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No Stickshift for New Z4:
What is BMW thinking?

December 23, 2018 by Matt

Buried in Car and Driver‘s report on the new BMW Z4 is this little gem of a statement:

Sadly, there is no manual-transmission option; a ZF eight-speed automatic will be the only transmission…

It’s not entirely unexpected given that the upcoming BMW 3-series, the G20, is equally bereft of a manual transmission option, but the fact that it isn’t even an option for the Z4 is utterly baffling to me. The new BMW roadster is positioned as the most driver-focused, most “compromised” car in the automaker’s lineup, so why shouldn’t every option that fosters driver engagement be at least available? Especially if the car’s primary targets—the Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman twins—practically flaunt their third pedals by comparison…

What if tomorrow Mazda announced it was discontinuing the manual option on the MX-5 Miata? Or Toyota decided to pull the plug on the 86’s stickshift? I understand rowing your own gears is a dying art, and completely void of any kind of performance advantage the way it used to be. Still—if an automaker positions itself as the enthusiast’s choice; offers a model purporting to carry the top-down, classic roadster torch; and wants to maintain any kind of enthusiast cred whatsoever, it should develop a manual option for that model, even if the take rate is too low to make sense economically. Sell a few more X5s and you’ll break even, BMW.

The other thing that confuses the hell out of me is the fact that BMW offers a manual option with all 2-series models—an arguably less driver-focused and certainly more practical car than the Z4. But that could just be a “legacy transmission” BMW keeps on the option sheet until the next-generation 2-series bows a year or two from now…

The new Z4’s performance is irrelevant. I don’t care if it laps the ‘Ring five minutes faster than the old car, the steering brings back the classic BMW feel and the (admittedly turbocharged) I6 under the hood sings from the classic BMW engine hymnal—without a manual transmission option, it’s nothing more than a boulevardier, a car for retirees to cruise along the A1A at sunset with the top down. It’s a shame.

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What is BMW thinking?

An Update on E46 Life

May 2, 2017 by Matt

BMW E46 330i 2002 Orient Blue

Well into my 16th month of BMW 330i ownership, and things are as rosy as ever.

Over the past year and a bit and 17K miles, the car’s thrown a bunch of issues at me, but nothing too difficult to diagnose or solve. And it drives as well as ever—better in fact, since a number of parts such as cracked intake boots were replaced, and they were likely in the process of failing when I purchased the car.

The two biggest game-changers when respect to diagnosis and repair are the OBD2 app I purchased for my iPod, along with a transmitter interface that connects to the car’s OBD2 port; and the smoke tester I used to locate the vacuum leaks that were the source of a number of issues a month ago. The E46’s M54 engine is very sensitive to vacuum leaks, and if one is present, it can throw a variety of lean and misfire codes that make no sense as the DME (ECU) tries to adjust various parameters to compensate for the unmetered air. Hence the first course of action once the “check engine” light illuminates is usually to hook up the smoke tester and try to suss out a leak. I bought the $90 model from this site and couldn’t be happier. The only alternatives are the cheap YouTube method using a cigar and a hand pump, or shelling out many hundreds of dollars for a shop-quality smoke tester. The Stinger unit is very easy to use and does exactly what I need it to do. Highly recommended for anyone who drives a car with a mass airflow sensor or air flow meter and depends on a leak-free intake.

There are still a number of outstanding issues to tackle in the coming months, as time and finances allow:

  • I put a nice little crease in the driver’s rocker panel when the car slipped off the jack cradle when I was replacing the shift bushings last year. So that’ll need to be replaced.
  • The cowl piece surrounding the base of windshield wipers is crumbling. No leaks; just an eyesore.
  • The whole car could use a good detail. Finding time to do it properly is probably my biggest challenge.
  • Another E46 owner very generously gifted me an adapter to connect an AUX input to the factory wiring for a CD changer. Need to install.
  • The AM (and FM) radio reception is marginal. Need to diagnose and fix.
  • The passenger-side front inner fender liner is still missing. It’s tough to find a replacement compatible with the rare-ish MTech1 bodykit.
  • Long-term, I’d like to replace the shift pin detents inside the transmission in order to cure a persistent notchy shifting issue, but that will require dropping the trans. Maybe when the clutch goes…
  • Would like to install an M3 steering wheel. This is a direct replacement, is more attractive than the Sport wheel, and it has molded-in hand grips, which I like.
  • There’s a small A/C leak somewhere. I recharged the system last summer, and when the weather turned warm again this spring, I discovered the A/C was warm again. A couple of cans of R134a later and it’s ice-cold, but it still means I have a leak somewhere.

