Today’s Ur-Turn comes from TTAC reader Mike Stanizewski, who writes about his experiences with his E46 winter beater. Mike says
“I wanted to write this article after reading some of the recent articles regarding German cars and their long term reliability. Some of the commenters in the Cayenne article were wondering out loud what happens to old German cars when they reach their third uncaring owners. Well here I am, the third uncaring owner, and I want to tell you what it’s like to drive an old, high-mileage German car through the winter months.”
I live in Michigan. In my off hours I buy and sell used cars through my friend’s dealership. This gets me access to used cars at good prices. Every winter I pick out one of these cars to drive during the winter months in order to keep the salt off my nicer car.
My goal is to find a car that’s not too old and not too beat. And very cheap to buy.
I always pick a car that I paid less than $1500 for. This way I keep the cheap one-way insurance on it and feel that my downside risk is pretty low in case of an accident. I try to pick something that’s about 10 years old and around 150,000 miles. Most of the older cars with high mileage are beat, but there are always a few that have been taken care of well. One of these is a great winter beater candidate. In past years I have picked old Focuses as my beater for the winter. If you find a good one, they are reliable rides at least for the four months that I need them to be.
This year, I had already picked out a nice stick shift Focus wagon for myself when I ran across a thing of beauty at the auctions – a nice and shiny BMW 3-series. It has more than 200,000 miles on it but the price was below my $1500 target.
I always had a weak spot for the German cars. I’ve owned several Porsches, BMWs, and Audis over the years. For me, this BMW was a very beautiful car for the price of a Focus. I decided to sell the Focus wagon and keep this BMW. I even joked to my friends that at least if the BMW strands me, I’ll look good standing next to it!
It’s a 1999 BMW 323, the E46 bodystyle. It’s automatic. And it has a few issues. It leaks a little engine oil, power steering oil, and coolant. It has a shake in the center tunnel when starting that is probably the flex coupling to the driveshaft. It has two non-functioning power windows. Sometimes it doesn’t engage reverse gear. The windshield washer pump doesn’t work.
But, it has decent tires. The engine and transmission do not make any unusually noises. The suspension and ball joints feel tight. The brake pads aren’t too old. The heat works great.
Now you have to have a different mindset for your winter beater than you do with your prized cars. On a car like this, when something breaks or isn’t working to begin with (like the windows), you do a cost-benefit analysis in your head that goes something like “can I live without that feature for four months?” Usually the answer is yes. For something essential like the windshield washer pump, you may have to spend the money to replace it. The plan is to add as little money as possible to this car. For example, I don’t plan to buy any oil for this car. Over the winter I will drive it for about 10,000 miles. The oil that came with it isn’t exactly clean, but it isn’t used up either. I plan to put another 5,000 miles on this oil, and then replace it with some used Mobil 1. The used oil is the oil that I drain from my wife’s minivan after 5,000 miles of use. That oil will stay with the car until I sell it in April, and my oil cost for the beater is zero (I will buy a new oil filter for it though).
I have been driving this car for a month and nearly 2,000 miles now. The car drives very nice. You can feel how wonderful this car must have been when it was new. It has started every day and not let me down so far. I can live with the little leaks and the broken power windows, but I will have to climb under the car and replace that driveshaft coupler before I can sell it since it causes so much shake in the center tunnel. I also have to plan how I park the car, since it sometimes will not engage reverse gear. This is a known problem with a solenoid on the valve body for that particular transmission, but I plan to just live with it and park so that I can always push the car out of its spot in case Reverse is a no go.
I have three months left to go. I am hoping that the car makes the ride.