Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Suspension Part 2

One of the most popular upgrades for ANY car is the shocks/struts and springs. These items carry the weight of the car and have a HUGE impact on handling, good or bad. Does your car bounce? Float? Drift? Rock side to side? Feel loose? Chances are your shocks are worn out. Most BMW suspensions last around 80k miles. Any more than that and you probably notice any or all of the above symptoms.

BMW offered two shock/spring options on the E46 and most other models: sport and non-sport. Each has a different spring rate (the stiffness), ride height, and shock absorber stiffness. Obviously "sport" is lower and stiffer than "non sport". A general rule is the stiffer the spring/shock, the better the car handles. But there is much more to a good set-up than just "stiffness" so you must choose a set-up that best suits your driving style.

Here are some tips for choosing the right suspension:
  • Prioritize your needs. Do you like canyon carving or comfortable commuting? Can you handle bumps and humps? How low do you want your car? What is your budget? What are the roads like where you live? Does it snow/ice? How often can you afford to replace tires, shocks, etc? Make a list and be realistic, lots of guys buy the super hard "corner carver" kits only to regret it after the initial giddy feeling wears off. And at $700-$2500, it ain't a cheap mistake to make!
  • Once you have your list of things you want, take some time and do your research. Talk to the guys at Turner Motorsport, Bimmerworld, and other shops that race what they sell. They can tell you what works on the track and what works on the street. Most are more than willing to tell you their experience if you just ask. Also check the online forums (caution:the public is ultimately one sided and few people have the ability to be objective with their views so keep that in mind when they tell you XYZ kit is the only way to go).
  • Keep in mind the "collateral damage" you might cause to your car. Damage? What damage? So glad you asked. Things like tire wear, shock life, and body damage from scraping can all be things you have to deal with. Personally I deal with a severe inner tire wear problem from being lowered, great for tearing up the twisties, not so great when I am always buying tires. And I can't tell you how many times I have scraped my bumper by pulling to far forward in a parking space. Also, the lower and stiffer you go, the sooner shocks tend to need replacement (especially in pot hole riddled parts of the world).
  • Buy the best kit you can afford. Just as the engine is the heart of your drivetrain, the shocks and struts are the heart of your suspension. Going with a more expensive but tried and true brand can save you hassle and time down the road.
A lot of people ask me what I have on my car (knowing I am on a very limited budget but yet really like to go fast) so here is my set-up. I bought my car with 112k miles. It had H&R sport springs on it when I bought it. But the shocks were factory non-sport units. This is a MAJOR NO NO! Lowered cars need special shocks that are designed to operate at the lower height. It can be downright unsafe to run a super low spring with stock shocks, so don't do it! I swapped the shocks/struts for Tokico "Blue" shocks. They have a lifetime warranty and cost $389 shipped to my door for all 4 corners. Lots of import guys have used them for years with great success. They are a good mix of stiffness and driveability and work well with the lowered set-up. After 40k miles of moderate to hard core use, they still perform very well. Not all that exciting I know, but hey, it's all I can afford!

Next installment we discuss sway bars! Don't miss it!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Suspension Q's and A's.........from my point of view

As car people we tend to treat our cars differently than "normal" people. By that I mean we wash them more often, we are bothered by brake dust on the wheels, bird poop makes us crazy, and if our car doesn't "feel" right we will spare no expense to restore it to former glory. BMW's have a certain feel to them that you have to experience to understand. It is one of the reasons we chose BMW, because we want to DRIVE our cars. But that feel can fade fast if we do not give our car the proper TLC it needs.

Most of this post will be focusing on the E46, but the ideas here can be applied to all BMW models. The first thing you have to come to terms with on suspension and BMW is that it costs more to maintain it than a Honda. Think of it this way, a road race car has to have LOTS of stuff done to it to keep it competitive. Your BMW is much closer to a race car than the average Accord. It was designed to run the Autobahn at triple digit speeds and give you the feedback and control you need to be safe. When things wear out, you feel it and you need to fix it. Ever have your steering wheel buck one direction or another under braking? A slight vibration you feel at 80mph but not 81mph? Do you hear clunking when hitting a pot hole? Is your ride just not "crisp" anymore?

