Car Guides

What caused my BMW’s engine to seize up?

John Paul, AAA Northeast's Car Doctor, answers a question from a reader whose 10-year-old BMW needs a new engine.

The company logo on the hood of an unsold 2020 5-series sedan
The company logo on the hood of an unsold 2020 5-series sedan at a BMW dealership in Highlands Ranch, Colo. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Q. I had the oil changed on my 2010 BMW 528 at a national quick lube place then drove it to Boston. During the trip the engine seized up. I towed it to a local BMW dealer in Rhode Island. They looked it over and said it needs a new engine to the tune of $15,000. They said that there was oil in the crankcase, and don’t know what happened. Could the oil place have overfilled the oil, and would that also cause the engine to seize? In this model there is not dipstick, so I can’t check the oil level. Could I drain the oil and measure it somehow? Please give me your thoughts. In addition, how do I present my case to the oil change place if I think it is their fault?

A. At this point measuring the oil in the engine would be a good idea. There should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 6.8 quarts. If there is much more or much less that certainly could have caused a serious issue. In addition, the oil filter is a cartridge as opposed to a spin-on filter. If the filter was damaged during installation that could also be an issue. You could also have the oil analyzed, which will give you an idea of the oil quality. I would document everything with photos. If the oil level is correct and the filter looks correct, then it is unlikely the oil change shop did anything that would have led to the engine failure. Something else to look at — a common failure of this engine — is the timing chain. The guides wear and the chain stretches. If the car was driven aggressively over its lifetime, or wasn’t properly maintained, the engine failure could be a result of a worn timing chain. 

Q. I recently had my car’s battery replaced by AAA. When the technician came out to look at the car, he confirmed the battery needed replacement. I asked about replacing the standard battery with a new-style AGM battery. I have read about them, and even though they’re more expensive, I thought it would be a nice upgrade. When I asked him about it, he said although one would fit, he wouldn’t recommend it. I know you work for AAA, but what are your thoughts on these new batteries? 

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A. I would call what you have read a well-intentioned misconception. An AGM (Absorbed Glass Mat) battery is not an upgrade over an original-equipment traditional battery. The AGM batteries have specific characteristics for the vehicles they were designed for. AAA’s engineering team have performed extensive studies on all kinds of batteries and found there is no value gain in replacing a traditional battery with an AGM battery. The extra cost doesn’t provide, longer life nor increased starting performance in cars that were not designed to use AGM batteries.  Now, of course, you should never replace a factory AGM battery with a traditional lead acid battery. 

Q. I am 19 and looking for a reliable car for under $10,000. My mom has a 2012 Toyota Camry with 125,000 miles on it that she is willing to sell me for $8,500. I found a 2005 Toyota Matrix in mint condition with 65,000 miles for $7,500 that I really like. I was also considering a cheaper 2005 Toyota Camry, but people said that car is too old. I’m wondering what your suggestion is. Should I get an older car? I’d prefer to not to pay too much for insurance. Most of my friends have older cars that they are very happy with, and I would like to change from my mom’s car because it is so familiar. Any advice? 

A. The 2012 Toyota Camry would be the best choice. You know the service history, it is safe and very reliable, although maybe just a bit overpriced, according to KBB and NADA Used Car Guides (but that is between you and mom). The 2005 Camry could be a good car, but you really need to have any car, even your mom’s car, checked out by a good repair shop before buying it. I will say the Toyota Matrix is one of my favorite cars. They are built on the Toyota Corolla platform which makes them solid and dependable, and although maybe you don’t need a small wagon, it is a very handy vehicle. 

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Q. I haven’t been driving my car much since March. I average only about 5-10 miles per week. I usually bring my car in for maintenance twice a year — once in spring and again in the fall — for oil changes, tire rotations, and other checks. Do I need to bring my car into the shop for service even though the car is running fine and I haven’t been driving all that much?

A. Since the start of the pandemic, many people are driving far less than they once did. When it comes to cars, sometimes lack of use is worse than abuse. Depending on the car, most will need an oil change twice per year. Some cars, like Toyotas and VWs, can go a year between oil changes. Since you are only driving about 600 miles a year, depending on the recommendation in the vehicle owner’s manual, I think once per year would be okay. What you are doing is good too. It is important to exercise the car once per week driving at least 15 miles. This helps keep the battery charged, the brakes operating properly, and all the moving parts moving. When the car goes in for service, let the technician know how little you are driving so they can look at items that are important year-round and not just seasonal maintenance. Some shops are also performing maintenance check-ups. Basically, they are just giving the car a good once-over to see how it is doing and making recommendations based on their observations and your driving.

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John Paul is AAA Northeast’s Car Doctor. He has over 40 years of experience in the automotive business and is an ASE-certified master technician. E-mail your car question to [email protected]. Listen to Car Doctor on the radio at 10 a.m. every Saturday on 104.9 FM or online at northshore1049.com.

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