CarTalk.com Blogs Car Info Our Show Deals Mechanics Files Vehicle Donation

Please help! I know nothing!

Two years ago, I had a cracked head in my 2000 BMW 328, after no problem with overheating, but continually having to fill the car with coolant. Yesterday the coolant light came on, so I freaked out.



Problem 1, the BMW place where I was happy with the service for years. (and where they replaced the head 2 years ago, BMW paid part of it since I convinced them it was a factory error- Thanks to all the help I got at Car Talk- Thank you all!)My service advisor left,a nd now they treat me like I don’t exist, so I had escalated the complaint to BMW, who also dropped the ball.



Problem 2- the place where I took the car this summer when it needed new brakes, did a great job. I felt I had found a new place, blocks from my home. They were bought out and moved a couple of months ago.



CAR problem 1- checked it for coolant. It was very low. Took it to the local gas station where I have gotten good help for little problems. They pressure tested it, assured me there are no coolant leaks. He blames the low coolant on BMW never “bleeding the air out” after they replaced the head, water pump, thermostat, radiator, head 2 years ago. BMW recs say they bled it. Opinions? I have no idea whether this makes sense as a theory.



CAR problem 2- He says I have I have a leak in the pressure line for the power stearing oil. He says it has been leaking a long time, that it is very oily under the car or in a pan or something. He says he needs to replace 4 pressure lines. He will give me the cost tomorrow. He is surprised I haven’t needed to replace power stearing oil. I saw no oil leaks under the car, and had no warning lights come on. But when I looked under the hood to see the coolant level, I did notice black gooky liquid on parts that you wouldn’t expect to be gooky. WHile I was standing with the guys, they said they could see something had leaked, but couldn’t tell what.



Please give me your opinions. I know nothing. Last time I had a car crisis, I was dating a guy who understood this stuff. But now I have no help, and my trusted car places are gone.



I am still worried about the former cracked head, because I had no warning before,and now even though the coolant level was so low, the light came on for less than a minute today and yesterday. It didn’t stay on, even though it was very low. Cracked heads are expensive. I have no idea about these pressure lines and their cost.



Your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!

It’s possible that all of the air may not have been bled out of the system and that it was simply not low enough to harm anything.
One would hope that you have not gone 2 years without checking the coolant level. If so, you’re asking for a roasted engine at some point in time.

As to the steering lines it’s possible these can leak and the fluid level may not go down much. A spoonful of steering fluid can make a big mess when it’s being forced out under high pressure and combined with road grime.

JMHO here, but I always take the cracked head diagnosis with a grain of salt. While it’s always possible this could occur the odds are greatly against it.
In the vast majority of cases a cracked head is a scapegoat excuse for coolant loss, overheating, etc. when someone does not know exactly where the problem lies.
Another commonly used scapegoat excuse is “bad gas”. It happens, but not near as often as diagnosed.

Thanks for your help. I saw the cracked head, and brought somebody with me to see it who agreed it was a cracked head. I have had the coolant checked, a had a full service in the last year.

So does it make sense that I might need to replace 4 pressure lines? Why do I have low coolant without the light staying on in the car to indicate it is low?

Thank you very much for your help!

Samantha, Samantha, Samantha …

First off, that’s pretty good so far, the car outlasted a shop, a service advisor, and one boy friend!

However, and please don’t take offense, you need to check under the hood periodically, like each tank of gas, or once per week, or at times before any “idiot lights” (pardon the expression, I didn’t make it up) come on!

Seriously though, what was very low on coolant? Was it a plastic translucent tank or the radiator? After two years (I don’t know how many miles), the level getting down to “very low” is possibly just normal (see above paragraph). This tank contains “extra” coolant for the radiator and compensates for coolant expansion and helps to keep the radiator full.

A mechanic can give you a quick lesson on what to visually check periodically, under the hood, if you’re not sure. Check everything but the automatic(?) transmission when the car has been parked several hours on level ground. It just takes a moment! You never know, you could be checking one day and “notice black gooky liquid on parts that you wouldn’t expect to be gooky.” This could save on expensive repairs if caught early. Don’t wait too long to fix this.

Hi Samantha,

I’m not that familiar with the BMW, but some clarifying answers may help focus on the problems.

You say the coolant light came on. Was this the temperature light or the coolant level light (if so equipped). Did the light come on while operating at highway speeds or only when at idle (answer could point to different problems).

Mechanic said you had to have 4 pressure lines replaced. While its possible all 4 are leaking, it would be unusual for that to be the case. Then again, power steering pressure lines are not all that expensive… it?s the labor to replace them. It’s likely that the labor charge would be the same for replacing 1, 2, 3, or 4, so it may be advisable to replace all 4 even though only one is leaking. Secondly, I’ve never seen a power steering monitor light on the dash. These are typically monitored by opening the filler cap which has a dipstick on it.

