These BMWs Suck to work on . . .

I’m in the midst of a job I hate to do right now.  It’s tough, ugly, time consuming, and one mistake will warrant starting all over again.  It’s not all peaches around the shop every day,  so I thought I’d share what I feel are some of the most difficult BMWs to service.  If you have one on my list, don’t despair, but don’t be surprised that technicians look like they hate you.  They don’t hate you, they hate working on your car.  These are in no particular order, they all are a challenge and some tasks suck more or less depending which one you are assigned.

3.0 si (e3)

If you have ever done a starter job on one of these you know why I’m putting this car on my list.  Built when emissions equipment and fuel injection were in their infancy, there is so much exhaust plumbing and vacuum hose under the hood that is resembles a post modern interpretation of Medusa.  All of this makes any task take twice as long as you have to remove tons of stuff to accomplish the smallest job.  The starter job is easiest performed by removing the cylinder head.

850i (e31)

Where do I begin?  This ‘super car’ can be a complete nightmare due to the amount of technology packed into the chassis without any real monitoring systems for proper diagnosis.  Combine that with a V12 engine and little room to work and a spark plug change can turn ugly quick.  They are also not very common, leaving technicians to re-acquaint themselves with this beast of a car when something comes up.

745i, li (e65)


This car is pretty horrible.  Replacing the valve cover gaskets is quite an ordeal and the design leaves much to be desired.  Oil leaks are common and none are cheap to fix.  Transmission pans are of constant worry and there is so much engine covering and under-carriage plastic that you can spend an hour just uncovering your work area.  The wierd thing is that I don’t see many of them on the road and we luckily don’t service a lot of them.  I’m starting to think they are all sitting in a plane hanger in Area 51.

X5 4.4, 4.6, 4.8 (e53, e70)

This might be the grand daddy of them all.  It has all of the problems inherit to the X5 combined with the difficulty of working on the BMW V8 engine.  Axle boots are a constant issue as are clunky transfer cases and transmissions.  You’ll usually need a step stool to work on anything in the engine bay unless you are 6’6″.  Unfortunately, most of the parts are also specific to the X5, so they bring with them a premium price tag.   Both a difficult car to work on and expensive for the consumer.

530i (e34)

In over 10 years, this is the only car that has ever made me cry.  Infamous for its nikasil engine problems, BMW’s re-entry to the V8 market really fell flat on the serviceability end.  If you have to replace the o-rings between the engine block and the motor mount bracket, keep all prescription pills and firearms hidden.  Or call in sick and let someone else suffer.  To be honest, the rest of the car is not that bad, just that the engine puts it on the list

630 csi (e24)

Very similar to the 3.0 si but with less room and more problems on the inside.  This may have been the most oppressed car under North American emission requirements.

3.0cs, csi (e9)

My favorite car. An extremely challenging automobile.  If beauty promotes high maintenance, in its day this car is the equivalent to Sophia Loren.  Over my career I have fully assembled and re-assembled about 4 of these cars from start to finish.  If I added up all that I’ve worked on, I’ve probably put together about 40 or 50.  They never come easy, they’re always a challenge. Taking the complete dash out and back into the car can take days.  One of the most beautiful BMWs ever, but they can get ugly in a hurry.

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW

BMW of the Week – Not just any old 2002!

When it comes to cars, my jaw doesn’t drop that often, but this 1974 2002 turbo will make the jaw drop and the drool flow.  I’ve seen a fair amount of turbos, but I’ve never worked on one nor driven one — I got to do both, thanks to this immaculate car that had been impressively restored by Casey Motorsports in Petaluma, CA.  The turbo rolled into the shop for the usual stuff 2002′s need – new spark plugs, a valve adjust, some fluid changes and you’re pretty square for another few years.  But when an example like this is in the service bay, the cameras come out and the car stays a bit longer.  This car has everything going for it.  Looks great, mechanicals are even better, and a few special touches in the right places.  I took over 300 pictures in super high resolution, so here’s a few shots:

Very well displayed, great stance, perfect wheels if you run aftermarket, what more can I say?

In the 70s in and around europe, if you saw a 2002 turbo, this was usually the view for a few seconds.  Great personalized plate to compliment.