Here are some common failure items and the parts I suggest you replace them with:

  • Control Arm Bushings: Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask about this on the forums. Most of the time the symptom is either the steering wheel shaking or jerking under braking, or a clunking noise. The control arm bushing is basically there to provide supoprt to the back end of the control arm itself and on the E46 is one of only three connection points. (see #6 on Diagram) It consists of an aluminum housing, a solid outer bushing pressed into the aluminum, and a rubber lined inner bushing filled with hydraluic fluid. It is a good desing for smoothing out the bumps in the road, but tends to fail within 60k miles and much sooner in colder climates. The rubber cracks, the fluid leaks out, and the bushing becomes much less affective. They are also hard to remove making DIY's more difficult. I personally prefer the solid bushings from Powerflex (no, I don't get spiffs from them). The solid bushings last much longer, give better feedback, last much longer, provide better handling, and are easy to remove for replacement or service to the control arm itself. The cost is a little higher(I got mine for $149 from Bimmerworld.com here) and the only complaint I have heard is that they tend to magnify vibrations caused by other worn suspension components. All that said, they really made a difference on my car, and have withstood some pretty severe abuse now for about 50k miles. If you live where the roads are really, really bad, you may want to stay with OEM style like the Meyle HD's found at places like OEM Bimmer parts here. And contrary to what some say, you do not need to get an alignment if you just replace the bushings. There are positive locator pins that only allow them to mount in a certain place. If your car has more than 60k miles, chances are a fresh set of Control Arm Bushings will make a world of difference.

  • Control Arms Assembly: This part of the suspension is also a big part of keeping that tight feel to your car (see #5 in the above diagram). The E46 control arm has an inner ball joint and an outer ball joint. The inner joint connects the arm to the front sub-frame, and the outer joint connects to the tie rod. When these wear all kinds of clunking and vibration are common. Also you might get uneven tire wear and even a feeling of instability at higher speed. The entire arm should be replaced with a quality replacement arm. No shortcuts here, you gotta pony up some $$$ for these. Cheaper versions will fail early and you will have to redo them long before you want to. I prefer the Meyle HD versions found at OEM Bimmer parts here. They are only $350 and worth every penny. If you want a slightly stiffer ride, you can spring for the ZHP versions. I replaced mine with some regular HD versions and found them more than adequate for my aggressive driving style. I had over 139k miles on my OEM arms so replacing these made a HUGE difference in my car. It is worth mentiong that both the arms and the bushings can be done DIY in your own garage. It is not hard and well documented on the net. I have seen Indy's and dealers quote well over $1200 for control arms and bushings, this is pure highway robbery! Borrow some tools and a friend, an afternoon of work can save you $700 or more. Lastly, make sure you get an alignment after doing the control arms. I runied a brand new set of tires by not doing this. More to come, stay tuned......

Monday, July 6, 2009

Do you blindly trust your "expert" mechanic? Why?

It never ceases to amaze me, so called "certified" (more like certifiable) mechanics don't seem to have a frigging clue about cars, BMW's in particular. It seems like the recent set of mechanic college grads have never even DRIVEN a car. They can diagnose a computer code, but if you throw them a more complex problem, they don't seem to apply common sense.

A great example is a recent problem my ex-boss had with his 2004 BMW 330 ZHP Package. He took it to the local independent BMW mechanic place and told them to change his oil and air filter. He also mentioned he was getting poor gas mileage and had a CEL. This CEL (check engine light) code was checked by me a few weeks earlier as p0174 and p0171 which are system lean codes. Anyway a few hours later he called to check the status of his car and they had blown up his DME (computer) trying to re-flash it with the latest software. Car was dead. The problem with this is two fold. 1. The never called him to ask if he wanted a re-flash in software. 2. It doesn't make sense why they tried that to begin with. (I will elaborate more why in a moment). Then they told him it would cost $800 for a new DME, but they wouldn't charge him labor. I called and found several used DME's for $250 locally, but why would they charge this guy for their mistake? Unbelievable! Back to my comment about why they didn't need to re-flash the software to begin with. The simple fact is that the car used to get 4mpg better gas mileage without the software reflash. So common sense tells me there is something mechanically wrong somewhere or else it would be getting the same mileage it always got. And while a newer version of software may have been available, it certainly wasn't needed to restore the car to original fuel mileage standards. Yet, as is so often the case, the new breed of mechanic has no idea how to diagnose a problem more complex than a computer telling them to replace an 02 sensor.

