Let’s Take A Look Inside A Ridiculously Complex Cup Holder From A BMW 3-Series

Cup Holder Topshot

As a general rule, good German cars don’t have conventional cup holders. There are some exceptions, the current BMW M340i is just about perfect and has normal cup holders, and the W203 Mercedes-Benz C-Class was generally quite crap and had this astoundingly complex contraption that moved in three dimensions and offered two-story storage, but the adage generally holds true. Of course, there’s a very good reason why most manufacturers prefer their cup holders to be recessed into the center console – it’s a cheap design with few moving parts and an incredibly low likelihood of breaking. Contrast that with German solutions that make 246 years of American history seem simple, and you can start to see why German automakers abandoned nifty yet preposterous beverage storage solutions.

Here’s how the cup holder in an E90 3-Series is supposed to work. Simply press the faceplate, and the dashboard elegantly extends a cupholder that ratchets down to your size du jour. Not only can one of these cup holders deftly handle anything from a slim can of Red Bull to a reasonably-sized milkshake, it also sits within easy reach yet out of the way of everything. It doesn’t block the shifter, the handbrake, the climate controls, the stereo, or the armrest. It’s ergonomically perfect, despite its complexity and sheer number of moving plastic parts. Unfortunately, moving plastic parts almost always break on a long enough timeline. With nearly 17 years and more than 175,000 miles on the clock, time was very much up for my original cup holders. So, let’s see what my local BMW dealership charges for replacements.

E90 Cup holder Price
Screenshot: BMW Toronto

Ah. Granted, we’re dealing in Canadian Dollars here, but $120 for a cup holder that isn’t actually correct for my early car is a little annoying. See, later E90s gained metallic strips on the cup holders, while early ones were stealthy and monotone. Still, I found suitable replacements for cheaper than what the dealership wanted and cup holder replacement is a job worth doing, so I lightened my wallet a touch. I still need to pick up some replacement clips for the trim piece to make it sit perfectly flush, but hey, two functional cup holders! While no part of this probably seems interesting, it’s time we get to the fun bit. Let’s crack open one of the old cup holders and see what’s inside. Full disclosure, this pictures are a bit shitty due to not having a real macro lens. While they’re still probably clearer than the black-and-white photocopy of a cell’s structure you had to label in middle school, I’ve still taken the time to label them for the sake of everyone’s sanity.

Cup Holders Hinges And Springs
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Let’s start with the bits we can see with the cup holder removed from the car. As is typical for E90s, this cup holder has developed some play in the mechanism, preventing smooth operation. However, we can see some remarkable complexity right off the bat. Starting from the front, the little hinged flap for conforming to various drink sizes is held taut with a spring on the hinge. What isn’t so obvious from first glance is how that piece of plastic with a sprung hinge is attached to a second piece of plastic with a sprung hinge, this time featuring two separate springs. Why? Well, an articulated design grips more cups more tightly, and differing hinge resistance promotes folding in the proper sequence.

Cup Holder Ribbing
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Speaking of holding cups tightly, the long edges of the cup holder cassette are ribbed for your pleasure, adding rigidity so your passenger doesn’t end up with a lap full of latte.

Cup Holder Open
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

As for the platform that forms the base of the cup holder, it’s actually quite ingenious. Not only does the rubberized insert prevent cans from rattling, the hinged design takes up minimal space. The base itself moves freely on the hinge shared with the rear support, while the rear support is properly rugged with a well-sized hinge and an assist spring. A separate hinged piece fits nicely into divots on the underside of the cup holder base and provides additional support.

Rubber Nub
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Moving around to the back of the cup holder, there’s a nice little rubber nub to absorb vibration and prevent the cup holder from rattling against the dashboard. Fairly standard stuff, but opening things up reveals where standard stops.

Cup Holder Weird Spring
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Pry off the underside of the cup holder case, and the first thing you’ll likely notice is a thin piece of metal wrapped around a plastic roller, terminating in an unusual t-shaped head. This nifty piece functions as a spring, allowing necessary space between the cassette and the back of the case so the eccentric latch mechanism can do its job.

