How you use your car should determine when to service it

Wednesday May 17 2017

Checking engine oil in a car. Many Kenyans

Checking engine oil in a car. Many Kenyans over-service their cars while others mistreat them, necessitating frequent service. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By BARAZA JM
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Dear Mr Baraza, 

Thank you for your most educative articles in the Wednesday paper. I recently moved to the United States and what surprised me is the routine car service, which they call oil service. It is just what the name implies. They change only the oil and the oil filter every 3,000 miles. For my newly acquired Pontiac G6, this costs only $30 (Sh3,900) and it is the same for most cars. Contrast this with Kenya, where my BMW E46 used to have oil change, oil filter, fuel filter, spark plugs, air filter and micro-filter as the basic service, plus labour. I needed Sh30,000 per service. Do Kenyans over-service their cars or is it the environment?

Victor

 

Hello Victor,

There might be some weight in both hypotheses. Sometimes we over-service our cars, either bringing them in after too short an interval depending on usage, or changing parts that don’t necessarily need changing at that particular juncture. Plugs are common prey for this. Most times it comes about from highly entrepreneurial mechanics or parts sellers creating employment opportunities for themselves or trying to push inventory turnover higher up the graph by selling unneeded goods and services to folks who don’t know better. The upside of this is, as a victim, your vehicle will always be in top shape. 

Then again, there is what people refer to as “Kenyan roads” whenever they talk about foreign vehicles and their compatibility with local driving conditions. While the road network has vastly improved from days past, there is still the “Kenyan driver” to watch out for; the kind who sends e-mails asking what would go wrong if he took a Belta to the Maasai Mara (the answer is, everything). There are cars designed for hard use and their parts are equally designed to withstand the tougher attendant experience, with the recommended maintenance intervals specified in the handbook according to how often the vehicle responds positively to the roll call at the school of hard knocks. Now that a statistical glimpse into Car Clinic reveals that almost nobody uses their car for the tasks they were designed for, perhaps it is just as well they do the frequent servicing incorporating sweeping  changes to almost every imaginable consumable in whichever motor vehicle system is affected.

Dust, mud and water: these are the enemies of engine oil, as is frequent dalliance with the red line. If your car sees any of these devils on a regular basis, then you need to keep an eye on its circulatory life-blood to avert seizures. The same applies to either infrequent use (which allows condensation to occur more regularly in the oil sump, causing water to pool inside there slowly) or extremely short drives, which don’t allow the oil to reach optimum operating temperature or even circulate fully within the engine. Both circumstances lead to a rapid degradation of the engine oil, which means frequent changes are necessary.

A small disclaimer, though. Modern engines have a raft of palliatives against this type of destructive use through infrequency, an example of which I discussed not so long ago under start-stop technology. But then again, how far do modern engines go, keeping in mind that planned obsolescence is part of the design process?

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Hallo Baraza,

I don’t mean to flatter you, but how I wish it were possible to have head transplants; I would get yours, hoping you would be a willing donor. Congrats for your educative motoring articles.

Now to my question: I do not have a car but hope to own one in two years. I have settled for the Mitsubishi Lancer, second- or third-hand, but my worry is that this car is amazingly cheap while still looking “clean". Is it that they have any mechanical issues or is it about demand? I hope I won’t get a chemical attack from you.

Kennedy Babu

 

There is no need to fear a chemical attack from me, what you need to fear is the reliability (or lack thereof) of the Lancer. I know many will raise their voices in protest at this because they own Lancers which they think will last forever but the bitter truth is they won’t. The transmission problems, in particular (for the automatic gearbox), are never-ending. As a third owner, you really will be walking a fine line between regular motor vehicle ownership and insanity occasioned by the stress of owning a lemon.

So what happens when a motor vehicle is largely unloved owing to its poor reputation? The demand for it dips substantially. With the drop in demand comes a drop in price as sellers are compelled to move stock, especially in a vain and fickle market such as ours where number plates account for half the value of the car.

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Hi Baraza, 

I am planning to change my current car and thinking of buying a Land Rover Discovery 3, either the year 2006 or 2007 model. When I ask people around, they say it is not good and that maintaining is very costly. Air suspension, plugs and all are very expensive.

The other option is the Prado 2006 model, the diesel variant. What would be your advise on this? I would prefer the Land Rover Discovery because of its interiors and functions but given what I have been told about it, I’m a little apprehensive about getting one. 

Vsn

 

If you are ready and willing to spend oodles of cash and time every so often putting right where should have never gone wrong in the first place, then the Disco 3 is for you.

It is approaching very affordable levels, for the same reason as the preceding query on the Mitsubishi Lancer: reliability is a foregone conclusion. It is a very handsome vehicle, and highly practical with its off-road prowess and seating for a Hebrew candlestick, but it is also very heavy, nudging three tonnes non-tare weight. The engine choices are limited to two massive and very thirsty petrol engines (a 4.4 Jaguar V8 and a 4.0 Ford V6), or one overworked and, therefore, unreliable 2.5 litre diesel turbo which, ironically, is the more ubiquitous mill serving duty in most Disco 3s running about. The beauty of it is that a manual gearbox is available. If you can get the XS spec, it comes with coil springs instead of the notorious air suspension that is sure to bring you and your wallet grief; it’s just a matter of when. Sadly, you cannot get the Ford 4.0 V6 (which should be the best compromise in powerplant terms) in the XS, only the crappy diesel, but at least you get the 6-speed manual.

