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5 top car maintenance shockers you probably never thought about

These days, when we buy a new or modern vehicle, most of us assume that if we follow the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule, we’ll have a relatively trouble-free relationship with our vehicle that won’t be too expensive. Unfortunately, that may not be the case. All too often, at The Garage, we are presented with vehicles that are in need of expensive, unexpected repairs. Many of these repairs could have been avoided or cost less if the owner had been shown the difference between services designed to maintain the validity of any warranty, and those designed to keep the vehicle working efficiently and reliably for years after a warranty has expired.

Whether you buy a new, more expensive car, thinking it will be more robust and reliable, or you have an older, cheaper car that you hope to keep for several years, the risks are the same. And if you think you can avoid costly repairs and services by trading in your vehicle every few years, think again. Any overdue services or repairs, plus the cost of depreciation, will all be taken into account when you sign for your next vehicle. That takes a big bite out of the expected trade-in value.

At The Garage, we're constantly looking for ways to educate customers to have a better experience and a more cost-effective relationship with their vehicle, so we've compiled a list of five of the many concerns we have for motorists who may be unaware of damage being done to their vehicle as they use it.

1

EGR valve failure

You've probably never even heard of it, but there is one in every vehicle—and we often have to replace it. It’s an Exhaust Gas Recirculation valve and it is designed to recirculate some of the burnt exhaust gas back through the engine in order to reduce harmful emissions and increase fuel mileage. Over time, this part and the many passages connected with it get clogged up with carbon deposits that form a sooty gunk that can make the valve stick open or closed, restricting flow. This can cause inefficient combustion, rough idling, stalling and disruption of the engine’s timing.

The bad news is that if you're only alerted to this problem when a dashboard warning light comes on, it's most likely too late, and you're facing a replacement bill that could be in the hundreds—even in excess of $1,000, for some models—for parts and labour.

The good news is that if you have a good relationship with a qualified service technician who's familiar with the way you drive your car, he can keep the EGR valve clean as part of your maintenance program, and you may never have to replace it at all.

The limitations of EGR valves have been common knowledge in the automotive trade for many years but, for reasons unbeknown to us, manufacturers do not refer to this part in their marketing. It is in the fine print, described as a “Minor Emission service” or a “Major Emission service”. This can be confusing. But an EGR valve and passages need to be cleaned periodically depending on how the vehicle is used so, unless the customer has a good relationship with a technician who will monitor its condition, the owner unknowingly risks an expensive, unnecessary replacement.

Over time, the EGR valve in your car and the many passages connected with it, get clogged up with carbon deposits.

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Customer story

When he noticed that his 2002 Mazda Protégé—a small, economical family sedan—began stalling at traffic lights, a customer brought his car in for us to investigate. We discovered a faulty EGR valve that was so clogged up it was not serviceable. The resulting repair cost the customer over $1,000, with parts and labour. Had the customer opted for regular, preventative maintenance, this cost would have been more than halved and he would not have had the stress of a breakdown to deal with.

2

Sludge build-up

Due to stringent emission standards imposed on manufacturers and their constant quest to get more performance out of fewer materials, everything in engines and power trains have shrunk in size, in recent years. Engines have now become so much more sophisticated, finely tuned and sensitive that they only operate optimally when in perfect condition.

Unlike cars of old, all engines now have variable valve timing in order to optimize power, fuel efficiency and emissions, which is controlled by oil flowing via a control valve through small passages (most being under 2mm in diameter), under pressure. These work fine when the oil passing through them is clean. However, when the oil is dirty, they can get blocked and it's not possible to clean them.

Why would oil get dirty? Many manufacturers now boast long oil change intervals—as long as one year or 25,000 miles in many cases. As a selling point, that can look attractive. Modern oils actually can last that long but other factors come into play after about 5,000 miles that more than cancel out the apparent cost convenience and savings implied by such a long interval.

One part that has shrunk in size is the oil filter, which is typically only replaced during an oil change. While the oil can technically last a long time, the smaller oil filter may not have the capacity to keep it clean. After a while, the oil filter fills up and can no longer prevent particles from being re-circulated through the engine. This is how sludge builds up. It can coat the insides of cylinders, valves and actuators with carbon that wrecks engine performance, and block the fine passages in the variable timing control valve. Modern town driving often results in engines running below optimum temperature, thereby accelerating this process.

