Many vehicles are sold because the owner no longer feels comfortable with the reliability of the car or is just plain bored with it. In Canada, this typically occurs when the car is between six and nine years old. How does a vehicle that used to be reliable become unreliable? One reason is owner neglect. The car may have been deteriorating for some time, often without the “active” involvement of the owner (so-called benign neglect, which is a misnomer when it comes to vehicle maintenance). Eventually the car won’t start two or three times in winter due to neglected maintenance and incorrect diagnosis or repair procedures, or the owner incurs two or three unforeseen and expensive repair bills, and his or her thoughts turn to the idea of purchasing a new vehicle.
In large shops, the person you are speaking to at the counter may be paid a commission to recommend additional services. Unless the work is required to correct an existing problem or known weakness specific to your vehicle, a “fuel injection flush” or engine oil additive are not required. Recommending them may be required by the people who run the service facility you are frequenting. APA members receive a list of reliable repair shops in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and in Vancouver and Calgary. (APA members, click here)
The major advantage of a quick-lube outlet is the convenience of appointment-free weekend service. The price is not all that much lower than at other facilities, many of which price oil changes as a loss leader. However, at a quick-lube store, you lose the presence of a mechanic under the car who can check for obvious signs of leaks, torn rubber parts, missing exhaust supports, etc. The $10 to $30 saved (less if the quick-lube store upsold you to a premium service, which occurs about 50 percent of the time) is a poor value if it means you lose the benefit of a qualified repair person inspecting the vehicle. Because used oil is a hazardous waste and pricing of the service is so low, performing oil changes yourself rarely makes sense.
Billing systems and compensation practices may affect the quality of repairs
“In a shop where you don’t know the personnel, the likelihood of being overcharged for repairs increases in proportion to the amount of unrelated small talk and banter at the counter when you pay your bill.”
Corbett is an APA mystery shopper. In an APA undercover probe with CTV’s W-FIVE, the manager of the shop that charged the highest amount ($670 for a $70 repair) very graciously told him where he could still find flowers late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day. The APA has other compelling examples from its visits to repair facilities.
APA investigations in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal reveal that some auto repair franchises are more likely to perform unnecessary repairs or charge extra labour for work not actually performed. Many of these shops pay service personnel a commission or other incentive for selling you more parts or labour. The result: Even though posted prices at chains like Canadian Tire are lower or equal to their competition, and they frequently advertise repair specials, the final bill is higher than at competing shops and sometimes even the new-car dealers visited by the APA. Because of the focus on selling parts and service, inexpensive preventative maintenance is often overlooked.
One route to higher service and repair costs is the billing systems used by many large chains, which often automatically charge extra for services that don’t take any more time. A typical example is to add five to 10 minutes per wheel for tire rotation, even if the wheels are already off the vehicle for other service like a brake inspection or repairs. How much time do you think it takes to walk a wheel from the front of the car to the back and vice versa to rotate four tires? Certainly not a half hour if the wheels are already off the car. Spark plugs are sometimes replaced routinely during servicing; the cost of the plugs is nominal, but the shop justifies billing you an hour’s labour for 10 to 30 minutes’ work on a four-cylinder car to remove the old ones and install a new set. In some cases, the APA has seen ordinary plugs installed to replace more expensive platinum-tipped plugs that were designed to last five years and did not require replacement.
Click here to access the report on APA's auto repair investigation with W5 in Toronto and Calgary
Click here to watch the video of the investigation on W5's website
Surveys of long-time owners have identified the following common practices:
- Frequent oil changes (less important with modern lubricants, but it is important to change fluids and filters regularly).
- High level of involvement with the vehicle: do-it-yourself repairs, regular client of the same service facility, lots of washing and cleaning, regular spring and fall preparation.
- Fix problems early, and listen and watch for signs of parts that may be wearing out.