I still love driving it, even if it’s my daily driver. It still turns my head when I’m walking away; the proportions are dead-nuts perfect. My automotive promiscuity still rears its ugly head from time to time, but a quick reminder of what I’m driving and the desire to acquire something else subsides. On that last point, one mental technique that works especially well is to remind myself of how much I miss various car’s I’ve owned and sold, and then to extrapolate that to imagine how much I would miss the E46 if I sold it. It’s a safe bet that the feeling of regret associated with unloading the 330i would trump that of any other car I’ve sold. She’s still a keeper.

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Existential Moments with the BMW

May 17, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

Do you have to drive your car, or do you get to drive your car?

Relegated to daily-driver duty, even the most special car can seem mundane to drive. What used to thrill us about its engine note, interior design or chassis balance recedes into the background of our commute. Its ergonomics are familiar and we focus more on the car’s little annoyances (every car has some) than on its essentially good qualities. We have to drive it, and the enjoyment of the experience is muted.

I’ve lived the emotional trajectory of enthusiast car ownership many times over the course of my 20+ year driving “career.” Like any good relationship, it takes intentionality to overcome the fade of initial spark of attraction. My truck is currently up for sale, so my 2002 BMW 330i will assume daily-driver responsibilities soon, and I worry that living with it every day will sap some of its emotional pull.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

From an automotive perspective, the cliche “absence makes the heart grow fonder” could be rewritten “lack of wheel time makes the heart grow fonder,” and it’s true that when the 330 has been down for repairs for a few days and I’ve had to drive the truck to work, I really itch to drive it again in a way I don’t when the BMW’s been my commuter all week. Also, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that the daily wear and tear my “fun car” experiences is lessened, so I feel less guilty about exacerbating the car’s natural level of entropy by driving it.

I’ve had to make peace with the situation in a couple of ways; both of them, as mentioned above, require an intentional mental effort, but they’re worth it.

2002 BMW 330i Orient Blue E46 Sedan

The first is simply to remind myself, however long or short my tenure of ownership lasts, that I have the privilege of owning and driving a truly exceptional car. The 330i won every single comparison test that Car and Driver (and others) could throw at it during its model run. I remember leafing through those magazines, admiring the car’s abilities but considering it completely, utterly out of reach. And now one parks in my driveway at night. I get to drive it. The needles of its gauges swing through their arcs for my benefit. If it has an issue, it’s my responsibility to diagnose and fix it and hopefully improve the car in the process. I don’t write any of this in a bragging tone; but more simply a recognition and remind of what a great car BMW designed and screwed together, and how fortunate I am to be able to own one.

The second mental method I use to assuage my guilt over consigning the car to commuter duty is simply to accept that the car will deteriorate. It may sound obvious, but the reminder of that fact helps alleviate my low-level nervousness about small dings and scratches, or that some subsystem will suddenly go belly-up on the highway. It’s gonna happen, and when it does I will fix it. Parts can be replaced. Bodywork can be straightened and repainted, all in good time. The car is not old; there’s a huge supply of replacement parts out there, and whole industries with very talented people devoted to the cosmetic aspects of the car. Reminding myself of these givens helps me keep my priorities in line vis-a-vis life in general; it really is just a car, and I have a little while to enjoy it, so why ruin it with low-grade anxiety every time I’m behind the wheel? Doesn’t do anyone any good.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few twisty roads to hunt down.

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Forever Car: 2002 BMW 330i 5-Speed

January 16, 2016 by Matt

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

This might be it.

