If you hear talk about things such as rivets, epoxy adhesives and aluminum structures, you might guess the subject involves airplanes.
But in this case, we are talking about the front ends of recent BMW Series 5 and Series 6 cars, which are constructed with many of the same techniques you might find at the Northrop Grumman F-18 assembly plant in El Segundo.
BMW touts the vehicles for their remarkable handling, fuel economy and elite engineering, but critics of the designs say they are impractical, vulnerable to minor accidents and difficult to repair the way BMW recommends.
The technology is another step in a much broader auto industry trend that is making collision repairs ever more costly, a kinder way of saying manufacturers are building throw-away cars. It means that more cars are totaled when they have relatively modest damage, particularly if they are more than five years old.
Although BMWs can certainly be repaired, it requires a degree of sophistication and cost that may be unprecedented.
BMW will certify auto body technicians only if they are employees of BMW dealerships, using BMW-approved parts, tools, adhesives and rivets. Though independent shops can buy equipment and get training, they are not allowed to say they perform certified repairs, BMW’s official seal of approval.
“It is a game,” said Don Feeley, owner of three independent body shops in Riverside. “Absolutely, they are shutting auto body shops out of their business.”
Of course, BMW does not see it like that.
The BMW system, code named the Grav 60, was introduced in the 2004 model year. It features an aluminum firewall, which separates the engine compartment from the interior, and frame rails that extend forward, all riveted and glued to the rest of the car’s steel structure. When the cars come out of the factory they are built to a tolerance of 1 millimeter, about the thickness of a dime.
The entire front structure weighs just 100 pounds, meaning the vehicles have a nearly perfect 50/50 weight distribution between the front and rear wheels, said Jeff Kohut, BMW’s paint and body business development manager.
“It handles better,” Kohut said. “Go drive a car with a steel nose and you can tell the difference cornering, braking and turning.”
But one important question is what happens when your prized BMW gets kissed in the real world. With steel frame cars that are robotically welded at the factory, a body expert can put the car on a rack and bend it back into shape.
Under BMW’s guidelines, any bending on the front end is verboten. An accident that deforms the front end by more than 1 millimeter requires the replacement of the main front-end structures. Because the engine, transmission, suspension and body are all connected to those structures, it is a labor-intensive process.
What’s more, BMW specifies technicians can use only certain specialized tools, such as rivet extractors and rivet guns. Kenneth Zion, an auto body instructor at El Camino College and an independent collision consultant, says a shop can spend as much as $100,000 to fully outfit itself for BMW repairs. Zion, who has learned the system and will introduce the technology at El Camino, said the new system is unprecedented in how tightly the manufacturer is controlling the repair process.
It is so tight, in fact, that the repair and insurance industries are going a little nuts.
A claims adjuster for AAA, who has examined damaged BMW cars with the Grav 60 technology, says there is no question the repairs are more costly compared to those of a steel unibody.
“Certainly, people are alarmed,” said the adjuster, who asked not to be identified because he would be handed his head if he were named. “An identical car made with steel parts would definitely be cheaper to repair. On one half of the BMW, you can have no straightening.”
Feeley, among others, says BMW is overblowing the difficulty of repairing the vehicles. “The manufacturers have always said they are building things that can’t be repaired, and we have figured out how to repair them,” he said.
The broader trend is alarming the auto body industry, which is composed of thousands of mom and pop shops.
“Definitely, some of the auto makers want their certified shops or dealers to be the only ones approved to do repairs,” said David McClune, executive director of the California Auto Body Assn. “If a shop has properly trained technicians and equipment, our position is they should have the opportunity to do those repairs.”
Kohut said, however, that about 1,000 technicians have gone through BMW’s two-day training course for Grav 60 repairs, about two-thirds of them from independent shops. Even though they are not certified, BMW accepts the fact that they can perform adequate repairs.
Although he rejects the idea that repair costs are higher on the Grav 60 system, Kohut said insurers are struggling to understand the technology.
“We have found the insurers are unsure of what to do with a car, so they declare it a total loss,” he said. “They weren’t sure it would be safe, so they send it to the salvage yard.”
Ralph Vartabedian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.