Thursday, January 28, 2010

Where did the $39 BMW oil change go?

I grew up thinking of oil changes as inexpensive, quick services. Yet the simplest of services on a late model Mercedes or BMW seems to cost $150 or $200. How come?

The first part of the explanation lies in the oil itself. In recent years the European carmakers have extracted more and more performance from less and less fuel using sophisticated technologies. Anyone who’s compared a 2008 BMW 5-series to a 533 from the mid 1980s can’t help but notice the difference.

The car designers have pushed the limits of engine technology to get today’s performance. That means engines run hotter, and there’s more stress on the internal parts. Engines now contain plastics and exotic metals, which need different kinds of protection. And finally the service intervals are far longer, so the oil in today’s BMW has to last several times as long as the oil we installed 25 years ago.

The result of that change is a much higher performing car that needs far higher performance lubricants than cars of yesterday. And the costs of getting it wrong are high . . . an engine that fails from sludge buildup or other lubrication failure can easily cost over $15,000 to replace.

Important as it is, engine oil or “motor oil” is totally misunderstood by most technicians and consumers. People glance in their owner’s books and see that their car takes 5-30 oil. They don’t even know what 5-30 refers to, so they assume any 5-30 oil will meet their needs. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

In fact, all non-synthetic and most synthetic SAE 5W-30 oil products available in North America fail to provide adequate protection for North American BMW and Mercedes cars that require a 5W-30 viscosity oil.

For example, both Castrol Syntec 5W-30 and Mobil 1 5W-30 both fail to meet BMW minimum requirements. Castrol and Mobil both make products that are suitable for BMW and Mercedes engines but they are not readily available in North America. Even respected brands like Amsoil and Redline fail to offer products that are approved by BMW. In the case of Amsoil and Redline, SOME of their products will serve well but are not technically approved and do have the potential to create problems under certain conditions.

Due to the widespread ignorance of oil service ratings in North America, BMW reduces the minimum requirements for cars sold on this continent. The Genuine BMW 5W-30 oil meets the reduced "LL-98" requirements. LL-98 is the long life oil standard that BMW established in 1998. That standard was superseded by a tougher one in 2001, BMW LL-01. Robison Service and other good BMW specialty shops use the higher grade "LL-01" approved oil for improved protection. These products will improve protection and improve the effectiveness of the BMW oil monitor system.

Mercedes has similar standards for its cars, and for that matter so do Porsche, Volvo, VW, Audi and most other high end carmakers. Ignoring the carmaker requirements is to court disaster. Having said that, I see that very thing happen all the time. People buy inexpensive oils in the mistaken belief that all oil is the same, and they feel good because they saved $50 on an oil service. But what happens when the engine fails and they face a $10,000 repair bill? That’s truly an expensive lesson.

Oil is not the only component of an “oil service.” There is also the filter. At Robison Service we use genuine filters and filters from Bosch and Mann, two of the principal suppliers to European carmakers. These filters cost a bit more, but once again they meet the carmakers requirements. A filter that clogs and causes an expensive failure isn’t much of a savings . . .

Finally, a proper service includes reading and resetting the maintenance system. All late model BMW and Mercedes cars have flexible service computers, where the car keeps track of what’s due and when. You may think the car just needs an oil change, but the maintenance system may be asking for a brake fluid change and new cabin filters too. Once again, there can be serious consequences if the recommended services are ignored.

Dealers and properly equipped independents will have the necessary electronic systems to talk to the car’s service computer. It’s very important to do this, and to scan for faults, because your car’s computer is all that stands between you and a breakdown in many cases. And if you ignore a stored fault (which may be invisible from the dashboard) you may not get any other warning before the car fails.

Finally, a proper service includes a careful visual inspection by a technician that’s familiar with the marquee. You can’t find that anywhere except at a dealer or specialist.

That’s why we don’t call these services oil changes anymore. We call them small services. BMW separates oil service from inspection service. Mercedes Benz A Service is their small service. We do that because they always include an oil change but they often include additional work as dictated by the car or our inspection.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cars get clogged arteries too

Do you have a VW diesel that used to be powerful and now it's weak? Did your fuel economy sink from 50 to 40 or even less? The problem could be carbon clogging the intake. Follow me on a pictorial tour of this diesel performance problem.

Here is a "normal" intake with no clogging. Basically, it's a clear piece of cast pipe . . .

After 100,000 miles that pips can get pretty plugged up from carbon, a byproduct of diesel combustion . . .

Here's another view through the throttle body. You can see that half the pipe's capacity has been lost.