I did not focus too much on the interior as they are pretty spartan, but just as clean and true to original.

So this is all fine and dandy.  It’s a nice turbo, everything is there, where it should be, big deal, blah blah.   Then you put it in the air, open the hood, and what you see is nothing short of perfection.  I can tell you that whomever put this car together, took their time and really made sure that everything was dead-nuts perfect.  Kudos to the guys at Casey Motorsports.  This is what I rarely see; most of my time with 2002′s and 3.0cs cars I’m spending more time correcting mistakes from past repairs than I am actually upgrading the car. This is amazing work.

Many think that the restoration business is glamorous.  It has been hyped up by TV shows and specials that run during Monterey Week.  I can personally tell you that I’m am so glad that I’m not the guy that did all of this work.  When you put forth this much time and effort into a project, it becomes difficult to realize the fruits of your labor and see how damn good it really is.  By the time a car gets to this point, you’ve probably pushed the car 5 miles around the lot when it didn’t run.  The amount of time you’ve spent cleaning, prepping and painting parts amounts to the length of Paris Hilton’s last stint in the slammer.  Things catch fire, parts get lost, you bleed a lot. It can beat down your spirit.  There are mornings when you arrive at the shop the mere sight of the car justs craps on your day.  I’ve been there and, depending on the car, sometimes you never fully appreciate what you’ve accomplished.  All in an effort to make it look like it had never been touched.

I, however, only need to finish the oil change before I get to take it out to ‘make sure that it is driving as it should’ . . . today, I’m the lucky guy.

If you’ve never driven a 2002 turbo, it is just a super hoot.  Sounds mid-west corny, but it really is a damn hoot to drive.  You start off and it feels as if you’re driving an early 2002 with a single barrel carbureator – not much power, just nice and smooth.  At about 3500rpms, you start to feel like you are driving a 2002tii (which it kind of is one), then at right about 5500-6000rpms, the sweet whistle of the turbo system starts to sing and the damn thing launches you about as fast as that little engine could.  I was grinning like a kid.  It truely is the best ‘toy’ that I’ve ever driven.  Total hoot to drive.

Two additional tid-bits that make this car a bit special is the surviving engine break-in sticker on the windshield as well as the driver’s sun visor has been signed by Motorsports Hall of Fame legend Brian Redman, who has had plenty of time behind the wheel of a BMW.

This is truly a great example of a 2002 turbo and I am extremely thankful that I was able to freshen the basics and take it for a spin.

Consider yourself Boosted!


Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW



BMW Diesel and the Super Bowl – Super Idea

OK, so Volkswagen may have had the wittiest commercial during the Super Bowl as the pint-sized Darth Vadar brought the car to life with the use of the force, but my favorite commercial of the night was BMW’s promotion of their diesel 335d with David Bowie’s ‘changes’ in the background.  BMW has been making diesel cars for the non-USA market since the early 90′s but it has only been recently that they have been available in North America.  I’ve been pretty disappointed with their lack of promoting the diesel product as well as dealers’ aversion to keeping them in stock.  Hopefully, this commercial is a step in the right direction.

The benefits of modern diesel engine cars are no secret, but they lack the sex-appeal that the US market is built around as they do not boast high horsepower numbers and at times their 0-60 times seem a bit bleak.  However, just as Bowie stated, things have ch-ch-changed.  The current 335d has 265hp with an astounding 425ft/lbs of torque all while achieving 36mpg.  The 36mpg is a very conservative figure — a customer of mine clocked his 335d from San Diego to Las Vegas getting roughly 39-40mpg while driving approximately 80-90mph.  Impressive.

Now that we’ve got power, and miles to burn at the pump, there should be no problem moving these cars from the factory to the road, right?  Well . . . unfortunately we’ve got a 10k price difference between the 335d and its brother the 328i.  This price gap is huge, and probably the reason that we aren’t seeing more on the road or at the dealerships.  BMW of San Diego currently has nearly 200 3-series cars on the lot.  6 are diesel.  None are manual and all of them are over $50k.  Sad.