The best suggestion offered above is to go to a trusted mechanic and have that person show you what to check for around the car. You don’t need to check everything on the same schedule, but I make it a habit to check under the hood every couple of weeks and do a walk-around while gas is being pumped into the tank. And one of the most telling signs is a fluid leak under the car. If you see a leak, make note of its color and location under the car.

One last comment. If you plan to do under the hood checking, get yourself a pair of latex gloves. Sure beats trying to wash off the crud that you will encounter from touching and probing.

I am not familiar with your level of car knowledge, so I hope I have not come across as being condescending.

If you can find a “full service” service station, get your fill ups there. Have your list of fluids that you want to monitor (“keep an eye on”). Ask the service person to check each one. I know that the service is included in the price of fuel, but, you can give a little tip as a “Thank You”.

Thank you. You aren’t being condescending at all. It is true I haven’t checked things, though I would notice leaks and have none. The coolant light was for coolant. The thing for temperature is a gauge that has a blue side and a red side and it is in the middle. The coolant light came on only when the car was cold before warming up and then disappeared completely. I guess it is a good lesson for me that lights don’t tell me anything!

I guess the problem is I no longer have a trusted mechanic and I don’t know enough to do it myself. If you think it is ok to have all those lines replaced, I will. But should I complain that this light should be warning me about the coolant sooner or more consistently? Thank you!

The coolant light came on when the car was cold because the fluid itself was also cold and contracted to a point where the sensor was reading it as “low.” When the car warmed up, the fluid warmed up as well, and expanded to a point where the sensor was reading it as being an adequate amount. I would add coolant (if you haven’t already) to the reservoir until it’s between the “high” and “low” marks. If no coolant has been added since you had the head(s) replaced two years ago, the coolant loss may be normal and not a sign of any problem…particularly if A) the pressure test didn’t indicate any loss of pressure, and B) the coolant reservoir in this car is truly just a reservoir, and not part of the pressurized coolant/radiator system as it is in some cars (Simple reservoirs often allow loss of coolant over time due to evaporation).

Your car is one that is easily damaged by air not being bled from the cooling system,BMW knows this and provides a easy to get to bleeder, its easier to bleed the cooling system than put gas in.

BMW’s do suffer from power steering hose leakage I would really call it seepage),some people check the fluid more often and live with it others can’t stand the thought of their BMW having a “leak” and fix it,to bad you can’t have a disinterested party look at this “leak” and determine the severity,it could be nothing at all,and all hoses at the same time,I don’t buy it.

One thing about BMW’s and their temp gagues, they are designed so that the temp gague rapidly gets to exactly in the middle of the range,if your BMW is running with the needle in any other position than exactly in the middle,something’s up.

the coolant loss may be normal and not a sign of any problem…particularly if A) the pressure test didn’t indicate any loss of pressure, and B) the coolant reservoir in this car is truly just a reservoir, and not part of the pressurized coolant/radiator system as it is in some cars (Simple reservoirs often allow loss of coolant over time due to evaporation).

How can I tell if it is a reservoir? To me it looks like there is just one place for the coolant, at least one place where you can see it.

Thank you!

BMW knows this and provides a easy to get to bleeder, its easier to bleed the cooling system than put gas in.

What does this mean?

I went to see the car today, up on the whatever it is so you can see the bottom. I could see it “seeping” from a lot of the hoses. It was pretty goopy. He told me there was so much oil he was surprised I had never added fluid to it. I just find it odd the car never had a stearing problem if it is an issue, but they said the pump could go out if it leaked too much.

It is pretty expensive though, but I went ahead and did it. With my knowhow, I am probably better off not having to figure out when it is bad enough to repair it. But I am open to all your opinions. And very grateful for your help!

I agree with OldSchool about everything except the part about it being easy to bleed the cooling system. It is very easy to access the bleed screw, getting all the air out of the cooling system, however, is not always so easy.

I own three BMW 3 series cars, and goopy power steering hoses are the norm rather than the exception. If you don’t have a big stain where you park it, it is not too bad. That being said, the car is nine years old, so if you replace the power steering hoses once every nine years, that is acceptable. Better to replace them every decade than to wait until they start to degrade inside and you get flakes of rubber in your pump and steering rack. I have that problem in a '97 328 because I didn’t replace the hoses soon enough. The hoses are not cheap, but the big problem is that there is so little room to move a wrench down there, so it takes a long time to replace them.

As for the coolant being low - how much did you need to add? If it took less than a quart, it is not a problem. If it took more than that, you might need to bleed it to get the air out. Does your car have the reservoir you can see into, or that weird little pop-up stick that tells you the level?

