Because our long-term 2012 BMW 328i test car was delivered to us directly from the manufacturer's press fleet and not from a dealership, we were curious to see firsthand how our local BMW service center would handle the car in a routine maintenance situation. And, equally important, how would they handle us? Though our BMW had just under 10,000 miles on the clock, a couple of trouble spots were coming up, which offered us the perfect opportunity to take it in for routine inspection and service.
Trouble in Paradise
Our BMW 328i had been motoring along problem free during most of its time in our possession, until several items came up that needed attention.
First, the car's typically transparent and intuitive handling characteristics stopped feeling quite right, as its steering feel started losing the sensation of sharpness we recall from the 3-series press launch at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. While our 328i still tracked straight, something about its responsiveness began feeling less crisp as time wore on, despite the fact that we hadn't clipped any curbs or driven over unusually large potholes.
Second, a slight hesitation became apparent during acceleration. The sensation felt like a fuel cutoff issue that lasted a split-second before resuming normally, and though it didn't seem like a debilitating problem, it was certainly something we wanted to address before it worsened.
A third but significantly smaller item (which may have been related to the first issue) was the fact that the right rear tire had developed a slow leak, which was revealed by the tire pressure monitoring system's dashboard warning light.
And the Oscar Goes to...
We always strive for complete anonymity when we take a long-term test car in for routine maintenance, and this experience was no exception: Though we could have easily swapped our 328i for a fresh car from the press fleet, we intentionally chose to take it to a local dealership -- in this case, New Century BMW in Alhambra, Calif. -- in order to experience the process as a real-world consumer, not a pampered journalist.
Though it wasn't our closest dealership geographically, we ended up at New Century because it was the only service center that didn't require a wait for a loaner car. After setting an appointment over the phone, we showed up at the service bay. A cheerful attendant took our information, asking us to wait inside until a service adviser could look over the car. It took about 25 minutes of perusing doodads in the gift shop, such as BMW-branded pedal cars, key chains and sunglasses, before we were helped. At least the sofa was comfortable and the cappuccino machine was free -- not to mention the fact that our cover thankfully wasn't blown.
After going over our car's issues with the service adviser and signing the appropriate paperwork for the loaner, we went on our way in a new, lightly optioned 328i -- which, incidentally, exhibited the sharper handling we've come to expect from a BMW 3-series sedan, confirming our suspicions that our car's behavior wasn't normal.
After two days, our service rep called with an update: Turns out that an unusual wear pattern on the front tires suggested an alignment issue. This confirmed our observation that the car wasn't handling as well as it could. The right rear tire also had a puncture. But more importantly than that, the car's cutout during acceleration turned out to be the symptom of a clutch that was on its last legs -- a significant and potentially pricey problem.
How could a car with less than 10,000 miles on the clock go through a clutch? In this instance, we don't blame BMW, primarily because we didn't start with a brand-new car. When we took possession of our tester, it had 4,480 miles already on the clock, most (if not all) of which had been accumulated by fellow automotive journalists who likely performed all manner of instrumented testing on the car; driving like that often takes an unusual mechanical toll on the vehicle. For instance, 0-to-60 acceleration tests typically require numerous hard starts with deliberately inflicted clutch slips to achieve the quickest acceleration time. For better or worse, our peers have also been known to put a car through its paces and treat it more like a rental car than a personal possession, which can be mechanically taxing, to say the least. Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I encouraged my wife to hone her stick shift skills on the BMW, which may have precipitated the early demise of its clutch.
As for the tire wear issue, the dealership offered us a 4-wheel alignment with a discount off their normal rate of $228.88, which we declined, as well as the offer to replace the punctured tire at cost. In the meantime, they performed recall work, which involved a computer reprogramming and a faulty headrest.
Passing the Test
While our service rep at New Century BMW was surprised at the premature clutch wear and certainly could have charged us for the replacement of that wear-and-tear item if he liked, he instead opted to have it replaced free of charge. This was especially notable since he had no idea we would be publishing a review of our experience. When I notified my contacts at BMW about the impending clutch replacement, I was told that the car was a preproduction unit that was due to be crushed and destroyed, and that the parts and labor would go wasted. But upon relaying that information to the dealership (and thus blowing my cover), the adviser said the part had already been ordered and received and that canceling the replacement would leave him with a clutch he didn't need. And so our 2012 BMW 328i received a brand new clutch shortly before it was due on a boat back to Munich, where it was destined to be crushed beyond recognition.
What did I learn from my BMW dealership experience? First, I was impressed that though I could have been billed the considerable cost of replacing the clutch in the manual transmission, the service adviser spared me and decided to take care of it completely free of charge. On top of that, driving the brand new 328i suggested that our long-term tester had undergone more abuse than we originally suspected, as the new car felt dramatically different than our specimen, which can be explained by the fact that it was a preproduction example that likely wasn't completely sorted out.
At the end of the day, the dealership experience, though it involved longer wait times than we would have liked, delivered treatment that was commensurate with the premium product we've come to expect from BMW. In other words, we got exactly what we'd hoped for -- especially considering our 328i model's $46,420 sticker price.