 

The Prado is a bit too common now, every other pastor has one. So does every other private army security detail toting fake number plates for the paranoid rich. It is a capable car, but yeah... no. It’s just everywhere. You don’t get the luxury and prestige that comes with the Disco 3 (or the achingly handsome looks; that car sure is a devastating heartbreaker when you ogle it), nor do you get the improved handling, porky mass notwithstanding. Wobbly transport, the Prado can be. If you are a sucker for tech (which means you then concede your rights to the lowly but more user-friendly XS) then the Disco will please you just fine, with its fancy Terrain Response System and whatnot.

So, a Prado or a Disco? This depends on the depth of your patience and your pockets.

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I drive a Subaru Forester 2000 model. Recently, the car started showing the check engine light. It was overheating so I bought a new radiator. After the radiator was fixed and everything else checked, the light started going on and off. It can be on for a whole day and off for a day, or on for 20 min and off for 10 min. My mechanic says it’s the knock sensor. What’s your take?

My take is you should stop guessing and run an OBD II diagnostic to know exactly what the Check Engine light is about.

***

Dear Baraza,

Thanks for your advice on cars, we really appreciate it.

I need to acquire a single cab pickup and I am undecided between a Nissan NP300 and an Isuzu DMAX. Please contrast these two brands and help me make out which is the real work horse.

Daniel

 

Nissan will have my hide for this, but get the Isuzu DMAX. Turbo power, comfort and looks are what it carries over the NP300, with  both being sturdy workhorses. I don’t have their respective brochures with me right now, but methinks the DMAX might have a bigger payload area as well. If there is a difference, then it should be negligible.

 ***

Your article on common buzzwords used in marketing used cars was spot on. However, I wish you had touched on the following: dealer maintained, first-owner car, never driven on untarmacked road, as good as new, expatriate leaving, and not used for towing, etc. Do these expressions really mean anything? If a car has towing capabilities, does it matter whether or not it was used for towing, provided the carriage being towed is braked?

Donald Mutinda

 

Hello Donald,

I see you want a continuation, huh? The introduction to your response stays the same: take all words with a pinch of salt and believe only what you can actually see. So now:

“Dealer maintained” is supposed to imply that the vehicle was serviced and repaired only by specialists of that particular brand. In other countries, this claim might carry some weight, especially for specialty cars, high-end models or limited edition versions that require a particular set of skills and tools to take apart (for example, Ferrari with its $10,000 (Sh1.03 million), engine-out, service schedule for the 355). But in Kenya... well, anything goes. “Dealer maintained” means anything, for two very good reasons:

1. Most mechanics who have worked in dealerships open their own outlets, franchised or otherwise, after gaining enough experience and capital from the branded dealerships where they worked. This means there is a sort of brain drain that occurs every so often at importer level, more so given that when these workers shift camp, they carry along some of their equally skilful colleagues. That means that the particular skill set they possess is no longer accessible to the dealer, which means the dealer has to train more mechanics, who will just repeat the same move some years down the line.

2. The brain drain has an effect on the dealerships. For the sake of propriety, there is some material that crosses my desk which  falls victim to my sense of censorship because if it were ever to see the light of day, the number of suits and countersuits that will be thrown about will be phenomenal to the observer and detrimental to the parties involved.

It’s not all flowers and cupcakes at dealerships; very many of my readers have left the franchise garage worse off than they went in, and not just financially, but mechanically as well.

You’ll be surprised that private/individually-owned garages actually do a much better job at maintaining people’s cars than the franchises handling those brands. This might be rooted in step 1 above, where the branded dealerships find themselves with a predominantly novice/apprentice workforce, given that the more skilled meisters struck it out on their own.

“One owner” means that car has not changed hands often, if at all. This might be good or bad: good in that it is a sign of a mechanically sound car; vehicles that have had multiple owners will have potential buyers asking why the need to sell it on so frequently. Is there something wrong with it? They’d rather not find out.

But a single owner could also mean something else: that car has zero value on the used market. It could be a troublesome brand that nobody wants and so the owner has been saddled with it until breaking point, where he is forced to try and palm it off on someone else.

“Never driven on untarmacked roads” is supposed to convince the potential buyer that the car is free of rattles and squeaks, and that the suspension is in tip-top shape. The same applies to the bodywork; frequent use on rough roads tends to bend the frame after a while. The caveat here could be the suspension of the  said vehicle has never seen any maintenance, so as the emptor... watch out.

“Not used for towing” is a euphemism for “the engine and transmission are unstressed”. Towing places a lot of strain on the drivetrain, particularly the clutch and gearbox, fatigue which might not be immediately discernible at first glance.

Whatever happens, test the car thoroughly before you buy it. Forget the oily words and go for the hard truth.

 

Having car trouble? Write to [email protected] for free advice