The savings at the pump doesn’t bridge the price gap and the lease rates are about $100/month more and allow for only 10k miles a year.  Those in the diesel or hybrid market are typically racking up the miles while those driving under 10k miles per year aren’t putting gas mileage at the top of the new car priority list.  Now, I could go into how much better diesel is for the environment than hybrid, and about how their longevity will far surpass that of a hybrid, but that would be a whole different article on its own.   What is important, is that BMW’s diesel project survives in the US market as an economically sound purchase that helps the environment and keeps the BMW spirit with it.  If they don’t sell, they won’t stay.

I love the new diesel cars on so many levels and the commercial was great, but give people a reason to buy them.

Safe Driving and don’t grab the green pump unless you’ve got a diesel!

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW

SMG = ‘Serious Money Gone’ on your BMW.

The e46 M3 is actually one of the most reliable cars BMW has built in the last 10 years . . .  unless you have the SMG option on your transmission of course.  The first generation SMG (or Sequential Manual Gearbox) transmissions have not held up well over the long run and are starting to empty the pockets of their loyal owners.  So if you are in the market for an e46 M3, stay clear of the SMG.  If you currently have an SMG M3, this may be what you’re in for if you haven’t had the pleasure already.

When the e46 M3 came to market with the SMG option, it was widely assumed/stated that if there were any issues with the transmission that it would warrant replacement and that they were not to be serviced.  Nor was any service attempts to be made.  However, us being technicians/mechanics, it is in our blood to just fix things.  Sometimes we can go to great lengths to do so.

We belong to a large group of Independent BMW Service shops that regularly email each other when strange problems arise; to date I have about 60 email threads focused solely on the SMG issues and the failed attempts to fix them.  The replacement parts are expensive, none of them can be returned, and attempts to fix a failing SMG usually wind up with the shop losing it’s ass and the customer about to sue.  It’s quite depressing to read the trials and tribulations inflicted by our friend the SMG.

Prehaps the most common problem with the SMG will be that of the skip shift.  You’ll be driving around town, cruising along, listening to some tunes and minding your own business; everything is A-OK in your M3 world.  Then some dipshit with the latest Mitsubishi with glowing paint and the ugliest wheels you’ve ever seen wants to mess around.  His blasting ‘music’ sounds like something the military would use to get terrorists out of a lock down and the bass is so loud it rattles his car on every hit and almost knocks off his flat brimmed Hurley hat.  You say ‘time to teach this punk a lesson.’  Light turns green and you start to see his plastic horsepower machine in your rear-view until it’s time for 3rd gear to kick in.  All of a sudden you slow down, he flys by, and you see a flashing ’4′ in front of you and a Mitsubishi off in the distance.  FAIL.

If you experienced this yesterday, I suggest you take the day off from work, detail your car and get ready to trade it in for something else — you deserve a new car anyway.  Of the 60 email threads, this one has proven to be the most daunting and haunting.  Here’s an excerpt of one email:

We also had some issues couple of years back with one that had similar faults and symptoms, We put in new clutch, new control pump, etc. Still no go, new shift housing, no go. New gear box, car went.

I haven’t spoken to this shop personally, but I would almost have to assume that this was a personal car of the owner.  The failed attempts to fix the SMG issues before ultimately replacing the gearbox would probably total in the $3k range.  With the gearbox itself costing over $7k.  So now we are up to $10k in attempted repairs until we have found a fix.  Ouch.  I’ve got countless documented cases of this symptom/fault with the SMG and they have all resulted in the replacement of the gearbox, with the shop eating a large amount of the bill and the customer being irate about their bill.  Ugly, ugly, SMG.

With all that said, there are a number of symptoms that have been able to be fixed.  Unfortunately none of the parts to do so are cheap, and in many cases a recommended repair will not guarantee success.  So if you currently own an SMG car, let this sink in, digest it, and then decide how much you love that car as it might cost you big time in the future.  If you are considering the purchase of an SMG car, you might want to think twice or make sure you get a bullet-proof warranty that specifically states that the SMG transmission and associated parts are covered.  Unfortunately I’ll continue to have the great pleasure to tell folks “I can do this $1200 repair, but in no way can I guarantee it will work, and you’ll still have to pay the bill as I cannot return the part”  Kinda like russian roulette for cars.  Pretty bleak.

Take Care and happy paddle shifting.

