Why You Should Work on Your Own BMW

Taking the plunge into BMW ownership is intimidating to many enthusiasts. Maybe you’ve always wanted to experience what it’s like to drive a well-appointed car with fine-tuned handling dynamics, but are concerned the maintenance costs will drive you into penury. Horror stories about the cost of parts and all the things that break are usually just that — stories.

Yes, the cost of maintaining a BMW is going to be greater than the cost of maintaining a Toyota Camry, and the driving experience is going to be more rewarding, but this isn’t the kind of life decision that keeps your kids from going to college. One of the best ways to offset these maintenance costs is by working on your BMW yourself.

Where to Begin

We always recommend you have a mechanic inspect a car before you buy it. That one simple step can save you a fortune in repairs. Assuming you don’t end up owning a lemon, you can begin to service your BMW on your own on day 1.

Like any car, your BMW has an oil cap, wheel lugs and spark plugs that all need to come off and on every so often. It has fluids that need to be replaced, and a battery that will also eventually need to tag out.

Every time you pay the dealer to do these things, you’re adding approximately $60 per hour in labor, and probably an extra premium on the parts. Just because there’s a roundel on the hood doesn’t change the basic procedure — if you can change the oil on a Bronco, you can change the oil on a 3-series.

Getting Organized for Projects

One of the best ways to make working on your own car simpler is to have a usable workspace. Usually, that means getting your garage organized and having the right tools.

A good garage for car projects should be well-ventilated. It should ideally have a sealed floor that will keep spilled fluids from staining, and a power door with modern safety measures, such as a manual override and a laser sensor to make sure nothing is blocking the door.

You’ll also want to have a few cleaning supplies like microfiber towels, window cleaner, automotive detergent, and wax. A penny saved on detailing is still a penny saved on owning a Bimmer.

Advanced Repairs

When you’re feeling more comfortable and perhaps have bought a factory service manual, you can attempt more involved jobs. Online resources like forums offer a wealth of knowledge and step-by-step DIY instructions from people who’ve actually done these projects, so be sure to read up.

As you become more involved in the car community, you’ll meet other people with common interests. The car community tends to be very friendly when it comes to trading favors and sharing information, which is another way you can keep the costs of owning a BMW from draining your bank account.

In the end, a little common sense is the best tool you have when working on your own car. We don’t recommend jumping into the hobby on an unloved early-production 8-series. The truly rare and exotic models will be more expensive to maintain — however, many of BMW’s finest works are easy to find, cheap to buy and simple to work on.

Why I’m Onboard with Performance Hybrids

The other day I had the good fortune of being able to drive an i8. It’s not the most expensive car I’ve ever driven, but far more exclusive than anything I get a chance for a go in. Okay, so I didn’t drive it that far. About two miles to be precise. I did, however, ride in it for about 20 miles. Thing is, I only needed those two miles to know that cars like the i8, these ‘performance hybrids,’ do indeed work.

Let’s talk about this because that’s what it feels like when stabbing the accelerator. Not all hybrids are your neighbor’s Prius, that is, cars that use electricity for the sole purpose of achieving higher fuel mileage. Those cars make such little horsepower and rely mostly on a washing machine of a little combustion engine. Not the i8.

The i8 has a much more powerful electric motor, making 129 BHP. Couple that with a 228 BHP 1.5L three-cylinder fed by almost 2 bar of boost, and you’re looking at 357 combined peak horsepower. The 129 from the electric bit is so substantial that when tottering around in EV mode with no gasoline being consumed, it has plenty of pickup and gets up to speed as quick as realistic necessity beckons.

Flick the shifter into the left position for Sport mode, and it all changes. The three-cylinder comes to life and- actually, let’s talk more about that engine. Sure, it’s three cylinders, and that sounds lame. But it doesn’t sound bad. From the outside it’s akin to a certain horizontally-opposed air-cooled German motor with it’s clatter emanating from the engine compartment. It’s really not as bad as you’d think. In the cabin, it’s no match for a V8, sure, but it does it’s best sportscar sounds rather well. Anyway, once the petrol engine ignites, this is a seriously quick car. About as fast as the M2 flat out. But the character of this power unit is in the low and mid range.

See, gas engines on their own make peak power at a high rpm. That’s always been their deficiency. BMW classics like the S54 from an E46 M3 is a screamer, but you have to rev it for it to deliver. Down low, where you actually drive everyday, it doesn’t have much.