When the pipe clogs up you have to push the throttle farther to get the same amount of air into the engine. It becomes like a person with clogged arteries or asthma - a bad situation. It does not take sophisticated mechanical knowledge to understand what's going on here.

The cure is to remove the carbon. Sometimes you can do the job with a flexible wire brush and a shop vacuum. Other times it's necessary to remove all the intake plumbing and ship it off to be boiled in a chemical cleaner. It can be an expensive repair. Once it's done, your fuel mileage and power will rise back toward their previous levels.

At the same time, it's always a good idea to change your fuel filter. They clog too, but the clogging is inside where you can't see it. I suggest changing your diesel fuel filter every 30,000 miles.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Programming keys for your Land Rover

Most high end cars have two parts to their keys. There is a mechanical key blade that physically unlocks a mechanism, and there is an invisible electronic component that talks to the security system in the car to authorize starting.

That’s why you can’t copy keys at a locksmith anymore . . . they can duplicate the mechanical part, but without the electronics the key is useless. Even worse, if the lock turns without the electronic authorization, the alarm may go off and the car may enter a locked-down state that necessitates a tow to the repair shop.

Programming or coding keys for Range Rover 4.0 and 4.6 - 1995-2001

The pushbutton keys are numbered Key 1 through Key 4. When ordering a key, you specify the number. You can only have one of each number. So for example, if you have a Key 2, and you order a second Key 2, only one of those keys will work the remote locking system.

The keys are identified by stickers which unfortunately wear off with time. The result: you kind of take your chance on key numbers when ordering new keys, unless you have the foresight to write your numbers in your owner’s book.

Synchronization of keys on these models is pretty easy. Put the key in the driver door. Turn it to lock while pressing the lock pushbutton. Hold for 5 seconds. Turn to unlock, press unlock and hold 5 seconds.

At that point, the vehicle should lock and unlock via pushbutton. If you cannot synchronize any keys the switches in the door latch may be bad, and I suggest you attend to that right away as the car will be stranded is security sync is lost.

Programming or coding keys for Range Rover – 2002 to 2005 and BMW 7 Series 1995 to 2001
This version of Range Rover was designed while BMW owned Rover, so the key programming is shared with the big Beemers . . .

1 Make sure the vehicle is unlocked and the doors are closed with windows down (so you can’t lock yourself out by mistake)
2 Put one of the keys in the ignition and turn it to the first click and then back off within five seconds to put the car into initialization mode. From this point, you must continue key programming within 30 seconds or the system times out . . .
3 Remove the key from the ignition
4 Press and hold unlock button for up to 15 seconds. While doing this, press the lock button three times within 10 seconds.
5 Release both buttons
6 If you did this right the car will answer you by locking and then unlocking the vehicle. If this does not happen, repeat from step 4
7 Repeat steps 4 and 5 with all the other keys for the vehicle (maximum of 4)

Discovery 1999-2004

The pushbutton keys in Discovery II models can only be coded by a shop with the Autologic, T4, or IDS diagnostic systems.

Programming or coding keys for LR3, LR4, Range Rover and Range Rover Sport – 2005 and up

The pushbutton keys in these models can only be coded by a shop with the Autologic, T4, or IDS diagnostic systems.

(c) J E Robison Service

John Elder Robison is the founder of J E Robison Service, independent Land Rover specialists in Springfield, MA.  John's shop has supported Land Rover owners since 1987. They are experienced at all aspects of service, repair, overhaul and restoration.  Find Robison Service online at or on the phone at 413-785-1665.

How to reset the service reminder on late model Land Rovers

To reset the service reminder on Land Rover

This tip comes from Geoff Kelly in the UK . . .

1. Insert key in ignition.
2. Press AND HOLD the trip reset button.
3. While still pressing the trip reset button, turn on the ignition. DO NOT START THE ENGINE. Just turn the ignition on.
4. Keep pressed the trip reset button until word "Service" will flash on the instrument cluster. (about 5 seconds).
5. After a while (no more than 5 seconds) the word "Service" will remain on.
6. Release the reset button.
7. Now, by pressing the reset button, the words DIST, DATE and END are cycled on display.
8. If you want to reset the service distance, cycle until DIST is shown. If you want to reset the time-to-service, cycle until DATE is shown.
9. When the desired item is selected, press and KEEP pressed the reset button until the word RESET is shown.
Do this for both items or only for the one you desire. (I've did it only for time)
10. When you've done, cycle until END appears and then press and HOLD reset button until the display will now show the current (and newly reset) distance and time until next inspection.
11. Turn off the ignition.
12. All done!