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW Service

Katy Perry, The New York Times, and La Jolla Independent BMW

I usually try to keep the blog informative and a worth-while read, but we have had a few exciting things happen over the past couple of weeks that I’d like to share.

The New York Times ran an article featuring what is the first 3.0csi to be ‘restored’ by their Classic Center in Munich. They contacted me to go over the press release and get more information about the restoration of these incredible cars. Unfortunately the restored 3.0csi was fitted with an automatic transmission, which is probably the worst thing you can do to any ‘coupe’.  I’m a little skeptical about this ‘restoration’ as there are still countless numbers of parts that BMW refuses to re-produce for the 3.0cs.  BMW did a similar restoration back in the early part of the decade on a BMW 2002tii and touted the car as ‘new’ as all parts used were right out of the box.  This was a blatant lie.  I saw that car in person in Monterey in 2006 and Carl and myself made a list of over 20 parts and handed it to the BMW reps and told them to send us 50 of each.  We’re still waiting.  In any case, an interesting article:

Katy Perry’s representatives visited our shop a few weeks ago to borrow the BMW 1600 convertible for her new video for the song ‘Teenage Dream’ which is currently atop the charts at Billboard Magazine.  The video was released this week, and fortunately, the convertible is seen and used throughout most of the video.  It is the only 1600 convertible to ever be built and imported for the US Market, and it looks great in the video.  Hopefully this will spawn a whole new group of 2002 fans of a younger generation.  The video can be seen on, here’s the link:

Take care and Enjoy!

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW

BMW with a Dead Battery? Stop. Tow. Save Tons of Dough.

My hope is that you’ve found this posting before AAA, or other form of assistance, has come to rescue your BMW with a dead battery.   I know you only have one hour to leave work, grab the kids from practice, and pick-up dinner, but stop and just have your BMW towed.  DO NOT jump-start the car and DO NOT let any roadside assistance service install a new battery in your BMW.  It can be the most expensive battery or jump start of your life.

BMW’s built from 1999 through about 2003 do not respond well to a jump start, and pretty much every BMW built after 2004 needs to follow an exact procedure in order to change the battery properly.  While we’ve been aware of this for quite some time, a recent customer’s troubles has exemplified what can occur if someone tries to change a battery when they are ill informed.

I got a call from a towing company owner who was having trouble with a 2006 530i.  They acted on a AAA call for one of our customers who’s battery had died.  They went to the residence and jump-started the car followed by the AAA representative selling the customer a new battery.  That is where the trouble started.  The AAA rep disconnected the battery (strike one and strike two), and then installed the wrong size battery and re-connected the battery cables (strike three).   Much to his surprise, the car would not start, the steering became locked, gear shifter locked, and there were no instrumentation lights.  This 5 minute operation just resulted in what will be 3 weeks of the customer not having a car, and AAA coughing up a heap of $$.

The BMW electrical system has gotten extremely complex, mainly due to the fact that they aren’t just cars anymore.  They are a home computer, entertainment center, home office, and a robotic personal assistant all wrapped in steel with an engine and 4 wheels.  This all requires a significant amount of wiring, control modules, and electrical monitoring systems that make everything work.  To complicate things, all of these functions rely upon each other for power and reliability.  Simply put, they are strung together like old Christmas tree lights – one goes out and the rest of the strand is closed for business.  The main difference is that instead of just grabbing that extra bulb that came with the lights, fixing the strand can start with a $280 module – in this case the Car Access System, or CAS.

There’s no guarantee that the rest of the lights are going to shine after it is replaced.  These support groups are so fragile that any disturbance in power can render the module useless, which hopefully illustrates why changing a battery can become the most expensive little light you’ve ever tried to replace to get things going again.  The second victim of this battery change attempt was the SZL, which is basically the control module that controls things such as wipers, instrumentation, steering wheel buttons, the horn, turn signals, etc, etc.

In short, you cannot just change a battery, there is a specific procedure that must be followed in order to do it successfully.  Ben Amen at our shop explains:

The car must be off and key out of the ignition.  The battery should be sonically tested for bad cells, and once tested poorly, should be replaced with a battery of the SAME SIZE and Cold Cranking Amperage to ensure these complex systems receive the same power input that they would from the factory.  When removing the cables one must be very mindful of the delicate positive AND negative terminals, as each connection contains a very sensitive micro-control module on them that monitors power input and output of the battery in addition to communication with the airbag deployment string of modules.

