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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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May 2002

I had entertained the notion of trading the car on a new 330 coupe around this time, but given the lackluster market conditions in my industry and the fact that MY03 is now less than 6 months away I decided to keep the car for now and reevaluate when the '03's become available this fall. For this reason I've made the decision to go ahead with the various maintenance items.

The tires were near the end of their life, and thus most pressing, so I decided to give my baby new shoes. The OEM SP2000's lasted 30K. With 59300 miles on the clock the SP8000's lasted roughly 30K as well, but that's probably not a fair comparison -- the SP2000's were into the treadwear indicators at 30K miles and the SP8000's were probably 1/16-1/8" ABOVE the indicators. I could have run them for another 5K miles but given that their wet performance had decreased enough to make things interesting and their noise at highway speed had increased noticeably, I figured it was time. Damage was $140 each mount & balance.

While checking the lug bolt torque spec (72 ft/lbs) in the owner's manual, I happened to note in the maintenance log that it's been a little over the two-year recommended interval since the brake fluid and coolant were flushed, so looks like I'll make an appointment to do that along with the brakes very soon.

June 2002

I finally got around to getting the car serviced after I was forced to cancel two previous appointments. The following items were serviced:

Brakes: After a bit over 60K miles, it was time to do the brakes (pads and rotors). Brake performance immediately prior to the replacement was still outstanding, but I had noticed they had a tendency to fade a bit when performance driving and the pedal didn't feel as firm under those conditions. I was also motivated to flush the brake fluid (as opposed to just bleed the lines) because BMW recommends fluid changes every two years. Cost $340 front, $375 rear, plus another $95 to flush the fluid.

The mechanic who does all the work on my car (a guy with 20+ years experience with BMWs) said the brakes had worn fairly evenly, and had approximately 3K (front) and 5K (rear) miles left on them. The brake wear indicators had not tripped and as a result were still in original shape...thus they were not replaced (a $30 savings).

Battery: The car still had the original battery, and I had started to notice that it just wasn't up to the task of starting the engine with the same vigor it had a couple of years ago. Rather than wait and have it give up the ghost when I least expected or wanted, I decided to swap it out for a new unit. Cost: $120.

Coolant Flush: BMW recommended interval on coolant flushes is every two years, so I did this as well. The mechanic also put a pressure tester on the coolant system again and found another loose clamp at the radiator. Assuming that solves the problem I encountered last year, this no-charge item should save me at least $400 in additional parts and labor to replace the heater core (the original diagnosis). Cost $100.

Oil Change: Same old process, Cost $50. I only put about 3000 miles on the car since the last oil change, but figured I'd do it anyway while the car was in for service for reasons of convenience. I normally wait until 4500-5000 miles to do that.

OBC lamp replacement: This was an item leftover from the last visit when the dash was removed to troubleshoot the cooling system problem. A no-charge item.

Wheel / Tire Balance: Normally a $90 line item, my mechanic offered to take care of this while he had the wheels off for the brake job free of charge. He noted that the tire shop that mounted the tires didn't balance the wheels correctly and said this is a common occurance. "Joe average driving a GM won't notice this kind of screw up, but BMW owners invariably do". Even after balancing, he noted that two of the tires were a bit out of round (very subtle, but enough to cause what might be construed as a brake shimmy if located in the front). He moved those tires to the rear and recommended that next time I fork over the coin for Michelin or Continental tires since they seem to have better QC.

Front Strut Replacement: Over the course of the last year or so I noticed an occasional thumping noise coming from the left front of the car, so I asked the mechanic to listen for that when he took the car out on the test run after the other work was done. Bottom line is he heard the noise and declared it wasn't normal, but couldn't find any obvious problems like a blown upper strut bushing (a common problem in this vintage BMW), he recommended we replace the strut and, while we had everything apart, do the upper support as well. And, since BMW (as well as common sense) suggests that the struts be replaced in pairs, particularly if they have more than 30K miles on them, I agreed to replace both struts at this time.

The struts & supports aren't a stock item at my dealer, so I had them order the necessary parts. Cost so far (just for parts) is $820. I expect the labor to be another $450, including an alignment to bring everything back into spec. Expensive? Yup.

While discussing the results of the suspension inspection, I learned that the E36 rear suspension camber is adjustable...without using shims, that is. Therefore, if your E36 is wearing the inside of the rear tires, a simple alignment should fix the problem.

