Reader Question: No Dipstick?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply! 

Shane asks: I read your review of the new BMW 4 Series (here) and wanted to ask about something you didn’t mention, the fact that you cannot mechanically check the oil level in new BMWs (I own a new 5 Series). Instead you ask the computer to check it. There is an app you access via the LCD touchscreen. That’s the only way to check the oil that I am aware of. Are you aware of this? And what do you think about it?

My reply: Yup. I’m hip – and don’t like it. Because it is a prime example of rendering something simple needlessly complex – and so, failure prone. The “electronic dipstick” depends on . . . electronics. On a sensor and then data interpreted by a computer and – finally – displayed on a screen. Any one of these is a potential failure point as well as an expensive point. How much cost the “electronic dipstick” adds to the price of the car – and the cost of servicing the car – is hard to say but I can say without doubt it costs more than a simple dipstick, which will last as long as the car does and if it doesn’t, replacing it is as simple as buying a new dipstick (or pressing in a new tube).

Besides which, no false readings – a big then when it comes to oil. Physical oil on the physical dipstick hash marks; it’s hard to get that wrong. It is easier for a sensor to et it wrong – and when it comes to oil, that is a big thing indeed.

I’m old school. I believe that checking oil – as in actually checking the oil – is a matter of due diligence obligation the same as checking tire pressure. These are things that ought not to be left to a gadget.

. . . .

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    • Hi Rich,

      I think the main functional problem with keeping electronic cars operable long-term will be finding specific/complex electronic components that can’t be easily made. Once the supply of replacement parts disappears, the car becomes inoperable without some key component. With older, mostly mechanical cars, the physical parts could be rebuilt and the wiring was something easily fabricated. It was also possible to adapt parts from other cars generally similar because no worries about computer compatibility.

      It’s no more difficult to keep my almost 50-year-old Pontiac running today than it was 30 years ago. I doubt the same will be true of any 2021 model car 50 years from now.

  1. eric, checking oil is only one thing I check when I raise the hood. I check transmission fluid, coolant, power steering fluid and look everything over. I had been changing oil last week and let the hood down but not all the way. Evidently, a big cat jumped on it and it was shut. I was sure I hadn’t done a final check. I popped it and raised it up and there was a big pair of Channel Locks sitting on the top of the radiator. That would have been real fun. I leave my hood up most of the time since it can get filled with rat nest quickly.

  2. I can tell you they don’t always operate properly. I’ve seen them warn you of low oil when you just changed it and not say anything when it’s knocking. If you believed my pickup you’d be in for an expensive fix if you didn’t have a dipstick too.


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