Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Dreaded Check Engine Light

I own a 1998 BMW 328i convertible. It's a wonderful car most of the time, and I truly enjoy driving it with the top down and the music cranking. But for the last few years, it's been playing a rather nasty trick on me. Lately, it's gotten out of control.

Many BMW's, mine included, are equipped with an on-board computer that tells you when even the slightest thing is wrong with the car -- a failed brake light, low windshield washer fluid, low coolant, a tree frog one mile ahead -- that sort of thing. But in addition to this computer (which, as a fellow owner once told me, "does not lie") the car is equipped with the dreaded Check Engine light.

I hate Check Engine lights. I know they serve some kind of useful purpose, but I recall one day when my rented Chevrolet broke down on the outbound Kennedy Expressway express lanes (limited access, of course) at 5:00 PM on a rather chilly day in Chicago. I was on my way to O'Hare Airport to catch a flight back to Atlanta, and many motorists were quite upset with me. But one fellow, who looked suspiciously like Woody Allen, stopped to help. When he saw the Check Engine light on, he said in a voice loud enough to be heard in Milwaukee, "Oh, no! It's got one-a-dem idiot lights!" Somehow, we got the thing running, and I actually made my flight.

My BMW takes a different approach. Each year, metropolitan Atlanta requires that all vehicles built since the Stone Age have an annual emission inspection performed a few weeks before the license is renewed. If the Check Engine light is illuminated, the vehicle will not pass inspection, no way, no how. Of course, my car, sensing that an emission inspection was imminent, has for the last four or five years (except this year) fired off its Check Engine light about two weeks before the license was due to expire, sending me once again to Steve at German Motor Works, who diligently scans the possible causes and generally ends up replacing the gas cap. BMW's tire of their gas caps very easily, or so it seems.

But this time, as I said, it has been different. This time, the Check Engine light has collaborated with the Airbag Sensor warning light and the omniscient on-board computer to make my life a true service hell. I finally took the car to the dealer, who methodically performed all the tasks required to turn the lights and warnings off. And that worked fine until the next day, when the on-board computer fired up a false warning for low coolant (again) and, you guessed it, the Check Engine light snapped on, not to be outdone by the computer. Oh, and by the way, the dealer replaced the gas cap -- this is my third or fourth one, I can't remember exactly which.

The car is now back in the shop, and I'm driving a loaner Honda Accord. I don't know much about Hondas, but I'm pretty sure I saw a Check Engine light on the dash. I may cover it with a piece of black tape tomorrow.