Incidentally, I saw one interesting thing in the shop that had *almost* nothing to do with me. A new owner of a E46 M3 had wiped his engine. He apparently missed a shift and put the engine 1400 RPM over redline doing 130MPH. Needless to say, the engine was reduced to a molten mass...the filter was completely filled with metal. The good news is that BMW is apparently supporting the customer by covering the cost of a new engine. The bad news is that everybody else is paying their share of this operator-inflicted damage...and I just don't think that's right. If I ever dared to wonder why a strut for my E36 costs $400, here's why.

July 2002

I managed to make my scheduled service appointment for installation of the front struts and dropped off the car. About two hours later I got a call from the service manager, during which he told me that someone had accidentally ordered struts for an E36 M3, rather than my E36 sport suspension. I thought I would be faced with having to reschedule the appointment but he told me that they had already opened an order to have the correct struts overnighted to them. As I had requested a BMW loaner (a 2002 325i), this was absolutely no inconvenience to me. I picked up the car the next day, as they had promised, with the struts installed and the car washed (this was actually a pleasant surprise since I hadn't any time to clean it for the past week).

As I now routinely do, I walked back to the bays and spoke with my mechanic. He showed me how the left strut had started to leak a bit (there were little gobs of oil covered with dirt around the top seal of the strut). The oil appeared to be about as dry as it could be (it didn't appear to be actively leaking), but its presence clearly showed it wasn't as healthy as the right strut, which was totally clean. My mechanic did point out that both struts were functional and could have run for some time, but he suggsted that this was the best move. Since I'm big on preventative maintenance, I couldn't agree more.

(Image: Alignment Results Printout)He also gave me a clue into the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between the standard strut, the sport suspension strut, and the M3 strut. The most interesting difference, aside from the length and valving, is the use of a ball bearing sleeve on the top end cap on the sport model (which is a component of the strut system, but not sold with the strut itself), while the standard uses a simple plain bearing sleeve. The M3 struts are similar to their sport suspension cousins, but are canted in their mounts to provide greater stability at speeds in excess of 120 MPH.

Incidentally, if you're nuts, and actually considering the costly upgrade to bring a standard or sport E36 suspension up to M3 standards, remember...it's all or nothing. If you replace only certain components, it will be impossible to properly align the car, and you'll go through tires like a tornado through a trailer park. And, if you're wondering, it costs about $5K to do that...certainly not cost effective in my opinion. IMHO, if you can afford that kind of change, you'd be better off applying it to a nice used M3...at least in that case you'd get the more powerful M engine.

We then began to discuss the results from the state-of-the-art 4-wheel laser alignment system. If you've been a long-time reader, you may note that the mechanic wasn't blowing smoke when he reported some time ago that the rear tires had been wearing unevenly, and the results show why...the camber was at or near the limit. Now that the car has new tires, AND alignment, I should get the maximum effective wear from that set.

The good news of the day was that the sport suspension struts are about $125 each less expensive than the M3 struts, so I received a credit of $250, and a final bill (including labor and alignment) for only $215, bringing the total for this latest maintenance binge to $2215. If your jaw just dropped, consider that this maintenance has essentially returned the car to like-new status, at considerably less cost than a new car. I mean, the thing drives like the day it left the showroom...and I'm not exaggerating to justify the bills. I was particularly surprised how much nicer the car drives with the new struts -- and I didn't think the old struts were really affecting the handling....boy, was I ever wrong. This was one bill I was almost glad to pay.

The only thing left to do in maybe 20K miles is the rear shock mounts (another known issue in the E36), as they are purposefully made soft to improve the ride characteristics as well as protect the suspension components. My mechanic recommended we do the shocks in there while we're at it, and that's likely what I'll do.

September 2002

About a month after I managed to get all four tires balanced perfectly, I got a nail in the left front tire. Errrrr. The tire didn't lose any pressure, thankfully, but there was no way I was going to trust it at 100+ MPH. Cost was $150 with mount and balance. I thought for sure I would incur another $20 to have my dealer spin it up but it seems as though the tire was balanced reasonably well.

After almost five years, I became convinced the wiper blades were shot. They didn't look bad, but started to "skip" across the windwhield....and this on glass recently treated with Rain-X. For those that just dropped their jaw at the timeframe, keep in mind that I very rarely use the wipers...Rain-X has always done a fine job of wiping the windshield even during heavy rain...with a lot less noise, too.

Total cost for this service was $62.

