iym articles
December 29, 2004

Auto Maintenance: The Lowdown

The gentleman who writes PFBlog.com found and commented on a pretty good article recently published at the money supersite Bankrate.com:

Bankrate.com:   "8 Top Auto Maintenance Myths"

Since I'm employed in the auto-service industry (a dealership service department warranty administrator, for those who care) I figured this would be as good an opportunity as any to throw out my opinions on auto maintenance and how different folks approach it.

I agree almost entirely with what the Bankrate article puts forth. The "8 Myths" are pretty much spot-on. There is one part, though, that is great fiction, and made me laugh:

General Motors, Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers have added an oil life indicator on the instrument cluster that tells you when the oil needs changing. ...Depending on how you drive, GM says it's possible to see 10,000 miles or more between oil changes.

These guidelines are coming from companies that have a vested interest in keeping your car running trouble-free: If you're happy with the car or truck, you're more likely to buy another one. And a well-maintained car means the manufacturer has to pay out less in warranty claims.

That, in my opinion, is garbage. Some companies have a vested interest in keeping your car running trouble-free . . . but they're not American. The other 95 percent of them, as far as I can tell, care only about getting you to "trade up" in three or four years — which you'll be likely to do since your current vehicle is about to be pretty much living on a service lift. And a "well-maintained" car has nothing at all to do with the manufacturer paying out less in warranty claims. For one thing, during factory-warranty periods, the parts which fail and require replacement have no connection with whether or not the owner has been maintaining the car. (Think A/C compressors, window motors, instrument clusters, and so on.) They break because they're just cheap, shoddy, one-size-fits-all parts. Second, if the car shows evidence of poor maintenance or abuse, the warranty on affected parts is voided anyway.

Beyond that, I would like to elaborate on some other topics:

  Oil Changes
Oh, how hotly contested this is. For some folks, "every 3,000 miles" is akin to religion. Others won't set foot inside a lube shop until 7,500 miles have passed and football / basketball / baseball / cricket season is over.

Here's what I know:   Probably less than 20 percent of my service department's employees (technicians, advisors, managers, and everyone else immersed in the service side of things) change the oil on their own vehicles every 3,000 or 4,000 miles. The rest of us get it done closer to 4,500 miles or later. Myself, I tend to aim more for the 4,000 range. Yes, the owner's manuals in both my vehicles recommend oil changes every 7,500 miles. So why do I change my oil so much more frequently? Habit, mostly. And because I've seen the oil (sludge) and the filters (crusted) that come out of engines that haven't changed their oil in eight to twelve thousand miles, and it is downright abhorrent. Additionally, I tend to treat my cars pretty well, erring on the side of prevention if at all possible.

You can also save some money by purchasing your own oil and filter and bringing it with you when you need the service performed. (My coworkers and I wouldn't do it any other way.) Chances are that when you buy a case of oil and a filter from Wal-Mart, you'll get better prices than if you purchased those items inside the oil-change package at your service department or mechanic. This is true even for me, as an employee of the very service department where I have my services done. And it is particularly true if you want a specific, special brand or blend of oil in your engine. The bottom line is that if your mechanic has to go out and acquire the oil, it's probably going to cost you extra. And if it's expensive oil (read: synthetic), you are going to pay through the nose.

Let us start this off with a bulletproof fact:   Service-technology companies like BG and Bilstein are devising new types of fluid flushes (and the chemicals to perform them) every year. And these flushes are not cheap. Most run well over $100. For the service department that can sell them, though, the profit margin kicks into sixth-gear overdrive.

My thoughts:   Unless you've really neglected your coolant, oil, transmission, or brake fluid for a long period of time and/or miles, or if one of these systems has somehow become contaminated, then don't bother with these system flushes. They are a waste of money. The only "flush" with any merit that I've personally witnessed is a fuel induction / fuel injector service. These things can be downright wonderful for unclogging fuel injectors — but that is using the flush as a repair for a specific concern, and not as a routine maintenance item.

Few things get a customer so fired up as being told that their 21,500-mile Nissan needs a set of front brakes — and that at that mileage, it is considered a "wear item," and thus is not covered under factory warranty.

"How can brakes possibly wear out that fast?" they always want to know.

The answer usually emerges when you consider your or your family's driving habits. The difference between the expected brake life on a teenager's vehicle, versus that on a forty-something dad's vehicle, never fails to astound me. Kids and soccer moms seem to go through brake pads at a prodigious rate.

What I'm saying, I guess, is that people tend to be tougher on their cars than they realize.

  Extended Warranties
Yes, they're expensive. Yes, they're sold hard. And no, I would not buy a used American vehicle without one.

Although, to be fair, I buy only used vehicles. And I doubt that I would buy a used American vehicle anyway.

Note #1:   No matter what the F&I guy tells you, there is no extended warranty in existence anywhere that provides the same "bumper to bumper" coverage as your manufacturer's factory warranty. Batteries will not be covered. Trim items will not be covered. Stereos will (probably) not be covered. Hoses and belts will not be covered. Rental vehicles will not always be provided, nor paid for in their entirety. Read the contract before you sign it. The extended warranty company makes the rules.

Note #2:   Most extended warranties require a customer-paid deductible of some sort, usually ranging from $50 to $100 to $200. Now for the catch:   Is that deductible applied per repair visit, or per repaired concern? There is a huge difference, and you don't want to be surprised by it at the cashier's desk. Read the contract before you sign it. The extended warranty company makes the rules.

Practically no one does this, but they should:

The way I see it, if you care about reducing stress, then batteries ought to be considered a maintenance item. If yours has five or more years of service on it, and your engine even seems to crank just a bit slowly, then just go ahead and replace the battery. Save yourself the trouble of a nasty surprise on some frigid morning when you're already late for work. Save yourself the possible expense (and hassle) of a jump-start or tow. Replace the battery before it leaves you or your family stranded. The stress avoidance is well worth the price. (Besides, an $80 battery that lasts you only 3 years costs just $2.22 per month. Most will hold up longer than that, and thus be even cheaper on a per-use basis.)

Michael | December 29, 2004

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