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Transmission Fluid Change, 1997 528i (E39)

September 28, 2009

This answer is applicable for many BMWs in addition to the one listed below.

I own a 1997 528i BMW with 110,000 miles. When the odometer was at 60,000 miles, I asked my local BMW dealer to change the automatic transmission fluid. Their response was, “it doesn’t need to be changed… it is in a sealed cylinder.” I questioned this but they were positive that it was not necessary. I asked again at 95,000 miles because my friend suggested it really should be changed. Once again, BMW said not necessary. Well, this past November, the CHECK ENGINE light came on so I took my car into BMW. They said there were tiny metal shavings in the transmission fluid, and this was the first sign that the transmission was starting to go! They tried selling me a new transmission or a new car. I was fed up, so my friend said to contact BavAuto. I ordered Red Line D4ATF transmission fluid and the filter kit. What is the best way to go about changing the fluid since it is so old, and also, who should I have change it? I’m desperately seeking help!

As you have learned, “lifetime” to BMW means that the fluid will last for the lifetime of the transmission: if the transmission fails at 100,000 miles, it has completed its lifetime. We like to see much longer service life from transmissions. To achieve this, you need to change the fluid periodically. There is nothing “sealed” about the fluid or transmission. It’s just like any other automatic transmission, except there’s no dipstick. The fluid is checked and filled via a plug on the driver’s side of the pan. I would recommend two fluid changes. This is because the pan only holds about 1/3 of the total fluid in the transmission. Performing a second fluid change ensures a higher concentration of fresh fluid. The first change requires dropping the pan and changing the filter. After reassembly, run the car for a few minutes, then perform a second change without dropping the pan.  Who should change the fluid? If you are at all handy, you can do it yourself and save some serious money. We published a step-by-step, do-it-yourself article in the Spring 2006 issue of Fast Times. If you’re not comfortable doing it yourself, almost any shop can perform the filter and fluid change, there is nothing especially technical about it.

As for the Check Engine light, there is no fault code a BMW can generate that will tell whether the transmission fluid has metal shavings in it. If you want to be sure your service advisor isn’t, um, exaggerating, I would suggest that you obtain our fault code reader tool and check the engine codes yourself. This tool will also reset the Service Interval and Oil Change reminders, saving you even more money over what a dealer charges for this service.

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Categories → 5 Series 97-03 - E39

  1. Carl B permalink

    I just bought a 1997 528i with an automatic transmission. I have just discovered that the transmission all but refuse to shift up when the car is cold. I have to manually shift a couple times before it start shifting automatically. There is no problem once the car starts warming. Any ideas what the problem might be? Could I be right in thinking a fluid change may be required? It has 128Km on the clock. Doubt very much the oil has ever been changed.

    • patrick permalink


      We would recommend changing the transmission fluid and filter as a first course of action. Your shifting troubles, when the fluid and transmission are cold, could be due to the old dirty fluid acting as if it had a higher viscosity than fresh fluid and therefore does not flow as readily as it should. Additionally, there may be some built-up “varnish” (hardened old fluid) in the fluid passages or the valve bores in the transmission valve body, causing the control valves to stick a bit.

      Soooo …. let’s change the fluid and the filter. If the fluid that is removed does look pretty nasty (compared to the new fluid), we would also recommend a secondary fluid change. In other words, after changing the fluid and filter, drive it around the block (or for some period that will mix the new and existing old fluid that is still in the transmission), then perform a fluid-only change (just remove the drain plug and the refill). Drive the car for a few hundred miles and see if the symptoms improve.

      Parts you may need:
      Auto trans filter kit:

      Auto trans fluid (3.2 Qt per change):

  2. vince permalink

    I have 98 528i with 200,000 miles. The dealer told me not to change the trans fluid but I did it at 150,000 because I knew it would prolong the life of the trans. Still runs smoothly. New filter and pan gasket are all that’s required.

  3. Den permalink

    I have the same problem. But my tranny was rebuild. Afterwards, it still had the cold start problem. It was suggested to me that the temperature sensor was failing, and this is causing the problems not shifting at cold start.

    • What model BMW do you have? A temp sensor problem is likely not the source of your shifting problems when the transmission is cold. Can you give any additional detail or symptoms?

  4. Chris permalink

    Hello My name is Chris and I have this same issue maybe I just need a tranny flush and filter. I have spent $2,000 and nobody can fix my issue. When the engine is cold and I start it and put it in reverse the rpms drop and it wants to stall. After it warms up it will not do it again and drives fine. Dealer stated I needed a new torque converter but the tranny drives fine and no codes at all. 10 min of driving and its fine. I am thinking the fluid is low or clogged up and when it’s cold it acts up but when it’s warmed up its fine.

    Any input on this I have a 2002 BMW X5 3.0 with 143,000 on it

    • If the fluid and the filter have not been changed, we certainly do want to do this before going further with any actual repairs.

      Automatic Transmission fluid ETL 8072B:
      BMW Lifetime automatic transmission fluid ETL 8072B

      Automatic transmission filter:
      BMW Automatic Transmission filter A5S-390R

      As for the notes on the dealer claiming that the torque converter is at fault; this is a possibility. When the engine stalls, is the transmission still in PARK? If so, we would be skeptical about the torque converter being at fault in the stalling. If the stalling happens when the transmission is in DRIVE or REVERSE, is it as if it is being “dragged down”, like engaging the clutch (with a manual transmission) while the brakes are applied, or is the engine just running poorly? Have you tried applying a small amount of throttle to keep the engine running?

  5. marco t permalink

    Great responses. I’m learning a lot. Anybody know the link to DIY transmission fluid and filter change? Thanks! More powah.

  6. Alex permalink

    At around 200k miles, I started hearing a ‘rattling’ noise underneath the car, and only at lower speeds when accelerating. I thought maybe my transmission was going out so I made the decision to flush my transmission with Sea Foam and changed the transmission fluid and filter. That didn’t fixed the problem but replacing the center bearing of the drive shaft did.

    Thanks to BavAuto and all you BMW enthusiasts out there, I’m at 298k miles now!

    I think I’ll do another fluid change…just for the hell of it.

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