October 2002

Well, with almost five years and 68000 miles, it was bound to happen...yes, even to a BMW. I had my first unexpected maintenance problem this month. What do I define as "unexpected", you ask? Well...I know that certain stuff tends to wear out like tires, shocks, struts, and brakes. What I don't expect to wear out by a certain interval qualifies as "unexpected maintenance".

On one of the first cold mornings of the season I went out to the car and started it. I instantly heard a loud whining noise coming from the right rear portion of the engine bay. The whine faded in and out, and then turned into a grumbling noise. Sure enough, the air injection pump was on its last legs. Sounded like a classic case of bad bearings.

(Image: Air injection pump)What's an air injection pump? Pretty simple...a motor with a fan on its shaft that takes air from the engine bay and injects it into the exhaust to reburn any unspent fuel that makes it out of the combustion chamber due to a richer-than-required mixture. This process is required because when the car is cold, the computer runs the engine with a richer than normal mixture to maintain driveability until everything comes up to temperature. If you increase the volume of fuel and don't increase the volume of air, some degree of unburned fuel will wind up in the exhaust, and thanks to the EPA, this is unacceptable, so auto manufacturers are required to ensure that the excess fuel is combined with additional air and "afterburned" in the exhaust.

The typical domestic car solution has been to install an air pump on the car driven by a belt...that runs continuously, whether it's needed or not. The more elegant BMW solution provides an electrically-driven air pump (black in color, shown in the top left of the picture) that runs only for the first couple of minutes of operation (my technician says until the exhaust gas temperatures exceed the level required for the oxygen sensors to go into closed loop, or a maximum of 90 seconds). My experience has corroborated that and I have also noticed that the pump only runs following cold starts.

The pump is one of the more easily replaced devices under the hood, so I figured I'd try to replace it myself, but I decided to talk with my mechanic about it just to be sure. He told me that the pumps typically don't fail themselves...they usually go bad because a nearby check valve, which prevents exhaust from entering the pump when it is idle, has failed first. When the valve fails it lets exhaust into the pump, which destroys it. He also mentioned that sometimes the rubber isolation mounts fail, causing an imbalance that generates a sound like I was describing, but after a brief inspection verified the mounts were fine. He then suggested I have two options:

  1. Since it wasn't so bad as to trip the check-engine light, I could drive it like that. (uh, yea, I want my car whining like a jet engine every morning).
  2. Replace the pump and the check valve just to make sure a faulty check valve doesn't force me to go through another pump prematurely. Needless to say, I chose option #2.

Damage? $200 for the pump, $95 for the check valve, $5 for a gasket, and $140 in labor. The interesting thing is this pump is far quieter during normal operation than the original pump was, so I'm not convinced it wasn't a simple case of bad (indeed, defective) bearings.

Of course, the invoice wasn't the worst news of the day....I was forced to drive an POS Olds for a day, since they had no BMW loaners available for the first time in my long history with this dealer. The circumstances, while perhaps justifiable to them, were unacceptable to me, and I found myself bitching at the very people I've come to know on a friendly, first-name basis. I was particularly miffed at the fact that they quietly changed their policy in the last year sometime and no longer take requests for BMW loaners, so everything is on a first-come, first-served basis. In my case, they said someone didn't return a car on time, but I realize that's just PR/Dealer-speak for "we're out of cars, and you're out of luck...here are the keys to your deathtrap".

Now, I grant you, this loaner arrangement is still a better deal than at a nearby dealer where I was forced to drive a 3-cylinder death trap, but I see where this is going. Errrr...guess I'll finally have something interesting to say when the BMW survey people call for a follow-up.

Mileage: 67662

November 2002

Over the past couple of weeks, and ever since my last service appointment, the car had developed a nasty tendency to misfire during normal acceleration (full or near full-throttle acceleration was smooth). The result was some mild idle surging and even erratic shifting. My mechanic and I took it out for a test drive but as usual, the car totally changed character and failed to demonstrate the malady.

He asked me if the check engine light had ever come on while driving and I said "no". He volunteered that it might be a bad plug or coil. I then asked if we should just replace them all and he said "I've been down this road too many times...let's wait to see if we can get more information before we start replacing parts".