Recommended preventive maintenance that is frequently overlooked
Sam Kassam and Eli Melnick, two experts recommended by the APA for many years and the owners of facilities that perform extensive fleet maintenance, provided the list of inexpensive inspections and services that follows.
||Inspect or replace as required, including the fuel filter. (APA found lots of overselling of these services) Follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule in the owner's manual; for operation in most of Canada the more intensive Severe Service schedule applies. Keep your records.
||Replace at two- or three-year intervals if you have conventional green antifreeze in the vehicle. Replace pink long-life antifreeze at the interval recommended by the manufacturer. If the engine has overheated, replace the thermostat; it's not necessary to replace it during routine maintenance.
||Brakes, suspension and steering
||Inspection and lubrication where possible. At least once a year on a car less than three years old, two or three times a year on an older vehicle.
||Disc brake caliper guide pins
||Make sure they are moving freely once a year (more often if the vehicle has a known weakness). This is part of a brake system service, but the inspection is sometimes performed incompletely.
||Parking brake cable assembly
Inspection to ensure it is not seizing; this is part of a brake system service, but frequently neglected.
||Rubber boots covering driveshaft CV joints
||Inspect visually at every oil change for cracks or grease leaking.
||Hood and door hinges, hood latch at the front of the car
||Cabin air filter
||Very frequently overlooked, it is not expensive and should be replaced every couple of years. Function is similar to the air filter for home heating ductwork, and it has a harder job.
Tips to increase the reliability and durability of your vehicle
Follow the maintenance schedule
Perform regular scheduled maintenance as per the owner’s manual and keep your records. Choose your repair shop carefully, and follow your vehicle’s maintenance and repair schedule the way a dentist takes care of your teeth—by following your inspection records from visit to visit.
“Tune ups” usually unnecessary
There is almost nothing to tune under the hood of a modern car, so conventional tune-ups with spark plugs and ignition parts replacement are usually a waste of money, unless required by the maintenance schedule. What you need is an inspection and replacement of filters and fluids at the scheduled intervals in the maintenance manual, and brake service and tire rotation if required.
Use quality lubricants
Use a premium class of lubricants. In fleet operation, synthetic manual transmission, differential (if applicable on your vehicle) and engine oils increase the service life of components and decrease failure rates. Synthetic oil is probably not necessary if your vehicle will be driven less than 200,000 km, but long-term benefits will show in the form of lower oil consumption, easier starting in very cold weather, and lifetime durability of the engine in excess of 300,000 km in normal service. Synthetic transmission and differential fluids are usually a once-in-a-lifetime or once-in-ten-year expense for a manual transmission. Many premium and performance vehicles already come with these lubricants from the factory.
The really cheap oil filters some repair shops buy, and partially recycled bulk oil in the 10W-30 weight that may not be recommended by your vehicle manufacturer, are not likely to cause engine damage in normal operation, but they’re a poor bet to cut expenses. Some repair shops use them because it’s the only way they can meet a $19.95 advertised oil change special.
OAT (Organic Acid Technology-type) coolants such as Dexcool deteriorate in the presence of air (i.e. oxygen) entering the cooling system. If the system is original, clean and sealed, the manufacturer's recommended service interval is acceptable. If the cooling system has been compromised (in an accident for example) then the whole cooling system needs to be carefully flushed and the factory-approved coolant installed. Do not use an alternative coolant especially during the warranty period, as coverage may be denied when the wrong coolant is discovered.
Tires are one of the most neglected maintenance items on a vehicle. Several field surveys have shown that one in four, or even more, vehicles has significantly underinflated tires. Check the pressure of the tires once a month and rotate the tires once or twice a year, ideally when the wheels are already coming off for other service or inspection. You will be able to add 5,000-10,000 km to tire life, and delay this expensive and unavoidable purchase by a year or more. The most frequently neglected tire is the spare, whose air pressure may not have been checked since the vehicle left the factory. The small space-saver spare in many vehicles must be inflated to a higher pressure than a conventional tire.
Tire rotation more important with all-wheel-drive vehicles
If your vehicle has four-wheel or all-wheel drive, tire rotation is critical to prolonging the life of components. All four tires must be matched, and show approximately the same wear to ensure that the front and rear wheels are turning at the same speed most of the time. Mismatched tires can dramatically increase the wear of driveline components.