I’d been wanting something interesting for a while, and I bided my time over the holidays, scanning Craigslist and Autotrader. I was looking for something German (BMW or Audi), made from the mid-’90s to the mid-2000s, with a manual transmission. Most of the cars in decent condition that fit that set of criteria were a couple of hours away, and I even roadtripped with my son to go see a B6 Audi A4. It was nice, but had a number of cosmetic defects that would have been expensive to fix, and the seller (a dealer) wanted too much for it already.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Orient Blue

Then, last Saturday, the car featured in this post popped up not 15 miles down the road. A 2002 BMW 330i, 5-speed, Orient Blue over gray interior, with only 135K on the odometer. I jumped on it. The seller was a local auto mechanic specializing in BMWs and other German cars. He’d just bought it off a trade-in at another dealership and hadn’t even had a chance to drive it yet before he put it up on Craigslist. It drove very well, had good power and was in great shape cosmetically outside a baseball-sized dent in the lower passenger side of the urethane bumper. The windshield was cracked all the way across, and there was a clunk coming from the right front wheel area at low speed. The car pulled slightly under braking and the shifter bushings were completely shot. Furthermore, the interior had that faint whiff of having been a smoker car. Still—none of the issues were terminal, the car’s mileage was low and the price was right. I bought it.

2002 BMW E46 330i 5-Speed Manual Gray Grey Interior Inside Console Cockpit

A week later, I’m still in love. The car has been debadged (removed the “330i” emblem), the windshield has been replaced and the front control arm bushings are new. The car is tight as a drum and—with the exception of the shifter bushings—drives perfectly. It’s a hair faster than my old 540i 6-speed and feels much more compact and nimble. I installed Koni yellow dampers in the 540i, and while they certainly benefited the larger car’s agility, the ride they provided could only be described as harsh. In contrast, the 330i, on its OEM sport suspension, strikes the perfect note, with a supple ride over the choppy stuff and a good set in the turns. Oddly, it doesn’t feel quite as balanced as my old 525i, but much more controlled and maneuverable. I’m starting to think the 525i’s handling feel was more a case of a big car with a smaller engine up front, with all the weight distribution advantages that offered, but that’s a post for another time.

BMW Engine Motor M54 M54B30 E46 330 330i

The E46 (1999-2005) 3-series was, at the time, BMW’s most popular model ever, and was offered in myriad different flavors, from convertibles to wagons to sedans to coupes, with a plethora of option packages and a number of styling variations and refreshes. I told my wife that if I could have ordered any non-M BMW new in 2002 and optioned it exactly the way I wanted it, it would have been this car. The air dam and rear apron: Perfect. The Style 68 wheels: Right on. The color combination: Love it. Even details like the sunroof delete (extremely rare for a US-bound E46), the heated seats and the premium Harman/Kardon stereo are precisely what I would have chosen. The original owner, who clearly special-ordered the car, had exquisite taste. I can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to own it, drive it and work on it. I’m notoriously fickle when it comes to my affection for various cars, but if any car was a keeper, this is it. There’s not a thing I would change.

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Love It Or Hate It? BMW M Coupe

November 28, 2014 by Matt

BMW M Coupe Z3 Silver

It’s awkward. But is it awesome?

The 1998-2002 BMW M Coupe was the German automaker’s attempt to graft a roof onto their Z3 convertible, introduced in 1996. Eschewing a traditional fastback look, BMW graced its new coupe with a shooting-brake-style boxy profile, with a predominantly flat roof and a more upright backlight.

The automaker also offered a non-M Z3 Coupe concurrently with the top-of-the-line M model; the lesser car shared the M Coupe’s roofline without its swollen fender flares and other aero bits. For our purposes, I’d like to focus on the M Coupe, since it represents the fullest expression of BMW’s styling intentions.

BMW M Coupe Z3 Blue

Dynamically the car was a hoot. Powered by a 315-hp version of the M3’s S54 straight-6 for the last couple of years of its model run, the M Coupe’s compact wheelbase, muscular engine and warmed-over version of the then-15-year-old trailing arm rear suspension from the E30-generation 3-series made it quite a handful at the limit. While capable of a 4.8-second sprint to 60 mph, from a handling standpoint, Car and Driver noted “The M coupe provides the performance pieces and says, ‘Good luck.'”

BMW M Coupe Z3 Interior Inside Cockpit Console

The cockpit reflects the gothic pretensions of the exterior styling with its chrome-ringed instruments and secondary controls. It’s a bit of a jarring statement from an automaker known for its aesthetic restraint. On the other hand, maybe BMW finally “cut loose” with the M Coupe’s styling and dynamic qualities. As different as it was from the rest of their understated lineup at the time, it’s easy to view the M Coupe as a back-of-the-napkin project, the kind of endeavor designers and engineers cook up on their lunch breaks and weekends. That quality gives it a kind of “Skunk Works” appeal.