Cup Holder Pin And Eccentric Mechanism
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

While it’s easy to miss this strange piece of plastic pressed into the case, it serves a critical function. As the cup holder cassette retracts, a pin on the top of the cassette finds its way into this little piece of plastic, following the curve on the left. As soon as compression’s let out on that aforementioned spring, the pin on the cartridge drops into a gate on the eccentric mechanism and keeps the cup holder shut. To extend the cup holder, press on the face plate to place the spring under compression, and the pin drops into another gate that guides along the outer curve in the mechanism. Similar mechanisms are used all the time in the automotive industry, so it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to see one here.

Cup Holder Gear And Nub
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Now, once the pin on the cassette is free of its keeping gate, the whole cassette extends, guided on three tracks. Two typical flat channels guide the spring and inboard side, while the outboard side rides on a partially-geared track. That gear is retained in the cassette using a relief and a cover so it always makes great contact with its mating teeth. Good stuff. Oh, and right next to the gear cover is another little rubber piece to prevent the cassette from rattling against the back of the casing. Details, people. Details!

Cup Holder Rocker Arm
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

While this is all quite neat, it doesn’t exactly explain how the cup holder base extends and retracts with the cup holder. After all, it stays flat through almost this entire circus and can’t have been designed in a manner that would let it jam. So what did BMW’s designers do? They used a little crank on the cup holder base back plate hinge (say that five times fast) and a special little rocker arm. That rocker arm is hinged in the middle and has a little head that rides in a track on the side of the cup holder. As the cup holder cassette reaches the end of its travel, the channel for the arm kinks up, lifting the rearward end of the arm, applying pressure to the crank and lowering the cup holder base. It’s an absolutely absurd mechanism, but it’s likely the cheapest way of getting the job done.

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Seeing this cup holder apart, you just get the sense that someone in Munich looked at the pull-out dashboard cup holders in a 1995 Toyota Pickup and thought, “How can we make this 15 times more complicated and 10 times more expensive?” It’s just such a ridiculous and unnecessary solution of satisfying the American urge for sugar-laden caffeine on the move. Yet despite its complexity and fallibility, the old adage still applies – when it works properly, it’ll make you wonder why everyone else doesn’t copy it.

Img 2834
Photo credit: Thomas Hundal

Honestly, the cup holders on my E90 325i are so good that I genuinely don’t mind spending money as necessary to keep them in operation. If you’ve ever met me in person, you’ll know that I’m not big and don’t require massive cups of soda from fast food establishments. I mean come on, the average human bladder can only hold about 16 ounces of urine. With wonderful automatic climate control to prevent occupants from sweating from every pore, why go for the Double Gulp? I want my cup holders to fit small drinks, and most cup holders simply aren’t good at that. While these BMW cup holders definitely don’t fit the American ideology of “supersize me,”  [Editor’s Note: Oh, these smug Canadians with their small drinks! We get it, Americans like big drinks. Jeez. – JT] they’re so rational, functional, and beautifully-engineered that I simply can’t help but love them.

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62 Responses

  1. I have a 2006 325i with these cupholders and love them. The driver’s cupholder in particular is positioned exactly where I need it to be when I fully extend my arm.

    A couple of years ago, it stopped working. Turns out that the head of the spring had broken off. My son and I were able to bend over the broken end to form a new retaining feature and, using all four of our hands, we got it back together. It wasn’t easy bending it, the steel of the spring is incredibly brittle. IIRC, we did some ad hoc re-heat-treating of the spring end to try and get some ductility.

    Works like brand new, if a little aggressively due to the shorter spring.

  2. This is why us BMW owners go to FCP Euro for parts (I believe they ship to Canada). Same BMW OEM part, 60% cheaper….but with a lifetime warranty. But in all fairness, you can buy these replacements at Amazon or eBay for even cheaper. The made in China reproductions work really well if you want to go that route. Install is pretty simple.