If you have expensive alloy wheels, buy cheaper steel wheels designed for your vehicle to mount your winter tires if they are available for your vehicle. In addition to protecting the fragile alloy wheels from winter road damage due to impacts and corrosion, you will pay for the extra set of wheels after three or four winters from the savings on the semi-annual tire changeover. Do not buy so-called universal steel wheels designed to fit a variety of vehicles. They are not as safe and can lead to a host of vibration and wear problems because of the less precise fit.
The Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) on some vehicles may impact your selection of wheels for winter. In some cases, the monitoring system requires a separate set of sensors mounted on the wheel rim, and the vehicle’s computer must be re-programmed every spring and fall to accept a different set of sensors. In most cases consumers with this design will forego the second set of rims. Click here for more information on tires.
Wash the car occasionally, especially in spring to remove salt and dirt that has accumulated in the wheel housings, door bottoms, and nooks and crannies. Check under the floor mats. You may be surprised to discover a wet carpet. Let it dry out and clean out salt stains and deposits once a year if possible. An interior and exterior hand washing is best, and so cheap in the Province of Quebec (as low as $12) that you may prefer to have this done, especially if you park on the street to avoid the trouble of doing it yourself. Look the car over after it has been cleaned for signs of new dents, scratches and rust spots. If you’re up to it, wax the car once or twice a year to protect the paint. Dull or faded paint can be brought back to life professionally for $100 to $150 plus the cost of retouching. The results are sometimes amazing, and may encourage you to like your vehicle again. APA members in Greater Toronto and Montreal have access to excellent auto detailing services used by the car dealers we recommend, who can repair damaged paint, polish scratches out of windshields and get rid of stains in the interior. APA Members, click here for our list of recommended auto repair shops
Attend to minor body damage
Prompt attention to minor damage is like fixing broken glass and cleaning graffiti on the street—let things slide and pretty soon the whole neighbourhood is going downhill. Do not perform touchups yourself. Only people duped by parts counter personnel believe they can duplicate the factory paint job with an $8 paint can and zero skills. Your best bet is to have an experienced person do this.
Invisible dent repair
It is often not necessary to use a body shop to repair dents if the paint is intact. Garages use a procedure called invisible dent repair provided by mobile units that come to their lot for $75 and up per dent. Using special tools, dents are pushed out from the inside; in the hands of an experienced individual, these techniques sometimes generate amazing results. By way of example, the removal of dozens of dents caused to hail-damaged vehicles costs about $350-$800 instead of the $2,000 to $3,500 required for conventional bodywork with filler and painting; even better, you keep the more durable original paint on the vehicle. APA members in Greater Toronto and Montreal have access to invisible dent repair experts used by APA’s recommended dealers. APA Members, click here for our list of recommended auto repair shops
Original-equipment trim and interior components
Parts to replace broken knobs, missing plastic bits, cracked outside rear¬view mirrors, etc. are expensive. A cheaper solution is to buy them from a recycler (today’s socially acceptable term for what used to be called a junkyard).
Keeping the interior clean
Interior fabrics and plastic trim on modern cars are quite durable. A professional cleaning and shampooing costs about $80 to $100 and will remove dirt visible in light-coloured interiors. Specialists employed by used-car dealers can repair tears in vinyl trim and seat fabrics, and mask holes from cigarette burns at a very reasonable cost. In most cases, cracked leather seats can be restored to a like-new appearance without the expense of re-upholstering. Not letting the interior deteriorate means you won’t end up hating the time you spend in the car.
Get rid of clutter
If you are in the habit of leaving loose items on top of the dash, you may want to reconsider the practice. Should the passenger-side airbag deploy in a collision, a loose item in the path of an exploding airbag could aggravate injuries. For the same reason, clean junk out from under the seats and in the trunk. Leaving heavy, unsecured items like an old battery in the trunk is a bad idea. In a collision an old battery that is stored in the trunk can become a projectile, crashing through the rear seatback and injuring rear seat occupants.
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