Tearing apart a Zipcar BMW just to get it started

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Photo by Kamil Kaluski

Car ownership isn’t for everyone. My city-dwelling friends have calculated that it is less costly for them to rent a car when they need one rather than owning one. With the cost of a garage spot in downtown Boston hovering at around $400 per month—and with high insurance rates, excise taxes, and cars just being depreciating assets—it really does make sense to rent a vehicle for the few weekends that it’s needed and use mass transit or ride-sharing for shorter trips.

Being a frequent renter also has its privileges. In place of a typical Toyota Corolla or a Subaru Crosstrek, renters are frequently upgraded to much nicer vehicles, such as a Mercedes GLC, Infiniti QX50, or BMW X3. It is this X3, however, that gave my friends—and me, by default as a ski-house roommate and so-called car guy—an unexpected problem.

Zipcar works like this: You have a credit card-sized membership card, which is used to unlock the doors of the vehicle you have rented. Once inside the vehicle, just press the conventional engine start button and you’re off. It’s that simple. No need to stop at a booth, talk with the person across the counter, and sign a bunch of papers. And because Zipcar is now part of Avis, the vehicle choices and quantities have increased significantly, perhaps at a slight cost of customer service.

BMW zipcar fancy cars
Kamil Kaluski

My friend Oliver picked up this X3 in a downtown Boston garage. He then drove home to pick up his wife and daughter. Then, in post rush-hour traffic, they headed north toward New Hampshire’s White Mountains, stopping for dinner and gasoline along the way. They got to our shared house around 9 p.m, about half an hour before I arrived with my family. Everything was peachy, and the not-so-little Bavarian crossover did great on the freshly snow-covered roads.

Our weekend mornings are hectic. Our kids have ski racing and training programs, so they have to be at the mountain at 8:30 a.m. There is always a rush to get dressed, eat breakfast, make lunches, and load up the cars—without forgetting anything along the way. Despite all that commotion, no one has ever been late. But this day was different.

On Saturday morning, Oliver went to start and load his Bimmer. But it wasn’t starting. The display on the dash said the key was either “missing or not functional.” The Bimmer had become a bummer.

The issue of not-starting was weird for several reasons:

  • The car worked fine the day before.
  • My friends had made a few stops and each time it started fine.
  • They searched everywhere for the key, but …
  • Neither Oliver nor his wife or daughter at any point recalled actually seeing the BMW key. Typically, keys are stored somewhere in the center console in Zipcars. No one really pays attention to them, as the car is locked and unlocked with the Zipcar card.
  • We even thought that because we parked in a neighbor’s yard, since our driveway wasn’t plowed, someone may have gone through the car at night and taken the keys. But in reality, the only things walking around at night were deer, foxes, and other four-legged creatures.
  • In an attempt to start the engine, the ignition did actually turn on. The radio was playing and the heater was blowing. But it wasn’t starting. And because it’s a new BMW, for some reason I couldn’t turn the ignition off to preserve battery life until the doors were closed and the car locked.

We shoehorned all the kids and their stuff into my car and headed toward the mountain. We got there right on time, and after dropping them off I insisted on getting a cup of coffee and sitting down for a moment. I needed to clear my head and think about this issue calmly. In the meantime, Oliver’s wife got on the horn with Zipcar reps, which was fun because cell phone range in the mountains is sketchy at best.

Zipcar said that there must be a key in the car, that there is always a key hidden somewhere, perhaps in the trunk, or in some sort of a compartment. I was sort of skeptical of this, but it made sense. If the key wasn’t in the car, the ignition wouldn’t turn on. But Zipcar’s support for the issue ended there. Its procedure is to tow any car that isn’t working to HQ. Except that we were 200 miles from Boston, in a cottage, in wooded mountains, 10 miles from the nearest anything.

BMW zipcar trunk liner
Kamil Kaluski

Oliver, being a calm, technical, and personable guy, told the Zipcar people that towing wasn’t an option. He needed the key. His call was sent to the manager. And then the manager’s manager. He also demanded to talk to the tech people who know these cars and how all of the Zipcar equipment is installed. All of this took time.

In the meantime, I was all over this Bimmer. I checked the basics first: glove box, console, trunk, under floor mats, and under seats. Nothing. I went further, removing the under-trunk cover, engine bay covers, and the rear seat cushion. I found it surprising how everything was assembled so similar to BMWs from the 1980s and ’90s. The rear seat cushion popped-up in the exact same way as it did on my old E34. But it was all for naught—no key.