I hate the way it looks, but I can see why it’s the holy grail of many BMW enthusiasts. It integrates visual and driving character like few sports car have. It looks fast, fun and ugly—and that’s exactly how it drives. What you see is what you get. In many ways it’s the Dodge Viper of BMWs, but with an ever-so-slight dose of German refinement just to make the whole experience bearable.

The 1998-2002 M Coupe polarizes enthusiasts as few do. Maybe, in the end, that’s the measure of its success?

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A Styling Comparison:
New BMW 2-Series Vs. Old 1-Series

August 12, 2014 by Matt

BMW 2-Series Red

BMW 1-Series 135i Orange Maroon Bronze E82 Coupe

Call it the anti-Peter Pan treatment.

With the replacement of the outgoing BMW 1-Series by the new, more upscale 2-Series, the Bavarian automaker “grows up” the styling, with less-than-successful results.

The differences between the generations are somewhat subtle, but impossible to dismiss once discovered. The most obvious 2-Series upgrade comes at the front end, where the headlights squint amid more surface detailing. At the rear, the 1-Series’ C-pillar makes a more pronounced break with the trunklid in comparison to that of the 2-Series, which flows and tapers together. And proportionally, the new car sits lower and looks larger, having lost the older BMW’s somewhat controversial “dipped” rocker panel.

The effect of the aesthetic changes reinforces a styling and character similarity between the 2-Series and its big brother, the 4-Series. And while that may be desirable from a marketing standpoint, where a salesman can more easily sell a 2-Series to a customer aspiring to “upgrade” to a 4 at some point, the changes have robbed the baby BMW of much of what made the 1 so distinctive.

BMW 2-Series White

BMW 1-Series 135i E82 White Coupe Rear

Sure, the older car may look a bit more awkward on first glance, but at least it’s confident in its awkwardness; it’s not striving to be something it’s not. The 2-Series seems like it’s trying too hard to emulate the larger 4-Series, while the 1 is simply happy to be a small car. Furthermore, the superficial ungainliness of the older car recalls the great upright BMWs of the ’70s and ’80s like the 2002, E21 and E30. Those cars look aggressive and distinctive precisely because their lack of aerodynamic, flowing lines. They look agile, eager and above all, confident—appealing qualities projected by the 1-Series and lost, or at least muted, in its successor.

I suppose, in the end, it all boils down to a matter of taste: How would you like your small BMW served? Mature and swoopy or playful and pugnacious?

Full disclosure: The 1-Series is one of my all-time favorite BMWs, and one of the few post-E46 BMWs I would consider. A 6-speed manual, Blue Water Metallic 128i with the Sport package is very high on my bucket list of cars to own.

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New BMW 2-Series Vs. Old 1-Series

On Losing a Car

December 30, 2013 by Matt

BMW E34 540i 540 1995 Gray Grey Arctic Gray Arktisgrau

I sold the BMW a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s what I wrote about it in the immediate aftermath:

I’m gutted, to tell you the truth. I’ve had twinges of regret seeing cars drive away, and I don’t know if this was the worst, but it’s up there. The car was my little piece of home when first started the job out here in Tennessee, and took me over the mountains with absolutely no complaints at least 20 times. That and my familiarity with the E34 platform, watching it drive away was almost like watching that body of knowledge disappear, even though it doesn’t, but that’s something of value, you know?

The idea that I would be able to avail myself of my awareness of the ins and outs of the BMW E34 was a primary reason why the transition from my old 1995 525i to my (now sold) 540i was so relatively painless. Despite the much larger engine of the latter, the two cars’ chassis are 95% similar, and the knowledge I had accrued wouldn’t go to waste. If there’s anything that circumscribes the way I see the world, it’s a sense of purpose, and it causes me a certain amount of cognitive dissonance to possess knowledge and yet but unable to use it. Knowledge for its own sake is fine and good to a certain degree, but its inescapable value is what provokes such an acute sense of loss when a car, an activity, an area, a friendship or any number of things is suddenly gone. It could be argued many car enthusiasts feel this way, and linger around message boards long after they’ve sold their pride and joy as a way of “exercising” that knowledge, as it were. I have a feeling I’m not alone.

