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

Xenon Light Upgrade Issue

,

I have a 2003 BMW 530i which I love except for one thing. The car came with standard halogen headlights which are inadequate. I bought and had installed a Xenon upgrade kit but am not satisfied. The lighting is no better than before. The shop where I had them installed checked them again and tried to aim them more accurately but also said that the halogen projection system is not really designed for the Xenon system and results will never be like the OEM HID optional lightings system. I did some research on the internet and there are some reports that the electrical system for the halogens does not have enough power. Is there a way to fix this to make the Xenon system really work? Would the brighter bulbs one can now buy for standard halogen lighting systems a better solution? Is there a better solution as I really like this car otherwise.

I use the Silverstar halogens. The explanation you heard sounds about right, it takes a carefully-designed system (bulb, reflector, and lense) for HIDs to work better than halogens. A lot of lighting quality comes down to the shape of the beam, which is pretty much fixed by the reflector and lense, and isn’t affected by bulb type.

You could also add some supplemental lighting, like fog lights, but of you choose to I urge you to make sure they’re aimed correctlly so they don;t blind oncoming drivers.

It’s probably not a power issue. It’s your reflector. HID’s require an HID reflector, otherwise they’re 1) terrible and 2) illegal in most places because real HIDs have a driver-side barn door which prevents your light from searing the eyeballs of oncoming traffic. HID-bulb-replacements do not have this, so you blind people even when you have the low beams on.

Another problem you might not be aware of is that if your car has automatic headlights, you should disable them with HIDs so that they don’t blink on and off in tunnels and garages. Turning HIDs on and off too quickly shortens their life dramatically, and they’re a lot more expensive to replace than normal lights.

What I’d recommend is that you revert back to stock and then get a good set of auxiliary driving lights (driving, not fog). PIAA makes some pretty amazing little lights, and as long as you get the 55w ones, they’re street legal.

On the subject of blindness I find that these lights (brighter, bluish tone) are very annoying when driving in opposing traffic in full darkness. Maybe it’s just me and my fifty plus year old rods and cones but I can’t see the point of spending the money - unless you are regularly driving on poorly lit, twisty roads, at night and at a rate of speed beyond the reach of conventional headlamps (in other words racing at Le Mans). This is one technological ‘advance’ that I’m pleased to say has not really caught on where I live.

Why do people fix stuff that ain’t broke?

The worst mistake was dropping the standardized sealed beam requirement.

What makes you think “Xenon Bulbs” are an “upgrade”?? They are blue in color and that’s it. Some luxury cars come with H.I.D. headlights, arc lamps, but converting an existing system requires hundreds if not thousands of dollars to change over to the optional system. But the DOT has regulations that limit the watts (power) and lumins of headlights so even the HID lights don’t provide a big difference in nighttime illumination…If you are having trouble driving at night, the first step might be a comprehensive eye exam…

A BIG +1 to shadowfax’s comments!

Yup!
It’s the reflector built into the headlight housing that is the problem, and in addition to getting inadequate lighting for himself, the OP is undoubtedly blinding oncoming drivers. That is just plain dangerous, as those temporarily blinded drivers can wind up causing a serious accident.

Please–revert to your original set-up and supplement the headlights with good-quality, properly aimed, auxiliary driving lights.

“Why do people fix stuff that ain’t broke?”

One of my college roommates replaced the standard 1970 Camaro RS front suspension with the Z-28 equivalent. It didn’t fit quite right and he had a heck of a time getting it to work without the tires rubbing the fender when turned fully left or right. He asked the same question, too.

Next time you see a big truck tractor, take a look at what type of headlights are mounted. Halogen Sealed Beams. There is a reason for that. They work the best…

I’m not an expert, but i’m not sure what you bought as an upgrade kit. HID lights require a power supply for each light that generates about 20,000 volts. So to upgrade you need the power supply, bulbs, reflector, etc. If you just changed bulbs, forget and go back to the high intensity halogen. Or if you can find a wrecked one, get the whold package. HID options though are about $2000.

Halogen bulbs dim with age, did you try new OEM halogen bulbs before you jumped to the Xenon? You might have found new bulbs, aimed correctly to be perfectly adequate. Also beware of those double power (high wattage) halogens, they can in some cases actually put out less light.

