A good local foreign car mechanic is the way to go with a used BMW. I don't know of many bad dealers, but I know that they are out there and the frankly do not care as much about people with older cars.
This comment is irrelevant. Buying a used car, is not a good way to dictating if the car is reliable or not. He should had stuck with the Corolla, or asked more questions before purchasing an used car.
Sounds as if you wanted transportation; a commuter. That being the case, stick with Toyota or Honda because they'll always work. Hopefully you didn't want a BMW because it was a BMW (for the name) because while it's folks like that whom buy the cars, it was made for people who like to drive.
To the above post, kind of hard to drive a car that's in the shop, isn't it? With the price BMWs command, they should be reliable. If the reliability can't stand up to that of an inexpensive economy car like a Corolla, that's just pathetic. How good of a car could it really be? But I think this guy either got a lemon or bought it from someone who abused it. These 3-series generally sound like solid transportation.
I'm a current owner of a 328i E36 and while it's leaking oil and has other little quirks about it (ex. only one washer nozzle works, computer thinks taillight goes out every now and then, washer fluid leak, etc.), it's mechanically a sound car. I've put about 24k miles in 10 months so far and hasn't failed yet, but I do basic maintenance myself. I bought it used from a private seller and just knew what I was getting myself into, understood the risks, and just plain got lucky. Plus, dealerships look at E36s like they're Ford Pintos. Avoid at all costs.
I have an e36 purely because it's a great car to drive. It's never broke down on me.
I've had to replace suspension bushings, which appear to be like consumables on e36's. I've also had to replace the water pump and the fan because a blade snapped off somehow. Still the car is 14 years old so I can't really complain. Also I don't drive it for the badge, it's 14 years old and a 5 year old Corsa is worth more, so it's not a brilliant image, just a brilliant drive.
To add to that. How many cars are out there which you can pick up for £2k, which still look half decent today and will achieve upto 150mph, and near 40mpg on a run? There are a few around, but being realistic, not many.