Where There's Smoke, There Isn't Always a Four-Alarm BMW Repair

Dear Car Talk:

I drive a 2013 BMW X3. It's been an excellent car, perhaps the best I've ever owned. It has only 52,000 miles on it.

I retired six years ago and drive much less than I used to, and even less during the pandemic. Recently it started sporadically emitting a lot of exhaust smoke when starting up -- enough to fill the garage. Not every time, but especially when it sits unused for a couple of days.

When I asked the service department at the dealership about this, I was told that older BMWs had this problem when sitting unused for a couple of days, and there was no fix other than a new engine. I guess they were suggesting I just buy a new car. From them. That seems unreasonable for a nine-year-old car with low mileage. At my age, I don't need a new car and I intended to keep this one. Any advice? -- Tim

Advice? Yeah, make sure you always open the garage door before starting the car, Tim. And keep driving. There's no reason to put a new engine in it based on this problem alone. We see lots of cars that do this. The most likely explanation is that there's oil that remains on the cylinder walls after you shut off the engine.

And in your case, it's possible that a little more oil is leaking down from the valve guide seals and into the cylinders while the car sits. Then, when you next start the car, that oil gets burned up and comes out the tailpipe as smoke.

It doesn't smell good and has a blue-ish-gray haze that makes you feel like you're living in Los Angeles in 1974. But, keep in mind, Tim, it doesn't take much oil to make a lot of smoke. So don't assume that you've got a major problem. As long as you're not losing oil at a significant rate, this is really more of an annoyance than a four-alarm BMW repair. The key is to keep an eye on your oil consumption. If you're adding a quart every 1,000 to 2,000 miles, it's not serious enough to fix.

If you have to add a quart every 200 to 300 miles, then you are burning a lot of oil -- and it's not just happening when you start the car after a few days. In that case, the dealership is right. You need serious engine work. Or a 2022 X3, with a Harmon Kardon stereo and 19-inch alloy wheels.

But the phenomenon you describe -- burning a little bit of oil on the first start after sitting for a few days -- is not something we've ever correlated with imminent engine failure. In fact, it could have been doing this for years. You just rarely let it sit for three days until recently. So monitor your oil consumption, and if it's not alarming, keep driving, and wave to the dealer and smile whenever you drive by.


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