With temperatures in the teens that sunny morning, I went inside to warm up with another cup of coffee. I remember that BMW has a smartphone app. Once downloaded, it requires an email address and a VIN number to connect to the vehicle. But the problem is, not all BMWs are equipped with this feature, and this rental-spec X3 wasn’t.

BMW zipcar engine cover
Kamil Kaluski

It was now 10 a.m., and Oliver, in frustration, once again started looking around the car in all the places where I had already looked. Zipcar called him back. While those folks could not get ahold of the truly technical people, they were confident there was a second key somewhere in the car. They said that a key is usually hidden around the steering column, and they actually gave us the go-ahead to remove some panels in an effort to find it.

I took this as a challenge. I was going to find that damn key if it meant stripping this hooptie like I stole it. The car wasn’t mine, wasn’t rented to me, and Zipcar gave us the go-ahead to start looking deeper.

Since Zipcar said that the key must be near the steering column, I started there. I knew that the Zipcar device for locking, unlocking, and tracking the vehicle would be somewhere near the OBD-2 port, to the left of the column. I’ve installed enough alarms in my life to know that there is always space there and all the wires are there, which is convenient for tapping. But at the same time I was still skeptical.

BMW has a spot on the steering column where the ignition switch was located back in the day. In the event of a dead key, you need to place the dead key in that location in order to start the car. If the key was hidden anywhere in that area, it would likely trigger that and allow the car to start. Placing the key under, or within the steering column would be generally a bad idea for safety reasons.

BMW zipcar steering wheel column cover
Kamil Kaluski

I found the Zipcar tracking and car-locking device. It had a typical aftermarket appearance with a typical aftermarket quality of installation. I knew better than to touch it, but I still felt around it for a key. Nothing. I checked other nearby panels. I looked, and where I couldn’t look I felt around. Nothing around the steering column, OBD-2 port, pedals, or the side panels.

Oliver came back outside. A fresh set of eyes is always helpful in situations like these. Out of frustration he pressed the ignition button and, shockingly, the engine started. The result was equally joyous and frustrating. Yes, the engine was now running but at some point it would need to be turned off, potentially resulting in the same situation but in a different place. We still needed the key.

BMW zipcar brains
Kamil Kaluski

Like on cue, Zipcar called. This was a fourth or fifth support person, one with more knowledge of the cars but still not the one who would intimately know the location of the key. He said the key is “in a compartment near the center console”the very place we checked about six times. But at this point I believed him that the key must be there, just not where he said, mostly because there were no other compartments around the center console.

I felt around with my fingers along the center console. I noticed the pronounced edge between its walls and the top of the console. I dug my fingers in and pulled. The sound of clips releasing was soothing at this point. I lifted the cover that is around the shifter, on which the iDrive controller and other buttons are located. I peeked under it. There, zip-tied to a wiring harness was a BMW key-fob.

BMW zipcar key wiretied
Kamil Kaluski

Here is what I think happened. This G01-generation X3 was a 2018 model year. This means that the Zipcar equipment was installed probably two years ago. It was at that time that the second key-fob was zip-tied under the iDrive console. Along the way, the key that is typically placed in the center console or cup-holder, the first key, went missing. It is probably living in some renter’s jacket pocket. But no one noticed the original missing key because the vehicle is locked and unlocked via the Zipcar card. The hidden second key was allowing the engine to start. Until this cold morning.

That hidden key, being constantly used for two years, was running low on batteries. The low overnight temperatures killed the minimum juice it needed to properly allow the engine to start. Being that this Zipcar X3 probably spent most of its nights in a city garage, low temperatures were never an issue before. As our frustrating morning went on, the ambient temperatures climbed high enough for the key to somehow find the juice needed to start the engine when Oliver randomly tried the ignition push-button.

BMW zipcar no charge
Kamil Kaluski

Zipcar is a pretty great way to quickly rent a car. It removes a ton of hassle typically associated with renting cars. The lesson here is to always make sure that a key is present, a key that is tangible and not one that is playing hide-and-seek with you. Zipcar won’t give me back my half day of skiing, but it did not charge Oliver for the weekend rental. And hey, I got this story of misery out of the adventure. I hope you enjoyed it.

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