Lifestyle

BMW's Z8: Structurally Shaky?


Speculation that the $160,000 sports car's aluminum undercarriage may be liable to distortion has the company investigating -- and some owners up in arms

When BMW, the Munich-based maker of performance cars, launched its zippy Z8 roadster in 1999 with a starring product-placement role in a James Bond movie, aficionados the world over were quick to whip out their checkbooks. Hailed as a descendant of the legendary BMW 507 sports racer, the Z8 featured sharp retro styling, a 394-hp V-8, and a chassis of lightweight aluminum.

Not surprisingly, the Z8 became an instant hit. Many fans paid upwards of $160,000 and waited months for delivery. By the time the roadster went out of production at the end of 2003, some 5,700 were sold -- a number to collectors who believed they were acquiring a classic. BMW seemed convinced, too. In an unusual step, it assured owners that a 50-year parts supply would be available for the limited-production model.

But all is not well inside the small cult of Z8 worshippers. For several months, some Z8 drivers have been alarmed by reports that sections of the car's aluminum undercarriage -- specifically, the towers that house the shock absorbers -- were prone to distortion, a condition that could cause upper body panels to go out of alignment.

"INCREDIBLY ANGRY."

The supposed structural defect was spotted by members of the Z8 Club in Munich, and it wasn't long before several owners belonging to the organization's U.S. affiliate began checking their cars for signs of damage. Several of the U.S. group, posting on the club's online forum, say they suspect their Z8s are plagued by aluminum that's losing its original shape -- and possibly its tensile strength.

Convinced that BMW has waited for several months to acknowledge owners' concerns, Andrew Macpherson, a Los Angeles-based commercial photographer and president of the U.S. club, says he has checked his Z8 (one of three he has owned) and found no distended parts. But Macpherson refuses to drive his car nonetheless for fear that hitting a bump or pothole could result in a problem. "I was incredibly angry when I found out about this, and I'm urging other drivers to stop using the car until we know if it's safe," he says.

After Macpherson alerted U.S. Z8 owners to the possible problem in a January Web bulletin complete with photographs purporting to show damage, several Z8 owners made posts to the club forum that claimed something was amiss with their autos. One was Bernard Dennis, 57, a retired Oracle vice-president who lives in Victor, N.Y., just outside of Rochester. "I had the gap on the hood, just like the pictures [on the Web site] showed," he says, "though the shock towers look alright. I love the Z8, it's a great car. But I'm awaiting a serious response from BMW. Obviously, I would be concerned if something I paid $160,000 for winds up as a $20,000 car."

NET CONNECTIONS.

BMW officials contacted by BusinessWeek acknowledge that the company has launched an inquiry into the matter. BMW e-mailed this news to Z8 Club Germany members on Jan. 17, the day after BusinessWeek made its first inquiries to the auto maker. Says BMW spokesman Andreas Klugescheid: "There are no known cases with adverse effects on safety."

While it may take weeks to determine whether something is amiss with the Z8, the affair underscores an important phenomenon affecting all car companies in the Information Age -- the power of the Internet to put aggrieved owners in touch with each other, and in so doing, to pressure manufacturers to address product-quality concerns.

German Z8 Club President Olaf Hetze, 46, is in an unusual position because in addition to his role with the club, he also works for BMW. Hetze is an engineer for BMW M, the company's high-performance arm. He says his group is surveying owners and will need several weeks to determine how many have structural problems. In the meantime, he sounds confident that a fix, if warranted, can be found. "It's not the time to hurl reproaches," Hetze counsels. "We want to avoid false claims?. The question is whether we're talking about damage arising from a borderline accident or from [normal] conditions -- which shouldn't happen."

EXOTIC METAL.

Jürgen Wunderlich, a technical board member of the Z8 club, also is downplaying U.S. enthusiasts' fears that aluminum distortions could weaken or crack the Z8 frame. The Americans seem "much more fearful" about that prospect, he says. "For the structure of the aluminum frame to be compromised, you would need a huge impact," such as a high-speed encounter with a massive pothole.

Speculation that rough driving is behind the damage is off-base, Macpherson insists. "Look, most of us bought these cars as investments, not to go to the race track. Beyond that, we have to deal with several related issues -- a possible collapse in investment values if the car can't be easily fixed, safety questions, and what people are supposed to do with damaged cars. Will BMW buy unrepairable ones back?"

Probably not. But that's not to minimize the potential hassles the Z8 affair could cause the company. For starters, the aluminum-frame components are so exotic that only specialized welding centers could undertake repairs -- possibly including cutting out distorted panels and replacing them with new sections. Germany has only three such centers, and a similar number are in the U.S., which means owners could be without their cars for some time as fixes are attempted. And due to the special unified construction of the aluminum frame, only parts of it can be cut out and replaced without weakening the chassis.

LEGAL MANEUVERS.

The cost of repairs to BMW also could spiral if the engineering solution to the bent shock towers requires something more complicated than a "strut brace," a transverse bar that can make the towers more rigid. Re-forming misaligned upper body panels, a condition some owners are reporting, could run into many thousands of dollars in fabrication expense.

In addition, the Z8's aluminum frame rails are baked at high temperature in a special process, and the frame cannot be "rebaked" as part of a repair, Hetze says. To illustrate how pricey swapping aluminum components can be, he notes that just replacing the engine subframe assembly can cost between $24,000 and $36,000 per car.

It's unclear whether the Z8 affair is a serious quality setback for a prestige German auto maker or a tempest in an aluminum teapot. Indeed, while some Z8 owners are heartened by what they call BMW's belated response to two months of customer complaints, some U.S.-based Z8 owners are weighing typically American protective measures, just in case. Macpherson says several Z8 owners have contacted Proskauer Rose, a big Manhattan law firm, and two of the firm's attorneys have agreed to represent Z8 drivers in a combined lawsuit, should it come to that.

Wunderlich notes that BMW has been "incredibly open" with the Z8 Club officials, and Hetze described BMW's approach and cooperation as "fair and constructive."

Nonetheless, U.S. owners feel they've been left hanging too long. "This is a serious issue to me, and I'm glad that I forced it," says Macpherson of his gadfly role. "I have met a lot of Z8 owners through my Web board, and I really feel a sense of responsibility to them. I hope BMW comes up with some answers." He'll soon find out.


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