BMW X3 coolant alarm highlights how owners' manuals torture service advisors
While driving in a 2013 BMW X3 recently, the coolant level alarm appeared on our screen. It advised that the driver should immediately refill the coolant level. Assuming the worst, we watched the temperature gauge and were able to get the vehicle home. Luckily we were only a couple miles away. Now what?
Where is the Coolant?
Once home we did more investigating. We consulted the manual on how to check the coolant level. Unlike every single modern car I have ever seen (besides BMWs) the coolant is not stored in a visible “overflow reservoir.” Instead, it is inside what looks like half a bowling ball. The car being still hot the coolant inside could be a vapor of coolant and steam, so we waited a couple hours for the vehicle to cool and then looked inside. There was no fluid at all inside. Not low, empty.
Consult Your Owner's Manual - At Your Own Risk
Consulting the owner’s manual advised that if coolant is below the low mark to “slowly fill coolant to the specified level and do not overfill.” The owners’ manual for the BMW X3 advises to only add “suitable additives.” BMW in the owner’s manual also then advises the owner to “Have the cause of the coolant loss eliminated as soon as possible.” We waited a day for BMW to open and phoned our service advisor.
Calling BMW’s service department made things confusing. The service advisor we have come to trust (since this car has had multiple issues requiring major repairs) told us to “Just add tap water and drive on over for a quick pressure test.” That sounded to me a lot like what one might do with an old clunker, but who would think to add to add tap water, with all its calcium, manganese, iron and other metals, minerals, and compounds that can precipitate and later clog a thermostat or cooling channel? It also made us wonder what might happen if we added the water, then drove onto the highway to bring the X3 to the dealer and then the coolant all leaked out again? We would risk being stranded or possibly overheating the engine while we drove to a safe location to await help.
Add Tap Water To Radiator?
We actually called the dealership twice because we could not believe the advice to add tap water to this near $50K vehicle. The reason we hesitated to do that was that the car’s manual specifically says to only top-off with “suitable additives” and which went further and even says “not all commercially available additives are suitable.” Another reason we don't like the idea of adding straight water is that if we add too much water the coolant may lose its freeze resistance and cause us trouble later. On the second call, the advisor said, “We see this all the time.” Discussing the tap water issue, he said, “That is what we do.” When pressed he did admit that the dealership would use something other than tap water.
Service Advisors Are On the Front Line
We cannot fault the BMW service advisor. If he does indeed “see this all the time” then BMW is doing its customers a major disservice by saying one thing in the owner’s manual and then having its authorized dealers say something different. Doing so sets up mistrust between the customer and the BMW dealership. Should the owner trust the BMW dealership or the car’s owner’s manual? We found ourselves getting frustrated with the service advisor, who was only doing his best to help.
The rest of the saga is not germane to the point of the story. We wondered, what would our car-savvy readers do if they had a breakdown, and the dealership’s advice did not seem to match the owner’s manual. Comment’s below are welcome.
UPDATE - After publication the vehicle was filled with 16 ounces of water to between the min and max level. It was driven to the BMW dealership in Peabody, Mass. There, BMW's dealer staff added a few ounces more of BMW coolant and sent the owner on her way. No pressure check or other mechanical inspection was performed. By all appearances the BMW X3 can consume about 20 ounces of coolant in 5 months of operation. It was last serviced in February.
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