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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Doug's Domain

Doug Vetter, ATP/CFI

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March, 29, 2008

Two Years Old

I can't believe the E46 will be two years old next month, but you'd never know it by looking at it. The tech who worked on the car today called it a "museum piece". With a mere 4500 miles, for all intents and purposes it's still a new car. And I intend to keep it that way. It's all part of my grand plan to stay car-payment-free for as many years as possible. I have some fairly aggressive investment targets to meet over the next five years and I'll need all the money I can get in the short term.

Oil Service and Brake Fluid Flush

Since BMW recommends oil changes at least once a year on low-utilization cars it will gladly pay for the service under the maintenance plan even though the service indicator still shows roughly 10000 miles to go to the first oil service. I'm normally all for doing things myself and getting dirt under my fingernails to save a buck, I can't compete with "free". All the work performed today cost me precisely $0.

While discussing the oil service the service advisor suggested we do the brake fluid flush and put on some new wiper blades as well. I agreed with his suggestion about the brake fluid but chuckled when he suggested wiper blades. "The car hasn't seen more than a few sprinkles of rain since it was new. Tell you what...just tell [the tech] to throw the refills in the trunk and I'll put them on myself in a couple years when the originals start to dry rot!"

A few hours later the job was done and I went to pick up the car. Everything went as expected until I started the drive home. At the first light I felt the engine load up and start misfiring. Revving the engine a bit in neutral didn't do much to fix it, so when the christmas tree hit "green" I lit it up and flipped through the gears, flirting with redline each time. The problem persisted at the next light a couple miles down the road so I decided to take a circuitous route home with some local highway driving as well as some local twisties to keep the revs up. That worked. By the time I completed my local performance circuit the engine was idling beautifully and the smooth and throaty hum of the exhaust seemed to say "thank you".

Which just goes to show you -- these cars are meant to be driven, and they don't take kindly to short cycle driving. This very same thing happened to the E36 once and I wound up returning to the dealership. But that was before I truly understood the nature of the beast. A sure fire way to make the M52 and M54 engines sputter like this is to start the car cold, run it for less than a minute and then fire it up again. This is normal because the engines are programmed to run very rich until they warm up and that tends to load up the plugs with carbon. Rule of thumb to avoid this problem -- if you start the car, run it at least until the secondary air pump turns off (about 90 seconds).

IDrive Mini Review

I had expected to wait for the car but since they were a bit backed up they arranged an X5 loaner for me. This was the first time I had driven the vehicle since I visited the Performance Center in 2005 and was favorably impressed with the vehicle's performance on the street, Frankly, I'm amazed BMW was able to make a vehicle this large and tall take corners as well as it does. The normally aspirated N52 and 6 speed automatic drivetrain were a phenomenal part of the experience of course, but I more or less expected excellence in that area. So no surprise there.

The eye opener was IDrive. Following my first "real world" trial of the system all I can say is this: basically, I "get it", but I still don't like it for the same reasons I wind up hating soft-key menu interfaces -- they require too much attention to operate and are more often than not used as a crutch by system designers. That's not to say these interfaces don't have their place. Soft key systems work really well in aircraft crewed by two pilots since one pilot can focus on the flying while the other keeps his head down searching for the appropriate action key in an ever-changing display context, but as an embedded systems engineer I maintain that an automobile "crewed" by a single driver is no place for this kind of technology. Give me simple buttons and dials that have a constant and predictable function and I'll show you a vehicle that is vastly safer to operate.

There are, admittedly, a couple perks to the IDrive system. The large display eliminates the traditional radio head with incorrect display polarization and the IDrive controller knob falls to hand nicely so it eliminates the need to reach for the tuning knob at the opposite side of the radio.

ZHP Worth It?

Predictably, most of the email I receive is about the E36 since I haven't done squat to this car yet but I have received more than a few questions about the E46 from people looking to buy a used ZHP coupe or sedan. The most popular question is "Is the ZHP really worth it?". My usual response is this: if you like a very firm, sporting feel with razor sharp steering, a vehicle that is exceptionally stable at high (100MPH+) speed, and you can't afford the initial purchase price or upkeep of a M3, this is BMW's understated masterpiece.

I'm actually surprised that BMW didn't do more to tout the advantages of this package, since it totally transforms the car. I've heard the ZHP compared favorably to the M3 and even, more recently, the 135i. And that's saying a lot, as the M3 is clearly the superior vehicle overall and the 135i's suspension is obviously a newer, improved design.

I occasionally joke that one of the reasons I don't drive the E46 as much is because it spoils me. It actually makes the E36 feel tired by comparison, and that car is no slouch. Perhaps it's not fair to compare a car with 5000 miles to one with 100K+ on its suspension components, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

Next Time

The next service will probably be another oil service late in the summer or early fall, and then a coolant flush a year from now.

Mileage: 4586