Once the battery is replaced, it must be digitally registered with the car’s DME (Digital Motor Electronic control computer) so that the alternator ‘knows’ how to properly charge the battery and prevent premature wear on the alternator itself and the battery.  Sometimes, some control modules must be updated  when the battery is registered with the car.

OK, enough technical stuff.   Let’s talk dollars.  In this particular case, the car lost several modules and one battery cable.  Tons of re-programming and coding was also needed as each step was executed during repair in order to save modules that had yet to be affected.  Total?  Over $2300 for one mistake.  I’m starting to think there might be a market for battery warning stickers . . .

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW

Aftermarket BMW Parts vs. OEM BMW Parts – What’s the Deal?


There are a lot of misconceptions regarding the parts that go into BMWs during Service and production, especially when it comes to OEM Parts vs. Aftermarket Parts.  As a consumer, I feel it is pretty important to know what these terms actually mean, and how they affect the longevity of your BMW.  I field an amazing amount of calls by potential customers concerned with OEM parts going into their BMW, all the while many do not understand what OEM actually defines when it comes to the description of a particular BMW part.  So . . . let us expose a few terms, what they actually mean, and how they affect your BMW.

BMW Genuine Parts

BMW Genuine Parts are those parts which have been purchased from a BMW Dealer.  This does not necessarily mean that BMW produced the part, rather that they are a re-seller of parts that have been produced for them.  Some Genuine parts are produced by BMW but they are usually limited to interior trim pieces, sheet metal, bumper covers, wiring, etc.  Most other parts are produced by other companies for use in BMW repair or production.

The Good – Genuine Parts should be just as good as the part that failed you, and the part will also be backed by BMW’s warranty policy for parts which is usually 12k miles or 12 months.

The Bad – Genuine parts are expensive, and they aren’t always the best available.  Genuine Water Pumps are of great concern due to the plastic that is used for the impellar of the pump.  This plastic has been prone to failure, while many aftermarket water pump manufacturers have eliminated this plastic in favor of all metal pumps.

OEM Parts

OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer, plain and simple.  It does not mean ‘BMW Genuine Part’ but is basically the same or sometimes better.   During the production, BMW, like many corporations, outsource to many different companies to produce parts for them during assembly.  BMW puts together a mechanical design specification and quality requirement and sends a bid request off to numerous corporations.  These corporations submit bids and are granted a production contract from BMW.  As you might expect, this is big business.  Therefore, your spark plugs are not made by BMW, they are made by NGK or Bosch.  Brake pads are not made by BMW, they are made by Pagid or Jurid.  Shocks are not made by BMW either, instead they will contract with Bilstein or Sachs.  BMW didn’t make your alternator either, chances are that Valeo or Bosch made that instead.  But these are all OEM suppliers for BMW.

The Good – You can get what is basically the same part in your car without having to pay hefty prices

The Bad – The term OEM gets thrown around A LOT by parts suppliers.  Sometimes you need to know if the part is actually an OEM Supplier rather than “OEM Quality”  For the most part, if you see “OEM Quality” or, my favorite, “Meets or Exceeds OEM Standards” the part is probably a piece of junk that won’t last.

After-market Parts

An After-market part is a part that has been produced outside of an OEM production contract.  For instance, Sylvania has the contract for turn signal bulbs on an X5, but on eBay you can find hundreds of other bulbs that can be used in place of the original bulb.  This is probably the largest category of parts available to consumers.  After-market parts cover everything from tires to turn signals that have not been produced under contract from BMW.   Some after-market parts are great, while others leave little to get excited about.  It is important to do your homework and look for reviews when entering into the aftermarket parts arena.

The Good – Options, options, options.  The reason aftermarket parts is such a large category is due to the fact that consumers like to have options and like to customize.  There are also a lot of exceptional upgrade parts available such as shocks, tires, lights, etc.  If you know how to navigate this world of parts, you can really find some incredible products for a vast array of applications.

The Bad – There’s a lot of junk out there for sale.  Remember that while there are some good deals and products on the market, you usually do get what you pay for.

Chris Keefer

La Jolla Independent BMW


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