But the eventual cost may not stop at simply replacing the control valve. It may also be necessary to rebuild the engine, having cleaned it in an acid bath to break down the sludge. Not only that, if the blocked passages have interfered with the engine timing, the cam gear that operates the valves may also have been damaged. So, rather than spending a relatively small amount on a regular oil change, an owner can be faced with a vehicle that suffers progressively poorer performance and a bill amounting to several thousands of dollars.

Many car manufacturers now boast long oil change intervals. But after about 5,000 miles this can create problems.

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Customer stories

A few years ago, a customer’s 2007 Subaru was running rough and eventually the check engine light came on. At the time, vehicles were subject to Air Care regulations and this car was due for its inspection in two weeks, so it was important to get it fixed quickly. The control valve was replaced ($1,000 for the parts!) and, including the cost of a necessary engine flush, the customer paid a total of $1,500. The car failed its Air Care inspection due to an excessively heavy carbon reading. Even though the engine was running smoothly, further inspection revealed heavy carbon deposits that required multiple flushes to remove, new spark plugs and some hot running to blow the system out. Following another $1,500 bill, the customer decided to have regular oil changes at intervals that suited his use of the car. Problem solved; stress removed; ongoing expenditure reduced and under control!

The manufacturer’s recommended oil change interval of one year or 25,000 miles led to an engine failure on a Mercedes CLK 350, V6. When it arrived at The Garage, its ‘check engine’ light was on, the car had no power and it was barely able to run at all. Diagnostics revealed timing problems. Because of the way this car is built, with the timing chain (not a belt as in most cars) housed under cast covers in a tightly packed space, simply investigating the cause of the problem took 8 hours of work. Once disassembled, it was revealed that a gear in the timing mechanism had worn out due to abrasive materials suspended in dirty oil, as well as restricted lubrication passages, which, in turn, was due to sludge build-up. The eventual cost of parts, cleaning and re-build was in excess of $5,000. This happened a few years ago. Since then, the customer has chosen to follow a more frequent maintenance program and the car remains trouble-free.

3

Premature suspension failure

Admit it. You sometimes drive over speed bumps faster than you should. Am I right, or am I right? Many people routinely do this at speeds of 50–60kph or more. What they don’t realize is that this can take an expensive toll on the vehicle. Most people don't notice the changes in handling and performance that gradually occurs, nor do they realize that some seemingly unrelated problems could be caused by this behavior.

You may be surprised to know that driving over speed bumps too fast—or even just driving too fast along bumpy roads—can reduce the life of your suspension to about 4 years. It causes excessive wear on shock absorbers, coil springs, ball joints and control arm bushings that are not designed for this kind of battering. The gas or oil in the shock absorbers overheats and chemically changes over time, so they cannot perform as they should.

This leads to other problems, which are more immediately apparent—such as excessive brake and tire wear. Once the suspension becomes too soft, it is no longer able to keep the car balanced properly. The suspension isn’t just there to give a vehicle’s occupants a comfortable drive. In the same way that a good muscle tone protects a human body’s joints from jarring and impacts, the shock absorbers are designed to hold the vehicle in a way that protects its workings from damage.

Again, the cost of repairing this damage can be high. On a luxury European car it could be $2000–4,000 for the suspension alone. We discuss brakes and tires in the following two examples.

Driving over speed bumps too fast—or even just drive too fast along bumpy roads—can shorten the life of your suspension to about 4 years.

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Customer stories

It would seem as if people who buy certain types of cars, thinking that they are strong and impervious to life’s knocks, may be particularly prone to unwittingly causing this type of damage. Two recent examples involved a BMW X3 and a BMW X5. The former was only 5 years old with 54,000 kms on the clock when it arrived at The Garage with excessively loose ball joints and premature suspension wear caused by driving too fast over speed bumps and rough roads. Cost to the owner: about $1,000. A similar cost was borne by the X5 owner. His car had fewer kms on the clock yet it had many loose control arm bushings—for the same reasons. Again the cost to fix the problems was in the region of $1,000.

4

Brake caliper problems

We don’t often think about it, because we have such a high expectation that our vehicle will always do what we tell it to but, what if, one day you pressed the brake pedal and your vehicle just didn’t stop? It does happen, and it can be your worst nightmare. Sometimes there are warning signs such as an unexpected noise, or the brake pedal feels different.