Another story I just recently heard was even more mind blowing. An owner and member of a BMW online forum had some issues with sluggishness in his 330i. He was thinking it sounded like a VANOS problem which is pretty reliable to think. He asked a "trusted mechanic" (his words) about it and was told "the E46 didn't have VANOS problems, that was more on the 5 series". WHAT!? I did a quick search on realoem.com and sure enough the part number for the E39 5 series VANOS and the part number for the E46 3 series VANOS are IDENTICAL! Meaning SAME EXACT PART! Now shouldn't a "trusted mechanic"/BMW expert know that? And in case that person is reading, yes you should replace your VANOS seals, and no you should not buy the Dr. VANOS kit, you should buy the Beisan Seals (only $60 here is the link) and have someone besides your "expert" install them.

To magnify this topic further, I (who found the VANOS part #'s in 5 minutes online) have zero hours in a ASE Certification school, no formal mechanic training, and no BMW training either. What I do have is 17 years of drag racing, trial and error, car repairs, and common sense (along with a decent mechanical aptitude) which has proven to save myself and countless people serious amounts of money. Am I an "expert"? I don't know about that. But what I do know is the
more I hear about what other so called "experts" are telling people (not to mention what they charge) and doing to people, I feel like a BMW genius.

In summary, I will tell you this. We live in the information age. Almost anything, ok ANYTHING, can be found on the internet if one dare look hard enough. BMW owners especially have multiple resources online. And tapping into the collective genius of an internet forum such as Bimmerfest.com is worth way more than you can imagine. Go to Autozone and have your codes read, don't be afraid to dig around under your hood, or log on to a forum and ask a question. As I have said so many times, "what one man can do, another can do!" and working on cars is no different! So you don't have to blindly accept ANYONE's opinion (not even mine) without digging a little deeper first. It might save you money, it might save you time, it might save you both.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A Sidekick, Star, Salesman, and an Angel

First of all, I have to give my wife credit for the title of this Blog. She mentioned the deaths of 4 prominent "celebrities" and asked "what is the meaning of all this?". She is referring of course to the death of Ed Mcmahon (the sidekick), Michael Jackson (the star), Billy Mays (the salesman) and Farrah Faucet (the Angel). Once again, this is supposed to be a car blog, but this first blog of July isn't really car related, so skip it if you don't want to hear my thoughts on life and death.

I guess we could just call it coincidence, I mean, "normal people" die everyday. But the world seems enthralled with the death of some very popular people and that is what prompted this particular set of ramblings. I guess the big question is "why?". Despite the coincidence of Billy Mays and Michael Jackson both being 51, and both dying from apparent heart failure, the 4 have little in common. But I believe God speaks to we human's whatever way He can. And this got me to thinking about what God is trying to say to us. My conclusion: we live in a unique time in history like none before us and God is calling one last time to those who would listen. Death makes us think about mortality, and an end that nobody can escape.

Solomon, the wisest man ever born, said "it is better to go into the house of mourning than the house of laughter". And if we think about the hereafter, we are forced to ask ourselves the hard questions we try so hard to avoid thinking about.

We have so much "stuff" to keep our minds busy nowadays, why bother thinking about death?Well, all of a sudden, my TV is full of reminders that even Farrah, Michael, Ed, and Billy's time ran out. And it ran out before they probably were ready. So I believe the Lord is letting people have to come to grasp with these deaths of seemingly "immortal" stars of days past and present.
Unfortunately, I am a realist. I realize that these deaths have deeper meaning, but that very few will heed the warning or hear the voice of the Lord calling out. Jesus himself said "the way is narrow and few will find it". Ever wonder what "few" means? I do. I remember the aftermath of 9/11, millions flocked to churches looking for answers, myself included. And while I was changed forever, many soon forgot the peril and anguish of that day and continued to live their lives as they had. And I have no doubt these 4 deaths will be the same, though on a smaller scale. Some will seek answers to their own mortality. Some will find it in the true God, Jesus Christ. Others will find it in false gods and religions. What will you do?

I believe that the sidekick, star, salesman, and angel are a reminder that EVERYONE has an end. And that while they had lives that were extraordinary their deaths were ordinary. Death is the great equilizer. I hope you go into the house of mourning for a moment, but don' stay there. Find the good news, the silver lining, the truth: Jesus loves you and in Him, there is no death. We need not fear death, we need not worry about when our time is up. He called me by name before I was born (think about that for a moment), He knows the number of hairs on my head, He knows the number of my days, and in Him I am secure.

I hope you all have a wonderful 4th of July, and remember that not only can you celebrate the freedom of the USA, but you can also celebrate the freedom available to us all in Christ. Freedom from death, freedom from fear, and freedom from dying an "ordinary" death. Because in Him, when you die, it will be anything BUT ordinary!