Last week I wrote about wondering whether I could thread the needle and buy an inexpensive project before the snow falls and makes everything a lot more complicated. I focused mostly on cheap E91 wagons requiring some TLC, but at the end of the piece teased that “I’m currently trying to close the loop with the seller of a needy 2006 X3 3.0i six-speed with 164,000 miles for $1,000. For that, I’d bet that the dashboard of blazing indicator lights and the reportedly noisy transfer case are due to the transfer-case actuator, a relatively inexpensive and easy to replace part.”

Well, I’ve seen the 2006 X3. And it has seen me.

The ad said: “I’m selling this suv/truck for parts clean title it has differential or transfer case problem but the engine is good lots of new parts and it runs. It’s a mechanic’s special please do not ask too many questions. The price is firm. As is.” 

The seller was difficult to get in touch with, but I was persistent.

I explained that I’m self-employed, can come anytime, and am not some kid who’s going to be a no-show. He said that his window of availability was on weekends or between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. With Christmas on Sunday, the idea that either of us would want to meet over the weekend seemed silly, so I offered to come down on the Tuesday before the holiday. The car is down in New Bedford, normally about an hour’s drive from me up in Newton, but potentially double that with both rush-hour and pre-holiday traffic.

Which brings us to the issue of towing.

In last week’s piece, I gave examples of E91 wagons that were between two and four hours away. With the stolen catalytic converter just replaced in my Chevy 3500HD Duramax, I’m almost itching to use the big truck to drag home some prize, since that will help justify my continued ownership of this beast of a vehicle. However, I don’t own a trailer. I’ve been back and forth over this for years; buying one makes no sense, because I don’t have the room to store it, and as a U-Haul auto transporter costs only $55 a day to rent.

But there are two issues with the U-Haul route. The first is that even though there are U-Haul dealerships five miles east and west of me, the process of driving there to pick up atrailer, waiting in line, having them hook it up, and then dropping it back off at the end of the day always adds more time than I’d expect. By the time I’ve dropped off the trailer and driven back home, it’s invariably an extra two or three hours.

The second issue is that it seems that when I need an auto transporter, these two nearby dealers don’t have one on their lot, so I need to go further afield to get one, substantially lengthening the day even further.

Buying the Bavaria eight years ago: In theory, it’s easy to rent a U-Haul auto transporter, bag the prize, drag it home, and return the trailer—but in practice, it’s often a surprising pain in the butt.

So, when I see a well-priced car within striking distance, the question invariably becomes whether to just jump in the daily driver and have a look, or whether to do the full-on assault with cash, truck, and trailer. Nothing says “I’m here to play” like showing up prepared to do it all—to leave the gun and take the cannoli, so to speak—but I’m practical about these things. If a car is within an hour’s drive, I’ll generally jump in the E39, bring enough cash to leave a deposit, and see what’s what; if I have to repeat the drive and return with the truck and a rented trailer, it’s no big deal.

On the other hand, if the car is three hours or more away, doing the drive twice is unappealing, so I’ll try to get as much information as I can, and if I really think I’m likely to buy the car, I’ll drain the appropriate amount of cash out of savings, rent the trailer, and do the drive just once. I’ve never forgotten that bringing a trailer was what enabled me to drive down to Long Island and come back with Hampton, my 49,000-mile 2002.

The drive to New Bedford was closer to the “just go look at it” side of the goalpost, but with the X3’s low price making it likely to get snagged right away, combined with the short days, high traffic, and 4:00 p.m. viewing time, I would’ve preferred to err on the side of bringing a trailer and knocking it off in a single trip (and yes, it’s incredibly ironic that the signature phrase of the popular website “Bring a Trailer” used to refer to dead barn finds or project cars, and now is more connotative of not wanting to add mileage or get the dry-ice-blasted undercarriage dirty). Unfortunately, the nearest available U-Haul auto transporter was in Somerville—not only the opposite direction from New Bedford, but a very high-traffic area. There was no pretending that the trailer wouldn’t turn it into a six to eight-hour end-to-end exercise.