(Image: Fault code report)When we got back to the shop, I asked him if he had any "fix it in a can" for me as a first cut solution, and he handed me a bottle of "BMW Engine Treatment", essentially Chevron's Techron additive relabled. Apparently, this stuff was originally developed for BMW as a cure-all for various gasoline-quality related ills of the 1980's. The stuff is supposed to dissolve carbon deposits in the injectors and serve as a general fuel system detergent. But, the downside to it is that, over time, it eats fuel lines, which is why you don't see it formulated in pump gasoline. Strangely, this stuff is $5+ a bottle in the store under the Techron name, but $2 in BMW garb. The "price was right (read: free)" today, as was my mechanic's precious time, so I walked away that day pretty happy, with an understanding that we'd have to let it get worse before we could attempt to solve the problem. I thanked him for his time and went to work.

Over the next several days, the misfire problem seemed to get better, but it still occurred occasionally when I'd stop at a light and then press on the gas lightly. The misfires seemed to happen up to around 2500RPM and then it would smooth out. Full throttle starts were never a problem. The check engine light never went on, so I just figured I'd wait until the next scheduled service in 3000 miles and sort it out then.

I had just completed the washing ritual one Sunday when I hopped in the car to put it to bed for the night. I turned the key and the car just turned over, but didn't start. I tried again. No dice. I then applied a bit of throttle and it started, so I let off the throttle...and it died again. After some experimenting, I figured out the car would run, but only if I held the throttle at a level that produced an idle -- strangely enough, I could control the RPM to a point far below a normal idle (believe it or not, the car idles smoothly as low as 300 RPM, but I digress...). The second I released the throttle, the engine would die stone cold. Of course, I couldn't drive it this way -- if the engine died, I'd not only lose my power steering and brakes, but since you have to turn the key off before you can turn it to the START position again, I'd very likely lock the wheel and lose my ability to steer. Not good when you're staring down a telephone pole.

So, I called for a flatbed early the next morning and they showed up about an hour later with a fork-type towtruck. I called the company manager and said "WTF, I asked for a flatbed." He then gave me some excuse about "you called before 8AM and the previous shift manager, bla bla bla...and we don't have any flatbeds right now". "Okay", I said. "This guy fucks up my car and you'll be hearing from my attorney".

Fortunately, the driver turned out to have three years of experience in towing (which is like dog years in that business I would imagine), and was pretty knowledgeable about towing BMWs and Mercedes. He said that it's totally safe to tow a BMW with a fork-type towtruck (and in fact it takes a lot less time to prep), but it must pulled backward by the rear wheels. You need to lock the steering wheel and keep it in park. If you try to drag the rear with the tranny in neutral, apparently you can burn out the fricton plates (what friction plates, you ask? don't ask me...I'm not a transmission expert, but they're probably the same plates that can get screwed up if you sit in traffic for extended periods of time with the tranny in neutral or do lots of shifting between N-D-R and back again. Another point -- if they tow with a flatbed, make sure they pull the vehicle up onto the bed with the tow hook...don't let them hook on to any part of the undercarriage. BMWs (particularly the E46) have some soft frame parts that can be damaged by the hook.

In any case, $75 later, my car arrived at my dealer safe and sound.

(Image: Idle Valve)I told my mechanic about the problem and he suggested it was likely an idle control valve. This is an electromechanical valve that controls the volume of air entering the intake at roughly 20% throttle and below. There are two sets of variable resistance contacts...one that ultimately serves to close the valve, and another to open it. Under normal conditions, the two forces balance each other out and produce a smooth idle. However, if one set fails (they typically go to high resistance), the valve closes (or sticks) and the engine will either run roughly or not at all. Hmmmm...I thought...where have I seen that before...

When he had the car in the bay, he remembered our test drive and checked the DME for fault codes and found that the number 6 cylinder had reported a misfire. I had no idea that they could report a misfire in this way, but apparently they use the crank sensor to measure crankshaft acceleration and can tell by the power pulses (or lack of same) which cylinder misfired. Pretty neat. In any case, he pulled the #6 plug and found the center electrode slightly recessed (and on these platinum plugs they are supposed to be flush with the surrounding insulator). He happend to catch me the next day as I was swapping loaner cars (long story), and he said that it indeed needed an idle valve, and he recommended that we replace all plugs. I told him to go ahead.

I drove the car home today with a smooth idle and no apparent ill effects. Guess we'll have to wait and see. Thanks to my mechanic for saving the parts and taking the time to print a hard copy of the DME fault code report for me...not something he normally does, but he knows I'm interested in the details (and yea, he knows pictures of everything will show up here) :-)

Total Parts, $200, Labor (3.5 hours), $300. Towing, $75, for a grand (almost) total of $575. Total mileage, 68800.