Anyway, what did I replace it with? Behold, my new daily driver:

1999 Ford F150 Green

Yep. I’m a Ford truck owner. Sure, it’s a step down in the enthusiast department, but let’s consider the facts:

  1. The roads around Chattanooga are terrible. No, they don’t have car-swallowing potholes like the roads in Michigan, but the BMW still took a beating every day on the way to and from work.
  2. My commute is 25 minutes of stoplights and stop-and-go traffic. The car hated it, as did I. My old commute was 20 minutes of highway mileage where the car at least had an opportunity to stretch its legs. As it was, it felt like the 540i was suffocating.
  3. It was a distraction. My 240Z restoration was languishing and all my thoughts re:car improvements and repairs tended toward the BMW to the exclusion of the Datsun. The truck greatly reduces that temptation. Frankly, I don’t care about it as much. It’s a truck, a workhorse; it’s going to get beat up and I’m fine with that. Done. Next.
  4. I needed some way to get the 240Z here from our old house in North Carolina. The F150 provided that way, and allowed me to transport the rest of our items in storage besides. The Z is presently warm and dry in the garage here in Tennessee.
  5. I bought the truck for less than I sold the BMW for, and the difference was put to good use around the holidays.
  6. The BMW never set my hair on fire. It was an extraordinarily nice car, quick, easy to work and well put-together, but as far as I was concerned it always lacked that special something. It just wasn’t me. If I’m honest, it was a compromise choice at best.
  7. I want to lay a foundation for future car endeavors. With the truck in the driveway, not only do I not have to worry about how I would get a prospective long-distance purchase home (drive the truck and tow it), the logistics of a great number of other matters are simplified. And I don’t have to maintain the same kinds of practical criteria when considering future project cars; the sky’s the limit now that we have another vehicle with a back seat, an automatic transmission and the capacity to haul lots of stuff. It’s liberating.

Considered in light of the above, buying the truck is quite possibly one of the more rational car purchase I’ve made, and I’ve not made many. It’s in very good shape and drives quite well. I really can’t complain.

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Styling Misfires:
The BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo

August 5, 2013 by Matt

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

What on earth, BMW?

So the Mercedes CLS had already established the “4-door coupe” niche in massive fashion a few years before, and BMW’s response was…this? Either the Bavarian automaker’s market research had somehow shown car shoppers were hungry for a quasi-backpack-toting, deformed version of their handsome 5-series sedan, or the “attractive” part of the 4-door coupe equation was totally lost. It seems BMW thought the awkward grafting of a hatchback onto a typically well-proportioned shape would exploit an unexplored corner of the market, but it’s difficult to imagine who would gravitate toward such a stunted shape.

BMW 5-Series GT Gran Turismo

In a way, the 5-Series GT represents the most cynical demonstration yet of its manufacturer trying to coast on brand capital alone. Sure, it might drive well enough, and with the 400-hp, 4.4l twin-turbo V8, the 550i specification can certainly move along at a decent clip, but what about the 5-Series GT, above all else, communicates “Ultimate Driving Machine?” Precious little, and it’s that slogan and mindset that established the BMW brand in the public eye as the premier choice of driving enthusiasts, and by extension those who wanted to convey an impression (real or no) that they appreciate sharp-driving cars. Sadly, with experiments like the 5-Series GT (among others), the focus that made BMW’s reputation is slowly being chipped away. The open question is how long the brand’s luster can remain untarnished with the general buying public after the enthusiast community has moved on to greener pastures.

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Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein we discuss unsuccessful cars whose styling was their overlooked (or denied) Achilles heel. Read the other installments here:

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The BMW 5-Series Gran Turismo

Ultimate BMW Hybrid?
E9 Coupe with E39 M5 Running Gear

July 12, 2013 by Matt

BMW E9 Coupe CS E39 M5

BMW E9 Coupe CS E39 M5 Engine Motor S62

Came across this curiosity in the latest issue of Bimmer.

Created by German tuning house MKO, the so-called CS M5 grafts an E9 coupe onto an E39 M5 floorpan and suspension and adds the M5’s engine, 6-speed manual transmission and much of its interior as well. The resulting car combines arguably the loveliest BMW body with the most coveted M-car’s running gear.

BMW E9 Coupe CS E39 M5

Should be a no-brainer, right? BMW perfection? Well…yes, if you can overlook the loss of the E9 coupe’s vintage Big Six’s character, the jarring effect the modern dash and seats have on the interior and the odd decision to keep the M5’s wheels instead of fitting something a bit more classic-looking.

It feels like the definitive merger of analog and digital. What do you think? Impressive, yes, but is it desirable?

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E9 Coupe with E39 M5 Running Gear