I read up on the transfer-case-actuator issue that was likely the cause of the seller’s claim that the car had transfer-case or differential issues. There are dozens of videos showing how to remove the actuator and replace the plastic gear inside that commonly strips. I found this one especially helpful, because it also contains the codes that can help you diagnose whether the problem is due to the actuator or to something else.

Regarding reading codes: I’m mainly a vintage-car guy, and thus am not as up on scanner issues as I should be. For my E39, I’ve been using an eBay-purchased copy of PASoft 1.4 and an accompanying USB dongle running on an ancient Windows XP tablet computer. It works, but the tablet is so old that the battery doesn’t hold a charge, which means that when I use it in my driveway, I need to stretch an extension cord to the garage, and when using it on the road, I need to plug the tablet into an inverter connected to the cigarette lighter. I’m not sure whether it’s the inverter or the tablet, but experience has shown that this Rube Goldberg setup works about half the time, so I took this opportunity to order a modern half-decent BMW-specific scan tool; I bought a used Foxwell NT510 on eBay for sixty bucks.

It was scheduled to arrive the day before I had the appointment to see the X3, but unfortunately, it was delayed in shipping by a day, too late for me to take it along.

Still, last Tuesday I loaded up the E39 with a toolbox, the battery jump pack, the ever-present Tyvek suit, a box with the XP tablet with PASoft, the dongle, and the inverter, as well as an old generic OBD-II scan tool as a backup, and headed to New Bedford to see the thousand-dollar six-speed X3.

When I arrived and saw the car sitting on the street, my heart sank. The nose, front fenders, and hood of the Highland Green (which looks like dark grey) car had been replaced with silver-gray metallic body panels, clearly indicating that the thing had been smacked and home-repaired. And several of the tires were nearly flat.

From this angle, it looked great. And hey, a trailer hitch is always handy.

But from the front: surprise!

The seller showed up. He apologized for being late, saying that there was a lot of traffic coming down the hour from Brockton, where he worked. He explained that the car had been sitting here in front of a garage owned by his brother for three months. He handed me the keys, then rooted around in a junk pile on the sidewalk, pulled out a 2×4, and used it to brace one of the wheels, explaining somewhat mysteriously that the car is missing the handbrake lever, although he said he has one for it.

I got in the car and tried to start it, and immediately smelled dampness. I looked to my right and saw an inch of water on the passenger-side floor.

Another surprise!

I turned the key and found that the battery was dead—no surprise if it had been sitting for three months. I got out my battery jump pack and connected it to the battery access points under the hood. The X3 then cranked, but wouldn’t start.

The seller insisted that the car ran great and started easily, so it must “just need more juice,” and offered to try jumping it with his truck. I skipped my usual lecture—”If it’s cranking, then it has enough juice”—since the whole visit was beginning to have the hallmarks of a waste of time. I thought, “Thank heaven I didn’t go to the level of effort of bringing a trailer.”

However, after we jumped it with his truck and tryed repeatedly to start it, to my surprise, the X3 roared to life. And I mean roared: The exhaust was so loud that after my recent experience with the truck, I wondered if the catalytic converters had been stolen. I crawled under it and saw instead that the clamps connecting the downpipes to the resonators were missing.

I let the X3 warm up while the seller went into his brother’s garage, came out with a portable compressor, and inflated the tires. Although nearly every dashboard warning light was on, the car seemed to idle okay. I looked under the nose and didn’t see any fluid streaming out. And the needle was staying put in the left third of the temperature gauge.

Even though the surprises of the body panels, the hard starting, the loud exhaust, and the water on the floor completely trumped the issue of a possibly-bad transfer-case actuator, if I was going to scan for codes, now was my chance. First, I connected my ancient Actron OBD-II code reader; a generic tool like this won’t read any BMW-specific transfer case codes, but it certainly displays the emissions-related ones. Sure enough, it called up a nasty assortment of oxygen sensor, cam-position sensor, misfire, and temperature-related codes. Danger, Will Robinson!

