Greetings from scenic,

Category: Automotive
Tags: Car I

'97 BMW 318ti Adventures

This is a story about how I learned to stop hating on BMW.

My 318ti atop NCSU's coliseum deck

Coffee Shops

I used to work at this coffee shop near my school during my last year of college. The pay was atrocious but I was pretty determined that while I worked there I would save up enough money to replace my aging 2001 Honda Accord. With 250,000 miles, all it takes is one snapped timing belt and I would be on the side of the road with an engine sporting newly-bent valves and a fuck-big headache. Although my Accord is extremely reliable and is still running after all these years, I decided that buying and maintaining a second car would be in my best interest.

Unfortunately I never saved up enough money at this gig to really buy much of anything.

The car I had my eyes set on during all this was a VW Golf GTI. I played a lot of Need for Speed: Most Wanted 2 (PS2) when I was in middle- / high-school and Sonny's GTI was (as far as I was concerned at the time) by far the coolest car in the game.

The Volkswagen Golf GTI from NFS:MW2

I only developed an interest in cars over the last 2 years.

I can remember that, before I studied in Japan in 2018, I decided to change my own oil on my Accord, which was something I'd never done before. My parents' home had absolutely none of the tools to jack this thing up (nor the space to do so) so I drove to a friend's house and bummed his garage while I learned how to do the job myself. I ended up getting oil all over myself when I loosened the oil-pan plug which was not really fun but in hindsight it was a very formative / defining experience for me moving forward, as I began changing my own oil and doing very basic maintainance on the car.

Fast-forward a year after I finished my study-abroad and I was absolutely dying to drive a new car; memories of that Golf GTI were dredged from my pre-adolescent memory to the forefront of my mind by the 痛車 ("itasha") that drive around Akihabara. So I started working as a barista at the above-mentioned coffee shop, but never made enough money to finance a project car. I think I saved around $1400 by mid-November (I had started at the beginning of the term in August) which was laughable and so I quit to focus on school.

Actually, I think prioritizing school was only one of the immediate reasons; I really didn't have much time in our busy shop to chat up my co-workers but when I seldom found a moment I found that we didn't really have much in common. One guy there was studying Mechanical Engineering at State but other than that, I think I was the only one working there almost exclusively for my own pleasure so I put in my two-weeks as soon as school started to pile up towards the end of the term.

Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis

The spring of my last semester in college I was extremely fortunate to line up a job starting exactly the Monday after my last final exam (I think my very last exam was for ECE453 - Electric Motor Drives, on a Tuesday.) That weekend I threw the final party for my my university imageboard and started working immediately following. I know many people who do not enjoy such a seamless transition and so I am very thankful that I was offered this opportunity. The month after I joined this company was probably the most hectic month I've had since I matriculated into university, for a variety of (pretty unique) reasons.

There was never a question what I was going to do with my first few actual pay stubs. I immediately began trawling Craigslist looking for a GTI but was very disappointed at how few were for sale. Also the ones that were posted were ugly as hell. I broadened my search.

My parents both drove exclusively Honda from '93 or so until about 2017. My father purchased a gently-used BMW 535i and I thought it was the most vexing thing to drive in the world. Compared to my Accord, it was an automatic and everything in the car was hooked up with BMW's iDrive software, even the instrument gauges. I absolutely hated the thing but goddamn that twin-scroll turbo could smoke my Accord any day. A year or so after this my mother got a pretty slick deal on a BMW X5 and all of a sudden the Hondas in the driveway disappeared.

Originally I heard all kinds of things like "BMWs are hard to maintain" and the parts are "extremely expensive to source" and the maintainance on my parents' cars seemed to confirm that. I was never keen to buy a BMW and it was probably the last thing on my mind.

However, one day there appeared in the Raleigh listings an absolutely drop-dead beautiful 1997 BMW 318ti with only 64,000 miles. All it took was $4000 cash-in-hand. I contacted the guy and immediately set up a date for a test-drive.

I think that day I left the house and told my boyfriend "I'm going to go test-drive this BMW I found on Craigslist" and he looked at me a little funny. I'd been talking about a new car for almost a year at this point but I think this took him by surprise.

When I came back after the test-drive I said "I need to you drive me to the bank at 3PM to pay this guy for the BMW I just test-drove" and that got some even wilder looks. I was so impressed with the condition of the car and with the extremely low mileage on this '97 hatchback I was not going to risk passing this opportunity up.

Here's a picture taken not more than an hour after I came home from the bank:

I was so excited that day that I drove home without even a license plate

The car was manufactured in November '96 which dates it just 1 month older than me. The paint is factory-original BMW-Alpinweiß-II and the only non-stock option for this car is the aftermarket JVC radio. I'm pretty appreciative of this swap because the radio has Bluetooth connectivity so I can blast nightcore when I'm riding around. There is an antenna in the back so I can receive WKNC 88.1 wherever I go as well.