  3. NA Miatas don’t come with cupholders—they came with a giant, open ash tray in the center console instead, because of course. There’s an accessory you can get (mine already had it when I bought the car) which allows you to convert the ash tray space into a sort of cupholder, or really more of a vague gesture in the direction of cupholders in general. It’s the most rattletrap, shallow, loose-fitting thing you can imagine, and it sits right behind the shifter so anything you put in it gets in the way of critical driving functions.

    It also comes with a molded-in reminder not to drop hot ashes into it.

    Silent Bob the box truck has good cupholders. There are four of them spaced throughout the cab. Two are molded into either side of the dash (the one to the left of the steering wheel has been a hand sanitizer holder for the last couple of years) and there are two more big, deep ones in the center console. If you pull the liners out, they fit my Nalgene perfectly. Being a construction worker, I carry huge water bottles (sometimes as many as four of the giant 1.5L Nalgene silos, if it’s a hot day) and I need somewhere to put them when I’m driving. Silent Bob’s cupholders are deep, wide, unbreakable, and not in the way. I like them a lot.

    Seriously, just give me a couple of good molded-in cupholders and I’ll be happy. They work, they don’t break, and if the designers give a shit they can be made to not be in the way. I especially like an auxiliary cupholder in the map pocket area (which nobody uses for maps anymore, of course) where you can stash a water bottle. I don’t have time for some fiddly plastic contraption.

    1. Half of my fleet is cupholderless. No cupholders in the CJ5 because it is too old and honestly, too rough of a ride for decent cupholders. None in the MGB because Europe was woefully behind the times in mobile beverage consumption.

    2. The toyobaru twins have a similar cupholder solution. They’re a bit deeper than the NA Miata’s but that’s the first thing I thought of when I saw them. Still definitely in the way of your elbow while shifting.

    3. The “cup holder” in my ‘96 Impala SS/Caprice was a 3/4” deep depression in the ashtray on the undercurve of the dashboard w/a sliding fence that acted as a trip-wire if you foolishly tried to use it while driving. The ‘94-95 versions had a couple of 2” deep holes in the console, eliminated when they finally moved the automatic gear lever to the console.

      The E90 cup holder is fiddly and delicate. The apocryphal story is “if the Germans invented the paperclip, it would have 11 moving parts and cost $5/ea. Sadly, mine hold a 12oz soda can and most drive-through cups, but not most reusable drink holders. An inadvertent squeeze on a paper cup will eject sugary liquid into the mechanism and render it stuck into the dash. Much hilarity ensues in the attempts to clean it up.

  4. That BMW cupholder looks like the answer to the question “oh crap, we need to ad cupholdwrs for the North Americans! How the hell are we going to fit them in there?”

    Best cupholder I ever had was the split between the two parts of my dad’s 1988 Country Squire. Just cram your cup/can/water bottle/champagne flute between the seats and it would be secure and fall readily to hand. Perfect!

  5. The rear cupholder on my E38 was beautifully designed and had this lovely two-part fold as you pushed it closed and an expensive-feeling latch as it snicked home. Functionally, though, it was a complete disaster because it was far too shallow to keep any sort of drink upright. https://www.youtube.com/shorts/w0oDaA-1hc4

    I always figured it was just BMW being classically passive-aggressive. “These fat Americans, ja, they won’t buy das auto without this ‘cupholder’ ! They should be concentrating on driving! We will give them cupholders, okay!” [designs cupholders to dump contents on occupants if the car moves]

    1. I was always told euro cup holders were designed for use while parked as Germans in particular couldn’t understand, on a cultural level, why one would need a beverage when one was focused on the act of driving. It explains those cars where the only cup holders were slight depressions on the inside of the glove box door, similar to what you see on an airplane tray table

      1. It might be down to average journey length. The only time I’m likely to want to drink something would be on a long (2hr+) journey, and I only do those a few times a year.
        Also, in the UK at least, I’m pretty sure trying to drink something while driving might count as ‘distracted driving’ if a cop was in a bad mood.

