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Spend Wisely

What to pay for when your car is serviced

By Adrian Cuesta

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The do's and don'ts of maintaining a modern car.

Do you need to have the car tuned up every few months? How often should you change the oil? Are manufacturers' services a rip-off or a worthy investment?

Servicing

In general, the engineers employed by the car's manufacturer really do know best - they're the people who have worked with the investment of millions of dollars in developing the technology. This means that the maintenance schedule laid out in the owners' manual should be followed to the letter.

However, it doesn't necessarily mean that the official dealer needs to do the servicing of the car. Many dealer mechanics in our experience are quite ignorant about the cars on which they're supposed to be experts, and do quite strange things in response to perceived problems.

An example of this is where, during a routine service, a dealer-trained mechanic thought that he should check out the car's engine computer because the exhaust note of my car 'sounded funny'. Given that the car ran a modified 3-inch diameter exhaust with free-flow mufflers, it wasn't surprising that the exhaust note was non-standard! But checking this by testing the computer.....?

Having said this, there are some mechanics who really do take their marque to heart, and have as the result an incredibly detailed knowledge of their cars. If you find such a mechanic stick with him (or her), but unfortunately they are few and far between.

However there's one area where having the car serviced by the factory dealer does have potential long term advantages - warranties. If a new (or near-new) car is serviced by the factory dealer, the warranty is much more likely to be happily honoured - especially in borderline situations where the car might be just out of the official warranty period or perhaps the windscreen develops a crack. Even when it's something in the car that's not serviced anyway - like the heater/air conditioner controls, for example - the manufacturer is much more likely to easily come to the party if they've seen your car regularly in their dealer's service department.

Additives

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The frequently advertised invitations to use oil additives or 'upper cylinder lubricant' can generally be ignored - unless it's specified in the official maintenance schedule. However, the occasional use of an in-tank injector cleaning additive can be a worthwhile addition to the manufacturer's maintenance recommendation. Also, every 50,000km or so the injectors can be removed and back-flushed to clean their in-built filters. However, injector problems are much more likely to be found if the fuel filter is not changed at the recommended service intervals. I've not bothered having the injectors removed for cleaning in any of my EFI cars (some with more than 170,000 km on the clock!), but I've always changed the fuel filter regularly.

Most cars use high combustion pressures to achieve efficiency (and so fuel economy) gains. Firing the spark when there are high cylinder pressures present requires high-energy ignition systems, and these don't respond happily to spark plug leads which are getting old and worn. The best replacements for stuffed leads are usually the Original Equipment products - unless they are hugely expensive.

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Likewise, be careful when replacing spark-plugs. Some manufacturers specify platinum-tipped plugs, with a service interval of 50,000 or 100,000 kilometres. When they come due for replacement they will be expensive, but they'll also go on to perform for the next fifty or one hundred thousand kilometres without problems! Make sure that platinum-tipped plugs are never replaced with conventional plugs.

Electrical

Because modern cars place great demands on the electrical system, ensure that the alternator and battery remain in good condition. Corrosion on the battery terminals can result in more than just dim headlight performance - poor engine running can also occur. When it comes time for the battery to be replaced, it's a good idea to upgrade it with a similar-sized battery which has a higher current capacity. This is especially good if you live in a cold environment where starting loads are high, or you run a big sound system.

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If your car is an older one that doesn't have an on-dash Check Engine warning light, make sure that you (or your service company) perform a computer self diagnosis check each time the oil is changed. A self-diagnosis is where you ask the computer to communicate to you any problems that it might have. Even the simplest workshop manual for your car will show you how to perform a self diagnosis. If your car does have a Check Engine light on the dash, do a self-diagnosis if the light ever comes on when the car is running.

Conclusion

The electronic side of current cars is usually much more reliable than the old-tech equivalent systems. This generalisation isn't always the case, but most properly-serviced EFI cars will run reliably for 150,000+ kilometres without even the need for a traditional 'tune-up'. Incidentally, if you are paying large amounts for a tune, ask what is actually being donee - a 'full tune' can sometimes involve just an oil and filter change, together with a quick visual once-over...

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