The first time her 2008 BMW 535xi suddenly lost power, Dina Inverso was headed to New York, driving about 70 m.p.h. in Interstate 287's far left lane - come on, have you ever seen a Bimmer cruising anywhere else? Somehow she made it safely to the shoulder while the dashboard flashed a belated warning: "Engine Malfunction - Reduced Power."
The second incident was in June on a rural road as she drove home from Merck & Co. Inc. in North Wales, where Inverso works as U.S. marketing leader for oncology. Luckily, she was able to coast safely into a church parking lot, then limp home in "safe mode," at less than 20 m.p.h., to meet a tow.
It was the third incident, only two days later, that finally pushed Inverso over the edge - and it wasn't just that it was a high-speed failure on Highway 422 at rush hour, though that would have been plenty to make me blow a gasket.
Inverso was angry about what she regarded as BMW's stonewalling over a defect in a high-pressure fuel pump used on various BMW models with "twin turbo" engines.
The night after the second malfunction, Inverso says, she went on the Internet and found she wasn't alone. Dozens of postings on sites frequented by BMW aficionados, such as Bimmerfest, made it clear that some owners were growing wary of cars they otherwise loved - you don't pay $60,000, as Inverso did, for an ordinary auto.
Convinced that her "ultimate driving machine" needed a new fuel pump, she called her dealer to ask for one. Instead, a service tech said the problem "was most likely a computer-programming issue," she recalls.
After retrieving her car the next day, Inverso says, she drove about seven miles - just far enough to be on Highway 422 at rush hour when the car again lost power. "I almost got rear-ended by a truck," she says.
Finally, a recall
After that third failure, Inverso contacted Robert M. Silverman, a lawyer at the Ambler lemon-law firm of Kimmel & Silverman P.C. She's hoping BMW will soon buy back her car. For now, she sticks to the right-hand lane, avoids night driving, and nervously eyes her rearview mirror.
Inverso, Silverman, and other squeaky-wheel BMW owners and their attorneys, along with the news media, finally swayed BMW of North America to act. On Oct. 26, the day after an ABC-TV report on the fuel-pump problems, BMW announced an "emissions recall" of 130,000 vehicles equipped with the high-pressure pumps, though it said just 40,000 were likely to need a new pump.
ABC wasn't the first to report the problem. Three months earlier, a writer for AOL Daily Finance, Peter Cohan, described the harrowing experiences of a North Jersey woman, Allison Mangot, who also became a squeaky wheel. More than a year ago, one of Silverman's colleagues wrote about the problem in the law firm's blog - and even then said it was "nothing new."
"The manufacturer is aware of the problem and has extended the warranty on the part, and the message boards have repeatedly covered the issue," said the Oct. 22, 2009, entry. "But when the part fails, it does put the driver in significant danger, with the car limping along, and possibly stalling."
BMW, for its part, doesn't even describe the voluntary action as a "safety recall" - though it did use that term the same day for an additional recall of 20,800 2008 X5s for a defect in a low-pressure fuel pump that it said could cause sudden engine failure, as well as a loss of power assistance for steering and brakes.
"No injuries have been reported with either of these issues," the company said in its release. That point was echoed by BMW spokesman Dave Buchko when I asked last week if anyone had been hurt in a crash caused by the sudden loss of power - incidents that clearly could happen at highway speeds in the passing lanes with another car or truck close behind.
"Not that we're aware of," Buchko said.
Change in 2011 design
It's not really clear what caused the BMW failures, although Silverman suspects an unsolvable design problem and believes it's significant that BMW switched to a single-turbo design for its 2011 models.
"There were some design issues with the pumps that caused them to not function properly," says Buchko, who explains the delay by saying, "We were working to ensure that we had a fix we were confident would work."
One thing that does seem clear is that "the system" itself didn't work very well.
Mangot says she and her husband, both BMW owners, suffered repeated failures attributed to reasons such as "bad gas," problems with tires, or a broken solenoid. Once, her car "started rocking, shaking - we literally thought the car was going to explode."
They went through several new fuel pumps, but nothing eliminated the problems. The scariest incident? Her husband's car shut down suddenly at one end of New York's busy Throgs Neck Bridge, just a week after a supposed repair. "The tow trucks were too terrified to help," she says.
Mangot says she finally suspected the breadth of the problem, and decided to speak up, when a service tech fell silent after she asked if other owners had similar issues.
She says she turned down an offer to keep the car without making further lease payments. "I said, 'Are you insane? I don't want this car.' "
Silverman says a persistent problem is that BMW, unlike other automakers, routinely insists on gag orders in return for buying back vehicles from scared owners - a legal maneuver he says is uncommon in lemon-law cases.
"If you're deathly afraid of your car, and you need it bought back or traded," you're going to sign, he says. "Your family's safety is much more important than signing a nondisclosure clause."
Mangot says her dealer apparently forgot, clearing the way for her to be interviewed by ABC. "Of all the people in the world to forget," she says, "they picked the wrong one."
If BMW hasn't fully solved the problem, as Silverman suspects, it has a bigger issue on its hands than a few squeaky wheels. BMW owners bought the ultimate driving machine, not the ultimate ticket to terror in the fast lanes of a busy highway.