Tuesday, December 2, 2003
Wow. What a difference a set of tires can make. I just got home from the dealer with the new Michelin Pilot Sport A/S tires on the car and I cannot believe how much differently the car feels and drives with the new tires.
Some notable improvements:
- No more vibration in the seat of my pants or in the steering wheel. The car drives like the day I drove it out of the dealer. Perhaps better. No marketing-speak BS here folks.
- Tramlining is completely (okay, 98%) gone. I wonder how much strain the tramlining forces from the other tires were putting on my power steering pump...
- Steering feels so much more neutral and PRECISE, particularly right around the center, that I can't believe I tolerated how the old tires would pull the wheel everywhere with every minute change in road surface grain and slope.
I took the car up to 80 on a back road and, again, all I can say is WOW. I will never put another Dunlop tire on this car...to do so would be an affront to the quality of the car and the driving experience it can deliver...with the right tires. My mechanic was right all along.
And, for you skeptics, I think I can get away with saying that the car drives better than when I drove it off the lot by considering the car came from the factory with Dunlop tires. If you'll look back at first maintenance entries in 1998, you'll note I had problems with steering wheel vibration. What I didn't know then was that this was NOT due to some steering pump problem...it was due to flat-spotted and out-of-round tires that eventually "heat cycled" into shape. Sort of.
Of course, my mechanic was able to get more objective measurements of the new tires by using about $25K worth of tire mounting and balancing equipment (shown above -- mounting equipment on the left, road force/balancer on the right). Considering the cost of the equipment and the positive results, I'd say the $40/tire I spent for mounting/balancing/disposal is a bargain.
My mechanic told me that two of the tires produced about 6 lbs of road force, while the other two were just under 10. This is higher than his original estimate, but well below the maximum BMW (18) or Michelin (25) specifies. Naturally, the two 10's were mounted on the rear, but I'm here to tell you that you CANNOT feel 10 lbs of road force (on the rear, anyway).
- In a properly aligned car, tramlining is typically caused by wide tires with large, uniform tread patterns consisting of large tread blocks that more readily transmit road surface irregularities back into the sensitive BMW steering system. You need only look at the tires delivered on the current-generation BMWs for evidence that supports this assertion. All of the tread patterns consist of small tread blocks laid out in various patterns necessary to scavenge mud and snow, as well as reduce noise. The increased potential for tramlining is the primary reason why I chose not to go with the Kumho ECSTA MX.
- Whatever tire you buy, make sure you verify the return policy of the tire distributor or tire manufacturer. Tire Rack was cool in that they said if I wasn't satisfied with the tires for ANY reason (like they weren't within my personal road force specifications) they'd take them back and send out replacements in a heartbeat. My next set of tires will come from Tire Rack for this very reason.
- When it comes to installing the tires, deal with a reputable company you can trust, with the right equipment, to do the job right. Some shops will put totally out-of-round tires on a car with absolutely no regard for the owner's driving experience or any sound engineering principles...simply to clean inventory. The local shop I bought the last set of SP8000's from obviously did that to me. My dealer's mechanic, on the other hand, was the one who took the time to educate me about tires. You can probably guess who will mount and balance my next set. 'Nuff said.
While the wheels were off, I also had the front pads and rotors changed, the brake fluid flushed (about 6 months ahead of schedule, but while in Rome...), and a mid-cycle synthetic oil change performed. Next major maintenance will be an Inspection I, in about 6K miles, or sometime in the February/March timeframe.
Total damage: P&L (excluding tires): $800. Mileage: 87609.
Wednesday, December 17, 2003
The first two years I drove the car on a daily basis, including during the depths of winter. During that time I was always impressed at how quickly the car would warm up and retain heat for a considerable time after shutdown. For ownership years 3 and 4 the car never left the garage on cold, crummy days.
When I brought the car back into routine service in year 5 and the weather turned cold, I noticed that the termperature gauge would no longer rise to the 12 o'clock position (vertical). The effect became more pronounced as the temperatures dropped below 35 degrees (pretty common here in NJ from late November to March). I shrugged it off as "normal" and drove all last winter with the gauge about 2-3 needle-widths on average below the vertical.