I would respectfully disagree that halogen sealed beams work the best. While IMHO they are better than the convoluted systems of reflectors and lenses that some car makers use to look sleek and pretty, they cannot match HID lamps.

I’ve had many cars over the years, with all types of headlights, and I would say that hands down, the HID lamps on my current vehicle are an order of magnitude better than any others I’ve had. Probably the closest match for overall illumination would be the round sealed beam non-halogen lights that I had on my 1970 Chevy.

It’s all a matter of lumens, watts and reflector focus. You reach a point where the driver is satisfied that he has turned night into day and can now drive at 85MPH day AND NIGHT…Aircraft landing lights can provide this kind of illumination, but oncoming drivers take a VERY dim view of being blinded or dazzled by illegal headlights. You can buy “off-road use only” replacement halogen bulbs that produce wonderful illumination at the expense of oncoming drivers…While there are laws against this, today, enforcement is non-existent…Fortunately, these high-wattage bulbs quickly melt the plastic housings they are mounted in and burn up the switches and wiring in the now over-loaded headlight system…

My daily driver is an '04 325iT with standard halogens, while my wife drives an '04 330i with factory HIDs. The difference is dramatic. I would like to put HIDs in the 325, but they are too expensive.

HIDs use less electricity to make more light, which are both good things. On the down-side, The light pattern on my BMWs is slightly less uniform on the HID car, and, in spite of the light color of HIDs being “closer to daylight”, you have less color perception when using HID light, which makes the colors in traffic markings and signs less obvious.

When halogens first came out, we were told that halogens would not degrade over time the way conventional incandescent bulbs would - that halogens would be as bright as new bulbs until the day they failed. This turned out not to be true. This is why you see a lot of decent reviews right after people install new bulbs. They notice an improvement, but that improvement is mostly the result of replacing a 5-year-old bulb with a new one, not an improvement in technology.

I have used Silverstar and Slverstar Ultra in several cars. They seem (very) slightly better than standard halogens but cost over double. They last half as long because they are hotter. You have to be willing to pay a lot more for a very slight improvement.

The best choice is to buy OEM or similar HID headlight assemblies. Not cheap. HID retrofit bulbs work only if you buy new housings with projectors that are designed to project the light from the different shaped bulb.

Beware, many horror stories about the reliability of retrofit HID bulbs have been posted around the web. The other night on my way home from work I was followed by a Dodge that obviously had retrofit HIDs installed. The lights kept randomly flashing off and then back on every few seconds. Fortunately both lights rarely were off at the same time.

Also beware of projectors that claim to name brand, but when you get them they turn out to be made from name brand headlight projector parts hacked up and glued together in a Chinese sweat shop to make an HID projector. When it comes to HID, if it is not exorbitantly expensive, it is probably worthless, which is why I don’t have HIDs in my 325.

I’m on my second car with HID now and I have to say the difference is dramatic at night. The only thing I’ve noticed is that in a snow storm, the light reflecting off of the snow flakes makes visibility worse than normal lights. Also there is a very distinct cut off line to reduce glare to other drivers. I think it is worse with a pick up truck and their high mounted lights than for a normal car with HID.

Ok, thanks for many of the helpful comments. I own another BMW with factory HID lights and yes, as the other BMW owner stated, the difference is very dramatic. The HID kit I bought did have a power supply for each side. No, I did not try the brighter halogen bulbs before trying this, however, I will go back to the stock system and try the brighter halogen bulbs. I guess this car will be the designated day driver. I will not buy another car with halogen lights again so that is an opportunity.

The question I have is this: While HID lamps are better, are halogen lights that bad? I’ve driven 26 years and hundreds of thousands of miles with no trouble using stock halogen headlights. I just don’t see why anyone would go to the expense of upgrading to such a costly setup. When one of my headlights burns out, I buy a new bulb for $10 at Wal-Mart, change it in the parking lot, and I’m merrily on my way. Xenon HID lamps are just more expense than I care to absorb.

+1 doubleclutch
If there is not enough light from a bulb then the driving speed needs to be reduced…