoehn Mercedes, they do what they promise after you buy your car. Otherwise, only take your car after it meets your expectations or verbal promises. Your paperwork always excuses the dealer from having to make good on anything he said before you bought it! This wasn't my problem, but good to know.

7.) CPO certification is only as good as your dealer. Next time I'll just buy one from another enthusiast, not a dealer. The warranty, even the extended warranty, transfers in full if you buy from an owner. (It doesn't transfer if you buy from an independent non-BMW dealer. Double check with BMW since things can change with time.)

Buying a CPO car from a big dealer just costs you more than buying from someone who cares. The only certification work done to my 540 was a brake flush, ABS fluid and inspection I, which includes a 5W30 oil change, filter and washer fluid. Other dealers put in new brake rotors and more. Not my dealer.

The head of my local chapter of our BMW Car Club of America pointed out that he can buy cars at the same auctions the dealers do, and that the dealer's cost is only $800 to put a "Certified" sticker on it. So long as it has four wheels and lug nuts it usually passes certification. You can look up the CPO certification forms elsewhere on the internet.

The most important thing is to choose a good dealer who goes beyond the minimum required, and most dealers do pretty good work and replace many things that don't need to be replaced just to get you a good car. Most do, but don't have to.

My 540 was in great shape; others I saw for sale were very worn. I'm not sold on BMW's CPO process: the warranty isn't really. Unlike my Mercedes extended warranty, which just fixes just about anything that might break for free, usually with a free loan car and wash, the BMW warranty has a $50 charge anytime you need anything fixed. That's fine for a big item like a blown engine, but not for most things. A $50 charge isn't much of a warranty.


Every decent business knows its most important asset is its reputation.

I was a senior manager at a multi-billion dollar company, and we had that inscribed on the credo we had posted in all of our offices. I sold our products, with individual orders in excess of a million dollars, to other multi-billion dollar companies including divisions of General Motors. When we made a mistake we went way out of our way to fix it, without having to be asked.

In that job I personally oversaw us sending FedEx to collect $200,000 worth of equipment (50 instruments) we had just shipped so that we could take them back, upgrade them and return them, all at our expense. This fixed a problem so obscure that only our engineers were able to simulate it in a lab, and never would have happened under any actual conditions on this earth. We wanted to be sure our products never stumbled for our customer. This customer continued to buy pallet loads of equipment after that, and for all I know still does. I retired in 2004.

Customers always get what they want when there's a problem. The longer it takes, the worse the dealer looks. Fixing something fast is an oppurtunity to gain trust and reputation. The sooner an issue is resolved, the better. Every problem is an opportunity to improve customer relations by doing the right thing. Stupider organizations ignore customers and hope they go away when faced with problems. They do, and take others with them. Bill Clinton learned, with the Monica Lewinsky issue, that covering something up just makes it worse.

As soon as the BMW dealer learned that something happened to my car they should have phoned me immediately and flat out said " We're sorry Mr. Rockwell, but we accidentally repainted half your car. We'd like to offer you any of:

1.) (throw in something for free like the $2,000 service option)


2.) Offer you $4,000 in compensation for the loss in value to your car (my actual loss would have been closer to $12,000 based on how much more I get for cars than book value)


3.) We'll just take it back, and give you a full refund,

and, regardless of your preference, throw in (insert something worthwhile and brand-building like a trip to one of the excellent BMW driving schools) just to show you how sorry we are, even if you prefer to return your car.

Remember this wasn't just a ding. They repainted half my car!

Did they? No. They just tried to deny it all and pretend it was my problem. If they had offered something nice (without me having to ask) back in June 2005 I'd still be a completely happy camper, since they would have been honest. Everyone screws up now and then. I understand that. It doesn't become fraud until it's covered up.

We all screw up. The difference is how we handle it. The dealer caused this problem, and tried to dump it on me. Nice try! It might have been as simple as one miscommunication, but even my wife, who knows nothing about cars, realizes something's fishy when they have to repaint half the car after it was bought and paid for. No one was smart enough to tell me they thought they were helping me out with a free paint job. They were so embarrassed about whatever happened that they wouldn't say anything,


BMW 540 5DBF016 WBADN63423GS56914

It's California license plate 5DBF016, VIN WBADN63423GS56914.

Its a great car. You probably bought it from the same dealer I did, who of course put it right back up for sale. You got a great car. You also got a car in better overall condition and with more expensive options than any other I found.

My issue is I bought it in great condition, then it was damaged, and then the dealer was deceptive about the extent of the work. Not just the entire hood, but also the right rear fender, front right fender, the entire roof and possibly left front fender were repainted. That's at least four panels, which is at least $2,000 worth of work. It was never reported to the DMV, at least as far as I saw it on Carfax in February 2006 when I returned it to the dealer. I did report this to Carfax myself.

It wasn't repainted by the dealer as claimed or by a BMW certified body shop or even with "factory paint." It was done by another body shop in Santa Ana that has no certification by BMW.

A simple look at Kelly Blue Book's condition ratings show you that an "excellent" condition car must "never had any paint or body work." This car is busted down to the "Good" category, which is over $2,000 less valuable at KBB's private party values. The dealer never offered any compensation.

It was in worse condition when I picked it up than when I bought it.

If you own it today you bought a car that was already half repainted. There's nothing wrong with that; it looks great as a driver. I would have bought it that way, of course at a price appropriate as a consumable car for transportation, not as a collectible car to be enjoyed and preserved.

I let the dealer buy it back because I was so offended by the whole way this was treated. If you got decent service then you're enjoying one of the best examples of one of the best cars ever made.

I was so ticked I also sold my other classic BMW, a 1977 with under 19,000 miles on it, the very next day. Of course for that classic I got exactly what I paid for it back in 1984! That's what you expect when you keep your paint original.


Probably not. BMW cars and motorcycles are spectacular and the best-driving cars on the planet.

The dealer experience is important. I've always gotten better service even from Ford, SAAB and Dodge dealers.

I'm still so freaked out by all this it's unlikely I'll ever want to risk it again, unless someone finally does the right thing. I've given up. Customers should never have to drive their own satisfaction. I'd love for someone at the dealer or BMW North America to address this. No one has made it right. I only sold it back to the dealer because the whole issue was so unpleasant. It doesn't make up for my losses and it doesn't put my 540 back in my garage in the condition in which I had bought and paid for it.

This shows us that BMW considers this treatment perfectly acceptable. It's not acceptable to me. Does it sound acceptable to you?

I don't like to spread bad news. There's already too much of it out there. Sharing this story with friends they pointed out that common decency demands I share at least this much. There's a lot more to it, all bad. I won't even start on the unbelievable rudeness and the fact that they didn't bother to register my car with the money they collected for it. I had to rattle their cage many months later to get my title and registration. It was still registered to the previous owner! I won't mention it being delivered missing a key, not having a full tank of fuel, missing all of the operators manuals legally considered part of the vehicle or....

For contrast, see the bottom of my page about Goodwill Warranties for a story about how well I've been treated by our Saab dealer and how well a Mercedes dealer in Chicago treated a customer to whom they had no legal obligation.

I'm certainly not going back to Irvine BMW again. I bought a Mercedes E430 from a private party to replace my 540 at half the price. Of course the extended Mercedes zero-deductible "we'll fix it for free" warranty and lifetime free roadside assistance all transfers for free. I got my new Mercedes title from the DMV a week later, not after six months of excuses.

The world changes. Today with transferable warrantees you can get a better warranty buying from a private party than a dealer, and you'll also get the complete service records if you ask.

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