Turbocharging somewhat solves this. Compressing air into an engine allows it to develop peak torque at incredible low RPM, usually under 2,000 even, to increase driveability and makes for an encompassing flat, power curve. But, turbocharging  introduces lag, the time that’s needed for the turbo’s to spool up and deliver that air when flooring it. Having driven cars that have been said to ‘virtually eliminates turbo lag,’ no, they haven’t; they hide it through clever automatic gearboxes. Lock a new 330i in gear manually below 3k and floor it. Yes, that’s lag for you.

This is where electrifying works. And also where it doesn’t. In a full electric car, you get this immense torque and throttle response, creating an almost ‘whiplash’ effect when nailing it. A BMW i3 even does it. Travel under 30, hit the electron pedal, and smash your passenger’s skull back into the head-restraint. But, electric cars have the disadvantage of gearing, being only a single speed. This righteous momentum cannot be maintained. Even a Tesla Model S  P-Whatever can’t maintain the acceleration it has to 60.  That’s why McLaren’s and such post trap speeds 10 MPH+ faster through a quarter mile, even if they’re identical time wise. Cars like that catch up quick after 60MPH.

So here’s why the i8 and it’s propulsion system works. By combining gas and electric, you get the best of both. That turbocharged engine’s problem of lag? Because the electric bit makes peak torque at zero RPM, and has instant response, there is none. Zilch. Even in a higher gear, say fourth at 30, foot the floor and it’s gone. And about electric motors running out of puff at higher speeds? The combustion engine keeps pulling hard so there is no real drop-off in the rate of acceleration. It keeps pulling and pulling. The six-speed auto ‘box also receives praise for it’s quick shifts and responsiveness, keeping the engine right in the power band to ride the wave of thrust.

Okay, it doesn’t have the zing and reward at the top end like that mentioned S54 gives, but for a modern, tiny turbocharged engine, it’s pretty damn good. It makes for a much more interesting driving experience than a just another humdrum appliance moving you. This is more like a hi-po microwave on the nuke setting.

Of course, I still prefer a high-revving naturally aspirated engine. But how many of those are left? Ferrari and Lamborghini discounted, there’s not many. As far as the new breed of small-capacity turbo engines go, this improves upon them. Let’s make it easy here: in the case of the i8, electrification improves the driving experience. Think of it as a bargain Porsche 918. They’re both hybrids, made of carbon, and four-wheel drive. One is a tenth of the price though.

So when I read rumors that the future M-cars will all be performance hybrids, I am welcoming the stage with open arms. If it’s done right, it’s exciting as heck. And I can’t imagine how much fun it’d be to, say, add 200 horsepower of electricity to BMW’s twin-turbo v8. I’m onboard with the notion of the performance hybrid. As long as they come with manual transmissions…

My Buddy Found this in an M3’s Oil Pan…

You don’t need to be a Nobel Laureate to know that E46 M3’s have a few issues. Let’s see, there’s Vanos, rod bearings, and cracked subframes to name a few. But when these cars work, oh man are they the bestest. I wrote that last sentence like a twelve-year-old, because that’s what an E46 M3 does to me; They make me feel like a kid again. I get all giddy inside and all I want to do is put my hands all over it and go fast. It’s one of the car fountains of youth. I’ll own one someday.

It was yesterday, however, when my friend on the other side of the country set about to take up a mountainous task: Changing an E46 M3’s rod bearings. It’s not his own car, but a friend’s. He used his own as a guinea pig to rather good success, as so he told. And now he’s applying his talents to another specimen. Hope he’s getting somewhat compensated for his journey to Mordor…But, this article isn’t about rod bearings though.

So I’m at work when he sends me the photo above. The caption? “This was in Harper’s oil pan…” Yikes. Doing the rod bearings does require dropping the oil pan. Normally, you should only have oil in there, not metal parts. These look like 9mm bullet casings though. What could they be from?  My friend has pointed to the Vanos system for fault. The car in question was bought with the prior owner stating that the Vanos had been replaced. Why was it replaced? Likely because it exploded, made obvious by the loose gaggle of parts. But, they didn’t fish out the parts that grenaded, just put new in. What are those metal pieces exactly? Could be a roller bearing in the oil pump or drive disc.

Either way, the amazing thing is that the car is fine. Who knows how long this debris has been in the pan. A win on BMW’s part for putting a shield in the pan to prevent the oil pump from sucking it up and distributing throughout the engine. That would’ve made things go bang.

I’m not saying everyone should drop their oil pans just to see if they have metal bits in there. Or you could drop your oil pan and find a gold Rolex. But maybe use it as a buying lesson. The prior owner DIY’d the Vanos, so when buying an E46 M3, make sure you really trust them as a mechanic. If the owner says he did “everything himself” but acts like a clown school dropout, maybe it’s best to walk away. The M3 in question though, it’s not giving up that easily!

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