    2. The first gen new MINI put the cupholders right where anything in them would be crushed or spilled when shifting. That was almost certainly passive aggression on BMW’s part – you need cupholders, fine, here they are, oh, they get in the way of the shifter? Why are you even ordering a manual anyway, you Americans all like your automatics as much as you like your Big Gulps

  6. I have on of those in my Audi Cab. We don’t call it a cup holder, we call it a cup launcher. It’s a wonderfully over-engineered design mistake made to spill any open beverage the moment you go over any bump, or probably even a pea.

  7. It’s not only the Germans who make crazy cupholders. My old bugeye Subaru WRX had a pretty goofy mechanism too. It was another, slightly less complicated but still janky slide-out that didn’t hold much of anything bigger than a soda can and was prone to spilling drinks, so OF COURSE it was mounted directly above the stereo.

    The first 30 seconds of https://youtu.be/0rnEstMtACI shows it pretty well.

  8. I love my cup holders in my E90, much more than the E46 where I had to have the center armrest up for anything taller than a can of (root) beer. Don’t discount the holder inside the center console, that in the early E90 models is still heated or cooled (unlike the newer ones)! Also, I bemoaned the lack of ability to fit my water bottles, since I usually go through 3-4 nalgene-sized drinks each day. They fit perfectly between the driver seat and B pillar and stay in place with the door open!

  9. Come to think of it, 3 of my 4 vehicles have no cup holders at all!
    Then again my fleet consists of an AWD Prius that does have cupholders, and the three without?
    ’64 F100 Crewcab, ’67 VW Squareback, and a ’92 F350 longbed dually crewcab, so doing without is par for the course for me.

  10. Oh my God, reading this article triggers my cupholder PTSD. I had a Jaguar XK-8 convertible and I hated those cupholders so much. They were some kind of half-ass attempt at clever flip-up BS in the center console. You might as well have just set your cup on dashboard…but alas everyone person that ever tried to used those cupholders just contributed to the sticky sludge accumulating in the unreachable spaces between the seats and center console. I eventually got a stack of carboard drink holders and would keep anything I need to drink and not tip over on the passenger floor. Probably half the reason I sold that car (and the possibly related electrical issues).

  11. I spent just shy of $200 on a factory aftermarket cupholder for my Honda Today. A very rare piece; took several months of trawling yahoo.jp auctions, had to use an agency to receive and ship it to the US. $100 for such a complex piece doesn’t seem outlandish to me.
    Don’t tell my wife.

  12. It looks like someone beat me to the punch in mentioning the late-model Saab 9-3 cup holder. Incredibly fragile feeling and not a great cup holder.

    I would like to suggest another one, in which I have just recently become quite skilled at repairing: Porsche 987 Boxster/Cayman and 997 911. Quite a large cassette-style pop out dual cup holder setup. Very fragile little plastic pins in the back to lock the mechanism in place when closed. They are actually quite good at holding cups/cans with their adjustable width. You just have to be very careful pushing them in and out to not break the retention cam.

    (not my video)

  13. I had a MkIV GTI and the cupholders a similarly complex, but also less useful! The arms were never very tight and anything would fly out of these cupholders if you went around any corner faster than 2mph. My second week of owning the car, I spilled a large fruit punch that I never fully was able to cleanup as it got in EVERYTHING. I ripped the cupholder, sold it, and put a Euro blank plate on it I was so mad. https://youtube.com/clip/UgkxO-DUI1KNuMsRjHqQmL3d20fIVDGa45Yl

    1. I had a golf with one of those guys. It was clever in a “designed by someone who doesn’t understand the purpose of the exercise” way and was great for splashing coffee on the head unit, which it occluded. Good for a laugh when taking a quick left with someone in the passenger seat, though.

  14. E120 Corolla rear seat cupholders open up from their alcove like a butterfly spreading their wings. Beautiful, but overly complicated. I don’t believe they are quite as complex as the bimmer’s, but is done that way so as to maximize rear seat space – there is no fold-down center armrest.

    The bimmer’s soft-open and soft-close feature reminds me of the storage compartment in my Cadenza that sits fore of the shifter and cupholders. That has got to be one of my favorite features of that car – it is so very pleasant to operate. Well, that, and the massive tail lights that are inoffensive looking, bright consistent LED (not that segmented looking crap on American makes) and have proper amber indicators.