A typical view of the JVC radio

Other than that, it has the typical M44 engine, a 1.9L inline-4 arrangement. With a 5-speed transmission that means my rev in 5th gear is still pretty high (~3500 RPM at 70mph) cruising down the highway. Additionally, as with other cars manufactured from that time, it lacks a cruise control. There is evidently a retrofit kit for this available from the manufacturer which I am investigating.

The Problem With the Tint

This car had a really really really good tint job when I picked it up. Actually it was so good that the State of North Carolina made me remove it because I looked too good in it and it made everyone jealous:

Verification that my tint was indeed "too sick"

I believe the tint job was applied in Texas where windows must permit at least 25% of light into the vehicle. This tint job was in particular 27% which made the car look like an absolute unit but unfortunately this is below North Carolina's minimum of 32%. I had 2 options:

  1. Go to a tint shop and pay to have someone remove the tint
  2. ... or I could remove the tint myself with a little time and care

So really I only had 1 option and that's what I settled on. I was really sad to see it go but it had to be done. I may get it tinted again in the future because it did keep the inside pleasantly cool even in the sun because tint rejects some heat from entering the cabin.

With a little heat and a tiny razor and some time and care, you too can destroy hundreds of dollars of perfectly beautiful window tint

With the tint removed I finally passed inspection (the re-inspection charge was $0.58) and drove immediately to the NC-DMV title agency to claim my plate and complete my registration.

Normally cars in Wake county (where I live) counties need to be tested for emissions before you can apply for vehicle registration. However, North Carolina also recently passed a law stating that vehicles "20 years and older" are not subject to emissions testing. That's good because the engine runs slightly rich and tends to make the upstream O2 sensor upset, which will sometimes throw a CEL for the catalytic converter. Although you can reset the codes in your vehicle, cars equipped with OBD-II will alert a technician that your vehicle's engine module is partly "not ready" to be examined and they will fail you because the car has not had enough time to actually check the monitors since it was reset.

Luckily I did not have to even think about emissions for this vehicle (which is currently 23 years old!).

It was inevitable this would happen

Engine Diagnostics and my X61

BMWs from this era are particularly prone to vacuum leaks. It seems that my car is no exception and appears to have a leak somewhere, causing the exhaust to run rich (smell like gasoline); the incomplete combustion caused by the erroneous timing advance proposed by the ECU causes the car to idle rough but steady, around the ~800RPM range. When the O2 sensors warm up the problem worsens because the car attempts to compensate based a lambda which causes the RPM to drop further to ~700RPM at idle. It hasn't stalled on me but it's pretty annoying knowing I am losing power and fuel-economy because of this.

Since I still have the Accord which I can use as a daily-driver if needed, I can afford to tear down as much of the 318ti as I need to. In my hunt for cracked hoses I've removed the upper-half of the intake manifold but did not find anything obviously wrong:

The manifold was nasty inside, I think I will deep-clean it when I get the chance

It's worth pausing here to note that I've never tinkered with anything under the hood of my Accord (or any other car) before, so removing, inspecting, and correctly reassembling the manifold was a really big step for me and has improved my confidence in myself.

And although I didn't find anything wrong, I almost went to take it to a shop before I decided to just buy my own little smoke machine and smoke-test my car myself. It is my project car, after all, so it makes sense for me to do everything I can to learn from it and practice on it.

Before smoking the car, though, I ran some basic diagnostics using an OBD-II to USB microchip hooked into my X61 Thinkpad. I bought an SSD just for this use-case because the computer was agonizingly slow otherwise. This laptop was originally bought from NC State's surplus electronics sale for a mere $10.

Diagnostic software running on my X61

I confirmed the engine was running rich at idle (note the negative fuel-trim readings in the image above) and found that the engine attempted to compensate by applying a 16° advance to the #1 cylinder.

The software I use additionally can perform a dyno test using a wide range of data gathered via OBD-II while accelerating the car to measure power delivered to the crankshaft. Unfortunately my connector doesn't pick up the PIDs for my BMW's mass airflow sensor or for any pressure readings in the car so it cannot perform the calculation.

Also one other neat thing is that you can plug the laptop in and begin recording data for the trip; it will analyze optimal shift-points for you and optionally give you real-time feedback for your fuel-economy and all the vehicle data it can scrape from OBD-II. I have used this to analyze my driving and shifting habits.

With a K+DCAN cable on the way, I expect to read more data than afforded by this generic adapter. I can also leverage BMW's factory tools like INPA and friends will allow me to take a deeper look into my engine and further tune the parameters for my 318ti.

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