There is a bleed port on the thermostat housing(where the upper radiator hose goes back into the engine) it looks like a bolt (head size 8mm) before you start the engine loosen this bolt (dont take it out)fill the cooling system with your 50/50 mix, this little bolt covers a vent and when it is loose the air in the system can be pushed out this passage, you will soon see coolant steadily flowing out this vent,tighten the bolt up and you are bled. After engine start up and warm up you can crack this bleeder twice for 15 sec each time but all the air was probably forced out initally, and you will see coolant flow out.

Oh, you guys are the greatest. I was getting kind of mad at myself I hadn’t been checking the levels, because it is so expensive. And I was doubting whether I needed to spend all that money. If it is a good expense to prevent more money down the line, I can live with it. I love my car.I feel much better that I am spending all this money. BUT I will start checking the car, I promise.

I asked how much coolant they added. I didn’t do it. They said it was only a fourth of a quart. So I guess that is pretty good, right?

They also said if I hadn’t replaced the lines, the lines and the pump might have broken. Who knows.

Thank you!!

The car is getting to an age where you can expect there is going to be more maintenance needed, like replacing the PS pump lines. I think you made a good choice in replacing them BTW. By following the recommended service checks stated in the owner’s manual you should be ok. The recommended fluid changes are important.

The amount of coolant loss you had isn’t bad but keep an eye on the coolant reservoir every so often and make sure it stays within the lines. It does cost money to keep the maintenance going on a car but it usually costs a lot more if you don’t. Enjoy driving many more miles with the car.

Samantha, Again I Would Advise You To Have Your Mechanic Give You A Little "Underhood Tour!"
Also there are seminars and even Community College classes for people wanting to be more knowledgeable about their “second largest investment,” their car. This could be time well spent and the returns could be substantial.
Good Luck!

Now that your radiator is topped off and your power steering hoses are replaced and you have fresh power steering fluid, you should check your maintenance records and see if your other routine maintenance items have been done.

  1. How old is the coolant in the radiator? It should be replaced every 3-4 years. BMW brand antifreeze is expensive, but after a bad experience, I play it safe and buy BMW branded antifreeze. Mix it with distilled water rather than tap water, if possible.

  2. How old is your brake fluid? It should be replaced every 2-4 years. Two years in wet climates and four years in dry climates.

  3. If you have an automatic transmission, how old is the fluid in your transmission? BMW says it is ‘permanent’ fluid, which would be true if you were going to throw the car away at 100,00 miles. If you plan on owning the car for a long time, the transmission fluid should be changed every 50,000 to 100,000 miles, depending on how hard you drive the car. Change the rear differential oil at the same time.

Find a good mechanic who specializes in German cars. If you get this sort of routine maintenance done at the dealer, it will cost you a fortune. I had my car in the dealer for some warranty work one day and I asked them to change the oil in the rear differential while they had it on the rack. 5 minutes, a quart of oil, how much could it cost? It cost $120. I nearly choked on my free coffee from the waiting room. Never again.

Your plastic radiator is now 9 years old. They tend to degrade with time. My first 1997 BMW had its original radiator fail at 7 years. The original plastic radiator in my Volvo failed at 12 years. The typical failure mode is that the top neck just snaps off with no warning and blows water and steam all over the place. This will probably happen when you are on your way to the airport or an important appointment, because life is like that. If you are lucky enough to get a warning (a drip from the radiator neck or seam. Replace the radiator at the first sign of failure. While the radiator is being replaced is a good time to replace all the hoses, including the heater hoses. A plastic radiator should run $160 and you will spend another $50 on hoses, plus labor. At the dealer, the radiator and hoses will cost twice as much.

Thanks for your help. I really appreciate it. They replaced the radiator, thermostat, waterpump amd hoses when the head cracked 2 years ago, so I guess the coolant is that old.

The last service I had was 8/07 and they checked “fluid levels”, steeing, cooling and exhaust systems. Oil filter changed then. The brake fluid was replaced then too.

I think you are right about the dealer. They charge $170 per hour for labor, I paid $105 per hour at the SHell station where I took it. So that was good since this service was labor intensive. I got new brakes in July, but don’t see anything about brake fluid then.

I am not sure if anybody has changed the transmission fluid. I have about 60 something thousand miles. SO I will check on that.

I would love your thoughts about what else can go wrong. The place where I took it may not specialize in German cars, but they were very nice. And they want me to come by to check levels, so that is good. But maybe I need another service place too. And yes, I did have the guy show me all the places to check levels today when I got the car back.

Thank you so much! You guys are great. I am very grateful for your help!

Samantha, You’re Very welcome!
It sounds like this is still a very nice car.
Good Luck!

P.S. You no longer “know nothing.” The cost of this experience was worth it. The knowledge you have gained has turned you into a car guru.

I’m very grateful for your help! Thanks for teaching me so much.