I then connected the tangled chain of inverter/XP tablet/PA Soft USB-dongle cabling. After coaxing the inverter to stay connected in the cigarette-lighter socket, I was able to fully scan the vehicle; the only transfer-case-related code was 54C8, and a cryptic note about resistance.

With the tires inflated, I took the X3 for a short drive—and I mean very short, since the seller said it wasn’t registered. Still, you can learn a lot by driving a vehicle five feet, ten feet, a hundred feet. I carefully backed it down to the end of the side street it was parked on and ran it back and forth up the hill a few times. It ran, drove, shifted, and stopped. Whatever the potential transfer case issue was, nothing was apparent in 100 feet at 20 mph.

With that task completed, I returned the X3 to its parking space and shut it off while listening for clicking under the transfer-case actuator, a sign that the actuator gear is bad. I heard nothing.

By now, it was dark and the temperature was dropping rapidly. Decision time.

I told the seller that if the car had one fewer demerit—if it didn’t have the mismatched front body panels, or the nearly-impossible starting, or the detached exhaust, or the pile of codes, or the water on the floor, or the specter of a transfer-case problem—I’d hand him the thousand bucks I had in my pocket, collect the title and keys, and come back with a truck and a trailer. (Since I didn’t have a truck and trailer with me, if I wanted the car, I’d need to come back anyway.) But given that array of red flags, I needed to think about it. I offered that I hopefully got points for coming, for doing exactly what I said I would, and for not trying to bargain him down on what was already a very reasonable price. He nodded.

I drove home through rush-hour traffic.  Then I ordered a CarFax for the X3. It showed only a minor accident in March of this year, with the note, “Airbags did not deploy.”

I then looked through the codes stored on my XP tablet. I realized that some of them—the oxygen-sensor codes in particular—could due to the detached exhaust. I’d need to attach it, clear the code, drive it, and see.

I also read up on the 54C8 “resistance” code and learned that it indicates that the actuator encountered more resistance engaging the transfer case than expected, which can be indicative of the transfer case itself needing service. This could be the case simply needing a fluid change, or it could be more.

But I also saw a lot of lighting-related codes, enough that there might be an issue with the lighting control module. It’s in the passenger-side footwell up against the inside of the fender. Could it be related to the water on the floor there? I don’t know, but it adds to the risk.

I then did what I often do: I put all the pros and cons in a spreadsheet.

The main pros are the bragging rights of a thousand-dollar X3 six-speed from which I could get a winter’s worth of articles. What, you think all this content gets generated without my making highly-questionable purchasing decisions?

The cons outweigh them; really, I don’t want an X3. It’ll never be a straight-out replacement for the E39 530i stick sport. I vastly prefer rear-wheel-drive sedans to all-wheel-drive cars, especially pumped-up SUVs (excuse me: SAVs).

So, other than using the vehicle as a winter beater (or, as we say in New England a wintah beatah), writing about what a stupid purchase it was, and complaining every time I need to fix it, it really doesn’t make much sense. In particular, the mismatched body panels put a hard cap on the car’s resale value. And, having repaired my Z3 when my neighbor still owned it and her son put it up on a median strip, I’m keenly aware of how much damage can be hidden after a front-end strike.

As I write this, rain and high winds are whipping Boston, with the temperature forecast to drop into the teens tonight, turning the region into a skating rink. I’m certainly not getting back down there with a trailer any time in the next few days.

I contacted the seller saying that we’d touch base between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and see if either of us want to make this happen. But I doubt it will. And that’s where we are.

So there you have it, my Christmas present to you: a cliffhanger.—Rob Siegel


Rob’s newest book, The Best of The Hack Mechanic, is available here on Amazon, as are his seven other books. Signed copies can be ordered directly from Rob here.





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