We had been enjoying fairly mild weather for some time this season, until a cold snap hit, with temperatures in the 20's and 30's. It was during this time I that noticed the temperature gauge riding lower than last season. Particularly while cruising at 80 MPH on the highway, the needle hovered around the tick mark on the face of the gauge about 1/3 the way up from the cold position. When the temperature rose to about 50 degrees a few days later (gotta love this crazy New England weather) the average reading rose again, but remained within a few needle-widths of the vertical.
If you know how automotive cooling systems work, this is a pretty easy diagnosis. I figured the thermostat just wasn't sealing properly, and was allowing coolant to flow out of the block and through the radiator, even when it was supposed to be fully closed.
I dropped by the dealer to speak with my mechanic, and he said that thermostats are one of the "hot items" on this model car. Turns out the thermostat on this car is of the simple mechanical variety (unlike the E46 and later rev cars which are electronically controlled), and this lower-than-normal temperature is a symptom of a weak spring or a degradation of the wax pellet that prevents opening of the thermostat until the coolant comes up to the rated temperature.
He said that replacement of the thermostat is a pretty simple procedure, and since the engine temperature wasn't dropping into the "cold" region, it wasn't doing any damage to the engine, but he agreed with me when I suggested that it was probably "cheap insurance" to replace it before it failed completely and left me without heat.
I got an appointment a week later and happened to watch the entire process, which took about 45 minutes to complete. It involved removing the black panel covering the top of the radiator (which also serves as a means to direct cooling airflow to the alternator). This exposed the radiator, which, incidentally, is far easier to replace than I thought. Remove few hoses and a couple mounting clips, and it slides right out. In fact, I imagine the thermostat would be much easier to get to with the radiator removed, so if I had to replace the radiator, I'd definitely do the thermostat at the same time....but I digress.
After inspecting the face of the radiator, he showed me that some leaves and other light debris had found their way into a space at the front base of the radiator. The debris wasn't blocking the radiator it to any great extent, but my mechanic naturally blew those out with a 2' long wand attached to a compressed air hose before continuing.
He then removed he engine-driven fan, a support bracket on the oil-driven VANOS actuator on the top-front of the engine (which apparently shares a bolt with the black high-density plastic thermostat housing), the 2" coolant hose attached to the housing, and then the housing itself.
After the housing was removed he inspected it for leaks and cracks. He pointed out a couple white stains around its perimeter indicative of leaks, and said that the coolant is specially formulated to leave these "stains" behind to help find leaks long after the coolant has evaporated or burnt off.
Then, he pointed out some minor damage to the housing seal (pictured) and said it's pretty common for the antifreeze to crystalize at the interface of the housing and the seal, and this can ultimately cause the seal to be "pushed out" of the recess built into the housing for it, which ultimately causes leaks. I don't know if this was responsible for the (very) modest coolant loss I'd experienced over the last few years, but it seemed as good a probable cause as any.
After verifying that the replacement thermostat was the same temperature as the original (92 degrees C), he swapped the parts and put everything back together. If you look closely at the thermostat, you'll see the manufacturing date - this one was built six years ago to the month.
When it came time to refill the system with fresh coolant, my mechanic loosened the plastic vent screw slightly forward and to the right of the overflow bottle filler. This is required to allow air to escape the system and the coolant to fully fill the radiator. If you do not open this vent, the system will not fill completely (even though it will appear full). Note that because of this vent you do NOT need to run the engine while filling the coolant, but my mechanic nevertheless started the engine shortly before pulling the car out of the shop to ensure all air pockets had been purged and the coolant level was proper.
The car was supposed to be returned to me within an hour, but as it turned out my mechanic (who is also the lead tech in the shop) had to meet with a BMW engineer that dropped by just as I had arrived. For that reason, about two hours had passed since I'd arrived, so my mechanic offered to throw in the biennial coolant flush ($120) in for free. There was no real additional work, as replacing the thermostat drains roughly 1/3 of the coolant anyway, so all I really got was a few gallons of coolant for free...but I'll take what I can get! Christmas came early this year!
I then did my rounds, wished everyone a good holiday (especially the cute 20-something receptionist), and left with the coolant temperature needle perfectly vertical - exactly where it should be.
Cost: Parts, $35, Labor $135, Total $180. Mileage: 88215.