The problem is often due to worn brake calipers. Over time, if they are not serviced regularly, one or both sides of a caliper can get stuck. They are designed to last the lifetime of the vehicle and, ideally, they should. So the reason we see so many vehicles with this problem coming in to be repaired may surprise you.

Dealership maintenance models do not include caliper servicing. While you are thinking that your new car is being well looked after as part of the maintenance package that came with it when you bought it, although your brake pads may be replaced along the way, the calipers continue to build up dirt, lose their operating efficiency and often get stuck. This can cause damage to both the pads and the rotors, besides the obvious danger to everyone in or near the vehicle.

As with so many parts on a modern car, brake calipers and rotors have become very sophisticated—and more expensive to replace.

Beware: dealership maintenance models do not include caliper servicing.

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Customer story

A 2005 Toyota Tacoma came in with brake caliper problems and its owner was shocked to discover that the factory-approved brake calipers cost almost $400 each. Due to a lack of maintenance, we had to replace them when the brake pads and rotors wore out. In this case, the client chose to have low cost aftermarket calipers fitted, which cost $195 each. Unfortunately, some aftermarket calipers are inferior to the factory-fitted ones and, after only 2 years, they needed to be replaced again. The client again chose the lower cost calipers and again they only lasted 2 years. Finally, he bought new factory Toyota calipers at $400 each. Since then, he has had his calipers serviced regularly and they are lasting just fine.

5

Tires under pressure

When did you last check your tire pressures? When did you last even think about checking your tire pressures!? It used to be something that drivers did regularly. We were often reminded to do so when we saw someone changing a flat by the side of the road. When did you last see that?

The fact is that tires get forgotten these days, by many of us, even though we know what a crucial part they play in performance, safety and comfort. But, apart from these considerations, looking after your tires can save you thousands of dollars, in some cases. So, they're well worth paying attention to, now and then.

Getting the pressures right is one important factor. If you look at the tire pressure sticker typically placed on the front door pillar, it tells you what the tire pressures should be, under ‘average expected use’, for both heavy and light loads. You should know that these pressures apply to the factory-fitted tires only and may need adjustments if different tires are subsequently fitted.

So, if you normally drive with just one person in the car, and then you decide to load it up with the family and luggage for a long road trip, the tires need more pressure to ensure safe driving control, optimum fuel performance and even tire wear.

Under-inflated tires will wear on the edges and affect cornering, especially. In fact, all tires leak air to some degree, and tires on a car that is left standing leak air faster.

In terms of tire wear, it’s also important to note that a lot of modern vehicles are all-wheel drive and their tires have to match in tread depth (tire life), with no more than 25% difference in wear between them. Uneven tread depths cause excessive differences in wheel speeds while driving, which damages transmissions and differentials. Proper tire pressure, regular tire rotations and careful driving can save you, literally, thousands of dollars. At The Garage we use nitrogen when inflating tires. This greatly helps to keep a consistent tire pressure through temperature changes.

At The Garage we use nitrogen when inflating tires. This helps to keep a consistent tire pressure through temperature changes.

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Customer story

In the mid-90s, it cost in the region of $500 –$800 to fit and align a set of tires on the average sedan. On modern cars, it can cost about the same—per tire! On a higher-end cars, prices between $600 and 1,000 are not uncommon. (see also this blog for another customer story)

Recent customers have paid the following for tires:

1989 Toyota Corolla – $775, 13-inch rims, lowest cost tire available, 4 tires + alignment

2006 Audi A6 – $1500, 17-inch rims, medium quality tire, 4 tires + alignment

2007 Audi Q7 – $2200, 20 inch rims, medium quality tire, 4 tires + alignment

We’d love to hear about any car maintenance shockers you have experienced. Tell us about them in the comments box below this article!

Ronald Tremblay

Ronald Tremblay is the owner of The Garage, a fourth-generation family business in Vancouver, BC, specializing in vehicle maintenance and repair. Clients of The Garage enjoy a high-level of service whereby lifestyle and usage of their vehicles inform the service schedule and they are fully informed about the status of their vehicles. In this way clients can make empowered decisions, control their budget and save real money as the the life of their vehicle is extended long past the manufacturer's warranty expectations.

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