    1. 2007 9-3 owner. I had it in a shop once, noticed a couple weeks later it was broken. Gotta make sure you use the damn button to close it. I did find one at the junkyard for $20 though.

  15. German things always seem so needlessly complicated..

    That said, the alternative in my Mustang is two cup holder holes in the center console right behind the shifter.. god forbid you want to put something there and easily change gears.

  16. IIRC, Mercedes-Benz had an even more fiendishly complicated cupholder before the one shown in the video. Unlike the W203 piece, the one I’m thinking of rose and unfolded like the petals of a flower in the morning sun with the push of a little chrome button.

    I was told they were not routinely fitted to German-market M-Bs at that time, but could be purchased at the M-B trinket store at the Stuttgart factory. I bought one there, brought it home, and mounted it on a base so it would sit on my desk. Visitors were fascinated, like cats watching laser pointer dots.

    Pure Art! Sadly, a normal American coffee cup was too large to fit….

  17. This piece of complex engineering is so incredibly German in its use of so many complex moving parts. My Mazda CX-5 has two simple cupholders where the handbrake would normally go with some spring loaded pieces to adjust diameter. These meet my key need to hold a standard bicycle water bottle, and also work fine with a 16 Oz coffee cup. The odd bit is the foam pucks supplied as booster seats for 12 Oz cups. We never use them. Unfortunately the back seat was shortchanged with just angled bottle holders in the doors. I miss our Mazda5 with good cup holders in fron , bottle pockets in the front doors, another good pair for the second row and two cup holders in the third row accessible from the hatch and ideal for spare bottles or empty travel mugs mid trip

  18. Ok, I get that Germans make crazy, overcomplicated cup holders, but don’t pretend that we’re always alone in that. Ford in the 90s had some real crazy $#|t going on in that department. The 92-95 Taurus was designed for a double din radio, but ended up having a single din and used the bottom half for a makeshift DIN sized cupholder/change tray. The first Contours had articulated cupholders that popped out from next to the shifter, into the passenger’s lap. Finally, the 97 F150s and Crown Vics had cupholders that popped out of the dash that had at least as many parts, and none of the precision, of that E90 cupholder above.

    1. As an owner of a Jellybean and several late, lesser Aeros, I can say no they have like 1/4 the parts of the BMW unit and that is for TWO cups as well as the ashtray and lighter. What you say is a lack of precision is actually being designed to last for ages, even after 20 years of being used as a mobile office even though sticky soda, dust and other junk is in the mechanism. You don’t see Ford or the aftermarket offering replacements, nor do you see them missing from any of the vehicles in the wrecking yard.

      1. I did have to buy the cupholder/ashtray rig for my 2002 F150 off eBay but that’s because the first owner removed it. Oddly the passenger side A pillar grab handle was also missing.
        I have XLT trim so I mostly use the armrest cupholders but the extra spots are useful

  19. Thomas, this is positively BASIC for a German cup holder. The absolute most basic design possible for them.

    If you want to behold TRUE cupholder fuckery, I give you… the Porsche 997 and 997.2’s cupholders. Yes, plural. It’s a single assembly for both.
    Yes, they’re soft-opening and soft-closing. They also ratchet so you can put wider or narrower cups into them. And the door closes to make them more sleek. It’s held together by NINE bolts, a bunch of clips, has something like 16 distinct springs, 8 gears, and 3 latches.

    And the worst part? They’re about 1.75″ deep and have no lateral grip at all. So even the smallest of water bottles will just fall right out while making a right on red.

  20. I really appreciate the deep dive on such an important topic, but tbh, this has always been an underwhelming cupholder to me. The Saab 9-3ng has both the most complex cupholder imaginable, and it performs much much better than *trivially complex* german competitors. I’ve had 3 of those Saab 9-3s and somehow haven’t ever had an issue with the cupholder. It’s a thing of Swedish beauty.

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